Lessons from the campaign trail

Public affairs tactics often mirror those used on the political stage.

Public affairs tactics often mirror those used on the political stage.

Every four years, Washington's influence industry holds its breath and hedges its bets. If you're a lobbyist, you give money to both sides, the Democrats and the Republicans, just in case. Your company goes to both conventions and throws lavish parties to honor the candidates. You forge your relationships, and you wait, praying you've paved your inroads solidly enough that whoever wins, you have the access and influence you need to do your job. An election has no less impact on the public affairs community, the PR people paid to push the issues. But what they're watching isn't so much who wins, but how they do it. Nearly every technique for moving public opinion, every tactic employed by public affairs people to get an issue on the radar or to get legislation passed, traces its roots back to a political campaign - usually a presidential one. It's become Washington vogue in recent decades to run public affairs campaigns in the electoral style: treating an issue like a candidate, branding it, organizing constituencies, managing messages, even setting up rapid response operations, or "war rooms." All of these techniques were first devised and perfected by presidential campaigns; these days, you can't run a public affairs campaign without them. "I would say by the mid- to late-'80s, it was pretty much an accepted rule of thumb that you needed to have campaign techniques that you could apply in pursuit of corporate public affairs and public policy efforts," says Jerry Johnson, EVP with Brodeur Worldwide's public affairs practice. He, like most of his colleagues, recognizes the firm Sawyer Miller, which eventually became part of Weber Shandwick, as the first to take the political approach to public affairs work. "It started with the convergence of paid and free media," explains Fleishman-Hillard SVP and senior partner Jon Haber. Ronald Reagan's first campaign perfected the coordination of messages between political ads and photo ops, he says, which "really fueled the Sawyer Millers, the Robinson Lakes, the guys who really started it in the '80s." Indeed, Reagan's campaign provided the template for much of today's public affairs work. Treating an issue like a brand, using the media as a tool more than a constituency, and finding two or three messages and sticking with them to the exclusion of all else - these are the ideas that form the template for nearly all corporate communications work run out of Washington today. But it's the work done by the Clinton campaigns - particularly his ousting of the first President Bush in 1992 - that is still considered cutting edge today. "Things started getting really sophisticated in the '92 campaign," says Doug Pinkham, president of the Public Affairs Council. "Paul Begala and James Carville were key to getting [Clinton] to stay on message, but then phrasing it slightly differently depending on the audience he was talking to." "Because of the movie War Room, suddenly every company wanted their own war room," says Haber, referring to the 1993 documentary about Clinton's revolutionary rapid response team that let no news cycle go by without answering attacks from the opposition (or issuing their own). And it's true - nearly any high-stakes issue campaign in the 21st century has a war room. News networks even used the term during this year's political conventions without further explanation - it's become a part of the American political vocabulary. Impact of Dean's campaign Bearing this in mind, any Washington PR pro with an eye on the future will now be paying close attention to the current presidential campaigns. What are they doing that will be de rigueur five, 10 years from now? And is one campaign significantly more innovative than the others? Yes and no. One campaign had blown the minds of seasoned PR vets across the country. Unfortunately, it only got the candidate so far. "I think probably at the end of the race, when everybody looks back, the most compelling lessons we're going to see are from Howard Dean - the new face of Populism," says Matt Reid, SVP and head of US public affairs at Waggener Edstrom. "If you really look at what he was able to do, it's all about using the internet to more effectively communicate your message and prompt people to action." It's nearly impossible to find someone who disagrees. The public affairs community seems unanimously impressed by what the former Vermont governor - and original dark horse for the nomination - was able to accomplish with a savvy web team and a sophisticated mobilization effort. And the eagerness to incorporate that approach into corporate public affairs work is palpable. For those who weren't paying attention as it happened, Dean established and motivated a huge network of supporters - not to mention raised an unprecedented amount of money in small increments - through interactive, web-based messaging, blogs, constant e-mail communications, and prodigious use of Meetup.com, the website that allows people to find one another based first on common interest, then geography. "It showed that you really can motivate people to action through the web," adds Reid. Dean turned hundreds of thousands of unlikely citizens into activists by piquing their interest with his outsider personality, then following it up with a constantly evolving website featuring freewheeling blogs and intimate messaging. The two working together forged a feeling of community that was extended through house parties and meetups, and, ultimately, through e-mail solicitations urging the community to show its strength with small donations - which led to the largest amount of money ever raised by a Democrat in a three-month period ($14.8 million ending October 2003) - all before a single vote was ever cast. Of course, anyone who has been observing political campaigns for a while will note that it's not the first time the internet has been hailed as the future of political organization. