Just Like Olivia Pope, But Without The White Dress And Affairs: Justin Knighten Helps Folks Maneuver Sacramento

The world of Sacramento is its own ecosystem. Beyond politicians and lobbyists, there are people like Justin Knighten, vice president at Lucas Public Affairs, who work with businesses and interest groups to navigate the sometimes tricky paths to influencing policy.

“Think of us as Olivia Pope [from Scandal] but without the white dress and affairs,” Knighten joked to CALInnovates Chief Evangelist Kish Rajan during a wide-ranging interview.

Businesses, especially tech companies, are getting more involved in policy in California, and they’re signaling to the next generation that this is just part of doing business — especially for tech companies that are looking to disrupt industries. Inevitably, those disruptors are going to want to be heard on policy decisions, and that’s where Knighten comes in.

He’s helping companies understand that their reputations, which play an important role in how they are welcomed in Sacramento, are not forged by accident. It’s an ongoing thing, and businesses have to be aware of who their audiences are and what they’re saying to them.

Government has to be aware of its audience as well, and as a millennial, Knighten would like to see government reaching out more to younger people and making itself more relevant to digital natives.

“As young people think about what they want their impact on the world to be, I’m a big advocate for going into government,” said Knighten. “It’s a great platform.”

Listen to the full interview here:


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A Step Ahead: Justin Knighten

Hey, everyone. Kish Rajan, chief evangelist at CALinnovates. Welcome to this edition of A Step Ahead, the CALinnovates podcast. This time we’re with Justin Knighten, who’s Vice President of Lucas Public Affairs which is one of the more successful and well established public affairs firms in Sacramento working on public policy in the state capitol.

You’ll hear Justin is a very thoughtful, insightful, young professional who understands politics, understands policy and business, where they intersect and how all that is changing, given how technology and innovation is fundamentally changing the way we all learn and communicate. For businesses out there that need to think about how to engage the new world of public policy, Justin has tremendous insights and I’ll hope you enjoy the chat that we have.

All right, Justin Knighten, Vice President at Lucas Public Affairs. Thanks for joining us.

Justin Knighten: Yeah, this is great, thanks for having me.

We appreciate you being here on A Step Ahead, the CALinnovates Podcast. This is great.

This is great. This is cool.

Cool. Well, you and I have known each other for a number of years and you are one of the key people at Lucas Public Affairs, one of the most well established and well respected public affairs firms in Sacramento. Tell us about that. Tell us about what does Lucas do?

What does Lucas do? We specialize in high-level reputation management, crisis communications and issues campaigns. What that means is we don’t really work with elected officials. We don’t really work on initiative campaigns like voter campaigns and we don’t do consumer PR, consumer outreach. We’re kind of in the space where it’s really politics meets policy meets business.

Interesting. Are you lobbyists? Do you lobby?

We do not lobby. We 100% do not lobby. We work with a lot of lobbyists. We help think through big picture strategy and game plans with lobbyists and other experts but we do not lobby.

Yeah, it’s interesting. You know, for most people who are not on the inside of how these things work at state capitols, whether it’s Sacramento or Washington DC, it’s hard to discern. But there really is an ecosystem of different types of businesses and disciplines. I suppose that ultimately adds up to how laws get made or don’t get made, but lobbying becomes this catch all term that is not accurate, right? What you all do is quite distinct from that.

We hear about lobbying all the time, right? We usually hear about lobbying in the worse case scenario, when a scandal breaks or something unethical happened, whether it’s in DC or here in California. So we hear about those things a lot more and when people think about the role of government, they think about policy makers and the press and then the third house, the lobbyists. We kind of get grouped up into that. Which is fine a layman’s terms but when it comes down to what you’re actually doing and what your function is in that space, there is a hard line. You know, we’re not picking up the phone, we’re not calling actual elected officials, we’re not meeting with them. We’re not having conversations with them. We’re helping to create the communication environments and the conversations around them.

Yeah, those narratives.


Those conditions that ultimately create some of the parameters and shape how these outcomes can happen from a legislative or regulatory standpoint.

