Winning a campaign takes a lot of planning and a little bit of luck, a long-time political consultant once told me. The luck this graybeard was describing is not the dumb kind, although that term would certainly apply to a number of campaigns last election cycle.
Luck, he says, is actually more about timing. More specifically, luck is the ability to take advantage of earned media opportunities that arise during a campaign. These opportunities could be anything from highlighting a misstep by an opponent to tackling an issue aligned with your candidate, or simply the chance to land a key quote in a news story.
Failure to capitalize on these opportunities can turn a once-promising campaign into a hard-luck story.
As you draw up your campaign plans for next cycle, here are some pointers to help you capitalize on those earned media opportunities when they arise:
Don’t count on finding a silver bullet. Campaigns win by achieving incremental victories — a collection of well-timed actions that translate opportunities into momentum. You are rarely going to find an earned media opportunity that will take you from 20-points behind to a 10-point victory. What you will find are a variety of smaller opportunities that together can build a larger narrative to swing voters toward your candidate.
Remember that voter contact is the meat, opportunities are the gravy. A lot of amateur-run campaigns make the mistake of believing that earned media is a suitable alternative to paid voter contact. The truth is that you can win a campaign without being mentioned by the media in your district, but you can’t win if you fail to build a ground and air operation that identifies, persuades and turns out voters.
Be (really) prepared. The number of campaigns I’ve seen that lack a press list and a working relationship with local media is surprising. You can’t adequately take advantage of an earned media opportunity if you don’t know who you can pressure to write or report something. Furthermore, a cold call to a reporter who has never heard from your campaign will do little to persuade the journalist to write a story. You need to take time, hopefully at the beginning of the campaign, to identify key political reporters and then develop relationships with each of them. Also, don’t forget political bloggers in the area. They are equally important.
Create a way to identify earned media opportunities. This is where most campaigns go wrong. Even the best-planned campaigns often fail to hit on a comprehensive way to monitor the political and media environments. The easiest, and perhaps most basic way to begin to comb the environment for earned media opportunities is by collecting and reviewing daily media clips, watching upcoming votes and keeping your pulse on the news before the cycle even begins.