Interview: Leslie Dach

Edelman vice chairman and Democratic adviser

Edelman vice chairman and Democratic adviser

Leslie Dach, former communications director of the Dukakis for President Committee, and current Edelman vice chairman, offered his services to lead the Democratic National Committee's immediate response team during the Republican National Convention while on vacation. He talked to PRWeek about the importance of blogs in future campaigns, whether the Democrats need faith-based campaigns, and where PR comes into play in the campaigns. Q. How important is PR during a presidential campaign? A. The presidential campaign, from a PR perspective, is an earned-media triumph, despite the millions spent on television commercials. Between the debates and what people see and read in the media, these are major forms of communication. This campaign broke some new ground in terms of the internet and blogs in real time, rapid response. The earned media and non-paid advertising was more powerful than ever before. That will work its way into the day-to-day business of public relations. New techniques often migrate [to the rest of the industry]. We'll see new ways to use the internet to engage people and an even greater recognition of the role of these fast-moving cycles to drive news. Q. There were a lot of citizen bloggers, like DailyKos, that raised money and opinions. Is this something the Democrats should tap into more in 2008 and how do you mitigate against someone that isn't part of the team? A. The bloggers aren't supposed to be "on message," nor is the campaign held responsible for them. They remain a place where both people go to get information, but also where more and more reporters go to get a sense of where arguments may go. The Democrats need to have their own Drudge Report eventually. I think that's a key weigh station of the quote-unquote right-wing conspiracy information pathway. The blogs provide that role as well. They provide information directly to readers, as well as the serving as a weigh station to the quote-unquote legitimate media. I don't think either campaign is held responsible for what those folks say in a real way. We had a number of blogs emerge - including some you mention - where people did form a habit [of reading] because there's so much out there. Q. Do you know of anyone from the campaign reading bloggers' comments on strategy to see what might work and what might not? A. It's important for campaigns to pay attention to the advice from the real world. But at the same time, any campaign is so reliant on its research and information that it's really hard for any message advice to really stick. The good strategists soak up [information from other sources]. But it comes down to this: if you're not there to make the argument and make that argument repeatedly, [your idea] is not going to stick. So [bloggers] have less effect on the messaging than they do on the dispersing of it. But people who are managing communications definitely need to see what's working and what's not. You look at it from a traction standpoint. See how it plays out. Have you struck something that has legs? Commenting on today's news is an important part of the presidential campaign because it drives the news cycle. Q. Where do you think the Democrats fell short? A. The campaign was executed very well. The biggest issue was that you had a candidate who came and personified a part of the region that Democrats already win and who is at a cultural disadvantage in reaching out to states where Democrats don't usually win. That was the greatest burden, but, as a candidate, Kerry performed very, very well. He won three debates - or won two and tied one. But it was difficult for him to reach out to different part of the country. Q. So this was not necessarily because of anything he did, but because of the elite liberal stereotype? A. Yes - the stereotype of the Northeast elite liberal was difficult [to overcome]. Secondly, there's the fact that terrorism was ultimately the prime issue that affected a lot of swing voters as they walked into the voting booth. Those were the two primary structural issues in the campaign that were the most difficult issues to strategize around. Aside from August when there was a lot of conversation about the Swift Boat issue [and Kerry kept silent], both campaigns executed well in starting after Labor Day when the public was really engaged. Q. There are a lot of Monday morning quarterbacks discussing the track record of those leading the campaign and the squabbles and in-fighting that played out in the press. Do you think that a) the press made more out of it than there was and b) there's a need for leadership change? A. I don't think that in-fighting was an issue, as the campaign made decisions and executed them in a timely fashion. And I would stay away from commenting on personnel. Q. The exit polls initially touted morals and values, but now pundits are returning back to the terrorism argument. The fact remains that morals and values have played out as an important part. What are your thoughts one that? A. There is a question of a cultural comfort than a specific sort of value question. Ultimately the race was close, so I don't think there's a great rift. And I think the country Is in the middle on a lot of these issues. It was a cultural comfort question where a candidate from the Northeast is going to have a disadvantage that is difficult to overcome. That was part of what happened here. The economy played less of a role than people might have thought it would based on the numbers. This was a race where the economy was poor in a number of swing states, but people didn't necessarily make their choice on that issue. Q. Do the Democrats need to convey issues of faith and gun ownership more consistently so as to not appear pandering to swing voters during the election campaign period? A. Kerry, as he said, grew up in a Catholic family and was an altar boy. I don't think people doubted Kerry's faith, nor should they have. But Bush had a very clear strategy to appeal to the Evangelical community and wore his faith much more on his sleeve. That doesn't have to become a requirement of our politics; the President has probably pushed it further than most and made some people uncomfortable about it. But it's an area where it's clear that [many] Americans are comfortable about it. The most important thing is that a candidate has to be true to himself, and I think people do feel that Kerry was true to himself. You may see more conversation about religious values, but those aren't the only values people care about. They care about the values of work, responsibility, and family. Q. Are people already starting to gear up for '08? A. There's still a lot of analysis to do. There are the exit polls, but people have yet to look at the depth of information that's [available] to see what really affected those voters. Ultimately, we'll [probably] see a desire from the DNC to pick someone from a red state to run for president. That is a way to break out of the geographical lock and create a sense of cultural comfort with the swing states. We're more likely to see that, than, all of a sudden, a new faith-based policy. But it's also dangerous to look four years down the road and presume where the [beliefs] of the American people may be. Q. Some people are saying the DNC's centralist approach is hurting. Others say that Dean's progressive style wouldn't garner enough votes. Is there a potential for a fissure in the DNC? A. We don't know where the answer will be, because the potential candidates will articulate different points of view. It will be a combination of the potential candidates, the outside think tanks, and leadership on the hill. There needs to be some time before we figure out where it goes, but there's no [way] to just dictate an answer.

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