What Is Political Consulting And Should You Take It Up As A Career

Every day, I get at least one e-mail asking me how someone could become a political consultant. While it is not possible to answer every e-mail to everyone’s satisfaction, a short article on the industry could perhaps give a good understanding of what the industry is all about and help take decisions that suits one’s career.

Political Consulting is a catch all phrase and is quite different from Management Consulting. While there are similarities in that, both are meant to help organisations perform better. Political consulting covers a wider gamut of activities that include message building, media advertising, opinion polling, opposition research, PR, ground campaigns, events and numerous other activities that present the campaign in an effective manner. The range of specialisations that a political consulting firm has to handle is wider than a management consulting firm.

Political Consultants have caught the media attention recently but have always existed in some form or the other since the day candidates fought elections in India. Winning elections means strategies and strategies means someone assisting the candidate to devise and execute the strategies. Eventually, these evolved to hiring out external consultants for a specific activity – Surveying, creating advertisements, PR etc. Politicians have used external specialists since the last 30-40 years and these consultants focus on one or two areas of the campaign. In the sense, they are consultants but work with an in house campaign manager who had an understanding of the big picture. This system existed until 2015, when Prashant Kishore was given responsibility of Bihar. This is perhaps the first time when the role of a campaign manager itself was handed over to an external talent and signalled a significant change in how campaigns were run in India.

Over the last year or so, this shift has not translated to a trend. We know for sure that an external campaign manager was used in TN but everywhere else, the past method of using specialists in certain areas continues to be the predominant trend. So a political party could use an ad agency like O&M for advertising, a PR firm like Perfect Relations and a research firm like Nielsen (these are examples) and other entities for cadre training, cadre mobilisation, events etc. One can confidently say that the trend is not in favour of an external campaign manager but this does not imply that it won’t be the trend in the future as far national campaigns are concerned. Having said that, it is fairly clear that given the paucity of talent in candidate (MLAs, MPs, corporators) campaigns, it is increasingly likely that candidates will increasingly rely on external campaign managers to run their campaigns.

Therefore, one could say that the market is now divided into 3 segments. I do this division for convenience and acknowledge that there is significant overlap between the three.

The three segments are –

-Overall Campaign Management at National/State level – This is a single external campaign manager who then builds a team and brings in as many internal and external stakeholders to help win the election.

-The specialists – These are experts who are good at one or two things and work with the internal or external campaign manager to help in winning the election.

-The Candidate specialists – These are folks who manage some or a large proportion of the candidate’s campaign and have a great understanding of micro-targeting and winning the election booth by booth. They may (?) have challenges with respect to scaling and identifying the big messages that can win elections.

The industry is evolving and so are the clients. I would say things are at a flux and everyone is attempting to innovate in order to differentiate themselves from others. I personally believe that fewer parties will use an external campaign manager while most candidates are likely to do so in the next 5 years. The era of specialists will continue with the simultaneous emergence of a few big players in the candidate support space. In fact, there are a few companies that are growing quickly in both these areas and hardly catching the attention of the national media.

Do Political Consultants have an impact on election results?

It is extremely difficult to answer this question but any campaign doing better than expected (which I agree is a bit vague) should give some credit to the team that is running the campaign. This has no mention of winning or losing but doing better than expected. Over the last 12 months, brilliantly run campaigns have lost elections and terrible campaigns have won elections. But the smartest of politicians understand this and have quickly hired those who run brilliantly run campaigns even if they lost the election. There is no doubt that some political consultants are certainly having an impact.

Should you get into this career?

This is the most often asked question and frankly, the answer is philosophical. A few years ago, I had a similar thought in my mind and contrary to what many think, the decision cannot be based on whether political consulting is a good or bad career. Often, I advise people to answer questions about themselves and their lives before even delving on career choices. The answers to those questions are more illuminating than whether political consulting is good or bad. Having said that, I see a variety of people in political consulting – some driven by the excitement of competing, some the opportunity to work with the most powerful people in the country, some because of the challenges and many others just to make a difference. Find a good coach to navigate this answer for yourself, but remember, it is not about whether political consulting is good for you. It is about who you are as a person and what you want in life and I don’t mean that in a superficial way.