The Bulleit Group 25 Jun 2018 // 4:04AM GMT
For some of us, there was perhaps no moment that more clearly depicted the divide between politics and tech than when Senator Hatch asked Mark Zuckerberg how Facebook makes money. "Senator, we run ads," replied the stunned CEO, whose company saw almost $12 billion in revenue in this year's first quarter. At that moment, Silicon Valley exploded with laughter, memes, and pointed critiques about the cultural lag in Washington D.C.
It's true, Capitol Hill can be behind the times when it comes to understanding the tech industry; and this has broad implications that permeate many aspects of politics—from knowing how to regulate tech companies to adopting new technology for more efficient processes.
"It can be something as small as using Google Docs," says Leslie Green, SVP at The Bulleit Group. "Twelve years ago, everyone in Silicon Valley began transitioning over to Google Docs and it changed how we work." Leslie joined The Bulleit Group in 2012 after years working on local and national campaigns across California, Ohio, New Hampshire, and D.C.
At The Bulleit Group, we live in Google Docs. The tool allows for collaboration and transparency across the agency and with our clients that we, today, take for granted. When tech news cycles move a mile a minute, we need to be able to do the same, which simply wouldn't be possible otherwise.
Like the rest of Silicon Valley, we've widely adopted the "move fast and break things" mantra, first coined by Zuckerberg. We are always using new technologies to be better communicators and to do our jobs more efficiently. We move a mile a minute collaborating with CEOs, journalists, investors, and conference organizers to further discussions in Silicon Valley and beyond. The job can be a grind—which isn't so different from political communications.
While tech adoption in D.C. may be slow, the job itself is not. In political communications, you're on call 24/7, 18-hour days are a regular occurrence on the campaign trail or the hill, and constant and extreme high-stress situations often lead to on-the-dime decision-making and constant crisis communication. However, politicos and techies alike would agree that high-stress situations, 24-hour news cycles, and big personalities are what make the work challenging and exciting.
"There is a baseline of communicating, regardless of the issues you're tackling," explains Ian Martorana, who previously worked as Paul Ryan's press secretary and joined the Bulleit Group after nearly a decade in politics. "Both Silicon Valley and Capitol Hill are subcultures, so learning how to communicate broadly while also learning the specific rules and norms of the new environment is important. And it's certainly helpful to have been in a specific subculture before."
These two subcultures may look different from the outside—suits versus hoodies, Microsoft Word versus Google Docs—but the people who make up the subcultures have a lot in common. That's why so many of us at The Bulleit Group are former politicos.
"Political people work hard, and like to work hard, but a lot of them come to us because they're eventually burnt out," explains Green, who has hired a handful of former campaign and Hill workers during her tenure at Bulleit Group. "Their experience perfectly aligns with what we do. They have an excellent work ethic, they can handle high stress situations, and they're intellectually curious. They've also seen everything, so no crazy Silicon Valley–type scenario would shock them."
Martorana, for example, made the switch over to tech comms because he wanted a change, specifically in terms of quality of life. Although he didn't immediately know where he wanted to go post-politics, the tech industry, like Capitol Hill, offered the promise to work on many different issues, with the added bonus of having a more balanced work-life schedule. "I wanted to work in an industry that would pique my curiosity. The breadth of issues we work on is so broad and the work is intellectually stimulating," he says.
Another similarity is the speaker-to-public connection. "A lot of what I did was constituent-focused," says Paul Day, an account director at the Bulleit Group. Day worked both in government and the nonprofit sector before making the jump into tech, where he now connects Google executives with speaking opportunities around the world. "We are working for the benefit of specific speakers and helping them tell their story."
One main difference though, Martorana notes, is the proactive versus reactive nature of public relations. In politics, most communications are a response to or a result of a previous headline, which can be exhausting. "There is a mental strain working on the Hill that is unique when you're lurching from issue to issue reacting."
There's an ongoing joke that any wild scenario that tech CEOs present to comms people is never as insane as the situations aides have been subject to on the Hill. For politicos, working in the tech industry promises the same exhilarating news cycles, fast-paced work environment, and big personalities, without the possibility for mistreatment that they previously experienced in politics.
D.C. could learn a few things from Silicon Valley, but so too, can Silicon Valley learn from D.C. For example, the lack of ideological diversity in Silicon Valley has caused numerous incidents. Stripping away the rhetoric, the conversations on Capitol Hill tend to be much more diverse with more opposing opinions than those coming out of Silicon Valley. The tech industry is made up of ideologues with a similar vision for the world and little room for discussion—just ask Peter Thiel.
What's more, countless startups have crashed and burned due to growing pains and a lack of processes set in place. Sure, installing additional procedures might result in slower movement, but it also minimizes the possibility of breaking things.
A couple years ago, Facebook changed its famed motto from "move fast and break things" to "move fast with stable infra"—infra being short for infrastructure—acknowledging that the company could benefit from some new procedures. Processes are made as safety nets and while tech companies are only encouraged to create these safety nets today, it's only a matter of time before they are forced to do so through governmental regulation.
Green currently splits her time between D.C. and San Francisco and works with clients in Silicon Valley and around the world. She's noticed a shift in perspective in the city over the last several years. "When I first came to D.C., I would say I worked for tech firms in San Francisco, and the response used to be 'those crazy people,' but now it's 'that's so cool!' There's a reconciliation between the two worlds."
As the tech and politics subcultures begin to crossover, there is a mutual benefit to synthesizing across their differences. Senators need to know how the internet works, just as tech CEOs need to have a willingness for different ideologies. Each side is having to learn the other's language, and comms specialists from both sides can help close the divide.
The Bulleit Group is a San Francisco-based tech PR firm with offices in Nashville, and Washington D.C. The agency works with cutting-edge technology leaders from LinkedIn and Google to Flexport and Orbital Insight. The team consists of anthropologists, data scientists, physicists, politicos, athletes, and journalists all turned master storytellers. They are hiring talented communicators from various backgrounds. For more information, visit their website.