Earlier this week, Politico's Byron Tau reported on the sad state of The Can Kicks Back, a deficit-hack outfit spun off of Fix The Debt, whose unique strategy in the "OMG TEH DEFICITZ" Wars was to attempt the enlistment of millenials in the effort to impoverish their grandparents.
Tau, having obtained a cache of documents and correspondence between The Can Kicks Back leaders, told a tale of a group constantly critical at the deficit hawk movement's lack of diversity, embittered by the negative associations that came from being tangentially tied to Deficit Hack Godfather Pete Peterson, and always in search of a sugar daddy to help line its coffers. (And yes, as much as they detested being lumped together with Peterson, the Can Kicks Back folks really coveted his ducats.)
The bottom line of Tau's piece was one of those perfect ironies:
As of November, The Can Kicks Back was operating at a small loss. The group's cash reserves were down to $70,000, with more than $75,000 in outstanding donor commitments, according to documents and emails. And the group's co-founders and management team have expressed concern about its future.
According to emails, the group has no actual debt but only enough cash to last through April.
That's a pretty great punchline, but based upon these emails, subsequently obtained by The Huffington Post, the windup to the joke is pretty great, too. Join us, now, on a journey through the highlights of these correspondences (featuring executive director Ryan Schoenike, outreach director Michael Eisenstadt, communications director Jake Parent, policy director Brandon Aitchison, and field director Nick Troiano), and what we've learned about The Can Kicks Back.
These people were drunk on Thought Leader-speak.
It might have been helpful if the people at The Can Kicks Back were stronger at building a campaign and promoting it. Unfortunately, they knew just enough about those fields to be consummate poseurs and addicts to marketing gimmicks and buzzwords. This gang loved trading articles from the junior varsity thought-leader set, and seemed to operate under the assumption that they might absorb some manner of expertise through osmosis, if they just read enough of the "marketing as a form of self-help" genre.
A few months after the weird dragon from "The NeverEnding Story" helped them learn how to make compelling content, the group was learning about "Five Ways To Make Your Content Stick." It was basically a rehash of what the previous article had said, but I think that without a steady diet of repetitive buzzwords, these people might have starved to death.
A lot of what the group did was pass op-eds to each other. There were the requisite Robert Samuelson "concern-trolling about Social Security" pieces that he recycles on a weekly basis. Communications director Parent was particularly enamored of this all-buzzword Mad Lib phoned in by Thomas Friedman. And naturally, they were super-excited about the opportunity to work with millenial icon David Brooks:
Indeed. "Sick," dude. Perhaps even "#yolo."
The group was pretty convinced that the best way to "speak" to millenials was through past-the-sell-date Internet memes.
In October 2012, The Can Kicks Back gang discovered Internet memes. Game changer!
Executive director Schoenike was pretty enthusiastic about the discovery, telling the group that he was way, way into such memes as "the most interesting man [in the world], Y U no, condescending wonka, futurama fry" -- you know, the sort of images that have long drowned Tumblr dashboards to the point that everyone is numb to them.
Eisenstadt was quick to demonstrate how hip he was to the #trendz: "I'm not too familiar with how these work." He went on to express some concern that their message wouldn't translate: "Shouldn't we do something more like that, where the Can is the centerpiece? When I see the Most Interesting Man in the World, I think of Dos Equis ... and so on for the others." Memes are hard, I guess!
If there was a viral trend, you could count on these super-geniuses to spot it long after it had passed. Perhaps the group's best known attempt at achieving something that resembled a "viral sensation" was their December 2012 "Gangnam Style" video, in which they forced Codger King Alan Simpson to lamely gallop along to the Psy hit from the previous summer.
"Gangnam Style," at that point, had become such an irritating cultural oddity that Psy himself was mere days from declaring that he was sick to death of his own creation. But The Can Kicks Back's leaders were super-duper excited about the achievement, and were under the impression that earning a sarcastic diss from Gawker proved that they were on their way. "We made Gawker," intoned Eisenstadt in a Dec. 5 email, "We are viral."
"Here is old as the earth former Senator Alan Simpson," read the Gawker piece, "come to urge you young people to stop tweeting and instagramming your eggs and whatever the hell this is, and use your social media savvy to get lawmakers to take control of the national debt. Sounds completely fool-proof."
