Studies have shown that our brains are generally more receptive to marketing messages delivered as narratives than "lists of facts."
For consultants, many of whom consider themselves storytellers at heart, sharing a candidate’s story is the campaign’s central purpose. Still, nothing gets in the way of telling a good story like money — or a candidate inclined to give speeches that sound like lists of facts.
A small budget can prevent you from effectively getting your story out through paid media. Moreover, facing an opponent with an oversized warchest can make it harder for your side to get heard through the noise. But earned media still has an equalizing power in campaigns.
Journalists remain drawn to good stories and, if done strategically, earned media can help an underdog candidate with a great story to tell beat big money rivals.
That’s the lesson we learned leading Dan Crenshaw’s congressional primary campaign in Texas.
Crenshaw’s story is unique, even at a time when more veterans are running for office. After being struck by an IED while serving as a Navy SEAL in combat, he lost his right eye and now wears an eye-patch. In addition to his combat experience, he holds a Master’s degree in public policy from Harvard. That background combined with a willingness to campaign hard made the 33-year-old Crenshaw an easy story to pitch.
After he signed on as a client in late 2017, our media team and supporters worked to secure interviews on Fox News and local conservative talk radio. After each earned media story ran, we clipped it and distributed the clip to our growing list of supporters online. That way, thousands more people would see these interviews, many of which had aired on Fox News or the local Fox 26 affiliate station.
To help augment the power of earned media, we spent significantly on digital advertising. Our total budget during the primary was roughly $200,000 — much of which went to digital, particularly boosting Facebook posts. The rest was spent mainly on conservative radio. We didn’t put a penny into TV.
Our thinking was that voters put more trust into what their friends and family post about candidates online than what they hear or see on TV or radio ads.
Fortunately, we also knew who those voters were likely to be. Primaries are all about reaching the party base, and by targeting registered voters in Texas’s second district who had voted in at least two of the previous four Republican primaries or runoffs (2010, 2012, 2014, or 2016) we were able to develop an audience of roughly 100,000 voters who might turn out in the primary.
With our target audience defined, Facebook custom audiences and voter-targeted banner and pre-roll advertising helped us run a multi-channel communications offensive to share Crenshaw’s story as widely as possible. In the weeks leading up to the March 6 primary, each of our likely GOP primary voters was contacted at least 20 times with a variety of digital messages. We focused on positive messaging – reminding voters that Crenshaw was an American hero that our country – and the district – deserved to represent them in Congress.
As Crenshaw himself knocked on doors alongside volunteers to win over new supporters, it was clear our online branding efforts were having the desired effect. Voter-targeted digital ads proved to be a cost effective way to increase the odds that voters were seeing a "familiar face" or hearing a familiar message at the door.
On Primary Election Night, we shocked the Texas political world when Crenshaw made the runoff by winning second place. We had edged out the third-place finisher, self-financed Kathaleen Wall, by 155 votes, even though she had spent $6 million on the race.
This election victory was a huge upset and could serve as a lesson for other practitioners. The candidate with the most money and highest name ID doesn’t always win. A good candidate with a great story and a smart strategy can overcome even the biggest obstacles in campaigns.
Brendan Steinhauser is partner at Steinhauser Strategies, a public relations and political consulting firm based in Austin, Texas. He has worked on advocacy and political campaigns in more than 40 states.
Josh Eboch is the VP of Client Services at VoterTrove.