Rural Roots to International Affairs

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OUTdrive Episode 60 with John Ashford

Rural American roots run deep, even when an individual no longer lives and works here. In this episode of OUTdrive, I visit with John Ashford, co-founder, Chairman and CEO of The Hawthorn Group L.C. The Hawthorne Group is an international public affairs and public relations firm that John co-founded in 1992.

John grew up in Marshall, Missouri and was enamored with politics at a young age. He first appeared on the political scene in Missouri and went on to work for members of the US House and Senate. He later spent a decade with legendary political consultant Matt Reese and gained experience through hundreds of successful political and corporate campaigns. He now leverages years of experience to provide senior counsel to Hawthorne clients across the country and around the world.

Listen along or read the transcription as John shares his path from rural America to international affairs and the things he’s learned along the way.

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Cliff Callis 00:25
Hey folks, welcome to OUTdrive. I’m Cliff Callis, your host, and we’ve got another great story to share with you today about life and business in rural America, and in our nation’s capital. When our forefathers put together the structure for the way our country would be run, they certainly did it in an environment of challenge and change. And I don’t know how they could have possibly imagined what we might be dealing with today, and yet they did an amazing job establishing laws and expectations. Today, our lawmakers in Washington continue to be challenged by the differences and changes we see in culture, business and politics. And just as we did over 200 years ago, we elect representatives from our states, from both rural America and our country’s cities to go to Washington and represent our best interest and to work to help their fellow representatives understand the needs of the population they represent that can be far different than one you’ll find in other parts of the country. And that brings us to our guest today from Washington DC. Once a country and western disc jockey, which I want to hear more about, John Ashford is now Chairman and CEO of The Hawthorn Group L.C., the international public affairs and public relations firm he co-founded in 1992. Drawing on communications and public affairs experience gained in hundreds of successful political and corporate campaigns, Ashford now provides senior counsel to Hawthorn clients across the country and around the world. But raised in a small farm community, Ashford first appeared on the political scene in Missouri. When he was only 26 years old, the Kansas City Star had already called him a political kingmaker, and after staff work on Capitol Hill for members of the US House and Senate, Ashford spent a decade with the legendary political consultant Matt Reese. Together, they worked in more than 200 candidate and corporate campaigns around the world and pioneered the adaptation of political grassroots techniques to serve Fortune 500 companies. Attending Missouri Valley College where his father was a Hall of Fame football coach, John studied classics and ancient Greek, earning a BA in Philosophy. He received his Master’s in Public Administration from Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. He’s a member of the American Association of Political Consultants, the National Press Club, the Harvard Club, the International Churchill Society, the American Guild of Organists and the Scott Malt Whiskey Society. And he and his wife reside in Alexandria, Virginia, but his roots remain in rural Missouri. Welcome to OUTdrive, John.

John Ashford 02:54
Thank you, Cliff. You’re right. What was it Frost said, “Home is the place where when you have to go there, they have to take you in”? Home remains to me West Central Missouri.

Cliff Callis 03:03
Well, we’re excited to have you on the show. When you sort of first appeared to me, and I got to digging in, I found that we had a lot in common. Of course, both growing up in rural Missouri, but we both graduated from Missouri Valley, and we’ve both made a career out of public relations, albeit at a different level. You know, growing up in Missouri, did you have the vision for what your life would become?

John Ashford 03:25
Heavens, no. I was enamored with politics from a young age, I’ll admit that, but I didn’t know there was a profession called public relations, public affairs or political consulting. And indeed, you know, Cliff, you’re lagging behind me in age, but our careers have really been in the modern era of political consulting. What occurred in Baxter in the 50s and California were the first and then you had the emergence of the 60s of Jonah Politan, and Matt Reese, and Steve Spencer, F. Clifton White, but what we do, or at least certainly the political stuff I do, didn’t exist when I was in college.

Cliff Callis 04:01
So what intrigued you about politics? You said, growing up, you sort of had some interest in it. What was it about it that intrigued you?

John Ashford 04:09
Well, it was, I think, the excitement, the bells and whistles, and it was glamorous, it was on the front page of the paper. It led the news on the black and white small television screens that I grew up watching. At its most noble, and this is probably delusional, it offered an opportunity to do things, to make change. It also seemed to me to offer an opportunity where you could make your way based on merit and hard work, but it was relatively open, at least for you know, a white male child of privilege.

