Successful political campaigns require more than a good candidate, a robust GOTV strategy, or a fundraising plan. To win your election, you also need a communications strategy that reaches and convinces voters, works effectively with reporters, and represents the values and goals of the candidate. You could have the best campaign in the world, but if it’s unable to communicate with the voters, it will never matter. Managing the media and your campaign narrative is vital to getting elected. Here are some applicable tactics for effective campaign communication.
“If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail”
Don’t forget those wise words from Benjamin Franklin. Do as much planning as possible ahead of time. Research and make yourself an expert on topics that affect your district or election. Form clear policies, ideas, and principles, then stress test them as much as possible. Ask campaign staff or knowledgeable experts for advice and feedback on your policies. Be open and ready to adjust them to make your positions and arguments stronger. Then figure out how to best communicate those in any format, from a 280 character Tweet to a 20 minute stump speech.
It’s important to plan ahead whenever possible–but even if you have a good plan, there will always be unexpected surprises. Be flexible and ready for contingencies.
Examine yourself closely. If you’re the candidate, think about all the ways you could be criticized or attacked in the election process and plan responses to those attacks. Develop a self-awareness that allows you to see the chinks in your armor. If you struggle to have a critical view of your weaknesses, ask trusted allies, like a spouse or friends, to help you. Prepare for the toughest questions and plan out how you would respond to a hostile interview. Be ready. It might never come up, but the more you practice, the better you will perform in the heat of the moment.
Understanding Reporters’ Incentives
Understand the incentives reporters face–ultimately they have a job to do. They have to find stories, tell them in way that is interesting to readers, and create value for their publication. By recognizing their constraints and needs, you can help them find positive stories about your candidate and campaign that not only give them something interesting to write about, but create opportunities for you to spread the message. Assisting the media in any part of that process has the potential to make them an asset, rather than a detractor, to your campaign. Research the reporters in your area, find out which beats they cover, and approach them with stories that could be interesting to their audiences (and yours).
Ideally, you want to want to work with, and not against reporters as often as possible. Even if a reporter has written unflattering articles in the past, approach them with an open, but cautious, attitude. There’s no need to burn bridges early if you can create a positive working relationship, even if it’s sometimes contentious.
Always be Pitching
When dealing with any type of media, make sure you have a the larger goal in mind and are ready to pitch a relevant story. Different types of media requires different strategies. Be aware that how your message is presented across different media platforms is going to look different. When pitching a story, don’t make easily preventable mistakes (like being too open with information). Each medium emphasises different features of your message, so be prepared to present your message accordingly. If possible, practice with the different formats and record yourself when possible when you’re first starting out, it will give you an idea of how you are coming across to your supporters.
Know Your Platform
There’s more to media now then there was 20 years ago, and your campaign needs to be prepared for this new world. There are 4 key formats for campaign messaging: radio, television, print, and digital.
Radio emphasises the voice, and due to lack of visual information, it is necessary to speak visually using metal images. This is a format where notes, unlike other platforms, are fine because the audience can’t see them.
Television, on the other hand, emphasizes the visual. Appearance is important (remember the famous televised Kennedy and Nixon debates). Visual cues here are vital, and lines need to by short. Simple answers are crucial. Especially because you can get cut off before you finish.
Print media allows for more in-depth interviews. Often, reporters have more specialization and expertise in a particular area. Since they can go into specifics, conversations go into some depth, making it important to get numbers and figures straight. A real benefit of this format is that is a chance to correct misstatements (even those made in other mediums) in print.
Digital is a real mix of formats. Podcasts, YouTube, Facebook Live, print publications online, and social media platforms contribute a plethora of forums for debate. The key on most of these platforms is brevity. Keep messages short and to the point. Freshness is key–social media especially has a short shelf-life. Like television, digital formats are visual focused. Unlike television, there are far fewer gatekeepers, so making it the best option to immediately get your campaign message out there.
Practice the Art of the Pivot
Pivoting is shaping the conversation and refocusing on what is important for your campaign. You can answer the reporter’s question, but just doing so on your terms. When asked on a sensitive issue, you can block the reporter’s line of questioning and bridge to what you would like to talk about. For example: a reporter asks why voters should trust you in government if you have lead a small business that failed. Rather than try to prove your trustworthiness or explain away a business failure, you could say something like “Well that speaks to a larger point; small businesses in our community face many challenges to their success, as I well know. I am a candidate that will stand for…” then transition to your policy ideas that will help foster business growth in your community. Instead of relitigating the past, you’re talking about what your candidacy means for your voters.
To help pivot away from a question you would rather not directly address, there are several tools you can use. First, you can restate the question and use clarifying but intentional filler. You don’t want to mindlessly babble, but you can also provide yourself space by and give you time to get your message campaign message across.
When pivoting, don’t forget to headlining, making the most important point first. Get to the most important idea quickly then repeat that idea. Present facts or “proof points” that your audience can latch onto. Remember, repetition solidifies the most important things about your campaign in the mind of your voters.
Silence is Golden
Most people find silence quite awkward, especially after being asked a direct question. Our impulse is to fill the silence with words, no matter what those words are. Often times, this instinct leads us to misstate crucial ideas, miss opportunities, or even worse, say something we don’t mean. Don’t be afraid of momentary silence. Take a breath, collect yourself, then respond.
You don’t want to say anything you don’t want to read in the newspaper, see on television or hear on the radio. Silence is a better option than talking just because you can, and prevents you from saying things you might regret–or need to retract–later. An easy way to practice more silence? Take a pause to breathe before answering a reporter’s question.
Over the course of a campaign, situations will always arise you will feel the need to respond. Perhaps a campaign staffer causes an issue or a negative news story hits the local newspapers. While planning your response, don’t forget how you respond is often as important as what you say. It is vital to respond proportionally. Whenever possible, respond in the same medium as the attack. Don’t escalate the situation. If you can defuse a situation with a reply on Twitter, that’s better than doing so with a press release. It’s better put out fires on the small scale than to blow things out of proportion in an attempt to stifle issues.
Next, move on to your agenda. Don’t pick at scabs. Refocus the narrative on what you want your campaign to promote and ignore controversies that will not benefit your campaign. Don’t get hopelessly bogged down on an issue; let stories die when necessary and refocus on what’s important. Pick your battles, and your timing, wisely. That’s a skill that will be valuable after the election too.
Check out our online courses to learn how to better manage your media image and communicate effectively. Want to met us in person? Click here to schedule a local training. Follow us on Twitter and Facebook for our latest content and upcoming training events.