When was the last time you had a serious conversation about the value of generating letters to the editor in support of a candidate or campaign? For many political operatives, the answer is likely to be a long time ago.
It’s all too easy to find tacticians and strategists extolling the virtues of digital campaigning. And there’s good reason for it. Digital has transformed the campaign world over the past two presidential cycles and at the same time has fundamentally changed our way of thinking about campaigns.
In the wake of the 2014 midterm elections, digital chatter is dominating much of the post-election tactical coverage. Of course, it doesn’t mean more traditional forms of outreach should be relegated to the trash heap. In order to win come Election Day, campaigns need to incorporate the old and the new.
“Campaigns today are doing a really great job of utilizing new avenues for communicating, but ultimately the best campaigns have a really good grasp of all the basics, whether it’s tweeting or press releases,” says Caitlin Legacki, principal at the Democratic firm Precision Strategies. “You can usually tell which campaigns are going to be the successful ones by how good their fundamentals are.”
Even in a world increasingly ruled by technology and data, there are a few traditional tactics that are far from extinct. You may be already dedicating time to these in the races you work, but if you’re not, listen up.
Letters to the Editor
Yes, newspapers have struggled over the past decade, and many local and regional papers have gone under. But newspapers still have a tremendous ability to reach voters, both in their digital and print forms. For the print version of many papers, the “Letter to the Editor” section remains one of the few outlets dedicated to passionate opinions.
John Kimball, the former chief marketing officer at the Newspaper Association of America, likes to boast that the letters page is the most-read after Section A. “In comparison to years back, not much energy is spent on letters to the editor, but that doesn’t mean the section isn’t widely read or important,” argues Kimball.
While the tactic might seem dated to some, Organizing for America noted in its 2012 handbook for field staffers that letters to the editor can quickly raise awareness of an issue or campaign development. For local races, they can also play a role in shifting public opinion. Hearing from a neighbor or community leader in the pages of a local newspaper can be effective with voters—the same way voters are more likely to be receptive to door-to-door campaigning from someone they know.
“The key with the letter to the editor is that if you can do it well and find passionate supporters who are willing to send them in, their neighbors are going to see them and they’re going to resonate,” says Legacki, who served as communications director on Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill’s 2012 reelection effort. “It never hurts to have your folks going to bat for you in the newspaper.”
When putting together a letter-to-the-editor campaign, make sure to focus on relevant community publications that have the highest readership among your campaign’s target audiences. In some rural areas, letters can end up being more effective than radio or TV. Even if a letter to the editor starts in the print version of a daily or weekly newspaper, it doesn’t have to end there. Encourage the writer and your other campaign supporters to share letters to the editor online and via social media.
While we’re on the topic of newspapers, let’s talk about why you shouldn’t quickly dismiss the idea of campaign ads in local or regional papers. A decent portion of political advertising is actually still being directed toward newspaper ads—around 10 percent of the total political ad dollars spent in 2014, according to industry estimates. And to compete with digital, many newspapers have expanded their advertising options, making them more versatile.
If you’re working on a smaller or more local race, readership among engaged voters tends to be higher. And a 2012 study by the Newspaper Association of America found a significantly lower percentage of voters saw political ads in newspapers as a nuisance. That’s compared to more than half of all voters who complained about TV ads.
None of that is to say newspaper advertising is where campaigns should focus a large portion of their advertising dollars, but campaigns shouldn’t be so quick to write it off. If your campaign needs to reach large target universes in the context of a general election, newspaper ads are clearly not the best or most cost-effective way to go about doing it. But if you need to raise awareness of a regionalized issue, target a more local audience, or even advertise a town hall meeting, look to newspaper ads.
The press release is hardly a lost art, but all too often campaigns don’t devote the time and attention necessary to make their releases cut through the increasing amount of clutter in the inboxes of reporters.
“Just like it’s a mistake to ignore Twitter, it’s a mistake to not put out a well-written press release,” says Legacki. Even though a campaign will want every press release to garner media attention, the likelihood of that happening is slim to none. However, it doesn’t mean campaigns should lose focus on writing salient releases. Well-timed releases can add a voice to breaking news coverage and they can also be a good vehicle to jumpstart a narrative down the road.
On McCaskill’s reelect in 2012, Legacki used press releases to build a narrative around the candidate’s potential opponents during the Republican primary. Once the Todd Akin “legitimate rape” controversy erupted, the ground work paid off.
“A lot of press releases didn’t get picked up, but what they did do was allow us to lay the foundation with reporters and those who were going to wind up paying attention later and help shape the narrative around those candidates,” Legacki says.
The biggest mistake with releases: sending too many of them. If you give reporters a reason to ignore your press releases, they will. Nothing is worse than press release after press release filled with meaningless quotes that do nothing but try to score an easy, positive hit for your campaign or candidate. So if reporters start filtering your press releases, or begin asking to be removed from your press list, take note.
Obtaining Third-Party Validators
Having an objective source validate a campaign’s narrative is key to helping your candidate’s message break through. Spending time over the course of the race to shape your campaign’s narrative to reporters is one way of getting the right coverage in the long term. And in the early stages of a race, campaigns need to be working just as hard to secure clips and headlines that can later be used in the campaign’s messaging efforts. It sounds rather
obvious, and most good communications strategists understand the importance of this, but in the age of social media, campaigns can fall into the trap of thinking they don’t need validation from any third party.
“I think Americans are more cynical or skeptical now, which can be a good thing or a bad thing, so it’s really valuable to create or go back and find a newspaper headline or quote that will help make the message more credible,” says Alex Navarro-McKay, managing director at the New York-based public affairs firm Berlin Rosen. “Third party validation is really important because later on the campaign can use it in TV commercials, direct mail, or broadcast it on any other medium.”
While positive headlines about your candidate or campaign are great, Democrat direct mail strategist Liz Chadderdon says don’t underestimate the value of what many direct mail campaigns need for maximum impact: headlines that focus on the opponent.
“Negative attacks need as much corroboration as possible, so having a newspaper as a citation can really influence how seriously it is taken,” says Chadderdon, president of the Chadderdon Group. “But those headlines can be hard to get.”
Just how valuable is a headline? According to a recent study by QuickSprout, 8 in 10 people will read a headline in an online story, but only 2 in 10 will actually follow through and read the entire article. And what generates more shares online? You guessed it—negative headlines.
But no matter what biases you think reporters harbor, the reality is that they won’t willingly help you generate favorable coverage for your campaign. So make sure you work with them in the right way. Have frequent contact with the reporters covering your race in the early stages of the campaign. If you establish a rapport and build some trust, there’s a better chance that reporters will hear you out when your campaign is in crisis mode or when major news breaks. “One thing that folks are too eager to do is to shoot an email to a reporter, whereas hoping on the phone and walking them through your research and answering their questions is what’s important,” warns Legacki. “Reporters are going to trust you a lot more if they know you.”
Lastly, let’s not forget the most traditional persuasion tactic—face-to-face communication with voters. One thing we clearly saw in 2014 was the focus on grassroots outreach. Yes, technology plays a role in making those efforts smarter and more targeted, but don’t forget the importance of meeting voters face-to-face.
Social media offers your campaign the ability to connect with tens of thousands of potential voters all at once, but the connection only goes so far. We know that the vast majority of active voters have their most substantive discussions about local politics face-to-face. Failing to connect with constituents will mean your candidates is more likely to be drowned out during election season.