Cliff Callis 04:45
You’re right. And really, of all the professions, you really can take it all the way back to results. And good consultants are worth their weight in gold because they know how to get it done. They know how to influence behavior, how to entice people to do what they hope that they will do, and it is an opportunity to change, to evoke change, and I always like that challenge as well. I continued to do some issue consulting today. I love the challenge of trying to get into the head of the audience and understanding what it’s going to take, what are you going to say to them that’s going to influence, really their vote, but influence their opinion about a particular topic, and then create the excitement to move them to want to get to the polls to cast the vote and hopefully pass an issue.

John Ashford 05:28
I think it’s very difficult to understand what moves people to vote. You know, is it personality? Is it ideology? Is it an economic self interest? You know, I remember the great line somebody said, “I never vote for anybody, I only vote against.” That’s probably true for somebody.

Cliff Callis 05:44
Let’s talk about Marshall a minute, your hometown where I went to college, and I remember it back in the 70s. But tell us about Marshall, Missouri when you were growing up, back in the day.

John Ashford 05:53
Well, I was born in 49. So I grew up there in the 50s and 60s. And as I said earlier for you know, a white male child of privilege, it was a very easy place to grow up. Very comforting, very non-threatening. It was a farm community above all else and a farm economy, but with the college there, a certain… it probably over glorifies it to call it intellectual excitement, but a certain academic atmosphere and I think it represented the both, the best and worst of Little Dixie, that region from Holden over to Lexington in Missouri. It also offered great models for politics. You know, James Spainhower came to Marshall as pastor of the Disciples of Christ Church. Got active in politics, ran for State Representative, did his PhD at MU while he was Chairman of the House Education Committee, was elected State Treasurer, was a candidate for governor. You know, I was blessed to grow up around politicians like Congressman Ike Skelton, state senator from Lexington, Jim Matheson from Sedalia, but my first job in politics was working for the late Jim Kirkpatrick, Secretary of State from Warrensburg. Just terrific role models of honorable dedicated public officials who were not extremists.

Cliff Callis 07:06
And you’re right. You know, there are extremists, certainly on both sides, but there are so many republicans and democrats that are, they’re moderates, they’re in the middle, and they want to do what’s best for our population. And Missouri is a very conservative state. And I love to see when they can work together to really get things done. But going back to Marshall, I see where you’re coming from with the backdrop for the politics there. Were you sort of attracted to the academia that was Missouri Valley at the time?

John Ashford 07:32
Well, sure. I mean, I grew up – our house is a block from the campus. In fact, the house is not part of the campus, it’s a dorm sorority house. And you know, I grew up, except when I was in the public school classroom, sort of every waking moment on that campus. As you know nothing is better than Marshall in June, July, early August, when the football team would come back in late August, and then the freshmen would come in, and then the upperclassmen, it just revived the community. I’ve always said I would never want to live in a community without a college or a university. I like it. I like the people of the tracks, including some with whom I strongly disagree, but nonetheless, they’re interested and interesting.

Cliff Callis 08:11
Yeah, that’s a great perspective. I love the interested and interesting. You say that, and that’s really the basis of our thought leadership program in our agency. We want to be interesting until a client or a prospect is interested, and then we want to engage with them. I think that’s great perspective, John. So you grew up as the son of the legendary football coach. I never met your father, but I’d always heard stories about him, and you don’t rise to that level of success without principles that really guide you. What kind of principles did he instill in you from an early age?

John Ashford 08:46
Well, Cliff I think he talked a lot about discipline, sacrifice, teamwork, but above all, he wanted to see excellence. I can remember he’s telling football players nothing made him madder than a football player who was an all conference standout terrific football player, and Dad would be talking to him as a high school recruit that he’s trying to bring to Missouri Valley. He’d say, “How are your grades?” and sort of without apology, the kid would say, “About average,” and dad would say, “Why would you settle for average grades? You wouldn’t settle for average on the football field.” The other lesson I think I learned, and this may be as much from that farm community of Marshall. There’s a wonderful book by a woman of the name of Carolyn Lieberg. It’s called Calling the Midwest Home. And she writes “The Midwestern work ethic dates back to the first settlers. Pioneers had no choice but to do for themselves. If they didn’t take care of things, nothing happened.” She says, “People worked, and they worked hard. They toiled on the farm, or in the cities. The energy generated by an abundance of opportunity, and the prospect of success made work an integral part of the American dream. Hard work leads to a better life. It doesn’t always, but there’s no better path”. If you ask me if there’s anything I learned coming out of Saline County, Missouri, it’s that hard work leads to a better life.

