It was a pithy tweet, like a newspaper headline: “Stockman files motion ordering the arrest of Lois Lerner.”
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On July 10, Congressman Steve Stockman posted this to his Twitter account. He included seven hashtags and a link to a press release written in clear, journalistic format on his government website.
This was newsworthy. A Republican congressman was pushing the House to arrest an IRS official for covering up nasty doings. The tax collector stands accused of targeting conservatives groups and delaying their applications for tax-exempt status, misdeeds that may have benefited the Democrats and the re-election campaign of the President of the United States. Conservatives would definitely find this interesting.
Stockman’s tweet got picked up by a couple of new organizations, the Blaze and WND, that did a quick rewrite of the press release. Shortly after they posted their stories, links appeared on Drudge.
Following that, the guy who wrote the tweet and had prepared the press release for Stockman, was able to post to his own Twitter account: “Made Drudge again. This might put me over 15 times in 18 months.”
That guy is Donny Ferguson. He’s Stockman’s Senior Communications and Policy Advisor. And what he did, getting his boss’s story out to the media and getting it highlighted on the Drudge Report, the major conservative/libertarian-leaning American news aggregator, if not the biggest news aggregator period, wasn’t an accident.
Ferguson has a method, and obviously he’s had some success. The fact that he’s been able to generate so much publicity for a little known Congressman who won’t be returning to office is admirable. Not only has he been rewarded with links on Drudge, last year Stockman made Roll Call‘s list of “10 Most Quotable Members of Congress,” which, Roll Call acknowledged, was due to Ferguson’s tweets.
New York magazine ran a story “The 23 Most Trollish Tweets of Steve Stockman, Congress’s Most Underappreciated Tweeter.” They screen-capped stuff like “Gas is getting so expensive Obama now has to carpool to drive the economy into the ground. 1:24 PM – 20 Feb. 2013” and “Liberals love diversity. That’s why they like to punish anyone who doesn’t think, act, eat, drink, drive and speak exactly like them. 7:39 AM – 28 Mar 2013.”
Of course, this was all Ferguson’s doing.
Donny Ferguson hasn’t always been a King of Tweet. Twitter’s only been around since 2006, and Ferguson’s been involved with politics a wee bit longer. He started out with Stockman back in 1996 when Stockman was in his first term as congressman for Texas’s 9th congressional district.
Having grown up on a dairy farm near Beaumont, Texas, Ferguson was living in Stockman’s district at the time. Stockman had made quite a splash because he defeated long time Democratic congressman Jack Brooks in a major upset.
“I just walked in and asked for an internship,” Ferguson says. Stockman served only one term that time, finishing up in 1997.
Ferguson had been attending Texas A&M but things weren’t working out all that well and in 1998 he left. “Turns out I had to go to class,” Ferguson says with a laugh and leaves it at that.
It wasn’t all a total loss. He says he gained some great insight into the workings of the media doing a stint at the A&M student paper the Battalion.
From 2000 to 2001, Ferguson worked for the National Right to Work Committee, which brought him to the DC area. From there he went to work, briefly, for the conservative watchdog group Judicial Watch.
In 2002, Ferguson landed a job as a staff aide to Eugene Delguadio, a position he maintained until 2007. Delguadio is a member of the Loudon County, Virginia Board of Supervisors, who is known for his opposition to anti-growth policies and his social conservatism. In his off hours, as president of the Public Advocate for America non-profit, he is considered to by some to be one of the country’s leading anti-gay activists.
“We disagree on some issues,” Ferguson says of his former boss. Yet he maintains that “Delguadio is 100% conservative on the spending and budget issues we worked on in the county office.”
In 2008 Ferguson moved on to start up the Western Tradition Partnership (later the American Tradition Partnership), a Washington-based conservative advocacy group. The ATP initially set it sights on environmental extremism, but ended up getting involved in all kinds of campaign finance litigation, including a nasty battle in Montana where the group was accused of breaking state campaign finance laws.
The ATP went after Montana’s attorney general who was then running for governor on the Democratic ticket. Ferguson went so far as to create and print up a newspaper, the Montana Statesman, of which he was the editor and publisher, to attack Montana Democrats.
Ferguson points out that the Statesman never endorsed candidates. He insists that “every story in the paper was 100% factual” and was in fact “more credible than the metropolitan dailies.” With headlines like “1 in 4 sex offenders go unregistered,” it was certainly more exciting.
