Conventional wisdom used to be that the political left had control over the online sphere. This sentiment reached its zenith after President Obama’s new media focused election campaign in 2008. Since then however, due to the efforts of those like Erik Telford, conservative bloggers and activists have won over the Internet and set a new standard for the successful use of new media. New York Times political reporter Trip Gabriel even concluded “that the passion of bloggers seems to have swung towards conservatives.”
Telford made his mark early as a social media pioneer in conservative politics, allowing the grass-roots organization Americans for Prosperity (AFP) to fill the need for national leadership in new media activism for the Tea Party.
In addition to being the director of membership and online strategy at AFP, Telford served as the executive director of RightOnline, an initiative aimed at cultivating online activism among center-right bloggers and organizations. Telford organized four national conferences, drawing thousands of attendees and national media attention as RightOnline squared off against the older and more established left-wing Netroots Nation convention four years in a row (in Austin in 2008, Pittsburgh in 2009, Las Vegas in 2010, and Minneapolis in 2011).
In 2011, Telford moved to the Franklin Center for Government & Public Integrity where he currently serves as the vice president of strategic initiatives and outreach. His work has been featured in news outlets including the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, Fox News, the Washington Times, and online at the Daily Caller and Townhall. However, one his most notable accomplishments may have been in April, 2009, when he was named Keith Olbermann’s #2 worst (“worser”) person in the world for his role in advancing the Tea Party movement (which, as a friend of mine has been known to say, “is like being kissed on the forehead by Ronald Reagan”).
Finding a niche in political communications.
Telford’s friends and family could have told you that he would be politically engaged. He was, in his words, “a political nutcase from a young age.” But his interest in communications and new media surprised him in graduate school at George Washington University.
I knew that I wanted to work in politics, but I always thought I wanted to work more in the campaign and party-oriented sphere. My work study job was at the graduate school at GWU that hosted Crossfire for CNN at the time. And I just loved the media stuff, and seeing the behind the scenes I just thought was so cool. That developed an interest in media that I didn’t necessary have prior than that.
To satisfy this growing interest in communications and media, Telford took several political communications courses including courses in new media.
Like many graduating in 2006, Telford did not find a friendly hiring environment for conservatives. As he was trying to find out how to make the best of the situation and his multiple degrees, he picked up a flyer about Americans For Prosperity at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) by America’s Conservative Union. From there he found out that AFP was hiring a new media director; he applied and started shortly thereafter.
Accepting the position as AFP’s New Media Director,
Took me in a direction I never would have anticipated going, but I love the grassroots stuff. I love the work that AFP was doing, and it allowed me to stick to my issues and ideals rather than having to compromise ideologically. That really defined for me the path that I wanted to go in, and it wasn’t one that I would have chosen out of the blue, but I’m really glad I found it.
No need for preconceived notions.
He says there were many “preconceived notions I found when I came to DC, like you have to go to law school, you have to work on the hill, you have to work on a campaign.” But being in a position that allowed him to explore the media that fascinated him and do work that he found interesting, Telford found himself saying no to the campaign-style opportunities that he thought he had wanted to do in college. It allowed him to defy the conventional wisdom of Washington, DC.
At the time I went to do my masters degree, a lot of people were saying that you should go to law school even if you don’t want to be a lawyer. But I knew for sure I didn’t want to be a lawyer, and I didn’t want to spend three year going through the pain of law school and then have to pay for it afterwards… Some of the most brilliant people I have met through work have dropped out of college or didn’t do anything after high school, and they are achieving more than people who went to Harvard.
Telford was cautious to warn young people that while a college degree doesn’t determine your success, not to underestimate the value of pursuing higher education in today’s weaker employment market. “I think it is a lot tougher now with employment being lower,” he says that you will always be competing with the “vanity of needing a college degree or a professional degree just to get your foot in the door for an interview.”
Pioneering the realm of new media, Telford says that he found that the old conventions were not there to hold him back.
I was in the new media realm which was so new, there were opportunities to excel at a higher rate because there were no standard orthodoxy, no gatekeepers. When you are an early adapter to a field, you get to be a pioneer and you don’t have to follow the rules that other people made.
Of course, when Telford was staring out in 2006 “new media” was Facebook and MySpace. He recalls that he knew he was facing an uphill battle when he was asked if he would get them on that “MyFace.”
Networking is more than social networking.
Even though Telford of all people understands the value of social networking, he says that it can never replace the good, old-fashioned in-person kind.
A lot of people rely too much on the online stuff, and it is important to connect with people online, but if you never meet them in person, it never ends up being as effective.
He recommends finding people who are a little bit older or more experienced than yourself and asking to go to coffee or lunch with them.
I would sit down with these consultants who would be giving the same advice to clients for hundreds of dollars an hour, but just because I bought them lunch and picked their brain they felt honored because someone was respecting them and wanted to get their input. It was helping me in terms of just getting advice, but also as they would learn what I did, they would start connect me with other people.
Similarly, he recommends being someone who likes to connect other people, and not to just look out for your own connections.
Some people get protective of their connections, they don’t want their peer to out-network them. But people like people who are connected, and the more you are connecting with people and connecting them to other people enhances those bonds, and those relationships, and your standing.
For more networking advice, Telford recommends reading Never Eat Alone by Keith Ferrazzi. To find out more about Telford, check out the Franklin Center’s website. Also, follow him on twitter at @BlameTelford.
A final piece of advice from Erik.
When at an event such as an AFF happy hour or roundtable discussion, cold card-collecting “is good for collecting cards, but bad for establishing connections.” People don’t want to know that they’re going in your card catalog before they get to know you.
Jacqueline Otto’s shelves at home are lined with used-book store finds; just a few of her favorite authors include C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, H.G. Wells, Orson Scott Card, Ray Bradbury, Jules Verne, and George Orwell.
She first read F.A. Hayek and Frédéric Bastiat at 16. Her political affiliation on Facebook is “Freedom,” and she hopes to always be known as a lover of liberty.
Jacqueline is on Twitter at @jacque_otto.
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