Cliff Callis 10:08
Well there’s no replacement for hard work is there? You went from Missouri Valley, you went on to Harvard, and maybe you didn’t do that right after, or did you?

John Ashford 10:17
No I didn’t. Harvard, the Kennedy School of Government, has a marvelous program they call the mid-career program. You have to have been out of school 10 years, and in my class, I was exactly average being out of school 20 years. So I went back 20 years after working in the business. Gives you a different perspective on graduate school to do with then. And I benefited enormously from the other people I was in school with.

Cliff Callis 10:40
Great experience, I assume

John Ashford 10:42
It was terrific. Faculty is fantastic, but it was the interaction with the other students and what they brought to it. And then you know, just the people hanging out who come in to lecture at Harvard. There is at the Kennedy School of Government something called the Institute of Politics. And they bring in former public officials for a semester, as sort of visiting mentors and teachers. And the year I was there, it was Sergei Khrushchev, Nikita Khrushchev;’s son who had been an academic in Russia, had come to this country and was spending a semester at Harvard. You know, it’s the people they brought in.

Cliff Callis 11:25
As I think about that, I just think about how so many different perspectives like that really stretch your mind, really stretch your thinking. What a valuable experience. You think, looking back at, you know, the origins of our country and our forefathers, what attracted them to go to Washington or work together in Washington to do some of the significant things that they did?

John Ashford 11:48
A point I made in a speech for the Friends of Arrow Rock, a while back, they had no choice. They didn’t have just an intellectual belief in participatory democracy. If they didn’t do it, it didn’t get done. There was a limited, landed, educated class and the burden fell on them. I mean, you look at that little town of Arrow Rock, you go out to Sappington Cemetery and you look at Dr. John’s Sappington’s home. You know, he was married to the daughter and sister of governors of Kentucky, the granddaughter of a governor of Virginia, two of his sons in laws were governor of Missouri, a grandson was governor of Missouri, down the road lived William Barclay Napton, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. In Arrow Rock, you had the first professor of art at the University of Missouri, George Caleb Bingham. He was an artist. He was also Adjutant General of Missouri and State Treasurer of Missouri. It was essentially Cincinnatians leaving the plow to go to the forum, and to become a general. It was a democracy dictated by their determination to improve their government to build a country to improve their lot in life. If they didn’t do it, it didn’t get done. I mean, George Washington could have lived a life of more or less idle landed gentry as a plantation owner. Chose to be general and President, didn’t have to be.

Cliff Callis 13:10
Well tell us about the Hawthorne Group. I’m interested to hear more about your firm.

John Ashford 13:14
We are a boutique shop in terms of Washington. We are unique in Washington in that, as I said, 95% of our businesses is in the state capitals. Got a text from a client one day, it was in December. All the text said was, “Do you have anybody good in North Dakota?” To which I responded with, “In December question mark?” What good would be in North Dakota in December? But the answer is Bob Harms would be. Bob was legal counsel to two governors, Republican State Chair. We worked with him in North Dakota for 15-20 years. So our niche is really that network around America. We do a lot of grassroots work, and we do some crisis response. Obviously, we don’t disclose all that we do, much that we do, but public record that we worked for BP after the oil spill in the Gulf. We worked for PVA after a spill.

Cliff Callis 14:15
Well, it sounds like you’ve built quite a reputation for being able to get things done. And I think that’s, that’s why people call. They know they can call you and you’re going to take care of it, or you’re going to do your darndest to get it done. So how do people hear about you?

