A new breed of client will be on many consultants’ rosters this cycle as a bevy of candidates are emerging from the scientific community.
Now, office seekers with a background in the sciences aren’t unique to the current environment. But increasingly there are public pleas, and a groundswell of support, for candidates with that profile to run.
The momentum stems from what some on the left perceive as the Trump administration’s rejection of scientific data on everything from the budget to federal land management. And a new leaked U.S. government report on the current state of climate science could provide added motivation.
To be sure, these scientists-turned-candidates will be tempted to combat their opponents with data, policy proposals and, undoubtedly, facts. But that would be the wrong approach, a group of communications consultants from both sides of the aisle warned.
“If you lead with the facts, you’re going to have trouble breaking through,” said Josh Nanberg, a Democratic communications consultant.
He noted that recent studies have shown that emotive pitches are more effective than facts at winning arguments. In fact, a 2015 article in Scientific American noted: “These experiments show that when people’s beliefs are threatened, they often take flight to a land where facts do not matter.”
Nanberg put it bluntly: “You can’t reason someone out of a position they weren’t reasoned into. Fact-based arguments have never been the most persuasive.”
Instead, Nanberg called for mimicking the marketing strategy of Apple. “They figured out how to make an emotional connection to their audience.”
To make that emotional connection with voters, candidates will need to be more invested in telling their personal stories and connecting their narratives to campaign issues, said Isaac Wright, a partner in the digital media firm Forward Solution Strategy Group.
“It’s harder and harder to convey that emotive piece of the narrative through a spokesperson,” Wright said. “I think it’s going to involve more and more of the candidate’s individual time to do it.”
Consultants may also have to spend more time crafting tailored strategies for clients, he added. “It may involve a greater level of consultants’ involvement to say, ‘Ok, we got the earned media, but that in and of itself is not the goal. How do we use it as a clip in a direct mail piece, as a validator in a TV ad?’”
Democrats have the steepest learning curve when it comes to adapting to the new “fake news” environment, Wright said. “Democrats have a painful habit of talking in terms of policy and slogans, but we need to talk about morals and values. Why can voters trust us? Because of our values.”
Meanwhile, President Trump’s communication strategy remains the most visible and practitioners have watched closely his latest tactic: a Facebook video touting the week’s “real news.”
Wright warned that other candidates shouldn’t attempt to follow the president’s lead. “It’s totally playing with fire to think that you can use your own channel and your own voice without outside validation,” he said. “That’s going to work with your base, but it’s not going to work with ever-narrowing undecided voters or peeling off soft support from the other side.”
In fact, campaigns would be better off having a “values-based message” shared through organic means online, according to Melissa Ryan, who recently launched an anti-fake news training effort.
“When you’re thinking about your earned media strategy, the outlet matters less than who you can get sharing it and touting it,” she said. “It’s definitely something the Trump administration understands.
“All of the stuff you see coming from the organic channels [on the right], it’s always trying to communicate a value first,” she said. “They’re not talking about a particular policy. They’re not talking about a particular fact. They’re talking about the common values that unite them. For operatives on both sides of the aisle, that’s going to be important when they’re thinking about messages.”
Despite the effectiveness of emotive pitches, practitioners warned that candidates can’t abandon facts altogether.
“From my experience,” said Republican communications consultant Mark Harris, “stories with facts are helpful in removing voters’ belief in things that are not true.” But he also noted the power of narrative – fact-based or not. “It is also about the art of the possible in campaigns.”