Definers tries to reboot after Facebook oppo research controversy



Matt Rhoades in 2012. Rhoades and a number of staffers are leaving Definers Public Affairs. | Charles Dharapak/AP Photo

Definers Public Affairs is rebranding nine months after Facebook cut ties with the Republican consulting firm and as several of its top staffers leave to join a Washington lobbying firm.

Matt Rhoades, the Republican operative who ran Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign, is leaving Definers to become the co-chief executive of CGCN Group, a lobbying firm with ties to President Donald Trump’s White House and Republicans in Congress.

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Rhoades is bringing a number of Definers staffers with him, including Antonia Ferrier, a former aide to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Meanwhile, Joe Pounder, the GOP operative who co-founded Definers with Rhoades in 2015, has bought out Rhoades’ stake in Definers and has rebranded the firm as Bullpen Strategy Group.

The changes come less than a year after The New York Times detailed how Definers used “campaign-style opposition research” tactics to target Facebook’s rivals, including senators investigating the social network — a move that deeply irked some lawmakers. Facebook severed its ties to Definers shortly after the Times story ran.

“I understand that a lot of D.C.-type firms might do this kind of work,” Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, said at the time. “When I learned about it I decided that we don’t want to be doing it.”

Definers wasn’t the only Washington consulting shop to use such tactics on behalf of its corporate clients. But the coverage cast a harsh light on the firm, especially its publication of negative stories about its clients’ rivals on NTK Network, a conservative news site affiliated with Definers.

The firm has stayed tight-lipped about who its clients are for years, and it’s not clear how many — if any — it lost after Facebook cut ties with Definers last year, since the firm isn’t required to disclose its clients in the way lobbyists must.

In an interview, Rhoades told POLITICO his decision to leave Definers had nothing to do with the fallout from the Facebook stories. He added that he hadn’t considered leaving until Sam Geduldig, a CGCN lobbyist, approached him.

“The opportunity that came to me with Sam was just too good to pass up,” Rhoades said.

Rhoades and other Definers staffers who are leaving with him will handle strategic communications and public relations work for CGCN’s dozens of lobbying clients, which include the American Petroleum Institute, Boeing, Goldman Sachs, Microsoft and Verizon, according to disclosure filings. He also plans to bring an unspecified number of Definers clients with him, though he declined to disclose them.

“We don’t publicly disclose who our clients are, but I’m confident and know already that we’ll be able to bring over a good book of business,” Rhoades said.

It’s not clear how many Definers staffers are leaving for CGCN with Rhoades, but more than half of the staff is expected to stay at Bullpen. Brian Rogers, a Definers managing director, and Alexandra Angel, a senior vice president, plan to stick around to start the new firm with Pounder.

“This firm will be different from Definers,” Pounder, a longtime Republican operative who’s worked on several presidential campaigns, said in an interview.

Bullpen will focus on “insights and analysis” for corporate clients, trade groups, law and lobbying firms and other communications firms, Pounder said. The new firm will also handle media monitoring and rapid response work.

Pounder declined to say whether the new firm would continue to make use of the opposition research-style tactics Definers employed on Facebook’s behalf. “Our focus will be on analysis and insights that provide corporate leaders with the full picture of their policy challenges,” he wrote in a follow-up email to POLITICO.

Pounder also wouldn’t specify how many of the firm’s clients Rhoades is bringing with him, saying only that “the Definers book of business is strong.” CGCN and Bullpen plan to work together after Rhoades leaves.

Pounder will also stay on as chief executive of America Rising Corporation, an opposition research outfit that works with Republican campaigns.

Rhoades’ move to CGCN comes as the firm’s current communications team prepares to leave. Three CGCN staffers — Ken Spain, Patrick O’Connor and Ed Mullen — are leaving “on amicable terms” to start their own firm and taking the rest of CGCN’s communications staff with them, Spain said.

“We had competing visions for what the communications practice should be,” Spain said in an interview.

Rhoades and Geduldig will be CGCN’s new co-chief executives. Michael Catanzaro, a lobbyist who worked as an aide in Trump’s White House before returning to CGCN last year, will become CGCN’s president and chief policy officer. Steve Clark will become the firm’s chairman, Michael Nielsen will become chief financial officer and Jay Cranford will become a senior partner.

Geduldig said he was looking forward to attracting more clients to the firm with Rhoades on board. “I think we have the ability to win any fight, any fight that comes our way,” Geduldig said.



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