Absolutely. I kind of see it like we’re like Olivia Pope, right? But we’re in California and we don’t have white suits and we’re definitely not having any affairs with elected officials so we’re good.

But white suits aren’t a bad idea in Sacramento in the summertime.

I agree. It’s hot up there. I can attest to that.

But let’s talk about this because our audience, or a big part of our audience are businesses. Most businesses, at least this is my experience and I’d love to hear yours, this is all very mysterious, they know very little about the political process, it’s intimidating and it’s scary because they understand that at some level the government can have a lot of influence and impact over their business opportunities but they don’t exactly know how to shape it. Is that why, ultimately, businesses hire you all or what are they looking for when they hire you?

They’re not looking for us to help them sell something that’s going well. Usually it’s a problem or they have to fix something or there’s a huge challenge and they need help grappling with it. So we really come in and help build this partnership with them and really talk through…what is that thing you’re looking to achieve? What does that success look like for you? Whether it’s trying to do something to react to something that’s happening in the policy space that may have a negative impact on your company or operation or the issues that you care about. Or…

Playing defense.

Playing defense, exactly. Or you want to really mix things up and be a part of the conversation and help drive the agenda that is not only good for you and your company and your self interest, but you think will have bigger implications for the industries and the environments that you operate in because it’s something that’s new and that you think you could really add to that conversation.

Yeah, I want to talk about that. You know, my father worked at Levi-Strauss, that’s how I ended up in California.

That’s fantastic.

And they were a pioneering firm. This is 34 years ago when he first joined the firm and worked there for a long time. He used to use this phrase Corporate Social Responsibility that I ‘A,’ didn’t understand or ‘B,” it sounded kind of made up. But, actually, it turned out, with Levis, it was very sincere, it was very real. They had a recognition, perhaps being a San Francisco company where, as we’re sitting here in the heart of San Francisco having this discussion, it’s a very progressive place. It occurred to Levis at that time that to be a successful company in a community like this and then nationally, that genuine commitment to understanding what their social responsibility was was a big deal. Now it seems that that discipline and that approach by businesses has grown quite a bit.

I think that is definitely the ethos of San Francisco. You have a lot more companies that have more of an authentic ethos of their mission and their purpose and what they’re trying to achieve and I love when that jumps over into a Sacramento, kind of, policy space because that makes me really excited to be able to help someone or a company to do something that is that grand and big. I think that that mentality is definitely jumping to different parts of the state and different industries. I think that the companies and the groups that have been the most successful are those that don’t look at government and Sacramento as this really crazy space, let’s just get out of your way and lets you avoid it. We don’t need it. Let’s just deal with it when there’s a problem versus the companies who have really made it an integrated part of who they are and, you’re seeing that more and more, you know, with energy and healthcare and other industries that are really starting to bring this in.

Tack and, I think, innovation are doing it more than they ever have before and I love when I hear about new companies, startups, the heart of San Francisco where all the startups are really emerging, thinking about the government space and the policy implications and the legality of what they’re doing from the very beginning.

Yeah, I think it’s really interesting, you know, we certainly see our members at CALinnovates and we see it more broadly and you’re right, there’s both established industries: legacy, traditional businesses, and then, of course, there’s this new era of all kinds of new disruptive, whether they are disruptive or not, they’re just new innovative companies. But it seems that our experience, I’m wondering what your experience in Sacramento is, is that both of those types of companies are recognizing that constructive, positive engagement in the public policy realm, it’s important. It’s going to help them in the long run in their own self interests, quite candidly, to shape a reputation that helps them work towards more favorable policy outcomes but it also is a win win where not only are they advancing their self interests, but they’re promoting a broad interest. We sense a momentum. Are you seeing that type of momentum in Sacramento as well?

I am. Whether they’re finding there’s an issue or topic that directly impacts their business or again, with part of their ethos as a company like I mentioned before, whether it’s education or childcare issues or other things that directly impact their employees and the future of their companies, I am seeing that more and I think it’s very exciting. I wish it was happening far more. I still see some disconnect.

