As a junior at Ithaca College, Rob Flaherty ’13 helped elect the youngest-ever mayor of the city of Ithaca. Just seven years later, he’s helped Joe Biden get elected as the oldest-ever president of the United States. And, as of Jan. 20, he is working from the White House as its new director of digital strategy.
Flaherty was named to the position at the end of December. He will manage the Office of Digital Strategy, overseeing a team of 20 staff members handling social media and digital creative strategy for the Biden/Harris administration.
Even as Biden was being sworn in as the 46th president, Flaherty was working behind the scenes to transfer all the social media accounts from the previous administration to the new one, and hustling with his team to get new content from President Biden out the door.
This comes a year after Flaherty was named digital director for the Biden for President campaign in what would become a historic election. Flaherty recounted how Biden’s campaign was different from that of Hillary Clinton in 2016, and how Ithaca College gave him the skills he needed to parlay his passion for politics and communication into a fulfilling career.
Campaign tactics and challenges
Flaherty was deputy digital communications director for the Hillary for America campaign in her run against Donald Trump. While the opponent was the same four years later, Flaherty said the strategy shifted this time around to capitalize on the strengths of the candidate.
“The best digital campaigns are the ones that reflect the values of their candidates,” he says. “You can't run an Obama campaign for Hillary Clinton, and you can't run a Clinton campaign for Joe Biden. We built a program that reflected his values, that brought people together, that showed empathy and didn't divide people but provided people with hope.”
“But, the things we need to do to win during the pandemic were the things we needed to do to win before the pandemic.”Rob Flaherty '13, director of digital strategy for the White House
This time, the digital aspect of the campaign took on even greater importance, as in-person events were replaced with virtual events and candidates were unable to connect with voters in person. Flaherty says the campaign tried to make people feel as if they were engaging with Biden, even if they couldn’t speak with him. He acknowledges that running a campaign during a pandemic was not ideal.
“But, the things we need to do to win during the pandemic were the things we needed to do to win before the pandemic,” he says. “Generally, building a community of supporters who wanted to take action and felt respected and empowered and connecting people through the campaign, making people feel hopeful about the future of the country and pushing for a more empathetic vision of leadership; all of those things were part of the plan to win in February, before the whole world shut down.”
Those things were made even more important, he says, by the harsh realities people were facing in the early days of the pandemic. Biden started recording video addresses in a studio in the basement of his Wilmington, Delaware, home. His campaign shared videos and stories on social media they hoped would resonate with voters and create a sense of optimism. For example, one video showed Biden meeting and talking with Brayden Harrington, a 13-year-old boy who has a stutter, just as Biden did in his youth. The video was viewed more than 2 million times. When Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson endorsed Biden and Harris, the video received more than 5 million views.
They were even able to do some things that wouldn’t have happened in the absence of a pandemic. For instance, instead of hosting in-person fundraisers, they were able to put on a virtual grassroots fundraiser for 100,000 people featuring the Broadway cast of “Hamilton.” The Democratic National Convention was also held mostly virtually.
Flaherty said the campaign was also able to capitalize on the trend of posting positive content, à la John Krasinki’s “Some Good News.”
“There are massive problems with social media platforms, from top to bottom,” Flaherty says. “They intensify and encourage division and argument and polarization and these are all things that we as a society need to work through, but at their best, they can show and promote empathy and that hope that we were trying to demonstrate and engender in our program.
“You know, we weren't going to ‘happy puppy’ our way to winning the election, but there was something to the idea that there's an audience out there that looks for a positive vision, and, for these stories of togetherness and compassion, particularly during a pandemic right in this moment in time.”
One key moment in the campaign for Flaherty was the announcement of Biden’s running mate, then Senator Kamala Harris, the first woman of color to be named a vice presidential candidate. Biden’s digital team, which had grown from 20 people to 200 in a matter of six months, had an extensive rollout plan, including a text message announcement, a video of Harris receiving the call from Biden, and a virtual fundraiser featuring her. Ahead of time, the team had prepared for 12 possible picks and was notified of the final selection only a few hours in advance of the announcement.
“We were using a Slack room to coordinate the digital elements of the rollout — the text, the email, the website changeover, and video production logistics,” he recalls. “That was a powerful moment to be a part of the team. The team really came together for that, so that was a really neat standout moment that I will not forget.”
From SNL to DC
Flaherty didn’t always want to work in politics. He chose to attend Ithaca College to major in television-radio because he wanted to work for “Saturday Night Live.” But he fell out of love with the idea and decided entertainment wasn’t for him. As a sophomore home on winter break, wondering what to do, he started watching “The West Wing.”
“In the political campaign world, to say you were inspired by ‘The West Wing’ is a cliché to the point of deserving mockery,” he says. “But I started watching it and thought, this could be a career option.”
He returned to IC with a new focus and met with the department chair, who helped him map out — on a napkin — an academic path that would let him pursue his new passion, and he ended up earning a dual degree in television-radio and politics. While still a student, he worked as communications director for Myrick for Ithaca, helping a then 24-year-old Svante Myrick become the city of Ithaca’s youngest mayor and first mayor of color. He also worked as communications coordinator for New York State Assemblywoman Barbara Lifton. These experiences cemented his desire to work in politics.
"I think we're living in a moment that calls out for Ithaca College graduates. I think the special sauce at IC is how you go out and do stuff, while learning how to think about it critically.”Rob Flaherty '13
Though he had decided that working in television was not in his future, instead pursuing a career as a public relations strategist for political candidates, shortly after graduating Flaherty found that his video background would prove very valuable while interning on Terry McAuliffe’s campaign for governor of Virginia.
“Everyone who’s interning is trying to get a job, so I went up to the then digital director and said, ‘Hey, do you guys need help editing videos? I know how to do that.’ And they said, ‘Yes, absolutely.’ So, I started doing videos for them.”
The fact that he had hands-on experience producing videos — gained through his work at ICTV — gave him an advantage when it came to being hired. He also noted that he was able to take an internship after college, rather than having to find a more lucrative job, because he had received the Park Rising Scholar award as a junior.
“Ithaca College is very much a part of the picture of how I got to where I am,” he says.
Steve Gordon, associate professor and TVR program director, taught Flaherty in his Development for Entertainment Media Course. Gordon recalls Flaherty was an excellent student, very creative, and a decent actor who appeared in several student films.
“It was clear, even in those early classes, that Rob had a plan and he was very focused on communication in the political arena,” says Gordon. “I had no doubt that he would have a tremendous career ahead of him.”
Jack Powers, interim dean of the Roy H. Park School of Communications, says he still remembers Flaherty running through the classroom in his pajamas as part of his final media project. (He was making a short film and incorporated the class into it.)
“More than anything else, Rob was intellectually curious, as evidenced by his double major in TVR and politics,” Powers says. “He was obsessed with all things media — television, movies, news. Not surprisingly, he was a political news junkie. He epitomizes the best qualities of an Ithaca College Park School grad, and we're proud to call him one of our own.”
Flaherty himself explains why he thinks IC graduates are primed for careers in politics.
"I think we're living in a moment that calls out for Ithaca College graduates,” he says. “I think the special sauce at IC is how you go out and do stuff, while learning how to think about it critically. And I think in this moment when all the rules are being thrown out and all the traditional ways of doing things are being rethought, there's not a bunch of grownups who know what they're doing anymore. People who graduated from Ithaca College are very well suited for the campaign space. Generally, I think the sort of innate scrappiness of the Ithaca college grad is a good match."