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) raised big money online in 2000, and sites like Voter.com promised to revolutionize democracy by acting as a clearinghouse for political information and activist opportunities. But McCain's web work has had little impact on what public affairs professionals have done in subsequent years, and the most consequential message Voter.com ever delivered was "Thank you for your loyal readership ... we are closing down." It's a message still found on the site today. So what did Dean do differently? Some say Dean (or more accurately his campaign manager, Joe Trippi), understood that the web is most powerful when used as an extension of the candidate's real-world presence. There was a synergy between what Dean was doing on the internet and on the campaign trail that made his use of the web fundamentally different from what came before. Haber, whose stint as Dean's chief of staff is just the latest in a long line of presidential campaign work that includes former Rep. Richard Gephardt (D-MO) and Ted Kennedy (D-MA), says Dean's campaign intimately understood and aggressively fostered that synergy. "If you look, what Bush and Kerry are doing online is still very separate from what they're doing offline," he says. "But we'd invite someone online to go to a meetup offline." From there, supporters would stay in touch by e-mail, both with each other and the unusually responsive campaign. And Dean supporters had reason to stay in touch. "The Dean home page would change four times a day," recalls Haber, "even the pictures would change. If you want people to keep logging in, you have to have something that changes. "Those are things that have not yet happened in public affairs, but I think they will," he adds. But can a corporation replicate that kind of success? Can Wal-Mart supply the personal inspiration and technical savvy to move people to action? "This is 100% going to help companies as they try to get messages out to consumers," contends Reid. "This will better enable them to get out and get people involved in what [the corporation] is doing. You're not going to see a corporation necessarily harness the kind of appeal Dean did, but it can use these tools to get people involved in policy issues." Of course, not everyone is impressed. Pinkham says Dean's web work is "the most overrated tactic. Who cares?" "Howard Dean got a bunch of small groups of people to get together and agree, 'We like Howard Dean, and now we're talking about it,'" he adds. "That goes into the category of internet things that don't have an impact on anything." Whether the Dean approach changes things or not, it has excited the public affairs community, and that's something in itself. Expect to see increased web-based experimentation from corporations and advocacy groups soon. Targeting influentials Then there's the art of targeting one's message, a practice that only grows more accurate and effective with each passing election cycle. And this year is no exception. Indeed, steps are being made this year that far surpass what's been done previously. It was the 1972 campaign of Democrat George McGovern that opened Democrats' eyes to the power of identifying likely supporters based on consumer habits, coining the phrase "the Brie and Volvo set." But this year, the campaigns - and private advocacy groups - are taking the practice to a whole new level, in ways both simple and sophisticated. Some say the lessons of 2000 - when Al Gore won the popular vote but lost the election - have taken hold. Now, if you don't live in a "swing state," meaning one in which even the best pollsters can't predict the winner, you'd be forgiven for feeling all but left out. "It's as if we don't exist," says Pinkham, who lives in easily Democratic Washington, DC. "No one's showing us their commercials. The feeling seems to be, "We're not going to get that state anyway, so why waste our money?'" He calls it the latest manifestation of grasstops communication: "You don't need to reach everyone, just those who influence others," he says. It's an approach encapsulated in a new book, The Influentials: One American in Ten Tells the Other Nine How to Vote, Where to Eat, and What to Buy, by Jon Berry and Ed Keller. For anyone who doubts the book's significance, Bush campaign manager Ken Mehlman was quoted in The Washington Post as saying, "The Influentials will be indispensable filters and promoters of the attitudes and arguments that will frame the choices voters make this fall." Mehlman's interest in the book is visible within the campaign itself. Visit GeorgeWBush.com and click on "Be a Volunteer." You will be prompted to identify yourself as one of 31 different categories, among them Jewish, Democrats for Bush, healthcare professional, and Arab American. On one level, this helps the campaign identify who its supporters are. But more important, it allows them to tailor their message with pinpoint accuracy - and ensure dissemination of that message among a particular audience. The logic works like this: The campaign assumes that anyone interested enough in Bush's re-election effort to register as a volunteer is also likely to be someone who speaks often about his or her beliefs. Combine that with a person's tendency to associate with like-minded people and have friends of similar ethnic or cultural background, and you can safely take advantage of that person's potential as an "influential." If you can get that person the message you want others like him or her to hear, by e-mail or any other means, that's going to be a lot more effective than running a nationwide ad with a single message. "They're discovering how to use the internet to find and focus on people whose opinions matter most," says Pinkham. It doesn't take a K Street whiz kid to see how such tactics might impact public affairs in coming years. Grasstops communications is hardly something new, but if either campaign can claim significant gains among a particular demographic - say Arab Americans come out unusually strong for Bush - you can bet they'll point to such precise tailoring of their message as the reason. That will resonate throughout the influence industry, leading public affairs types all over Washington to spend more time thinking which ethnic or social group can most help them move a stubborn issue - and how to reach them. But the self-identifying nature of what's happening at GeorgeWBush.com is still perhaps too blunt a tool for political strategists, plus it requires a pre-existing level of interest in the candidate or issue. This year, thanks to unprecedented technology and the availability of more consumer data than ever before, the campaigns can identify people who