Yeah. It’s early.

It’s early. It’s early. I think when we see the big players in the tech space having established more of a credible reputation and more of a hand in the policy world, I think it’s telling the up and comers that this is important.


That we’re going to have to make this a priority down the road so why not start now? But let’s build something that maybe avoids a lot of the complications or issues down the road.

It’s a really fascinating thing. I feel the same way. Especially, you and I were talking a minute ago about the changing political dynamics and as we sit here recording this conversation, we’re only a week away from the national election, which we will talk…that’s a whole other podcast to talk about. We’ll have you part of a…

Post mortem.

Yeah. Hopefully not post mortem.

A celebration. Because hopefully it’s a celebration.

But looking at the political dynamic, this election, be it on a national level and we see it, certainly, in California, how these elections are happening, how the conversations are happening, how issues are being talked about or not being talked about, how sloganeering is or is not happening. It’s very different from a technology perspective today than it was, even five years ago, but certainly 10 or 15 years ago. The audiences and the general public and policy makers are engaging in very different ways, it seems to me and I’m curious to see your point of view on that.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot, especially these last 10 months and looking at how communications and these narratives have really shifted, and this is something that isn’t going to stop now. It’s going to keep going, it’s going to keep evolving, it’s going to keep going and pushing the boundary. But if you look at it in the last eight years, it’s like two bookends, right? 2008, a revolutionary election that changed the game on so many fronts as it relates to the use of social media and tech and digital platforms to engage, not only younger audiences, all audiences.


Elections were won that way, obviously, looking at key battleground states. But from a communication standpoint, it was monumental. There is no one who will ever really debate that. It was significant. The bookend of this year is, maybe, how some of those platforms could go wrong or maybe some of the negative impacts of some of those things if they’re not managed correctly, right? Emails. You mentioned before, Twitter. Things that if they aren’t managed correctly or looked after or considered, could have negative implications for you.


So I think if you’re looking at those as the two bookends, it’s like, wow, it was new, it was innovative, there were no rules. I think eight years later, there are some rules.

There’s no question. I want to continue this thread that we’re having about…it’s fascinating to me how there seems to be this intertwined situation where we’re talking about digital communications, what your digital reputation is in a political context as candidates. But it’s very much aligned with your corporate reputation or individual reputation inside of a corporate context. These things seem to be coming together where they’re influencing one another, both in the private sector and in the public sector or in the campaign world.

Yeah. You can no longer silo it. You talking as a leader of a company, the head of a campaign, you’re talking to all audiences at the same time. There’s no more divide, there’s no more lines. You can’t put yourself in a box. If you want Facebook live, if this is on Facebook live now and we push it out to the folks that are following us, whether it’s family members or people we went to school with or colleagues at work, they’re all seeing it. They’re all reaching it. So I think for CEOs or political leaders or other experts who are, maybe, jumping from an LA to a San Francisco into a policy space, they might have had amazing success with what they say in the corporate space, in the world of getting VC funding and all the other things they’re doing as the leader of their company, right? Building morale, building aspirational environments for their employees. Whatever it is that they’ve been doing to have success, they now have to figure out what is the connection and the thread to pull that in to parlay that in the policy space.

Those are all such great points. I mean, what you said is so vital and I want to drill into that for just a minute which is, your corporate reputation, what starts from your corporate leadership, your CEO or whoever your C levels are, all the way through your entire organization, and then what the brand and the reputation of your company is, it’s one thing and now there’s just multiple audiences that will experience your reputation and your brand and react to you based on that. So that’s policy makers, your own investors, your own customers, the communities that you serve, it’s all one thing. I think it’s a really big challenge for companies to iterate their approach to communications in a way that recognizes that new reality.

And we always say that reputation doesn’t happen overnight. Reputation isn’t by accident. Those are things that are built or you feel at the end of a particular period, right? Whether it’s someone who’s starting an initiative and sees it from beginning to end or is a good actor in the business space for many years or it’s an ongoing thing. It’s something that’s a living, breathing thing. Your reputation can take a hit instantly and it changes that narrative. The good news is that if your mindful of all those audiences and your approach and how you communicate to them and have that conversation, especially now, especially as so many of your customers and employees and citizens in the places where you work, politicos and others, can have a direct conversation with you. It’s increasingly more important to be mindful of.

