Surely no one in America, probably including the candidates themselves, wants this election season to go on a moment longer than when the polls close on Tuesday night. But buried under the vitriol and mudslinging, campaigns provide valuable communications lessons that any corporate and nonprofit leader can benefit from.
With a Shrinking Press Corps, Create Your Own Content
In 2004, I worked on my first campaign (Kerry/Edwards). Back then, TheFacebook.com required a .edu email address to create account, meaning it was a platform for college students - no adults allowed. That campaign was barely raising money through email and certainly did not have staff working on social media or digital strategy. In just 12 short years, the communications sector has radically evolved, with campaigns evolving alongside it. The press corpse has shrunk precipitously, which is not necessarily a good thing for democracy, but it has opened up new channels for creating your own content. Podcasts, videos, graphics, blogs, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook live... campaigns have learned they have to create their own content and tell their own story. If your team is still relying on the press to tell your organization's story, you are missing out on a vitally important opportunity to connect directly with your key audiences.
"The Public" is not a monolith. Audiences have dramatically more options for where to get news, and new forms of media constantly compete for attention, than just a few years ago. In this noise environment, communicators have to get creative about how to slice and dice the landscape to reach every last member of a targeted audience. The most effective political campaigns do this well - ads in Spanish, writing essays for niche websites, conducting interviews with podcasts that have small but exceedingly loyal audiences, etc. It is additional work to refine the message for different mediums to effectively persuade the targeted audience, but a one-size-fits-all press release is not going to do the trick anymore.
Appreciation for a Brand that Feels Authentic
With the increased access to brands, celebrities, and politicians through social media, there is a heightened expectation for a personal connection and "unscripted" moments. People expect to see behind the scenes and, at least in the early stages of this election cycle, voters responded well to candidates who seemed deeply authentic. Donald Trump was given high marks for "telling it like it is." Bernie Sanders developed a recognizable brand as a genuine, even lovably-ornery, policy wonk who preferred rumpled suits and messed hair. In my city, Pittsburgh, John Fetterman developed his own brand of work shirts and cargo shorts, which resonated so well he outpaced expectations during the primary for the US Senate earlier this year.
But Nothing Beats Preparation
Even if talking off the cuff is something the public clamors for, in high-pressure moments, nothing beats preparation. We learned from the reaction to the presidential debates, ultimately the public responded to someone who had done their homework. Soft-focus feature stories and low-stakes social media posts are not the same as delivering a keynote address, speaking in front of cameras at a press conference, or testifying in front of City Council about a controversial issue. There are times to show a sense of humor, but practicing your message and knowing your answers are the most important way to engender confidence in you, the messenger. This is critically important for CEOs and organizational leaders to remember in times of crisis. When all eyes are on you, your team, the media, and the public expect that you will have the answers to put their minds at ease.
Whether you love or loathe politics, campaigns are case studies in persuasive communications, laid bare for us to examine. Every four years, presidential campaigns push the envelope with new communications strategies and tactics, and increasingly audience modeling and big data. Private sector companies scoop up former campaign communications and White House staff constantly to learn the tricks of the trade - how do you deal with opposition or messaging under fire? How do you go on offense and get your message out? Businesses and nonprofit organizations can learn a lot about effective communications from the campaigns of 2016. Don’t let those valuable lessons pass you by.