The 11 months leading up to the elections will be a relentless, 24/7 contest for the public’s attention in a crowded and constantly shifting media landscape. Candidates, advocacy organizations, and interest groups alike are competing to elevate their issues in the national conversation. How does anyone break through the noise and get their message across?
Here are a few things I’ve observed working on campaigns and at the White House, a Cabinet agency, a Fortune 50 company, and now the US Chamber of Commerce – and how they apply in today’s PR environment.
Get the right message to people at the right time using correct channels.
Organizations have more control over this than ever with the proliferation of self-generated content distributed through digital properties. This allows viewpoints to get exposure without being twisted by the filters of traditional media. The chamber leverages its online editorial platform, Above the Fold, to get concise policy analysis into the conversation, respond to criticism, balance the narrative, and present complex ideas through simple, shareable content.
To be effective, you must protect your credibility as a source by being relevant, timely, and factual. Without credibility, you risk losing your readers’ attention – or their trust.
Self-generated content also requires effort to spread your message far and wide. Coupled with a smart content marketing strategy, such as tweeting a post to targeted reporters or lawmakers on Capitol Hill, you can expand your reach and amplify your message.
Know when to respond and when to hold back.
It’s tempting to be lured into a Twitter war when your brand comes under attack or an opponent attempts to define you or your position. But before you fire off a 140-word comeback or a 1,400-word online rebuttal, consider the source. Is it The Wall Street Journal or a blog with a light following? Getting tangled in a fight with obscure or irreputable opponents gives their position undue credence, and it’s a waste of your time.
If you’re dealing with a legitimate outlet or an adversary with the power to sway public opinion, respond quickly with all the facts. Hillary Clinton might have put her email scandal to bed more quickly if she had followed this rule. Instead, by dripping out information over time, she raised questions about transparency, diverted attention away from her campaign message, and dramatically extended the life of a negative story.
Employ message discipline or risk damaging gaffes.
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy learned this lesson the hard way when he suggested in a TV interview that the House special committee on Benghazi had helped drive down Clinton’s polling numbers. He did not have to politicize the work of the committee. But the statement went viral, and he unwittingly handed his party’s top opponent for the White House the perfect opportunity to sidestep the email scandal and accuse Republicans of "a partisan witch hunt."
Explore innovative ways to convey a message.
FreeEnterprise.com, the chamber’s flagship online magazine, tells the positive story of free enterprise in society.
But we want to talk about the role businesses play in creating jobs and economic growth in a more interactive way. So we invited 50 of DC’s top coders to the first "hackathon" hosted by a business organization, gave them access to key business data, and challenged teams to create a new tool for the website. In less than 36 hours, the winning team conceived a Web app that helps visualize the economic impact of small and midsize businesses at the state level. It’s the same story told in a new way.
Emphasize message over mechanics.
A clear and compelling message is crucial. New tools and products make communications more efficient. You can offer a variety of narratives told in innovative ways. But if you have a bad message, you still lose – even with every shiny new tool in the toolbox.
To be effective in today’s media landscape, candidates and organizations must not only make smart use of evolving tools and resources, but they must also respect some tried-and-true maxims of communication – things that are as relevant today as they were decades ago.
Thomas Collamore is SVP of communications and strategy for the US Chamber of Commerce.