Inside the GOP's secret school

Priebus: "People need to be trained and disciplined."

Story highlights

  • GOP media operations have lagged behind Democrats for the past two presidential elections
  • Republicans are rebuilding their organization for the social media age
  • RNC is holding "Comms College" to train operatives

Washington (CNN)Night after night, Republicans are going back to school in an effort to build a new army of communications operatives for the Twitter age.

The courses at "Comms College" -- the GOP's secret training ground for social media-savvy communications staffers -- are taught in a sterile conference room on Capitol Hill. Students are instructed that the modern news cycle, fueled by the disruptive power of the web and constantly-filing reporters, has no patience for old political playbooks.
That's an especially important lesson for Republicans heading into the next presidential election. President Barack Obama's press operation, digitally fluent and nimble, handily outpaced their GOP opponents in 2008 and 2012. Republicans -- well aware of Hillary Clinton's ability to spark an Internet sensation with a single tweet -- are determined to mount a modern media strategy to battle back in 2016.
    Rob Lockwood teaches a course at the RNC's "Comms College."
    "If you are stubborn and fail to adapt to the environment and think that the strategy from 20 years ago is the way it is today, you are going to lose, it's that simple," said Rob Lockwood, the 27-year-old leader of the GOP boot camp, which is housed at the Republican National Committee in Washington. "This is about understanding the modern reality of the media."
    On a recent evening, two dozen operatives -- most of them in their 20s and some in need of a shave -- filed into the RNC conference room. Lockwood opened the lesson with a slideshow. It included a picture of boxer Mike Tyson in the ring, accompanied by his famous maxim: "Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth."
    The message to students: It's critical for campaigns to be adaptive and resourceful in making their case to the media, and responding to a constant barrage of press inquires and negative headlines.
    Since the beginning of 2014, the RNC says it has graduated over 200 operatives and placed many of them as communications directors and press secretaries in Capitol Hill offices and federal campaigns nationwide, from Alaska to Arizona to New York and North Carolina. Lockwood has also conducted media training boot camps with nearly 1,000 candidates, staff and local political figures in a dozen states.
    Is New Hampshire about to get nasty?
    Is New Hampshire about to get nasty?

      JUST WATCHED

      Is New Hampshire about to get nasty?

    MUST WATCH

    Is New Hampshire about to get nasty? 02:22
    Could Rand Paul support gay marriage?
    Could Rand Paul support gay marriage?

      JUST WATCHED

      Could Rand Paul support gay marriage?

    MUST WATCH

    Could Rand Paul support gay marriage? 02:33
    The luckiest mustache in Iowa
    The luckiest mustache in Iowa

