Robocalls get the word out Some national political messages start in Charleston with local company

Victor A. Owens, president of MetroTec Voter Contact Services, demonstrates the software he uses to help run his robocalling business via the Internet from his home office downtown Charleston.

With roughly a week before voters head to polling stations across the nation, it’s crunch time for scores of politicians making final efforts to ensure results go in their favor.

That means a campaigning arsenal of television advertisements, lawn signs and automated telephone calls trying to persuade registered voters to side with them.

In recent weeks, millions of those automated political calls to households across the nation have originated from Charleston.

The weeks leading up to an election are some of the busiest days of the year for Victor A. Owens, owner of MetroTec, a Charleston-based nonpartisan political calling service.

The downtown company is among the nation’s political telebroadcasting firms often tapped by politicians, lobbyists and political groups to reach masses of people by telephone for polls and volunteer efforts as well as pushing campaign messages and encouraging prospective voters to choose them or their candidate at the ballot box.

The impact of such political calls have been questioned in recent years as households continue to shed landline phones.

Owens, 67, a former telecommunications executive, founded MetroTec in 1991.

Owens said he moved from New York City to Charleston in 1999 for a better quality of life.

“I just picked it off a map,” he said. “I wanted the weather and the lower cost of living, so I picked it,”

The business has tallied thousands of clients from all areas of the political spectrum, and thanks to technology, its automated calling abilities have catapulted from four at a time in the 1990s to 15,000 per minute today.

“I tell my clients I’m like a FedEx driver since I deliver your message,” Owens said. “It’s not my message, and it’s not my audience, but I do help you package it and make sure it arrives appropriately.”

Political items are the largest segment of its business, but the company also helps dispatch messages for public schools, emergency notification managers and religious institutions.

MetroTec works largely with repeat clients, referrals and new business gained from manning booths at events such as national conventions. Many clients are political consultants who are working on dozens of campaigns at any time, he said.

The business doesn’t mean housing large calling machines at Owens’ downtown Charleston residence, which also serves as his office.

Owens works from a desktop at home or his smartphone at a local coffee shop, able to orchestrate message recordings and dispatch calls within minutes to third-party calling vendors housed across the country and Canada.

The format joins television, newspaper and radio advertising as some of the tools in the multimedia playbook that help a politician win office or push an issue.

The campaigning playbook of- ten means getting the message to prospective voters across several platforms, said Kendra Stewart, an associate professor of political science at the College of Charleston.

“An effective campaign tries to reach people on different levels, and that’s because different things work for different people,” she said. “Telephone calls are effective on election days and to remind people to go out and vote.”

The largest political segment who turn to phone calls are state and local politicians, who have smaller campaign budgets and are not easily recognizable as their national counterparts.

Stewart said candidates are ultimately trying to stay on the minds of voters, up to the very seconds they choose a candidate on Election Day.

While phone calls often are cheaper than TV ads and other campaigning formats, the fact that more households are cutting ties to their landline phones makes it more difficult to reach certain demographics, she said.

“People have been stepping away from polling by the phone because of fewer people having landlines and they’re less receptive to junk calls on their cellphones,” Stewart said.

Owens said he’s felt the impact of that trend because political calls are exempt from the National Do Not Call registry to landline phones but not mobile devices.

Still, MetroTec’s worth has been illustrated in the weeks leading to the November elections, which usually account for about 50 percent of all business for the year.

MetroTec has dispatched roughly 2 million calls per week this month, with a substantial chunk going to presidential battleground states including Florida and Ohio, Owens said.

The surge in business forced the typically one-man operation to hire two seasonal staffers to keep pace with the uptick in demand, Owens said.

Besides seasonal help, Owens occasionally hires professional voice-overs to read scripted messages. Other messages are recorded by the politicians themselves or constituents.

Dispatching calls is the easier part of the job for Owens, who also serves as a consultant for details such as length of message, time of call and content.

It was a big learning curve for the former telecommunications vice president at Equitable Life Insurance, but his knowledge has led to speaking engagements at campaigning schools. “Sometimes I’ve had to convince a client not to use a message that paints a certain picture,” he said. “My advice is more important than the calls.”

Owens doesn’t tout all his clients, but refers to many being “name brands.” One includes U.S. Rep. James E. Clyburn.

“I’ve used the robocall to deliver a message and to mobilize voters,” Clyburn said. “They’re very important. If I’m going to have an event someplace on an island somewhere, I usually do robocalls to get word to people in that area. ... They’re very effective if you don’t do it the wrong way or talk for too long.”

The Nov. 6 election results will prompt Owens to make a flurry of new hone calls to clients, some for congratulations, but that doesn’t mean downtime for MetroTec.

“The work doesn’t stop,” Owens said. “There’s always runoff elections.”

Reach Tyrone Richardson at 937-5550 and follow him on Twitter @tyrichardsonPC.