OP-ED: Playmaking serves key function in political comms

Playmaking is an informal but essential skill in the persuasive professions - from PR and advertising to marketing, sales, public affairs, and even law. It's both art and science. It thrives on creative inspiration, and it's supported and directed by research.

Playmaking is an informal but essential skill in the persuasive professions - from PR and advertising to marketing, sales, public affairs, and even law. It's both art and science. It thrives on creative inspiration, and it's supported and directed by research.

In business, the goal of a playmaker is surely to win, but only to subordinate the competition because in any market it takes two to tango. In politics, however, it's a zero-sum game that is meant to eliminate a rival because the objective is for the votes of a limited supply of voters. Let's look in on the 2004 US presidential race for a quick study of playmaking. Whether it's Coke vs. Pepsi or IBM vs. HP, there's much to learn from George W. Bush vs. John Kerry.

In recent weeks, Kerry supporters moved from the offense of their Boston convention to a front-line defense at the New York City GOP convention. Their primary strategy was what playmakers call a preempt, and they deployed in many shapes and sizes to run this play.

Bill Clinton, on the eve of the Republican National Convention, quipped to a New York Baptist congregation - and the media - that conservatives are here to put on their face of compassion. Hillary Rodham Clinton held the Democratic line on that Sunday morning's Meet the Press. Meanwhile, the borough of Manhattan was besieged by tens of thousands of protesters intent on disrupting the GOP agenda with made-for-TV stunts. Though Kerry kept low, he tapped John Edwards for counterpoint. Edwards, running what I call a pepper, traveled and spoke widely, offering rapid-fire criticism and commentary again and again throughout the GOP convention.

Plays were also improvised in the convention run-up as the President stumbled on the record about Iraq. Just as the Bush camp distorted Kerry's comments on "sensitive war," Democrats fanned the fire of the Bushisms and filtered the gaffes into concentrated sound bites like "Catastrophic success" and "I don't think you can win it."

As the GOP set out its conservative smorgasbord, Democrats crouched underneath, tilting the table with all their might. In any marketplace, and particularly in politics, this is the essential motive of playmaking and plays: driving points of difference between player and opponent, and redirecting discussions. It's strategy on the ground in communications, and it's played from every end of the spectrum -from constructive to petty and, in this case, from conservative to liberal. Here's a quick look at how the GOP played the game.

Republicans rushed into New York City with a two-part game plan, starting with a slow-pitch message of moderation and ending with fastball conservative rhetoric.

First up was former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, unofficial custodian of the 9/11 disaster, who bestowed its meaning and symbolism to the Bush/Cheney ticket. In playmaking parlance, this was a draft, as the GOP tucked in behind the powerful metaphors of New York's courage and recovery.

Then it was time to crowd. First lady Laura Bush delivered a predictable plug for her husband and strolled into the spotlight of her less-than-Stepford counterpart, Teresa Heinz Kerry. Similar plays were run to weaken the Democrats, first with the GOP's own set of trendy daughters, the Bush twins, and then with a series of African- American speakers, each making an oblique appeal to black voters and playing catch-up to Democratic phenom Barack Obama.

Finally, in came the heavy artillery, a four-speaker assault by Sen. John McCain, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sen. Zell Miller, and VP Dick Cheney. McCain's was an attempt to restate his support of the President. His off-stage appearances were unconvincing, however, and his recognition of filmmaker Michael Moore breathed new life into Moore's summer conservative-bash hit, Fahrenheit 9/11. The Governator was far better, running a labeling play on moderate voters by suggesting that if you're like him, "You are a Republican." Finally, there was the Democratic senator from Georgia, Miller, who broke ranks and then broke records for most plays per minute. Miller started with a challenge on Kerry's patriotism, then a reflect - a mirroring or bounce-back play - on his fellow senator's voting record, and finally a rephrase of Kerry's values. Cheney, a dutiful playmaker, was largely lost in the reviews of Schwarzenegger and Miller.

Playmaking is a fast-moving game, even more so in politics when all buying decisions are made on the first Tuesday in November. But whether it's the campaign for an American president, the cultivation of a commercial brand, or the management of a corporate reputation, moves and counter-moves have to be made to own market discussions and influence industries. In the case of Bush vs. Kerry, we'll be treated to a few more weeks of playmaking in its most rough-and-tumble form, and we'll be reminded that playmaking is an essential part of communications strategy.

  • Alan Kelly is CEO and managing partner of Potomac, MD-based Applied Communications Group.
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