An Interview with Cardboard Cory

Colorado’s “Cardboard Cory” is not the only satirical cardboard lawmaker that has taken on a life of its own in the last few months, but he’s one of the most prolific. The life-sized likeness of Sen. Cory Gardner has travelled around the state of Colorado making appearances at county fairs, holding town halls, and meeting with constituents to hear their stories. You know—senator stuff.

We spoke with Cardboard Cory about some lessons he’s learned about making the most of social media, working with local press, and staying on message even when you’re a famous inanimate object.

Cardboard Cory, you’re known to be a really good listener. What are some of the things that you’ve learned about Coloradans that you think Senator Gardner really ought to hear?

Having heard from hundreds of Coloradans across the state, I’m perplexed at the gulf that exists between their wishes and Senator Gardner’s statements and actions. For instance, Gardner is far afield from the desire of a majority of Coloradans to see a workable and lasting fix to the Affordable Care Act; he chooses instead to avoid the word “repair” altogether with no clear reason given.

Coloradans are acutely concerned by Gardner’s inability to stand up to the president’s reckless and destructive behavior. Gardner, who in 2014 ran as a “different kind of Republican,” has diverged with the Trump agenda just six percent of the time.

And while the senator passionately embraces the Trump tax plan, it turns out that just 24 percent of Coloradans agree that wealthy Americans need a tax cut. With a matching (24 percent) approval rating, I’d say that Senator Gardner’s disconnect with the will of his constituents is something he should address quickly.

What are some of the cool things you’ve seen in your travels around the state recently?

I’ve definitely been around! I took a boat ride along Pueblo’s River Walk, helped volunteers clean up a roadway down in Colorado Springs, and visited the Douglas County Fair and Rodeo. I also attended a town hall in my honor in Grand Junction, marched in the streets of Denver, and was on-site in Durango for Senator Gardner’s first scheduled public appearance in 17 months.

About 3 weeks into my statewide recess tour, the dam broke and Senator Gardner decided to host four town halls in various locations. If my presence facilitated Gardner’s toe-dip back into the public space, I’m grateful mainly to the folks who stepped up to ask me questions on camera throughout the state, and to those that shepherded me from town to town to raise awareness of the senator’s absence.

Let’s talk about social media. Do you and your team have any tips for making the most of your social media accounts?

The best tip for getting noticed on social media is to have good content to share! Be brief, get to the point, and if you are posting videos, post a summary of the question in the tweet for those who don’t watch videos, or watch them on mute. Also, forming partnerships with many community and like-minded groups is a good way to spread content around, as those groups will retweet or boost your message to their own networks. Create events in Facebook for the events you’ll be at, and encourage group members to come out and meet you.

Do you know which of your visits have been shared the most?

I’ve had several videos become widely shared. There was the video of the man from Glenwood Springs who said he’d worked since he was 14 and couldn’t understand why his taxes could pay for everything from bridges to infrastructure, but not healthcare. There was the question from a lady in Denver whose brother has a disability, wanting to know why Senator Gardner appears to discriminate against those with disabilities. There was the video from a lady with an awesome t-shirt who wanted to know how Gardner goes to church every Sunday. 

I follow you on Twitter. Unlike many politicians, you don’t talk in talking points. You’re really quite genuine and…three-dimensional. Have you found people respond to that?

Thanks for following! Though I am made of mere paper amalgam, I don’t find it difficult to address the issues that Senator Gardner routinely sidesteps. I simply use the voice of the people. I get a lot of compliments to the effect that I may be a more effective representative than the real guy. Of course, as a screened photograph, it’s easy for me to listen.

2,300 Twitter followers is pretty solid! Any pro tips?

Have a social calendar! Have events where you get out into the community and meet a lot of people. Engage with lots of groups who can boost your message (and it doesn’t hurt to garner the notice of national partners like Indivisible and the Town Hall Project).

