Kat Skiles knew Facebook would be huge.
When she was an intern on Capitol Hill in 2006, the Utah native insisted to everyone she worked with that the social-media platform would change the game for digital strategy and the way members connect with their constituents.
No one believed her.
"They would be like, 'That's cute that you think that,'" recalls Skiles, now digital director and senior adviser to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.
Times have changed: In Pelosi's office, and everywhere on the Hill, the once-nascent platform—along with Twitter and Instagram—has become "tied to everything we do," she says. Nearly every member of Congress now uses Facebook to communicate with voters, and politicians often break news there, too: Late last year, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush announced in a post on the site that he had decided to "actively explore the possibility" of running for president.
Through her evolution from prophetic intern to senior staffer, Skiles, 30, has become a digital powerhouse on the Hill—and that's not an easy feat. As the Twitter-archiving project Politwoops proves in scrutinizing detail, a misguided tweet can be embarrassing for a member (and though Pelosi's office once tweeted that Africa was a country, the leader's social-media slip-ups are rare).
Skiles is a jack-of-all-trades for Pelosi, crafting tweets and Facebook posts for the leader and House Democrats, creating graphics and videos, and guiding the online strategies of the diverse members of the Democratic caucus. And, like her boss, she's somewhat of a minority leader on the Hill, too—as an "out and proud" LGBT staffer, she's a role model for others, especially young gay staffers.
Her work in political communications, Skiles jokes, stems from growing up in "a family of Irish storytellers." Digital strategy, she says, is "basically visual storytelling." Living in Salt Lake City, Utah, her family was also very religious—Irish Catholic—and instilled in her a zeal for social justice that pushed her into politics.
Skiles had planned on going to law school after graduation. But after her first taste of Washington—during an internship with Rep. Tom Lantos her senior year at California's Dominican University—she realized she could marry her creative-writing talents and penchant for public policy, and so she redirected her career path. She worked her way through various Democratic communications posts before leaving the Hill to run marketing and communications for NGP VAN, a tech company for progressive candidates. After a short stint there, Pelosi communications director Drew Hammill plucked her for the leader's digital team.
"It's a complex and multifaceted job," Hammill says of Skiles' role as digital director. "You wouldn't think that one person could do all of these different things."
The key to Pelosi's digital strategy, Skiles says, is that it's not discrete from the rest of her press shop, but rather is "folded into the broader communications operation." And while almost every leadership office and many committees now have digital directors, a decade ago Pelosi was one of the first members to bring on a dedicated "new media" staffer.
One of the most important parts of doing the job well, Hammill says, is being "creative very quickly." That's something Skiles excels at, he says.
Noticing opportunities for inventiveness on the fly pays off. At a Women's History Month reception this year, Pelosi's communications team used the leader's meeting with the female justices of the Supreme Court to send a political message about women's success: Pelosi tweeted a selfie with Justices Kagan, Ginsburg, and Sotomayor. It garnered more than a thousand retweets.
A crucial part of the digital-director role, says Faiz Shakir, who used to helm new-media operations for Pelosi and now runs digital in Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid's office, is expressing the personality of the member. So is expressing the personality of the entire caucus.
"[Pelosi] is trying to corral her own members to vote certain ways and to highlight certain issues, and [Skiles] is trying to do that at a smaller level of consolidating the voices around the caucus to amplify certain messages," Shakir says. Pelosi—and by extension, Skiles—"does that extremely well."
Pelosi, Shakir says, is a powerful woman—and that's reflected in her online presence, whether it's through selfies with other influential women or by proclaiming that when "#WomenSucceed, America succeeds."
Though Skiles orchestrated the attention-getting Supreme Court selfie, she's careful not to take much credit for that or the communications team's other projects. People who've worked with her say she's soft-spoken but confident, and makes sure to lift up those around her and downplay her own accomplishments.
"Capitol Hill can be a closed-off place, and Kat is just so friendly and warm, and just so genuine," says Michelle Mittler, Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer's director of scheduling and special events. "You can't go anywhere without someone knowing who she is."
Mittler met Skiles when she first came to the Hill, in 2010. Skiles' openness about being LGBT, Mittler says, was "inspirational" for the newcomer, herself gay. "It's tough in the beginning, but I promise you it will be worth it," Skiles once told Mittler, adding, "You belong here, and you need to give it a chance."
That's a big part of why Skiles is so open about being LGBT, she says: to set an example for younger staffers like Mittler.
"It's important to be out and proud and honest about who you are," she says. "When you do that, it makes it easier for other people, particularly younger people who may have apprehensions based off of where they grew up or their other experiences. When they see that other people are, and they've got it OK, they're going to feel more comfortable being honest about who they are. And everybody should be honest about who they are."