Cashman + Katz dabbles in political consulting

BY John Stearns

HBJ PHOTO | John Stearns
HBJ PHOTO | John Stearns
John Kleinhans (left) is part of Cashman + Katz's new political consulting arm, Octagon Strategy Group, which is headed by Tony Cashman (right).
Tony Cashman sees a powerful formula in combining his marketing-communications firm, Cashman + Katz, with political strategists.

Cashman in July launched a public affairs agency, Octagon Strategy Group, and hired political strategists and co-managing directors — one a Democrat and the other a Republican — to run it. Cashman says the combined package is a winner with significant business potential in the rapidly evolving world of political communications.

"We feel it's really changing the shape of what people think of when they think of public affairs agencies," the president and CEO of Cashman + Katz said of Octagon Strategy Group, for which Cashman + Katz will offer communications support.

While public affairs has been a core competency of Cashman + Katz's public relations arm for years, Cashman said, he saw an opportunity to take it a step further with a separate company dedicated to the effort and run by young, politically savvy and connected directors, John Kleinhans, the Republican, and Andy Arens, the Democrat. Cashman is managing partner.

Kleinhans, 25, was most recently executive director of the Connecticut Republican Party and Arens, 27, was most recently New England deputy political director of AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Both also have connections with young, rising politicos across the country. Arens is based in the company's Boston office and Kleinhans in Glastonbury. Cashman + Katz also has a New York City office.

"We always did the political communications side, but we never had the folks that could really do the ground game," Cashman said. "That's John and Andy. And what's great about that is when you merge their experience, contacts, resources and capabilities with what we have done for past clients and our resources, it really flips it around, what public affairs agencies have been. We feel that we're innovators in the industry and that when we go to a client, we offer them something that our competitors can't do from a comprehensive political communications and strategic standpoint."

For example, if a campaign needs a TV spot produced or ad buys made, the work can be done in-house at Cashman + Katz, which, in addition to public affairs, offers branding and advertising, public relations, research and strategy, media planning and buying, digital and analytics, social marketing, and video and audio production.

Octagon does not lobby, which differentiates it from traditional public affairs agencies, Cashman said. But his firm does work with lobbyists, either contract lobbyists or institution's internal lobbyists, he said.

Among its efforts, Octagon is working for a statewide group focused on the tourism industry, some nonprofits and hopes to be hired to run the New Hampshire field operation for a national presidential super PAC.

"We can do political campaigns and super PACs, but really our focus is doing cause-related issue advocacy work, doing political consulting, political strategy for business, government, nonprofit clients," Cashman said.

Cashman was deliberate in launching Octagon as bipartisan.

"There are a lot of firms that do what we do, excluding lobbying firms, that only play on one team — they either do the Rs or the Ds," he said. "Lobbying firms have historically always done both. We made a conscious effort to be bipartisan. Some people may not like that. Some political campaigns may not like that … but we feel that we're more effective because we want to be able to come to our clients with the best solutions and we don't want to be married to having to be 100 percent on one team or the other."

In Hartford, Sullivan & LeShane has long integrated public affairs and public relations through two separate companies sharing the Sullivan & LeShane name, but it differs from Cashman + Katz in that it does lobbying.

"When you need an integrated public relations and legislative lobbying campaign … having the two working together seamlessly can be very powerful," said Eugene Sheehan III, managing partner of Sullivan & LeShane Public Relations.

Having two companies keeps a wall between the lobbying activities, which are regulated, and the public relations campaigns, which are not, he said, so if both sides are working together on an issue, care is taken to ensure expenses on the PR side are reported in support of the lobbying side.

Sullivan & LeShane doesn't do political campaigns.

"The fact that we share the same name as the lobbying firm, if we were to be associated with campaigns, it would really put the lobbying team in a very difficult position because they have to have relationships on both sides of the aisle," Sheehan said.

Sullivan & LeShane focuses on working with reporters and editorial boards and trying to get the word out for clients and manage issues for them, Sheehan said.

It doesn't have in-house advertising and creative people designing ads.

"We're not an agency that does anything but really kind of focused public relations as it relates to publicity and getting the word out on the good things that some of our clients are involved in around the community, but also crisis communications and issue management and occasionally we'll team up with the lobbying side to do an integrated public affairs campaign," Sheehan said.

Octagon's Kleinhans said he is excited about the group's future, envisioning projects nationwide.

"One of the cool things about Octagon, I think, is how we work together, two folks of different affiliations, and give our clients strategic bipartisan political advice, which is powerful in today's market to corporations, nonprofits and leaders across the country," Kleinhans said.