Top executives at SKDK, the Democratic public relations juggernaut that works for TikTok and other corporations, met recently with White House officials, visitor logs show.
SKDK chief executive Doug Thornell and firm partner Oren Shur met on Dec. 20 with Caitlin Meloski, a special assistant to the National Economic Council, which advises the president on economic policy.
While details of the meeting are unclear, it raised questions about the degree of influence TikTok and its representatives have on the Biden White House. TikTok hired SKDK within the past few months to provide "communications support" as it fights a push to ban the app because of concerns that the Chinese government could use the platform to spy on Americans. SKDK reportedly advised TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew for a congressional hearing last month in which he downplayed concerns about China’s control of the social media platform.
SKDK’s arrangement with TikTok has come under scrutiny because of the consulting firm’s relationship with the Biden administration. Most of that scrutiny has focused on Anita Dunn, an SKDK founding partner and one of Biden’s top aides. Government watchdog groups worry that SKDK, which received millions of dollars from the Biden campaign in 2020, could use its political connections to gain access for its corporate clients. Dunn advised firms like Salesforce, AT&T, and Pfizer until she left SKDK last year.
It is unclear if Thornell and Shur discussed TikTok during their White House visit and whether Dunn was aware of or involved in their meeting. The SKDK executives did not respond to multiple requests this week for comment. The White House, which has said that Dunn has recused herself from matters involving SKDK, also did not respond to comment requests.
There could be other non-commercial reasons for SKDK’s White House visit. SKDK was the Biden campaign’s top outside consultant in the 2020 cycle and could be preparing for a potential 2024 Biden campaign. Shur advised the campaign on its paid media strategy, according to his SKDK biography.
But Thornell and Shur’s meeting with Meloski, a longtime aide to Brian Deese, the recently departed director of the National Economic Council, suggests the discussion involved issues unrelated to a political campaign.
Companies like Chevron and Amazon have recently lobbied the National Economic Council, as have Pfizer and AT&T, two of Dunn’s SKDK clients, according to lobbying disclosures filed with Congress. SKDK has not filed any lobbying disclosures, a longstanding practice that has opened the firm to allegations that it engages in "shadow lobbying."
In addition to providing economic advice, the National Economic Council promotes the president’s economic agenda. That was the case last year when National Economic Council officials met with TikTok influencers to promote the Inflation Reduction Act. The Biden administration and its predecessors have hired public relations firms in the past, including SKDK, to promote federal initiatives or provide media training to government officials.
During the Obama years, the Department of Housing and Urban Development paid SKDK for "strategic communications services." In 2021, the Department of Transportation paid $50,000 to SKDK for "media training." The Department of Education paid $18,000 to SKDK for media training and preparation for congressional hearings the same year.
TikTok has launched a massive lobbying and public relations blitz amid a growing bipartisan push to regulate the app. The Washington Examiner reported that several lobbyists for TikTok and its parent company ByteDance visited the White House last year.
President Joe Biden signed a Republican-backed bill on Dec. 30 to ban the use of TikTok on government-issued devices but has not weighed in on whether he supports a full ban on the app in the United States.
Democrats have increasingly acknowledged that the video platform is a boon for the party, given TikTok’s popularity with young people and liberals. Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo, a former Democratic governor, recently said that "[t]he politician in me thinks you’re gonna literally lose every voter under 35, forever" if Democrats allow a TikTok ban. Dunn, who provides policy and communications advice to Biden, reportedly encouraged Democratic operatives to hype Biden’s State of the Union speech in TikTok posts.
A growing number of Democrats have downplayed concerns about China’s control of the app, while touting its popularity in the United States. Last month, TikTok sponsored a rally with Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D., N.Y.) and 20 TikTok influencers in Washington, D.C. Bowman accused Republicans of racism and xenophobia for wanting to ban the app and credited it with helping small business owners. Since then, several other Bowman allies in "The Squad" have defended TikTok.