are likely to support them whether they've ever been to the candidate's website or not. Indeed, the same technology Amazon.com uses to recommend which books a returning customer might enjoy is now being used to determine who you might vote for, even if you've never read a newspaper. A new group called Advocacy Inc. is making waves by allowing not just campaigns, but corporations and advocacy groups to target registered voters with unprecedented accuracy. The company cross-references e-mail addresses of registered voters with magazine subscription lists, online poll participants, shopping catalogs, etc. The result is demographic information that is, in theory, so precise you can easily determine who is likely to vote for your candidate or support your issue. "In the old days, when you had a get-out-the-vote operation, you had people go knocking door to door. That's a lot of intensive work," says Haber. "Now they know to go to your house and not mine." Again, this is not a tactic public affairs types will have trouble finding a use for. "The old model was to have voters flood a congressman's office with e-mail. Well, we know that doesn't work, and they don't want it anyway," says Pinkham. "This can change that. Now we can focus on reaching the right people in a specific, targeted way," which results in more specific, targeted action. Others see obstacles to using even such finely targeted communications, however. Nicco Mele, Dean's former webmaster and now head of his own advocacy consulting group, EchoDitto, says any e-mail coming from an unknown source - regardless of how well tailored its message - will still be considered by most to be spam and treated accordingly. "Spam filtering is pretty sophisticated these days," he says, "and even if you get past all the spam filtering, e-mail is turning into a medium where you only pay attention to sources that you know. How many e-mails do you open if you don't know the sender?" Lessons for activists Of course, any public affairs professional worth his salt knows he has bigger obstacles to contend with than spam filtering. Corporate communicators may learn much from an election cycle, but so do the activists who so often oppose them. Some of America's most memorable and instructive examples of civil disobedience came from presidential elections - even this year the media was abuzz over fears that the Republican National Convention in New York would resemble the riots and disruptions that plagued the Democratic National Convention of 1968. And, indeed, activists might have learned as much from this year's Republican National Convention as they did in 1968. "The intense police presence in New York stopped quite a bit of peaceful protest, but there was a lot of media attention on what happened on Sunday, before the convention started," says Jason Salzman, president of Cause Communications. "So I think the activist response to this may be, in the future, to focus their energies on acting before a big event like this. But here's the kicker: Even many of the tactics developed by the campaigns themselves might be more useful to activists than corporations. After all, Dean's campaign thrived on its outsider status. Its organizational model more closely resembled a rebellion than a campaign. And for all of the talk of grasstops "influentials," the most stirring thing to happen this cycle was as close to grassroots influence as you're likely to see on a national level. So Wal-Mart can try all it wants to use interactive web messaging and blogs to motivate voters - the voters themselves might have more luck using them for their own purposes. "The beauty of activism is that it comes from real personal inspiration, says Salzman. "That's something people can draw on to stay in touch and to pay attention on the web. Without that, it doesn't work. "[Corporations] rely more on the overload of passive messages, and web participation requires a motivated participant," adds Salzman, whose book Making the News: A Guide for Activists and Nonprofits teaches tricks of the trade to activists seeking media attention. "It's a medium better suited to people who know what they want and are looking for a way to get involved. I don't think this will work well for corporate interests." Like the outcome of the election itself, the true benefactor of its advancements is far from certain. We'll know who wins the election by November (probably). Which side inherits its tactical legacy might not be known for years. A webmaster to watch The stakes may be higher, but presidential campaigns are the minor leagues when it comes to developing talent for the influence industry. The Begalas, Deavers, and Powells (Jody, not Colin) of the world all earned their stripes on the campaign trail, only later graduating to the world of high-stakes public affairs work. So who's this cycle's big-buzz prospect? We asked, and one name was repeatedly offered: Nicco Mele, Howard Dean's former webmaster and internet strategist. Mele, 26, a College of William & Mary graduate, came to Dean after doing web work for Bill Gates' vaccine initiative and Common Cause. He's credited not with any great technological advancement, but with simply being the first to apply already commonplace internet technologies to politics. "When you got to Moviefone.com, you put in your ZIP code and get a list of movies playing in your area," he says. "Well, why couldn't we do that with political events?" It was that kind of thinking that turned the Dean campaign into a youth-driven groundswell. It helped launch Mele to superstar status among political strategists, as well. Today, he's putting those techniques to work for advocacy groups and Democratic candidates (most notably Illinois phenom Barak Obama), through his new consulting group, EchoDitto. The firm - 5 months old and boasting about 20 employees - does everything from blogs to "wikipedias" (open-source encyclopedias) to raise funds and organize constituents for the likes of The Service Employees International Union and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Plus, the website doubles as a freewheeling exchange of ideas for forward thinking Democratic organizers. "There's something really big happening on the internet right now in terms of collaborative and traditional power structures," he says. "People just don't know it's happening."

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