It was the laughing at, not the laughing with, that ended up going "viral." But The Can Kicks Back was undeterred, and round about Feb. 15, 2013, the organization -- in yet another example of expert trend-spotting -- rolled out its second-best known attempt at "going viral": a "Harlem Shake" video.
The blast email promoting the effort read like so:
By now. you've probably seen at least 13 versions of the Harlem Shake. (If not, why aren't you spending more time on You Tube!?)
But you have not seen anything like this. We invited our friends Alice Rivlin (former White House budget director), David Walker (former U.S. Comptroller General) and, of course, AmeriCAN to join our team in making our own version of the viral dance.
The Harlem Shake "sensation," as we know, was neither an authentic example of the actual "Harlem Shake," nor an authentic example of a viral craze. In any event, the meme, as far as cultural anthropologists are concerned, achieved "played out" status two days before The Can Kicks Back attempted to breathe life back into it with Youth Heroes Alice Rivlin and David Walker.
They weren't particularly great at communicating with millenials IRL, either.
Throughout the cache of emails, the organization's leaders reveal just how unprepared they were to tackle the job of talking to millenials. And that extended to the millenials the organization managed to convince to join the crusade.
In one November 2013 thread, Schoenike attempts to introduce Eisenstadt to Tanya Flink, a young Emerson College graduate with experience "working with the GOP in Orange County, CA." Schoenike put Eisenstadt and Flink on an email thread together, with the standard "Tanya meet Michael" introduction. An eager Flink responded minutes later, offering her help:
Can we schedule a time to talk this week about what needs to be done and how I can be of assistance? I am available this Thursday or Friday during regular office hours. What time best works for you? ... I look forward to working with you.
Eisenstadt freaked out, because none of this was professional enough to suit his persnickety tastes:
Guys, what is wrong with the email below?
FYI, she is the third person on the team you have intro'd to me that has done this, so this officially makes a trend and I'm flagging it. In previous instances, it has resulted in missed connections and, ultimately, a lack of effectiveness.
We need to mentor these younger people on how to communicate. Do not reach out to me requesting my help and then give me your number to calL You should be confirming a time that fits in my schedule, confirming my contact information to call me, and then sending me a calendar invite to hold the time.
"Me" in all these instances being whomever it is they are trying to set up a call with. I personalty don't give a shit that she (or the others) are communicating with me this way, but it certainly is a concern if they are reaching out to partners/donors this way. It sends the wrong message and is, plain and simple, bad etiquette.
Anyway, no need to mention it to her right now. This merits a broader and more tactful conversation that we can have with her and the others doing outreach about how to communicate more effectively. To clarify: I am not personalty upset or offended in the least, but am raising this to help establish some best practices for TCKB.
Pro-tip: You're going to have a hard time communicating with young people if you think that young people need to be mentored in how to communicate.
There was also some debate over how to attract quality millenial interns in August 2012. Troiano, in particular, was confused as to why their listings didn't include any information about compensation: "Should we not put the pay amount in it? Not sure what's standard practice. But on the University internship sites, if I recall correctly, they will ask for this information up front. So maybe it's worthwhile to just put in it. In the latest budget, I believe we were thinking $500/mo. So it's more of a stipend."
Former Heritage Foundation staffer Tierra Warren was quick to drop some knowledge: "Having ran several internship programs for the [College Republican National Committee], anytime we put compensation in the description, the number of shitty applications outnumbered those with any skills."
[UPDATE, 2/19: Warren clarifies her role: she was acting in a strictly personal capacity as an advisor, and not on The Can Kicks Back's payroll. She was heretofore unaware that these emails were publicly accessible.]
Eventually Parent ruled in favor of being vague: "What I did instead was put 'A monthly stipend may be available for top candidates.' This is pretty common practice. I like it too because it allows us the flexibility to hire on less experienced people for free to do ad min work or whatever, if we choose to."
So, now I guess those of you who interned for The Can Kicks Back can know for sure if the group considered you a "top candidate" or "free labor."
The group had massive, MASSIVE problems with self-awareness.
