Strategist Fiona Hutton Knows How to Move Public Opinion—and the Dollars That Go with It

She’s a smooth operator.

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    People
  • Written by
    Anne M. Russell
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    Michael Becker
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    Cat Sherwin

One of Fiona Hutton’s most momentous victories was facilitating the passage of Proposition 71, the 2004 California Research and Cures Initiative that raised $3 billion for stem cell research. The measure struck back against federal efforts to limit embryonic stem cell research and established the high-profile California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM). “That really got my business established,” says Hutton.

A top-tier public affairs strategist, Hutton runs Studio City-based Fiona Hutton & Associates (FHA), which provides services such as crisis management, media relations, litigation support and public outreach to about 40 clients, ranging from Comcast to the United Cannabis Business Association. She has a team of 18 employees and an executive leadership team that is all women. FHA also has a small office in Sacramento, which, until the pandemic started, she visited every other week.

“If you want to be working in apex public affairs,” she explains, “California is the place to do it. The state is so dynamic.”

With a degree in political science from San Diego State University, Hutton initially had her sights set on a career with the Central Intelligence Agency, but was lured into public relations instead.

It’s not difficult to imagine her as a CIA operative—the behind-the-scenes machinations, the one-step-ahead influencing, the strategic plotting. In other words, her consulting work is not “the fluffy, happy PR most people think of,” she says, but rather “designed to influence vision makers and public opinion.”

To wit: No issue in California is fraught with more ill will, skullduggery and shifting alliances than how the state uses water—where it comes from, how it’s delivered, who gets it. It is public policy par excellence, and Hutton has been in the thick of the battle since 1998 when she began a two-year stint as vice president of corporate communications for Cadiz Inc. At the time the agribusiness giant was seeking approval to pump billions of gallons of water from the aquifer underlying its 37,000-acre Mojave Desert property.

In the end, Cadiz’s bid failed. Yet in what is the ultimate endorsement of Hutton’s skills, an opponent in the effort, Jeffrey Kightlinger, general manager of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWD), now employs her firm. FHA provides strategic direction to MWD on how to win issues like water bonds and legislation.

“I was the lead in my agency in trying to turn (the Cadiz project) down,” says Kightlinger, who was MWD’s general counsel at the time. “It’s interesting when you really battle with someone and then you become friends.” Hutton, Kightlinger adds, “has a very strategic mind. She is very smart and incredibly energetic.” Or, as Capitol Weekly noted in its 2018 ranking of California’s top 100 political power brokers, “It’s better to have her for you than against you.”

“I’m a big personality and I’m in a people business. Emotional intelligence is a big factor.”

Hutton has lived in LA for the past 24 years, but she grew up in Northern California.  Her father, who emigrated from England, was an entrepreneur who founded several biotech firms. Her mother, who was a nurse, died when Hutton was young and her father remarried a woman Hutton describes as “the greatest stepmom in the world.”

Hutton herself has been married for 25 years and has two children, a 22-year-old son who lives in San Francisco and a 17-year-old daughter. The family (and three dogs) split their time between their main residence in Fryman Canyon and a small farm with orchards in Ojai, where Hutton gardens enthusiastically. “Gardening is how I unpack my brain,” she says.

When Hutton launched her own firm in 2001, she named it Red Gate after fond memories of a great aunt’s cottage in England. In 2008, she put her own name on the company. Although she was just barely 30 when she founded FHA, she says, “I took to it intuitively. I’m a big personality and I’m in a people business. Emotional intelligence is a big factor.” And then there’s the hard work: “I built (the company) on straight tenacity and sheer will,” she says. The company took in $5.5 million last year, making it one of the larger independent firms focused on public policy.

Over the years, Hutton has worked in almost every business arena that attracts labels like “complex” and “controversial,” including health care, public transit, water use, commercial and multifamily property development, cannabis sales, and manufacturing. “None of these are easy,” says Hutton. “They’re all big, challenging objectives—some of biggest issues California has grappled with.”

Unlike traditional public relations, Hutton’s efforts typically have a term limit because they address a specific situation, such as representing the Association of Talent Agents against the Writers Guild during the 2007-08 writers strike. “There’s a natural end to our work,” she says. “There’s a turnover in the client base every year.”

Client Lisa Page, vice president of communications and public relations at the nonprofit Sutter Health organization, says that if she had to describe Hutton in just one word it would be “tenacious.” Although Page has worked with Hutton in her current consulting role for only a year and a half, she’s known her for about a decade. “She’s always on,” says Page. “She makes you feel that your issues are all she’s thinking about. I ask her, ‘When do you sleep?’”

As November 3 approaches, sleep will be even more elusive as Hutton and her team come full circle, returning to work on the cause that put her firm on the map: stem cell research. The $3 billion raised in 2004 has run out and now FHA is strategizing and maneuvering to get Proposition 14 passed. The initiative would provide more funding for the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine—$5.5 billion in general obligation bonds.

If Hutton is nervous about how much is on the line, she doesn’t show it. Somewhere, a CIA recruiter weeps with regret.

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