Policy

These firms helped elect Democrats. Now they work for Big Tech.

Big Tech gets help on messaging, strategy and ads from the same firms that help Democrats run campaigns. With lighter disclosure requirements, the tensions that work can generate get little notice.

The dome of U.S. Capitol building against a blue sky. Photographer: Stefani Reynolds/Bloomberg

The collision of capitalism and the Capitol raises questions about whose interests consultants are serving.

Photo: Stefani Reynolds/Bloomberg

Tech groups and their allies are spending huge amounts on TV and digital ads in an all-out war against Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s tech antitrust bill. The flood of money isn’t surprising, but the Washington players helping them spend it are. Silicon Valley is relying on many of the same firms that helped elect lawmakers to influence those same politicians. This collision of capitalism and the Capitol raises questions about whose interests the consultants are serving when the goals of their political clients diverge from those of lucrative corporate accounts.

According to a Protocol review of public spending disclosures, the Computer & Communications Industry Association, a Big Tech trade group that has reportedly spent more than $23 million trying to sink Klobuchar’s bill and similar efforts, has worked with Democratic ad-makers to place many of those TV spots. Some of the ads, including the CCIA’s work, appear to be aimed at states like New Hampshire or Arizona, where Democratic senators are facing tough reelection campaigns and are reportedly on the fence about the legislation.

Disclosures show purchases of or inquiries about broadcast and cable spots by a company called Pier 91 in New Hampshire and Arizona as well as Pennsylvania, Georgia, Wisconsin, and Nevada. In many cases, the filings detail opposition to the bill explicitly. Although Pier 91 is a little-known ad buyer, its mailing address is the same as a prominent Democratic-allied public relations company and political vendor known as GMMB, and local D.C. business records confirm that Pier 91 is a trade name of the latter firm.

GMMB boasts that it’s what "Presidents Joe Biden, Barack Obama and Bill Clinton have in common." Political campaign spending records reveal that, aside from CCIA, its clients in the current political cycle include the Democratic National Committee, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Maggie Hassan. Hassan, who represents New Hampshire, appears to be worried about voting for the tech antitrust bills, according to POLITICO.

Working with GMMB to fight against the antitrust legislation is just the latest example of how Big Tech hires left-leaning campaign alumni, former government staff and consultants to sharpen the company’s work in Washington. Jeff Hauser, director of the Revolving Door Project and a critic of corporate involvement in politics, said it didn’t raise many ethical concerns for firms with expertise in polling or messaging to help businesses with sales marketing, as opposed to their Washington efforts.

“Less distinguishable and much more troubling is when you’re doing politics for a corporation and doing politics for an elected official,” Hauser said. He argued that the two lines of business give consultants motive to try to alter candidates’ positions or insights to send back to Big Business. “No one can really firewall their own brain.”

GMMB didn’t comment on Pier 91’s contracts. A CCIA spokesperson confirmed the firm is helping with “the concept and creatives for some of the TV ads we are running and then the strategy and logistics for booking in the various states,” but said GMMB’s work on campaigns was not a factor in the relationship.

CCIA’s president, Matt Schruers, also insisted that his group isn’t working against a unified Democratic priority. “We are finding that, as more Dems learn about the risks this bill pose[s] for security, privacy and digital services' existing efforts to moderate content online, they become concerned that it isn't ready for prime time," he told Protocol.

Consultants’ work has occasionally gotten the firm in hot water, though, and it often continues in a way that’s essentially invisible to the public even as — or, in many cases, because — the Democrats who are currently in power are leading charges against those same tech giants.

When Amazon was facing a backlash from local and progressive politicians over its plans to build its second headquarters in Queens, New York, for instance, the company turned to another major Democratic-allied firm, SKDK, according to local reports. Former political clients of the communications and strategy specialists include then-New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who was a fan of the tech giant’s plans, as well as both Obama and Biden. But SKDK also specializes in work with corporate clients and boasts work for tech companies. (Amazon abandoned its New York plans in 2019.)

SKDK — where partner Anita Dunn is the kind of Democratic communications fixture that presidents ask for by name — says, in fact, that prospective clients working on tech issues should expect results precisely because of the firm’s work on behalf of campaigns and liberal causes.