These guys just couldn't understand why their stated mission just rubbed so many people the wrong way. Parent, in particular, seemed constantly upset that his organization hadn't done enough "messaging" to obscure its rather transparent intentions. In a September 2012 email, Parent complained, "I'm going to voice again that I am very worried we are falling into the trap of becoming the young people who want to take money from old people and are 'attacking' social security."
It was, of course, the very trap they drew up for themselves, but Parent was pretty sure that there were ways the obfuscate this with just the right sort of branding, "There are just so many other, more positive ways we can brand ourselves. We should be talking about ourselves as wanting to provide people with something, not taking something away."
They never really did figure out the "something" that they could claim to be "providing." Meanwhile, the millenials they were trying to reach were, as a generation, getting more and more into economic populism, and less and less inclined toward the standard-issue fiscal-hack "message."
Toward the end of February 2013, the group was getting a bit bummed out at how they were being perceived. A piece in the Los Angeles Times by Michael Hiltzik, accurately characterizing their "generational theft argument" as a "sham," sent Parent into a shame spiral: "The fact remains that [Fix The Debt] has lost its position in the center. It's now considered a corporate, right wing austerity campaign. This means it's becoming more and more difficult for left leaning non-crazies to be seen supporting it. These aren't just weirdos with a HuffPo blog slot anymore. What are we doing to change this perception, at least for our campaign?"
It's weird to think that they imagined this to be a problem of "perception management." This group enthusiastically endorsed the Weekly Standard's framing of the debt issue. They were overjoyed when the Glover Park Group got one of their op-eds placed in the Daily Caller. They hired fundraisers from the Heritage Foundation. How did they think they were going to end up being perceived?
By the way, the "weirdo with a HuffPo blog slot" Parent refers to is Eric Laursen, author of The People's Pension: The Struggle To Defend Social Security Since Reagan, who wrote this piece on these pages. At the time of its publication, an incensed Parent spat: "This guy is a nobody." A more hopeful Aitchison remarked, "Good. I hope this fires up people to donate more."
"Hit pieces must mean we matter, right?" asked Aitchison, existentially.
And now they are running out of money.
So, where did the money go?
Round about November of last year, the group made an effort to come up with a new strategic plan. Eisenstadt didn't much care for what had been generated, criticizing the revised plan for being "too complicated," and "overemphasiz[ing] the campaign vs. the solution."
"Simplicity must become our mantra," Eisenstadt said, "We have very little money. Even if we succeed in raising more money, we will have serious resource constraints." One data point he provided told the story of where the money had gone -- the group had attempted a "national tour" that fall, to try to attract millenials at "high schools, colleges, and young professional communities across the country." Part of that tour involved periodic "can drives." Numbers Eisenstadt cited tell the story: "We generated 800 cans through our national tour at a cost of about $3,000/can."
So these are just the sort of people who should be lecturing the youth of America about returns on investment.
The group would subsequently revise their plan, and went ahead with an effort to bring in a new firm to help them revive fundraising. A Dec.10, 2013, email from Schoenike, including the new fundraising firm's proposal, sounded an optimistic note: "We discussed the proposal and these guys know what they are doing. They will also help us create and tailor marketing materials. They also put their money where their mouth is by only taking a partial fee till we reach set funding goals."
Parent was concerned that the group's fundraising proposal was "really non-descript and basic." He felt that it was too full of "buzzwords" -- and it's really saying something when anyone in this group recoils at that sort of excess. "I'm highly skeptical that this is the best use of our money."
Schoenike sought to reassure:
Also forgot to mention that it's a two man shop but both have a lot of experience. Including both Bush/Cheney campaigns, Crossroads and Jon Huntsman. The two guys together managed the Western US for and Bush/Cheney. While they do seem to have more connections on the right they also have a lot of independent and fiscally conservative Dem connections with the Hunstman work. Also let's not forget that Crossroads raised close to $1 billion. Our last group didn't have anywhere near this type of network.
So, the fundraisers had worked with people as diverse as the arch-conservative Bush/Cheney campaign all the way to the conservative-lite Jon Huntsman campaign, you say? That sounds like a match made in heaven. Parent remained skeptical, however: "This surprises me given the quality of the proposal. Now I'm more worried that they aren't taking us seriously and will see our campaign as an afterthought to all their other work."
Hard to imagine these guys not being taken seriously.
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