A political consultant is a paid, outside advisor to candidates, political parties, or interest groups. The rise of political consultants started in the United States when Whitaker and Baxter formed Campaign Inc. in the mid-1930s, which is considered the first political consulting firm. But while in the late 1950s only roughly thirty or forty individuals acted as professional political consultants, the industry has seen tremendous overall growth since the late 1960s. Three developments contributed to this rise of the political consultancy business.
The first development is the advent of nationwide television as the dominant medium of political communication. In order to cope with the structural demands of a visual and fast-paced medium, candidates and parties had to adopt the standards of a new media logic, centered on the communication skills of personalities, impression management, and the delivery of camera-ready pictures and visuals. In these days a new entrepreneurial profession entered the political marketplace: the political consultant, specialized in strategic communication, image-building, and crafting television commercials based on extensive survey research and focus groups.
Second, as party loyalties have eroded and electoral volatility has risen, the traditional style of party campaigning and voter mobilization has been gradually replaced by a political marketing approach, where the priority is to identify voter needs and to target special voter groups. This approach relies on the expertise of external consultants specialized in careful segmentation of the electoral market, survey-based development of micro-messages, strict message discipline, instant rebuttal units, opposition research and the use of focus groups, mall intercepts, and extensive survey research to craft arguments, framing the issues and producing effective television commercials.
Third, the ongoing fragmentation of channels and audiences, a multiplicity of news outlets, the advent of the Internet, and the transformation of broadcasting into narrowcast micro-messages addressed to carefully targeted voter segments increased the demand for professional media and communication consultants, experienced in advanced techniques of news management, scripted events, spin control, and negative campaigning. In the United States currently 8,000 professional political consultants and 1,500 political consultancy firms offer services in the fields of general strategy, media and communication consulting, polling and survey research, fund raising, field operations and organization, initiative and referendum consulting, and Internet services and web campaigning. Political consultancy has become a growing branch since the 1980s in Latin America, Australia, and western Europe, and – with some delay – also in eastern Europe. The development in the United States – the gradual replacement of traditional party managers by professional media and strategy consultants – can now be observed on a worldwide basis. Foreign political parties and candidates invite American top consultants to perform highly specialized functions that domestic experts cannot fulfill or are just learning to accomplish in a professional manner.
The internationalization and globalization of political consultancy is further fostered by transnational platforms, like the International Association of Political Consultants (IAPC), founded by Joseph Napolitan in 1968, or the European Association of Political Consultants (EAPC), organizing conferences and workshops and serving as meeting platforms and professional networks. In the meantime, similar associations have been established in the United States, where political consultancy is considered as a onebillion-dollar market, Latin America, western Europe, and Russia. Also Australia and New Zealand have a flourishing political consultancy scene, whereas the political consultancy market in Asia and Africa is still in its infancy.
The data of the Global Political Consultancy Survey, a worldwide survey of political consultants and campaign managers from 45 countries conducted between 1998 and 2000, permit insights into the professional role definitions of political consultants, and show two different consultancy approaches (Plasser & Plasser 2002). Political consultants of the first type have been characterized as “party-driven sellers,” while those belonging to the second type have been defined as “message-driven marketers.” Party-driven sellers concentrate in their consulting activities on a strong and efficient party organization and programmatic positions of parties, while at the same time they stress the importance of the candidates’ personalities. Party-driven sellers consider the secret of a successful campaign to be the product of party-related factors.
By comparison, the message-driven marketers concentrate on the strategic positioning of their candidates and the development of messages which appeal to the expectations of special target groups, and place much more importance upon the central message of the election campaign. Message-driven marketers clearly tend to define campaigns as political marketing operations in which the strategic positioning and addressing of target groups represent essential conditions of success. Message-driven marketers also concentrate more strongly on the availability of financial resources and evaluate the role of external advisors and campaign experts as much more important than party- and organizationcentered campaigners. Sixty percent of the political consultants who were interviewed in the survey operate as party-centered “politics-sellers.” Forty percent correspond more strongly with the message-driven marketers and their political marketing logic. American political consultants mostly correspond to the type of the message-driven marketers.
The data of the Global Political Consultancy Survey indicate that the focus of modern campaign strategies also moves in the direction of candidate- and message-centered factors among political consultants from the traditionally party-centered competitive cultures of Germany, Sweden, or Italy. This change of orientation appears to be even more explicit among political consultants with a strong affinity with the US role model of modern campaigning.
Yet, the data also indicate the existence of a combination of traditional and modern styles of political communication in most of the regions examined. Western European political consultants clearly differ from the modus operandi of American political consultants. Two-thirds could be classified as TV fixated, who appeal to the mass public and try to optimize the reach of their campaign messages. American political consultants, on the other hand, prefer a postmodern strategic logic of communication. Three out of four US political consultants interviewed could be defined as target-group marketers. Confronted with a multitude of news channels, “media clutter,” and the declining marginal value of extensive advertising campaigns in the large national networks, they changed their focus in the direction of segmented advertising campaigns in the local cable channels, targeted direct marketing activities, and the potential of the Internet.
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