“Our team has worked with many of the lawmakers and regulators who set the policies that guide your work and your products,” SKDK claims. “We understand what you’re up against. And we can help position you for success.”

In addition to the work for Amazon, SKDK, which does not publicize all of its clients, pushed for a tax break for companies’ offshore profits back in the Obama administration. The WIN America campaign — which was stuffed with Democratic former government officials, according to a Bloomberg report — was led by Google, Apple and Cisco. At the time, the chairman of the Senate’s tax-writing committee was Democrat Max Baucus. In that case, as with the antitrust issue, the work by Democratic firms seemed to equip companies to push a viewpoint to appeal to Democrats generally or even particular lawmakers then in power.

Efforts by professional Democratic consultants on behalf of Amazon, and other big business interests resisting Democrats’ agenda, have occasionally prompted outcry from the party’s core constituencies. Earlier this year, for instance, major unions slammed another Democratic firm, the Global Strategy Group, for its efforts to stop Amazon workers from unionizing in Staten Island. Major labor groups including the Service Employees International Union distanced themselves from GSG after the polling firm’s work emerged. GSG said it was “deeply sorry” for its activities.

BerlinRosen, another firm with close ties to New York Democrats and labor groups, worked for Sidewalk Labs, the smart city company that’s part of Google parent Alphabet, reportedly on a project to develop a tech hub in Toronto. The project fell through in 2020, in part over concerns about Big Tech’s involvement. BerlinRosen has not limited itself to helping Big Tech: The firm also represents the Teamsters in work to push back on Amazon and organized efforts to get people off Meta services, especially in light of social justice concerns.

The firms usually do checks for conflicts and won’t work against a client, but it’s not clear if there’s any standard arrangement in hiring or staffing to mitigate the kinds of conflicts that can occur when outside firms are in a position to steer politicians’ positions or to give companies’ efforts the kind of sparkle that only information from a campaign can provide.

There can be awkward transitions. As a candidate in 2020, Joe Biden repeatedly slammed Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook. Now, Ben LaBolt, a top-ranking communications alumnus of Obama’s reelection campaign who has advised the Biden White House, is a partner at Bully Pulpit Interactive and has represented Mark Zuckerberg regarding his donations to 2020 election infrastructure.

Sometimes, the projects also include work with the stable of lobbying organizations that the tech companies have set up. Precision Strategies, which was founded by some of the top staffers and digital experts in Obama’s campaigns, does media outreach for TechNet, which represents most of Big Tech and is one of the trade groups in the scramble to speak for the industry on privacy.

Despite such work, few of the communications and strategy firms themselves ever have to register to lobby. Federal lobbying transparency rules focus on those who spend a lot of time contacting legislators and regulators directly. By contrast, the Democratic (and Republican) firms that support Big Tech tend to offer advertising, media relations, messaging strategy and other services that don’t usually trigger any disclosure requirements. The projects also allow Washington firms to shield themselves from the boom-and-bust of election cycles by putting in place longer-lasting contracts with big tech companies.

With Democrats in power, it’s natural to scrutinize the firms that cater to them. But the relationships with Big Tech are ubiquitous on the right, too. Targeted Victory, the GOP answer to the Democrats’ early-2010s digital advantages, helped place op-eds on behalf of Meta that portrayed its rival TikTok in a negative light, according to a Washington Post report earlier this year. And NetChoice, the Big Tech lobbying association that works primarily to court conservatives and push back on tech-skeptical Republicans, has worked with the Trump-allied communications firm Nahigian Strategies. Zuckerberg’s election-infrastructure contributions even got a boost from Brian Baker, who has close ties to prominent Republican donors.

For now, though, the companies’ relationships with Republicans don’t help them with the party in control of Congress and the White House. The ties between Democratic firms and Big Tech reflect a greater tension between the message of the lawmakers and the corporations that the consultants work with. Democrats are expected to suffer losses in Congress in the midterm elections, however, and the GOP is beginning to outline its own anti-tech agenda. Soon enough, the Democratic firms may have to make do with less corporate work and more campaigns.

Issie Lapowsky contributed reporting.

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