Famous 5: Doug Thornell
FamousDC is pleased to introduce you to Doug Thornell, managing director at SKDKnickerbocker. However, if you’ve worked in the D.C. communications industry over the past decade or so, there’s a good chance you may already know him. From public service into the private sector, the resourceful Mr. Thornell has troubleshot crises and facilitated communications strategies for a diverse swath of campaigns, organizations and initiatives. Not to mention, he actually grew up in the DC area and he throws a great flip-cup party on his roof. We caught up with Doug to see if he could shed a little light on the keys to his profound professional success.
1) You have worked in a lot of interesting roles on Capitol Hill. What was the most fulfilling work experience during that period of your life?
Working on Capitol Hill in 2009 and 2010 for Chris Van Hollen, when he was both the DCCC Chairman and the Assistant to the Speaker, was an unbelievably rewarding experience. There was so much energy and enthusiasm around our new President and the ambitious agenda we were trying to enact in Congress. We also had a lot of new members of Congress who were swept in as part of the Obama wave, as well as those who won in very red districts, so the dynamic and the diversity within the Democratic Caucus was so unique. It seemed like every single week, something big happened, and I am not talking about the government shutting down. I am talking about passing meaningful legislation, like the ACA, the Recovery Act, Wall Street Reform, Lilly Ledbetter, and Student Loan Reform. Policies in my mind that have helped millions of Americans. At the end of the day, whether you are Democrat or Republican, that’s why you get in this game, to do things that will help the country. Or at least it should be. You add to that all of the historic events that occurred, including the Inauguration of the first African-American president, the drama around passing Obamacare, including Ted Kennedy’s death and Democrats losing his Senate seat, the rise of the Tea Party, the BP Oil spill, AIG bonuses, Swine Flu (remember that?), and of course, You Lie! It was just a crazy, stressful, amazing time to be on the Hill.
2) What is the most challenging difference within the communications field between the public and private sectors?
Well, there are a lot of similarities, including the skillsets required to be successful, but I think you have to be more resourceful on the private side. Let’s face it, when you work in the Administration, or the Senate or the House, everyone will take your call. Reporters come to YOU for information. They are staking out your boss, you have Sunday Shows reaching out to you, you put out a release and it is almost guaranteed someone will write on it. I think it is a little bit different on the private side, where often times your phone banking reporters just to get them to dial-in to a conference call or take your client’s quote. You realize you don’t have your Superman cape anymore, so you have to get very creative in positioning your clients so that they get their message out to their target audience. The other difference is that many politicians are very comfortable and experienced dealing with the media. On the private side, some clients have had considerably less direct interaction with the media and require more guidance and training, so you have to have a lot of patience to walk them through step by step why we are doing what we are doing.
3) What should a prospective client in a reputation crisis do BEFORE calling a firm like SKDKnickerbocker?
It is very important that when the ____ hits the fan you maintain your composure and not panic. Don’t dig your own grave, because if you do, I won’t always be able to bring you back to life. Get all of your facts together, establish a process for handling press inquiries, there should be no freelancing, and don’t say anything you might need to recant later. Move quickly to hire a crisis management firm (like hours, not days). Do your research, reach out to trusted friends or colleagues and get a couple of names of firms that have handled real crises and have pros who have been in the middle of crapstorms.
4) If you could give a piece of advice to one of these ambitious and hardworking congressional interns out there, what would it be?
Enjoy every moment you have on the Hill, soak it all up. Set up meetings with people whose career you want to emulate. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. And do a campaign, preferably in Iowa or New Hampshire, that’s where you really learn the art of politics and you meet people who will be your friends and mentors for the rest of your life.
5) One of the 2016 presidential candidates calls you up and wants to hang for the day. Who is it and what are you doing?
Donald J. Trump. I remember reading the Art of the Deal when I was kid and thought Trump was a badass (taking on the NFL for example). Since then, my opinion of him has changed quite a bit, but I still think it would be interesting to jump on his private jet for a few hours and hear about his experiences. Hopefully he doesn’t ask me for my birth certificate, because I lost it years ago.
Bonus Question: What do you do to help prepare and brace yourself for the Redskins’ tragic record each year?
That’s so low, Amos. Kicking a man when he is down. Well, all I can say is, at least we aren’t the pathetic Ravens!