ATP ended up making quite a splash with lefty legacy media outlets like the Atlantic after a bunch of ATP documents turned up in a “meth house” in Colorado purporting to show how the organization was involved in “possibly illegal ‘coordination’ between nonprofit and candidates for office in 2008 and 2010.”
The Atlantic story appeared on Oct. 30, 2012, just six days before the Presidential election. The writers of the Atlantic story appear not to appreciate how their story—completely one-sided and packed with insinuation without a trace of skepticism—was exactly the sort of partisan hatchet job that critics accused the Statesman of perpetrating.
In January 2013 Ferguson resigned from the ATP and again went to work for Stockman who was returning to congress for the second time after a 16-year absence. He’s been a tweeting machine since then.
Get him on the phone and Ferguson turns out to be surprisingly generous with his secrets. “The key is just to relate to people in terms of understanding what they are thinking because Twitter and the Internet have really taken away the media’s monopoly on information,” Ferguson says.
He realizes that’s not a very original observation, but it’s one that bears repeating. Following this vein, he created a hashtag a while back #groupofderp, derp being a word that has come to mean a meaningless sound bite, or a d’uh. “Yeah that was mocking the mainstream media,” he says. He says he’s not exactly sure what “derp” means but in his view it could be just a complete failure to communicate with average people.
Ferguson saw something like this on the lefty site Vox the other day. “Vox had a chart that was suppose to explain gun violence but it was actually a chart of gun ownership,” he says with a laugh. This, to him, is derp. “I think that this just speaks to the media’s haughtiness and arrogance.”
Ferguson is willing to lay out the procedure he follows for getting maximum publicity, hopefully landing a link on major site like Drudge. He can’t do this with any event of course. It needs to be newsworthy. “One of the things that annoys me are these candidates and organizations who think they are entitled to attention because what they believe they are doing is interesting,” Ferguson says.
Sure, he notes, there are people who do things that are important and consequential, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that what they are doing is always newsworthy. “What it comes down to is; is it something that the public at large would click on a banner or click on a link to read? If you understand that you can actually craft what you are doing and sell it in such a way that news organizations will see that they have a vested interest in publicizing what you are doing,” he says.
“It’s selling to your customer. Like any business, you have to understand your customer base.”
In Stockman’s case, Ferguson is targeting news organizations that have a conservative/libertarian customer base, to great success.
Once he has his newsworthy event, he crafts a press release. “Basically when we send a press release we try to write the story for them,” he says.
Journalists, he observes, can be very busy people. “It’s like having to write five term papers in one week. They normally don’t have a lot of time to edit things and write out things. So you do as much work as you can for them. Since I learned at a newspaper I write it out in newspaper style,” he says.
From there, it’s just a matter of getting the right tweet out to the right people. Ah, sounds simple, but… in fact it is quite simple. Ferguson’s tweets for his newspaper story-like press releases are just newspaper-like headlines, “Something that really hooks and attracts attention,” he says. If you look at the tweet at the beginning of this story, “Stockman files motion ordering the arrest of Lois Lerner” you will see that is exactly what he’s done.
So who will Ferguson be tweeting for in the future? His boss, Steve Stockman, won’t be returning to office. The congressman gambled and decided to run for a Texan senate seat. He got trounced in the primary. So come January, Ferguson is out of job. And so he’s been dreaming of… chickens. Chickens?
“I’ve actually been thinking about building chicken incubators for a year,” he says. “I used to raise chickens so I’ve been thinking of ways to improve chicken incubators. I stay up nights thinking about this.” He is, he says, fascinated by agriculture policy. Maybe he’ll find something in that line.
As employment for employment prospects, he’s probably considering his own advice to neophytes entering his orbit. “One of the things I always tell our interns is that if they want a job in politics is either learn how to run campaigns or learn how to raise money. And if you know how to raise money you’ll always have a job. As with any business, if you know how to generate revenue, you will always work.”
Ferguson enjoys it in Washington. “We have a really strong conservative community here, all good people.” He’s noticed there’s been a strong growth in the libertarian movement since he arrived in DC 13 years ago. “I think some of that is just the Ron Paul people bringing in good people and the other part is people just being more open about their libertarian beliefs.” He classifies himself as a staunch libertarian who is pro-life.
He’s pretty blunt in expressing the main reason he wants to stay in Washington: “This is where the fight is.”
But doesn’t the fight wear a person down?
“You come to enjoy it after a while,” Ferguson says. “You get nervous if no one is going after you. You wonder, what I have done wrong?”