I think you’re right and I think it’s only going to move more steadily and clearly in this direction. At CALinnovates we spend a lot of time…you’re a millennial and you’ve been a great contributor to our millennial conversation and bringing that perspective which we really appreciate. But when you look at the polling and you engage with millennials and you sense how millennials are deriving their own opinions, communicating with one another, establishing their own expectations, it certainly seems to me but you tell me, that the imperative to businesses for their success is only going to intensify over time about developing this reputation and communicating it in ways that can reach these millennial audiences, if the businesses want people to work there or to buy their products.

Absolutely and I think that is something that the government space is grappling with as well. How is government touching a younger audience? I would even say that’s not even the focus. It’s how are we touching all audiences in a different way, in a way that’s in line with where the world is today and to give the credit to the folks in Sacramento who are doing this work. It’s a big job, right? I think the beauty of being out in San Francisco or LA or other, bigger markets is that it is more flexible and fluid and cutting edge with market trends. That’s the expectation. A place like government where you have to consider all the audiences, you have to consider so many other stakeholders and what their needs are, I think sometimes those bigger sweeping changes might seem overwhelming but that’s not to say that they shouldn’t happen. But simply to say that there’s a lot of good work that is happening. How are people touching the things that we interact with with government all the time. Whether it’s the DMV or…

Your healthcare.

…being a juror. Healthcare. Things that we touch government on more regularly, how are we connecting with those things that makes sense from where we are on our phone, in a digital space? Something where we don’t necessarily have to go into a brick and mortar to make something happen. So there are those conversations happening. I, to be the hammer now, is to say that I think those things need to happen a little bit faster.

No doubt.

I think we have to be a little bit more comfortable in the discomfort to actually start to move in this direction because at the end of the day, what I see as the goal and the purpose is to make sure that we’re not losing the potential of this whole generation that will definitely breathe life into these systems moving forward.

There really is a legitimate worry, is there not, that an entire new generation, new era, whole generations will follow that just completely disconnect from government because they can’t get their brain around how to engage it, right? I mean, I, as a Gen X-er, we talk a lot about how we’re this bridge generation. I grew up before cell phones and now I’ve adapted my entire life to see that millennials are digital natives and so I can see the transition that’s been made. I also am someone who, having served in government, can see how old school it really is, from a technology and as you’re sort of describing it, consumer experience perspective that if we don’t break through this, how can you expect younger generations to engage it when they don’t even understand, at all, how it works or what its culture is.

Absolutely and its so funny that you mentioned your background and being connected to this. In junior high, I would leave my friends from the bus or whatever, and be, like, see you later, go into my house and instantly jump on, like AOL Instant Messenger and we would chat all night. So we never really lost contact. I didn’t really understand what that meant. So, yeah, to your point being a digital native, I think that is the world that we are in. We don’t see it as this separate, new emerging thing, it just is, right? It’s just what is. And I’ve always been a huge advocate of younger people, like myself and certainly others who are just leaving college or trying to figure out what they want to do with their lives, even leaving high school, thinking about what is it that they want their impact in the world to be. Which is very much a millennial thing. I’ve always been an advocate of going into government and public service and the world of politics because I think it’s such an incredible platform to really have an impact on the issues and the topics that impact all of us.


And to your point, if we don’t have the systems and the processes in place to have a more digital focused component or even to know how we’re talking, how we’re engaging this new demographic, I do think that that potential will slip away. I do think there’s the potential for that. And look, it’s disheartening but it’s also an uplifting thing to think about because it presents a great opportunity.

Well there’s no doubt and there is, you can see change happening in that political leadership world of who can then create policy that can push to modernize government? We recently had Evan Low, assemblymember …

He’s fantastic.