      JUST WATCHED

      The luckiest mustache in Iowa

    MUST WATCH

    The luckiest mustache in Iowa 02:16
    There's a session on opposition research and tracking, Facebook algorithms and Google metrics. There are also tips on dressing for television (no pocket squares, seersucker or dangly jewelry), and lessons on social media and partisan news sites that give campaigns the power to peddle their messages without the filter of "mainstream" reporters. Lockwood even has reading recommendations, including "Collision 2012," "The Victory Lab" and "Double Down."
    Above all else, Lockwood preaches how mobile devices and the social web, in just a matter of years, have dramatically altered media behavior. For click-hungry reporters in the digital ecosystem, their motives, competitiveness and editorial standards have all mutated — presenting all manner of opportunities and dangers.
    "Doing a press conference just to do a press conference doesn't work anymore," Lockwood tells students. "It's an antiquated way of thinking. If you don't know what you want your headline to be, and think you can go out there and say what you want in five points, and answer none of the questions, that the news reports are going to be about your five points. Nope. The reports will probably be about the five things you didn't answer.
    The RNC runs other "colleges" for young operatives or staff veterans looking to brush up on their skills, including a campaign management college run by Ohio GOP operative Jonathan Gormley, and a campaign finance school for Republican attorneys.
    But as Republicans surveyed their losses after the 2012 presidential campaign and looked at their roster of communications operatives, they realized they weren't able to field their best talent to compete with Obama's brigade of Chicago-based digital natives — in part because the GOP equivalent didn't exist.
    "During the last campaign, we would sit around with the Romney campaign trying to identify potential press folks, either for Victory positions here at the RNC, or staff positions with the campaign, and we realized that that bench was not deep with people who had been trained or had significant campaign experience," says Sean Spicer, the RNC's communications director. "We would struggle to fill those positions with qualified people."
    Spicer and Reince Priebus, the RNC chairman, embarked on an overhaul of the organization's media operations, hiring web-fluent staffers, streamlining their surrogate database and stepping up their media-training operations to instill discipline over candidates. The latter move, Priebus said, became essential after witnessing Republican candidates up and down the ballot in 2012 ruin news cycles with offensive or tone-deaf comments on issues like abortion or rape.
    "I'd rather have candidates being careful to a fault than, you know, having a fountain of blabber coming out of their mouth that's not disciplined," Priebus says. "We are training candidates, training state parties, training operatives to appreciate that communicating isn't just a free-for-all, natural-born type of activity. People need to be trained and disciplined."
    Reeling from their demographic drubbing among Hispanics, African-Americans and women in 2012, they understood the need to present a fresher face to the American public, an ongoing process. Spicer said he recently met with the executive producer of a network Sunday show who begged him for "new hip conservatives" to feature on the show's roundtable.
    Spicer said the committee is obliging, not just to aid the media, but to help campaigns tap into a database of Republican surrogates with ease. "It used to be, like, people would call the RNC and say, 'How do I get in touch with Rudy Giuliani?' And we'd be like, 'Google!'"
    "Now all of those things are catalogued," Spicer says. "Someone will call and say, 'We are doing a health care push next week, how many doctors or primary care physicians do you have? How many Asians do you have? How many Jews? You wanna do a Rosh Hashanah thing or something on Israel?' You name it."
    Ben LaBolt, who served as Obama's national press secretary during the 2012 campaign, says it's shrewd for Republicans to update their media strategy, even if they're starting from behind.
    "Communications tools and methods change each election cycle, sometimes rapidly," LaBolt says. "While they were once siloed, by President Obama's re-election campaign, we had learned to fully integrate media relations with digital communications in order to reach all prospective supporters where there were. It might be catch-up, but the Republicans are smart to play it."
    The RNC's post-election "Growth and Opportunity Project" — unofficially known as the party's "autopsy" report — recommended much more than just cosmetic fixes. It called for overhauling the professional culture of the party and fixing rusted-over campaign mechanics so that Republicans could better compete with Democrats in the tactical realm. The Republican coalition has since worked to improve their data, digital and information-sharing programs.
    Still, the results are mixed.
    With free-spending outside groups taking on a greater role in campaigns and siphoning resources away from the RNC, Priebus figured staff training was something the committee could own.
    "Training has to be a cornerstone of what we do today and in the future," Priebus says.
    Lockwood, a veteran of the North Carolina Republican Party and the College Republican National Committee, was recruited in late 2013 to cultivate future communicators for the party.
    A brawny, 6'4'' Massachusetts native who rarely lets his iPhone out his clutches, Lockwood came of age in the digital era and knew instinctively that a single link circulated on Twitter could have more power in shaping a narrative than any newspaper front page or morning TV show. "Rob was the ideal choice for this," Spicer says. "We call him the dean."
    The "college," a series of eight night classes, focuses on tactics, not policy. The presentations are heavy with do's and don't's for Republicans who work with the press.
    His opening statement sets the tone. "Understanding that the press is attracted to conflict is paramount to understanding the modern media," Lockwood says.
    Then, on his laptop, he ticks through his slideshow: "Don't use jokes that you've never told before ... Jay Carney showed everyday that it's better to be dull than offensive," referring to the former White House press secretary who is now a CNN political commentator. "Don't introduce new phrases, like Etch-a-sketch."
    Lockwood says the boot camp isn't just for up-and-comers. Comparing it to spring training, he says veteran GOP operatives are encouraged to take the course, too.
    "There are a lot of people who are not of this generation but are subject to the rules of it," he says. "That's why we want everybody to get up to speed."
    As much as the classes focus on the capacity of the web to drive a message, students are urged not to chase every shiny object or micro-story that pops on Twitter.
    The seminars put an emphasis on breaking down the traditional barriers that exist between different segments of a campaign. Press staffers are given crash courses in polling and media-buying, for instance, so they can be conversant on those topics when a reporter calls.
    "I really had very little exposure to polling or digital until then," says Charlotte Guyett, a former RNC intern who worked at a GOP consulting firm before enrolling in "Comms College." Guyett is now the press secretary for Elise Stefanik's House campaign in New York's 21st Congressional District.
    Guest speakers with recent, real world campaign experience, young and old, parade through and field questions. In one September session, Tim Miller, the executive director of America Rising, a GOP research firm, encouraged the students to engage with the media proactively instead of keeping them at arm's length.
    "If you treat reporters with hostility," Miller said, "there will be blood."
    Miller, himself a former RNC staffer, praised the committee for changing its way of thinking.
    "As recently as 2008 and 2010, you would sit in these rooms and it would be somebody from the Lee Atwater era, talking about how the media is your enemy," he says. "My talk was about talking the ways to use the 24/7 news cycle and Twitter and social media to your advantage, as well as recognizing the pitfalls."