John Ashford 14:27
The best way for us to get hired is one CEO calls another one and says, “I got a problem. Who do you use for this?” We got hired by Arizona Public Service, the big utility in Arizona. I got a call from the Washington office. We did a lot of work and still do for the Southern Company, Georgia Power, Alabama Power, Pacific Power and a great company and generally thought in the utility industry to be the smartest political company in the industry. I got a call from Arizona Public Services’ Washington office, Bobby Aiken called who runs it. He said, “Can you be in Phoenix Monday morning at 10 clock?” I said, “Well if I need to be.” and he said, “You do. My CEO just called me and he said, ‘I want whoever does Southern Company’s grass roots in my office at 10 o’clock Monday morning.’ Then I asked him, Well, do you want me to find out who it is? He said, ‘I don’t care who it is, have him in my office.’” That’s how we get hired. It’s word of mouth, and you know, we try to do podcasts like this, we try to do speeches to associations, industry meetings, you know, we try to put stuff up on social media.

Cliff Callis 15:30
Well, there’s nothing better than a referral. I mean, there really isn’t. From one CEO to another CEO, that’s the best because that trust is there that you can’t build through advertising. And it takes a long time to build it through any kind of thought leadership. And you know, the truth of the matter is what we’ve found, I think, over the years that people do business with people that they know, like, and trust, and if they don’t know about you, that’s strike one. And it takes a long time to build up that like and that trust for people to want to do business with you. But a referral from an associate or a friend cuts through all that and goes right to the trust, which is what it’s all about.

John Ashford 16:04
And I’m grateful for the opportunity on this podcast, but we have struggled in the year of the pandemic, or one of my friends far more gracefully calls it ‘The Great Quieting’ when clients weren’t in their offices. What we found, Cliff, is we were getting new assignments from old clients, but we weren’t signing up new clients. People don’t hire you and me over Zoom. They have to have met us, they have to have talked to us. They have to understand how we think. It’s that series of meetings that result in getting hired.

Cliff Callis 16:33
So are you all back to face to face meetings and back traveling and meeting with new prospects and looking at different opportunities?

John Ashford 16:41
We are to the extent they are. Most of our clients are fully back at work. Southern Company, Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia Power is scaling up over the next month or two, as is Next Arrow, Florida Power and Light down in Florida. But we started traveling, sitting here with our IT director Anthony Sowah. Anthony, we started traveling, what about six weeks ago? You know, we were all vaccinated, and clients were starting to get back in their offices. Interesting change. Eric Falacci, the CEO of Ford, apparently said to me, we were talking about Zooming and all these calls. And he said two things that struck me. He said, “With Zoom, we are more efficient, just less effective.” And I think he’s right. He said, the other change when we go back to travel, he said, “You never again will fly to Sacramento for a two hour meeting, because you know you could do a two hour meeting well enough on Zoom.” He said, “What you’ll fly to Sacramento for is two days of meeting.”

Cliff Callis 17:41
Yeah, there has definitely been some good things that have come out of the pandemic. I think people appreciating their family and friends and life itself more. I think that they recognize that, you know, things can happen, things can change overnight. And whether it’s your life or the society in which you live, and you got to take advantage of those opportunities that you have, because you may not have them again, I am really impressed with your recall about politicians and companies that you’ve worked with and campaigns that you’ve been a part of, and your reflection on history. You’ve had a great career. What kind of advice would you give to a young PR pro today?

John Ashford 18:21
I remember when I was about to graduate from Missouri Valley, my father called me and said, “What is it you’re majoring in?” And I said, “Philosophy.” He said, ”I have a question. After you graduate, who’s going to pay you to sit around and think those good thoughts?” A good question. Somebody wanting to go with the PR business today, I would tell them to learn a subject area, a substantive area, whether it’s environment, utilities, family relations, medical services, whatever it might be, find a passion and learn something about it. This is – the government is brain surgery. It’s complicated. There are unintended consequences for every action. So learn something about something. And the other thing because I’m an old hack, I always tell kids who asked me what should I major in, I don’t care what you major in learn to read and write the English language

Cliff Callis 19:13

John Ashford 19:15
Because yet a surprising number of college graduates who both can’t read it and write it and therefore don’t blink crisply in it.

Cliff Callis 19:22
I think that’s great advice. And you know, certainly I see this specialization really in our business, and not just our business, but the people that we do business with. And I’ve got lots of friends that are in agency business and the ones that have specialized, found a niche are the ones that are really excelling because they get it. They understand the industry. They understand the marketplaces. They know the competitors before they ever start talking to a new client, and it just puts them so far ahead of the game in terms of being able to compete in that arena. You’re living in DC, just outside of DC but you grew up in rural America. When you think about rural America today, how would you describe it?

