Mindy Finn’s new media work with Republican candidates for national office has put her in the spotlight.
As the GOP embraces digital technology, Finn’s influence continues to rise.
Over the last decade, Mindy Finn has become the go-to new media guru for GOP campaigns. She has worked on online operations for the Bush-Cheney 2004 re-election campaign and Mitt Romney’s 2008 presidential bid. Most recently, she has signed on with Tim Pawlenty’s 2012 campaign.
Finn is a partner at Engage, a Washington-based communications firm that enables candidates to employ new media as a primary strategic vehicle to get their message out to voters. A Houston native, Finn says she has found a home in Washington and is inspired by the U.S. Capitol building every day.
C&E’s online editor, Noah Rothman, recently caught up with Finn to discuss her career in politics.
C&E: You started as a reporter?
Finn: I was a congressional correspondent with the [Waterbury, Connecticut] Republican-American. It was my first entrée into Washington. I had a week of orientation, and my first day writing for the paper was September 11, 2001.
I was planning to spend that day meeting with the press secretaries of the Congress members that I needed to cover. But I spent the day on the phone with members of Congress who had just evacuated the Capitol. Most of my stories would have been the back-of-A-section material. It turned out that everything I wrote was on the first page or close to it.
C&E: What attracted you to digital media?
Finn: As a journalism student [at Boston University], I had a couple of internships. One was with the Boston Herald, and the other was with Congressional Quarterly. In both cases, I was assigned to the online/new media department. One thing that I really enjoyed was that in both cases there was much less formality around it. First, there was less editorial oversight and, second, there weren’t as many restrictions.
As a journalist, I got frustrated having to constantly be objective. I translated “objective” as “boring.” I finished school and got a job on the Hill, first for former Sen. Enzi (R-WY), then Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX). One of my jobs was to redesign and rebuild [Smith’s] website. I really sunk my teeth into that project and enjoyed the process of determining how content should be organized in a way that was user-friendly and appealing to constituents.
The vendor on that project’s parent company was doing all the online platforms for the Bush-Cheney 2004 re-election campaign. The Bush campaign asked them who on the Hill they worked with was communications savvy and politically savvy, but also technically savvy. They recommended me, and I was recruited to work on the e-campaign for Bush-Cheney 2004. I started in January 2004, and it immediately became an eighty-hours-per-week-plus job. It was the best decision I ever made, because I got ten years of experience in one year.
C&E: You were the deputy webmaster for the 2004 Bush-Cheney campaign. How much of that operation did you direct?
Finn: There were eight of us on that team. It was a combination of direction from the top—Karl Rove and Ken Mehlman—and our own creative ideas. It is the nature of a campaign that if you have an idea and no one will work on it, it becomes your job. Someone told me something interesting when I started out: Even if most ideas get rejected, you still need to keep pitching new ones. No one knows which idea will be a game-changer.
C&E: You went on to rework the Republican National Committee’s Web presence in 2005. How did you approach that?
Finn: It was built on the ideas that we had from the Bush campaign, but we were starting from scratch at the RNC. One of the popular programs we ran, which I hosted, was a Web series called “Off the Record.” We interviewed leaders in the party, not just on policy and politics, but on human interest questions so people could get to know them.
On the negative side, after the election, we thought we would be more open and have more freedom to run creative programming. In fact, the opposite was true. The White House and the RNC became more closed and fearful of engaging online.
C&E: Why do you think that was?
Finn: When it comes to the campaign, political teams are willing to engage in a big way because they think it is necessary for building the grassroots. But once you get into government, it is an inherently insular institution.
C&E: What were some initiatives you championed as director of e-strategy for the 2008 Romney presidential campaign?
Finn: We had an interest in showing that we were more innovative than the rest of the field of Republican opponents. We launched the “Five Brothers Blog,” which Romney’s sons ran, and the “Create Your Own Ad” contests. There, we provided some video and music assets and invited the base to create an ad and vote on ads that other users created. We ran the ad that got the most votes on TV.
C&E: What did you find was the most successful among the online initiatives you launched for that campaign?
Finn: We did a twenty-four-hour blitz called “Sign Up America,” the goal of which was to get 24,000 supporters to sign up within twenty-four hours. We had the whole campaign involved, from the fundraising and communications teams to the online team, using every tool at our disposal. We had a miniature Mitt Romney who walked onto the screen every so often to encourage people to keep going. We ultimately got to 31,000 and raised more money on that day than at any other point in the campaign.
One of the challenges to the online aspect of campaigns is you work with every department in the campaign. It is incumbent on you to get them to collaborate.
C&E: What do you think your biggest contribution to the political industry has been during your time as a partner with Engage?
Finn: Getting the party to adapt to the modern media environment. It is a constant moving target. Much of my work—whether with candidates, members of Congress, campaign operatives, or chiefs of staff—has been challenging them to do the core aspects of their campaigns online.
C&E: What are you most excited for as part of the online team for Tim Pawlenty?
Finn: I look forward to the first political cycle where new media is officially mainstream. The Internet has been integrated into every aspect of a campaign. New media is no longer new.
C&E: What is your fondest campaign memory?
Finn: I remember on the Bush campaign, President Bush was not around the campaign all that much. (He was busy being president.) One time he came around to the headquarters to see everyone. He went around to our team, and we were all introduced. He said, “GeorgeWBush.com, I’ve been saying that a lot.” I said, “We know. The traffic spikes every time.” He said, “Does it really?” I said, “Yes, sir.” He said, “I’ll keep saying it then.”
Now that wouldn’t be so exciting, but you work extremely hard on a presidential campaign, and it can sometimes feel a little thankless. We worked so hard to get him to mention the website, but it had to go through so many chains of command before it could get to the president.
C&E: What is something you wish you could do over?
Finn: When Romney announced he was out of the race at CPAC in 2008, we weren’t prepared for that. We saw it coming, but to see the looks on the faces of my staff—we weren’t prepared. It was a terrible feeling.
C&E: Do you have any advice for those who want to get into the campaign business?
Finn: Don’t be afraid to challenge the status quo. You have to comply and follow the chain of command to keep your job, but, along the way, if you really believe in what you are doing, stick with it and don’t be afraid to challenge the status quo. And don’t be discouraged if you get push-back from those who don’t get it.