Inside the 'hand-to-hand combat' of campaign rapid response teams

"Rapid response used to be an innovation. Now it's a necessity," says Incite Agency founding partner Ben LaBolt.

Image via Victorgrigas / Wikimedia Commons, used under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license; cropped and color corrected from original.
Image via Victorgrigas / Wikimedia Commons, used under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license; cropped and color corrected from original.

Rapid response teams are working faster than ever in the opening stages of the 2016 election cycle, fending off attacks to keep their candidates as pristine as possible while jabbing at their opponents – even with a year left until Election Day.

Keeping a campaign afloat was enough of a challenge even before the advent of social media and audiences’ ever-waning attention spans. Now the challenge is compounded. Well before the first ballot has been cast, rapid response teams are working in overdrive to combat attacks, misinformation, and the mainstream media.

Campaign veterans tell PRWeek that while rapid response was once inventive, it’s now essential – and more demanding than ever.

"Rapid response used to be an innovation. Now it’s a necessity," says Ben LaBolt, founding partner of The Incite Agency. He adds that campaigns need a "multidiscipline approach," with some staffers addressing the media, others handling digital, and a third group with opposition research at the ready.

While the larger communications team is committed to amplifying the campaign’s overall message, the job of the rapid response unit is more like "hand-to-hand combat," he adds. That includes going to bat for its own candidate or taking advantage of opponents’ flubs "that expose something about that candidate and reinforce your message."

Campaigns must be on the lookout for the next wave of comms technologies. Easily adapting to the next major social wave is essential for rapid response units because "as the news cycles get shorter, there’s a need for a more rapid response to set the message straight," says Ryan Williams, SVP at FP1 Strategies and a veteran of Mitt Romney’s 2012 run. He points to Snapchat as a tool growing in importance this election cycle.

Yet for now, Williams says Twitter is king of the rapid-response platforms.

"If something bad happens, you’ll see it on Twitter before anywhere else," notes Williams, who recalls at least one moment during Romney’s most recent campaign when the team had to move quickly to stop an inaccurate story in its tracks.

Rapid response teams should be able to quickly compile video content not just proactively, but also reactively, and use it to their advantage, says Matt Canter, SVP at Global Strategy Group. He notes that Hillary Rodham Clinton’s campaign used former House speaker hopeful and Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s comments on the Benghazi committee to their advantage by making sure the public saw his quote as well as the context.

Canter describes rapid-response campaign communications as less about "screaming for attention, but trying to detail context."

"You really can’t get in a situation where you’re chasing the news," says Dan Blum, principal at DDB communications, but rather "creating your own narrative." He adds that when at its best, a rapid response team can keep a negative story about its candidate from going mainstream.

Blum notes that while social media is "better at reaching the masses," email and taking press calls are also important.

On the other hand, ineffective rapid-response communications can become obvious to voters and have a snowball effect in the news cycle.

"If you see a campaign constantly flat-footed, floundering behind the news cycle, that’s when you see it’s needed," says Blum. "It becomes its own process story."

Williams says the mistakes by Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s now defunct campaign "were exposed in real-time," such as his indecisiveness on certain issues, which were a factor in his bowing out.

Campaign veterans also say the job itself has changed. This cycle’s rapid response teams combine research and communications, though in the past they may have "relied heavily on a researcher."

It’s no nine-to-five job, either, but instead a "very demanding profession," Williams notes. He commended communicators from both parties, such as Jesse Ferguson on Hillary Clinton’s campaign, Catherine Frazier on Ted Cruz’s team, Marco Rubio strategist Alex Conant, and Danny Diaz and Tim Miller on Jeb Bush’s faction. (Diaz is a founding partner at FP1 Strategies).

"The best communicators in each party generally end up on presidential campaigns," explains Williams.

Canter adds that the 2015 rapid-response war room "looks a lot more like a newsroom of a multi-channel media company than it does a typical campaign press office used to look like," possibly including pieces like video capability.

Strategy and tactics
Blum notes that rapid response teams develop their own "sixth sense for what’s coming next," though even the most prepared units have to grapple with issues that come out of the blue. 

They also have to be at the ready for their candidates, which means conducting a vulnerability study and taking a deep dive into what’s trending among voters. While war rooms vary, there is usually a unit tracking all the news that’s happening, ready to share it with the communications team at large as needed, says Blum, adding that some campaigns may bring on firms with former rapid response veterans turned consultants for a "plug-and-play" approach, he adds.

"These war rooms are staffed 24 hours a day. When the campaigns get very intense, it’s literally 24-7 monitoring, looking to see what reporters are saying about things to inform senior communications staff at any given time.

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