John Ashford 20:02
A lot of bad news and a little good news. The bad news is the mass exodus from rural America. You know, when my grandfather bought our family farm in Saline County. 120 years ago a 200 acre farm was significant and sufficient. Today, you can’t make a living on less than 3,000 acres, which means, what, 95% of all farm families are no longer living in those farm houses we see falling down, and they’re not jumping into the small towns on Saturday night to Saturday shop. There are exceptions and that’s the good news. You read about the Californiazation of Texas, you read about the ranch communities of Idaho that have not been taken over by folks, again, mostly from California, but Oregon, Washington. There are some contrasts to that, and you know, at last I thought to be critical of Walmart. Our family ties to The Waltons go back to when my mother lived in their home when she was going to college and baby son, Sam. They brought goods and choices and prices to middle America, that means free cook and the consumers benefited. The era of rural America through tribulation, the Dust Bowl and some of the economic disasters of not only the Depression, but of the 19th century. We’re not going to be able to reserve what used to be rural America. A new rural America may emerge, but it will be a new one.

Cliff Callis 21:25
Yeah, and I think we’re starting to see that. Again, reflecting back on the pandemic, I think that caused a lot of people in cities to take another look out into the country and look at a way of life that is really pretty appealing. And you know, in our business, we look around and see a lot of innovation that’s coming out of rural America. And when I say rural America, you know, I throw some of the Midwest cities into that. Is it rural? No. But the mindset of a life outdoors, an active life, a healthy life is all part of that. And so you know, we’re starting to see some really good things like that happening, that I think, it is going to be different. But I think there’s lots of opportunities, and particularly as broadband technology continues to be invested in and developed, where somebody can work from anywhere in the world, but they choose to live in rural America, because they like the beauty and the splendor and the fresh air and a little more laid back vibe, and they use technology to their advantage to do their job from anywhere. So there’s some good things happening here. Yeah, you know, I think technology is the difference. It’s the vehicle to make it all happen. You and I’ve been in this business about the same amount of time. You know, we’re going on 35 years right now, and technology has revolutionized our business. There’s no question about it. When we started, everything was done by hand, everything was manual. And today, everything is digital. It’s just amazing how far we’ve come. And it’s affected every business, not just yours in mind, but every business technology has driven us there, and I see that really being the hope and the opportunity out in rural America is that technology can take us into the future in ways that we’re really not even going to be able to imagine at this point.

John Ashford 23:11
Although, of course, it was the psyche that the younger generation embraced the first, it was farmers that embraced it second, it suddenly put them in immediate touch with the rest of the world. A lot of folks missed that for a long time.

Cliff Callis 23:23
Yeah, you know, you think about motorized vehicles, which are just now getting up and running. Heck, the ag industry has been using motorized vehicles for years. And you know, it’s just amazing when you think about that, but it kind of puts it into perspective. I think you and I could visit all afternoon. I want to be sensitive to your schedule, and I’ve really enjoyed visiting with you today. I was really excited about the opportunity to do that. What else would you like to share with our outdrive audience that you think they might find interesting, John?

John Ashford 23:51
The answers to the problems have got to come from where the problems are, which is out there in the heartland of America, in its cities, and its small towns and farms, in its schools and hospitals. The answers are not going to come from Washington. They’ve got to be formulated where the problems are and then they’ve got to be championed by people who are willing to make the sacrifice to get involved and come here and go to Jefferson City and with a focus on what needs to be done not just on the extremes and viciousness of partisan politics.

Cliff Callis 24:23
Well said, well said. We need good people, and there are good people out there. We need to find them and encourage them to be there. John, very much enjoyed meeting you, visiting with you this afternoon. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate you being on our podcast.

John Ashford 24:36
Thoroughly enjoyed it, and I look forward to seeing you in person on the next trip to Missouri.

Cliff Callis 24:41
I hope we can do that. I’m looking forward to it as well. Folks, thanks for listening to OUTdrive. I hope you’ve enjoyed our visit today with John Ashford, Chairman and CEO of the Hawthorne Group. Come back again next week and I’ll take you down the roads of rural America where it’s heaven on earth.

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