In recent cycles there has been such an over-emphasis on rapid response that things as fundamental as crafting and executing a strategic communications plan have gone the way of the Whig Party.
You’d be amazed how some of the most promising and well-intentioned campaigns ultimately fail because they get stuck in the weeds responding to attacks. These campaigns treat every attack as a crisis, and are just so relieved on the days when they are not under fire that they rest on their laurels.
On the flip side, winning campaigns, instead of bouncing from crisis to crisis, draft strategic communications plans. Moreover, they stick to them and recognize that rapid response is only one component.
Operating a campaign in adverse conditions without following a well developed and thought-out strategic communications plan is like jumping in your car and expecting to find your destination without knowing the way. Winning campaigns plan ahead and map out their route and, even more importantly, they know where they want to end up.
They execute with precision and always seem to stay ahead of the opposition by driving narratives and deflecting negative attention with ease.
As someone who worked for two cycles advising House races from my perch at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, I can assure you that this doesn’t happen magically. Whether you are working for a challenger, incumbent, or an issue advocacy campaign, keeping your rapid response operation from killing your strategic plan takes a great deal of work, careful strategic planning and a tremendous amount of discipline.
While no two campaigns are exactly alike when it comes to crafting a campaign plan, it’s important to adhere to basic principles: accountability, structure, smart messaging and themes that enable you to be aggressive, agile and accurate.
When hiring staff and consultants, campaigns should set out to build a battle-tested team that has the know-how and capacity to help you craft and execute the communications plan. This helps ensure the campaign makes the best and most efficient use of resources.
The plan should be crafted and ultimately signed off by the team at the beginning stage of the campaign so that it guides all communications with voters — earned and paid. That said there should be an understanding among the team that the plan should be flexible and agile enough to be responsive when the need arises.
When you’re on the ground and getting hammered by your opponent it can be difficult to look beyond the day-to-day or, as the saying goes, “see the forest from the trees.” The best consultants can help fill that void by anticipating attacks, inoculating against them and spotting opportunities to regain the offensive.
Another common pitfall for a busy campaign is to answer whatever question is asked of them by reporters. Remember, those who stay on message control the message. One often overlooked way of ensuring your campaign stays on message is by taking the time to create a message box, or a visual representation of the potential messages from both parties. A message box breaks down into four categories: 1) What will your campaign communicate about itself to voters. 2) What will your campaign communicate about the opposition to voters. 3) What will the opposition communicate about itself to voters. 4) What will the opposition communicate about you to the voters.
By going through this simple exercise early-on, campaigns can take a giant step toward ensuring that their rapid response operation doesn’t kill their strategic plan.
Next, with an eye on the political calendar and the campaign’s paid communications timetable, it’s time to focus on different tactical options for each targeted audience that your campaign will implement at various stages of the campaign.
Once the campaign settles on the right messages and tactics, it’s time to start focusing on which reporters and media outlets, as well as which modes of communication are going to be the most effective in reaching voters. It’s not enough to scatter your message to the four winds by simply sending out a catchy press release to the entire press corps. Successful campaigns do their due diligence behind the scenes with reporters, developing relationships, laying necessary groundwork and, most importantly, establishing trust. This will pay dividends later, especially when it comes time to correct the record after an opponent’s attacks.
Now that you’re ready to execute the plan, remember: just as coaches can map out a perfect game plan, at the end of the day, whether it’s football or politics, the Xs and Os don’t move, players do. Crises will occur; it’s a matter of timing. When they do arrive, your opponent is going to do everything in his or her power to exploit them. And the worst time to plan for an actual crisis is when you’re in the middle of one.
Ryan Rudominer is a senior strategist at New Partners Consulting where he specializes in providing a broad range of clients with strategic messaging, branding and tactical advice. Rudominer previously served as national press secretary for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.