Be the better lawmaker. Don’t be mean, don’t be a cynical, smart-aleck version of the real person. Be the BETTER person. I think my success can be attributed to my earnest desire to be better in all areas when compared to the real Gardner. That means I know where his weaknesses are, and I highlight them. Gardner is silent on important issues, so I am not. Gardner has a hard time scheduling public forums, so I get out in the community a lot. Each lawmaker has different weaknesses and it’s worthwhile to think about what those are so you can decide how best to approach your spoof.

But—don’t be a joke. As a cardboard cutout, I dance a fine line on this. Cardboard cutouts can appear like a cheap but toothless stunt. I certainly have fun and often infuse my tweets with humor, but I also carefully manicure my image online and in public; my handlers make sure that I am treated like an actual child when I am at my various events. That means someone is with me at all times while I am out in the community. No one can walk off with me who isn’t a trusted adult. No one should abuse me or verbally attack me, even in jest.

And, on the Twitter side, I only showcase the best videos, which means some videos (or pictures) don’t make the cut. The idea behind this whole cardboard campaign—or any cardboard campaign—is that I am the good guy. I’m the one everyone wishes was their actual senator. And isn’t that a real lawmaker’s worst nightmare? To be upstaged by a screened photograph?

You’ve gotten a bunch of  news coverage. Do you and your team have any tricks of the trade to share for the other cardboard lawmakers out there?

I’ve been featured on The Rachel Maddow Show, on The Oppstn, and in a heap of local TV and print news stories.

Getting local press attention can be a challenge with so many other local stories going on, so you must always be thinking about the timing and structure of your events in the context of what’s happening elsewhere in your community, in the country, and in the world. How can you piggyback onto a larger, urgent story that reporters will be already looking to cover? What is relevant? What is different?

As an example: in September, before Senator Gardner committed to co-sponsoring the DREAM Act of 2017, he had been saying publicly he hadn’t had time to read or review the bill. I was on-site outside his Denver office for a rally where a small group gathered to read the entire DREAM Act out loud into a microphone. The point that was made was that the Act itself, four pages long, only took 17 minutes to read in full.

Travelling around a big state like Colorado must mean you’re reaching out to new people at different newspapers and TV stations all the time. Any tips about how to add new reporters to your media contact list?

Identify local reporters in print, TV, and radio working in particular issue areas, like healthcare, and go up and introduce yourself to them if you are at events they are covering. Ask around within your own network for direct contacts (phone, email) to reporters, if you don’t have them. You can email reporters and let them know you appreciated a story they’ve written, or otherwise introduce yourself and let them know about your group or upcoming event. If you get some coverage, keep those contacts apprised of your group’s activities as you go. Share photos and videos with reporters, or tag them in to tweets or videos you want them to see. More traditionally, have people who can work fast to create and launch press releases with as much advance time as possible, and do follow ups and “ICYMI” (In Case You Missed It) releases as your event gets closer.

Find out what hashtags your reporters follow for state politics, and start posting your content there regularly. Share and celebrate your news mentions widely, especially with internal partners, to galvanize them to keep taking the campaign to the next level. And always thank reporters for covering your group’s activities. If a reporter doesn’t cover your event positively, or doesn’t cover it in the way you would have liked, always remain polite and gracious (you’ll need them in the future!) and offer to provide more information to them about your goals and intent.

Sometimes no reporters show up for even the best-planned events. Any thoughts on what to do then?

If no media shows up, create your own story by filming everything and taking lots of pictures. That media should be spread far and wide on every social media platform you have. Tag in relevant hashtags (i.e., #DREAMAct, #ProtectOurCare, etc) so that you can reach a wider audience. And tag those local news stations and reporters in that you were pursuing.

With regard to drawing indirect press attention, establish a strong and consistent voice on Twitter and speak directly to your lawmaker, highlighting obvious differences and exploiting them for others to consider. At the end of the day, you want that to be the story that the press focuses on. As an example, my favorite article (and headline!) thus far is from The Denverite: “Cardboard Cory Lives on After Not-Cardboard Cory Gardner’s Town Halls.” A must-read that captures why I exist.