A millennial, he’s 31 years old, he served in local government, now he’s in the assembly, chair of the Innovation and Technology c]Caucus. He spoke really eloquently about the criticality of modernizing government. We’ve also been really fortunate to have Lt. Governor Newsom who was a pioneer at City Hall in San Francisco and has talked a lot about modernization of government at the state level. So at least we see a new generation of leaders who perhaps, with more motivation and more support can work on the big job but the necessary job of the way government functions.

And I think, just those two leaders, I’m a huge fan of both of them. I think what they’ve done is incredible and I think their likely impact in the future is going to be a benefit to all of us and I love the fact that they are very much on this digital space and they are advocates for the opportunity that it presents. I think just that visibility and that narrative is incredibly helpful and goes a long way to reaching those younger audiences who are kind of figuring out, what does government and policy and politics mean for me?


For all of those who aren’t already, like the guys like us, the political, wonky nerds who love reading about polls and issues, right? It’s those that are passionate about what happens to their future and their community’s future, and they do care about the status of, you know, society, right? Californians, what happens? How do we bring them into the process?

I think it’s a big challenge and I think it’s a big opportunity in front of us for sure and then, maybe, just as we wind up, to bring this back around to business for a moment. As those policy makers, this new generation of policy makers are coming in, I said to you as we were walking over here from our last event, one of my favorite photographs, speaking of Evan Low that I saw this year is a picture of him, of Assembly Member Jimmy Gomez, who’s a young assemblymember from downtown LA and Lorena Gonzalez, a young assemblymember from San Diego on the Assembly floor, Evan taking a selfie and them all having a fun moment. That picture, I think, perfectly represents certainly the present but absolutely the future of the state government. To the extent that that’s true, businesses in California are going to have to understand how do they position themselves to be able to react to this new core group of folks that will be setting state policy for the foreseeable future.

I love that example and I think it’s very indicative of the future legislatures we’re going to start to have more of in Sacramento which is very exciting for people like me to help businesses, you need to hire me.

I don’t think it’s a bad idea. I’ll say it.

To really break it down to a very tangible example of how businesses, at least those who are savvy, are adapting into this new world. Politicians, political leaders care a lot about their constituents. What their constituents say, do and think, they care about a lot. Traditionally, a lot of really successful campaigns have deployed grassroots efforts where you get a lot of constituents to either write letters or make phone calls to their elected leader. Do these things that demonstrate visibility on whatever issue or topic or concern that they have. Always very effective, right? Volume matters in those types of approaches. In the digital space, we’re seeing this happen more on platforms like Twitter because they are on their phones, taking selfies on the floor of the assembly. They are on their phones scanning what’s happening on Twitter and Facebook while they’re voting on big issues and topics. They’re doing these things simultaneously.

It’s how they’re checking in with what popular opinion looks like because at the end of the day politicians want to be popular but they also want to be legitimately responsive to who they represent.

Totally. So in creating this communications campaign, to support whatever work or effort or challenge you have in Sacramento, a tangible example is how can you use Twitter as the new platform for grassroots campaign where instead of letters, instead of making phone calls, meeting the people where the are, how can you create infrastructures where they’re using Twitter or other things to communicate directly to their member and not only their member but their staff and other places where they can talk to those who they’ve elected into office. That has more immediate and consistent and direct impact. Not to say that the traditional format…

Will go away all together but …

And I’m and advocate for how can we create a campaign where we can bring both together, right? How can we use digital media and traditional media. How can we use these new platforms, and what we’ve known has always worked in communicating and driving a narrative. I think that’s where the power is.

I think you’re right. I think for both political campaigns and engagement for the average citizens to be involved and politicians, but also for businesses that are now charting a new course for their own success, for their own self interest but how can they reach beyond that and make a contribution, it’s a very dynamic time and understanding all of these new frontiers is a big deal. A good way to understand that is certainly to continue to talk to folks like you. So Justin Knighten, Vice President of Lucas Public Affairs, thanks a lot for joining us on A Step Ahead, we appreciate your time.

Thanks for having me. This is great.

You bet.