Ted Cruz's recent presidential campaign announcement at Liberty University marked another triumph of visuals over substance. Cruz and his advisors calculated it was more important for the TV cameras to show a large crowd surrounding him than to have a crowd of actual supporters, even at the risk that the student attendees would tell the press afterward that the event was mandatory under the threat of a $10 fine.
The Republican senator from Texas knew that the picture was paramount. A few complaining students talking on-camera afterward was a small price to pay.
The fact of the matter is that most people get most of their information, if you can call it that, from visual images. This is true in any form of marketing communication but especially in politics. Issues are complex, people are less so. As a result, people aquire impressions, not "information" in the truest sense of the word.
There’s an old adage in presidential politics: If the media didn’t cover it, it never happened. Even if a
million people showed up at your event, if the media didn’t get the story and amplify it, it never
happened. That’s not completely true anymore.
Welcome to ever-expanding social media universe—where you’re the media. Every campaign is now its own media conglomerate, TV station, radio station, direct mail (email) and publishing house with a potentially global audience.
Traditional electronic and print news coverage, as long as it’s positive, is still the gold standard for third-person credibility and reach. That’s because you have the ability to easily pass along positive press
coverage to your target audiences. But you also have thousands of opportunities to use visuals—your chosen, most compelling visuals—to sell your candidate or cause to the voters. Here are some ways to help make those visuals great.
1. Don’t over-think it
Most often, all you need is one great visual. Why offer the media options? If you’ve got a great visual that tells the story you want to tell, use that one. Then repeat, repeat, repeat.
2. Don’t be too creative
If it appears too contrived the media may very well try their best to avoid using it. Keep it simple, and appropriate to the environment. If it takes more than one sentence to explain to the press, it’s probably not a great visual.
3. Tell a story
Try to evoke your message as well as the brand of the campaign with a compelling story, and remember that all good stories have a beginning, middle and end — complete with a moral. In political talk that’s called a “take away.”
Choose a site that voters can relate to on a personal level. It may be a place as simple as a children’s day care center — kids always sell — or as massive as touring a disaster site. Your choices are limited only by your imagination.
5. Never allow your candidate to be interviewed in front of a blank wall
If you’re running an issue campaign, create one message sign out of poster board and put it up at every event. A jam-packed, but well-spaced, impressive list (on poster board) of supporters or endorsers is also good for credibility. TV news crews and newspaper photographers will use it.
6. Say it with words if necessary
Say exactly what you’re trying to say in a message banner if it can be read, and understood, in two seconds of video.
7. Control your output
Have your own campaign photographer and videographer get the pictures you want and chose the best for your news releases, video news releases, website, all the social media vehicles.
8. Get the best lighting you can afford
If you’re spending the money to produce a major event for media consumption, pay the money for good lighting. Buy a cheap digital light meter and walk around looking at it so your contractor thinks you know what you’re talking about.
9. If you have a male candidate, get him to wear makeup
If you have a female candidate, make sure the makeup is right for the camera. Both TV and still images are high-def now. It's not pretty.
10. Location scout
If it’s an outdoor event, go there at the same time of day several days early and see where the sun is. Ideally, it’s at the backs of the news media. Also check if there are any trains rolling by and whether they would be in the shot or not. Trains are usually loud and disruptive, which is a bad thing. Check for other distractions. If it’s an indoor event, see if there is another event in the same venue.
11. Pump up the crowd
Your “go-to” visual when nothing else springs to mind? Surround your candidate or your message sign with enthusiastic people – a powerful image in itself. And a really big crowd makes up for a lot other inadequacies.
12. Tap Old Glory
The American flag works great as your final “go-to” visual.
These are just the top 12 of the approximately 430-item checklist that runs through my head when I'm considering visual/image options. Ultimately it's a matter of feel. Get a lot of opinions, if you can, without making it a committee process. Then make a decision and make it happen. Tomorrow is another news cycle, and your social media outlets need to be fed.
Steven Jacques has served on the White House staff and in senior positions in the State Department and Department of Commerce, and on national staff in eleven presidential campaigns. His new novel,
“Advance Man: A Presidential Campaign Adventure,” is available on Amazon.