NEW YORK: Americans have been holding national conventions to nominate presidential candidates since the nineteenth century. But the COVID-19 pandemic forced this year's conventions into uncharted political waters.
PRWeek spoke to longtime political comms pro, and cofounder of comms firm Precision, Stephanie Cutter about her work as chief program executive of this year's virtual Democratic National Convention.
When did you agree to become chief program executive? Was it before the pandemic?
I can't remember the exact date, but it was either January or February. It was announced well before the pandemic and it was well before we had a nominee.
How far along in the planning had you gotten before it became clear the pandemic was going to change everything?
We were pretty far into our planning in terms of the structure of a program with the big anchor speeches and thinking through how to make this convention look and feel different than the others.
Obviously when COVID-19 hit, all of those plans got thrown by the wayside and we had to quickly adjust to what we thought would be a hybrid approach where some people would be in-person in Wisconsin and others would be participating virtually. And we operated under that assumption for a couple of months.
But then in April it became clear that this would become an almost completely virtual program due to the advice of health experts. The one thing the vice president was adamant about is he didn't want to be responsible for anybody getting sick as a result of this convention.
I produced the program. So what you saw on TV was what I produced. I wasn't in charge of what happened during the day, the caucus meetings and more of the traditional stuff that was handled by another team. But I can tell you that from top to bottom, this became a virtual convention. So that included the caucus meetings, the party business, the outside events and the convention program.
What surprised you going from live to virtual?
There's that metaphor about building the plane while flying it? That's what I was doing... For any convention, you want to energize the people in the room, the tens of thousands of people in that arena, or, in the case of the 2008 campaign, the stadium. That's your primary audience, the people standing in front of you.
However, as important — and maybe even more valuable — are the people watching at home, because for many people this is their first glimpse at a candidate in an unfiltered environment. It's not a campaign ad, and it's not an attack by the other side. This is an unfiltered experience for people to see and hear about this candidate.
Keeping that in mind, I started to just think about this as a TV show and then how [to] keep people engaged in a program over the course of hours and over the course of four days. I quickly realized we needed to shrink the time.
Usually they start at four or five o'clock in the afternoon and go to 11 o'clock at night. We started at nine and went to 11. We had roughly 16 fewer hours of programming time to work with.
So, I had to fit a lot of things into a short amount of time. That's when I got creative and came up with that keynote concept where we were using, to have a number of young, up-and-coming stars at all levels of government to give a joint keynote. And it was incredibly effective.
We called it the unconventional convention, because we threw most of the rules and took a fresh look at what this could be. One of the lessons that I think will be carried through any convention is that our speakers reached people in a much more intimate way than you're able to when you're standing on a big stage with tens of thousands of people cheering for you.
Kristin Urquiza, who lost her father to COVID-19, would not have made such a mark had she just been standing on a stage. But because she was giving a very intimate, direct-to-camera testimonial about what happened to her father and why, it resonated.
What didn't work?
Building something like this is very particular to whom the candidate is. I felt the four days of the program really told the story of Joe Biden. The kinds of speakers that we chose, the kinds of segments that we created were all particular to who Joe Biden is, what his record is and what he'll do for this country. You have to build it around the nominee.
What didn't work? Harsh political rhetoric doesn't work in this setting. It comes across much more starkly than it would in a big, crowded arena with a lot of applause. Most of our speakers took that advice and modified their remarks that way.
Also, shorter is better. We fit a lot in every night within two hours. But on average, not counting the big anchor speeches such as the Obamas or Bidens or Kamala Harris, the speaking time was a little over two minutes. Working with people to make their points within two minutes makes for a really efficient speech. And for message discipline, so that you're nailing your message within that time frame, it was really effective.
What about the virtual roll call? How was that idea developed?
One of the things that we felt was important was to tell a story as we were moving through the country. So we gave states a lot of leeway to figure out what that piece of the story is and how to represent it. People are stuck in their homes because of the coronavirus, but they were able to see the country and learn something new about that country as we've moved through the roll call and each state kept it interesting and unexpected.
You didn't know what you were going to get as you moved through the states. So it made for a really great TV but it was also a way to pull more people into participating in this convention — most of the people who were participating in the roll call would not [normally] have had credentials to be in the arena.
Will some of the techniques be used even when we can hold in-person conventions again?
It's going to be up to whoever the nominee is. So [that's] potentially Joe Biden running for a second term. It really worked for us this time but obviously our preference would be to do a live event with thousands of delegates in a big hall somewhere. But that's only in a world where COVID-19 doesn't exist. I'm assuming we do get a vaccine.
Then my guess is that there'll be a hybrid of doing things through remote recordings or remote live segments in addition to things in the actual convention hall.
The myth about this convention is that everything was prerecorded. That wasn't true. About 50% of our content was prerecorded by necessity because we couldn't take in that many live feeds on any given night. But 50% of our programming was live. Virtual doesn't always mean recorded. It means it's happening all over the country, not in one particular place.
The overall ratings for the convention were down compared to last year. Why do you think that was?
Viewership has been going down for many years. We were pretty pleased with the ratings that we got and also that was just the TV ratings. It does not include online ratings because people are watching the convention on a device or on the internet.
We had a feed that we put out and encouraged people to participate in and that was hugely popular as well. We were pretty pleased with our TV rating as the challenger in this race.
Normally the incumbent wins those ratings, but this time the challenger did. And when you add that to those that watched or participated online, we reached a lot of people in a short amount of time, which is incredibly important.
Not necessarily in getting a bounce out of that because Joe Biden's ratings are I think pretty high at the moment. But in filling in the blanks on who Joe Biden is. We all know the name and people think they know him. But they know very little about him. And we were able to tell that story in an efficient way and in a very intimate way over the course of four nights.
Is it easier to achieve the goals you want to achieve for a convention virtually or in-person?
In terms of reaching people at home? I think this past convention was probably the most effective in driving a message that resonates and having a lot of discipline around it.
There are things that happen at typical conventions that weren't able to happen at these conventions. There's a lot of fundraising and politicking and connections and organizing that happens around live conventions that was replicated in different ways this year. But it was all done virtually.
So I think if you are planning from the get go for a virtual convention, you could become even more efficient and strategic in how you will go about achieving your goals. We were doing this in real time. As I said, we were building the airplane as we were flying it.
We achieved our goals in terms of the program, in terms of driving a disciplined message and organizing people through our various calls to action. Had we known back in January or February, this is where we would end up, we probably could have made some decisions sooner.