By Krystal Ramirez, Director, Claire Vinocur, Associate Director and Andrea Tang, Senior Associate, Forward Risk and Intelligence
Traditionally, investigative due diligence and political opposition research have been considered separate fields. While both can be considered branches of risk advisory work, rarely have the twain explicitly met in the middle – which is surprising, given the tremendous overlap between these highly complementary subfields. Ultimately, the currency of both political campaigns and proxy contests is the notion of influence. While traditional political campaigns aim to influence voters, proxy contests similarly influence shareholders. Lobbying firms, in turn, influence decision-makers. In all three cases, professional researchers provide the ammunition behind that influence, using the power of carefully unearthed information.
As a result, experienced due diligence analysts and opposition researchers share elements of tradecraft including familiarity with database-driven research, comfort and creativity working with open-source intelligence, and high levels of attention to detail on tight, high-stakes deadlines. As Forward Risk partner Brendan Foo, director Krystal Ramirez, and associate director Claire Vinocur noted in a recent Directors & Boards article, “The Politics of Proxy Contests,” corporate proxy contests in particular bear remarkable similarities to political elections – to such an extent that the article’s authors propose that those hunting for success in a proxy contest may take valuable lessons from politics.
As they point out, in both realms, “winning candidates tend to be those who have researched themselves and their audience, built and engaged with a coalition of constituent groups and power brokers, and articulated a message to prospective voters that encourages them to turn out to vote.” In other words, investigative due diligence and political opposition research have far more in common than not.
So, if commercial due diligence and political opposition research draw on such similar skill sets, where does the difference lie? Primarily, their immediate context.
Despite the similarities in execution, we must keep in mind that findings in these two fields are tailored for fundamentally different audiences. An oppo researcher will customize their reporting to suit the needs of campaign’s communications and digital teams. Meanwhile, an investigator conducting research for a private sector due diligence project will aim to arm an investor with actionable business intelligence.
Lobbying firms are among the few client types that occupy something of a sweet spot between the public and private sectors. Although technically a private entity, the average lobbying firm builds its business model off an ability to sway political decision-making through the effective use of well-substantiated research and persuasion. In this sense, a lobbying firm has a foot apiece in two worlds: one strictly commercial, and one in the government sector. As government affairs-focused organizations, a knowledge of political campaigns and hot-button policy issues is crucial. However, unlike a political campaign itself, a lobbying firm’s lifeblood flows through its ability to generate commercial revenue.
So, given that it treads a line between the public and private sector, where should a lobbying firm go to address its unique needs: the veteran oppo researchers with their fluency in government affairs, or the commercial due diligence outfit equipped with the resources and understanding of financial clients who do business with lobbyists? The answer, in an ideal world, is both.
While the average risk advisory firm may not have always focused traditionally on targeting campaign staff for their recruiting efforts, it’s not a bad idea. A seasoned oppo researcher’s skill set includes not only subject matter expertise in local and national political landscapes, but also a carefully-honed understanding of the right questions to ask. When placed alongside a commercial investigator’s business intelligence savvy, the risk advisory firm makes for a potent combination for supporting a lobbyist’s needs – particularly when it comes to building well-substantiated policy arguments.
Simply hiring the right mix of oppo and commercial intelligence professionals isn’t enough, however – the firm must have the know-how to combine their skills in an effective interdisciplinary manner. An excellent example of this is the application of stakeholder mapping. Traditionally a commercial intelligence subfield, a researcher versed in stakeholder mapping can essentially apply this so-called commercial intelligence “playbook” to a government affairs case. By consulting with a good opposition researcher on the same team, the stakeholder mapping expert can determine the specific pain points of who to lobby, and how.
Another example is the use of source inquiries. When public records alone do not suffice, a well-equipped risk advisory firm may employ a source inquiries expert to interview select individuals who may have personal contact with a subject of interest. Combined with oppo know-how, this additional research toolkit can pay tremendous dividends in the lobbying world, where accessing otherwise difficult-to-find reputational information is paramount.
Countless examples illustrate the proof in the pudding regarding the success of an investigations firm that effectively employs researchers from both oppo and commercial intelligence backgrounds.
In one case, a government affairs firm required assistance for a client facing harassment from a political opponent in a foreign country. Combining the research know-how of investigators from both opposition research and traditional commercial intelligence backgrounds, Forward Risk’s investigative team was able to launch a deep dive investigation into local-language media and public records in several countries that ultimately uncovered a decades-long track record of involvement in organized crime, money laundering, and public corruption. Forward Risk developed both a detailed investigative report and a set of concise talking points to assist the government affairs firm in its discussions with key members of Congress.
In another case, a client requested that Forward Risk provide background information regarding several nominees for a major federal government position. The government agency in question held significant influence over potential business opportunities for the client due to the client’s investments in the industry. As a result, the client was interested in the shortlist of nominees for the position of agency chair.
Accordingly, Forward Risk leveraged a combination of traditional due diligence know-how and political vetting strategies in order to obtain the necessary information. In particular, Forward Risk’s team carefully identified the subjects’ views on specific policy areas most likely to impact the client’s investments in the industry area. As a result, the client was armed with information that would enable them to lobby for the nominee most beneficial to their business interests.