How to Deliver Your Campaign Message in a Crisis
This piece was originally posted on the National Democratic Training Committee website on June 4, 2020.
Campaigns last months, sometimes even years. They unfold in public view against the backdrop of current events, and there are no do-overs for candidates who are under constant scrutiny from the media, their opponents, and even their own supporters.
Over the course of your campaign, events will occur that are out of your control.
Some, like natural disasters or a global pandemic, will affect the lives of the people you seek to represent. Others will be more sport and spectacle; a political scandal or a misspoken or misconstrued statement. A crisis can last a single news cycle, or extend into the indefinite future.
No campaign ever plays out in exactly the way it was envisioned. That’s the nature of life, and it is the nature of leadership. What matters is how you and your campaign take stock, adapt, and move forward.
Using your campaign message, you can weather the storms to come by meeting them with calm, purpose, and strategy.
Review Your Communications Plan
A written communications plan is a crucial component of any campaign.
Your team needs to work in sync and reinforce your core campaign message by speaking about issues the same way. Whether your message is delivered by the fundraising team, in field scripts, with reporters, or on social media, it must be consistent.
Yet, while your communications plan is the backbone of your campaign messaging, it must be treated as a living document.
When crisis strikes, review your communications plan.
Are the issues you’ve been focusing on in your owned, paid, shared, and earned media still the most relevant as the crisis unfolds, or does the electorate have new, more urgent priorities now? How do your issues dovetail with the issues raised by the crisis?
Are there elements of your biography which validate your insights into recovery plans?
Do you need to adjust any language your campaign has been using?
Ceasing communication, or “going dark,” can create a number of new issues for your campaign to manage.
The absence of communication creates a vacuum, and a vacuum will be filled. Voters may question where you went, why you’re gone, and how your absence will affect your job performance if they elect you.
Reporters may spin theories.
And your opponents will have an opening.
At the same time, you do not want to potentially share misinformation. As the saying goes, “first reports are always wrong.” While simplistic, this often holds true. Reporters, eager for a scoop share rumors without verification, and social media amplifies this infinitely.
Amidst reports of violence or natural disaster, our natural inclination is to be led by our fear. This can be an opportunity to showcase your leadership style, even if you don’t have all the answers yourself.
Use your owned media channels as well as your social media and email databases to get your story out on your terms.
How is the crisis affecting your community?
Are groups being disproportionately affected, and if so, how can you advocate for them?
What resources are available to help victims; what can your volunteers do to support recovery efforts?
How does your platform address the issues the crisis has brought to the forefront of voters’ minds?
Look at Your Voter Contact Strategy
A crisis may affect your ability to rely on traditional voter outreach methods. In the 2020 cycle, COVID-19 has eliminated rallies, meet and greets, and door-to-door canvassing is unlikely at best. But you still need to reach new voters and drive your supporters to the polls.
To replace these voter contact opportunities, you might choose to shift the budget to a direct mail program, one of the most cost-effective paid media strategies. You might increase your digital ad spend or consider building a texting program.
As states look at expanding vote by mail, keep your likely voters informed of deadlines and application processes, and encourage them to take advantage of voting by mail as much as possible.
Use Technology to Bring Your Campaign to Voters
Rather than holding in-person town halls and meet and greets, explore technologies such as Zoom, Hangouts, and Houseparty to bring your campaign message into the living rooms of your community. These services offer an unprecedented opportunity for voters to interact with candidates in a real way that builds relationships despite distance.
Keep your social media presence top of mind by hosting live videos on Facebook Live and Instagram Live. These can be simple unplanned, unproduced updates filmed on your phone while taking a socially distanced stroll, or they can be scheduled, formal press conference-style formats allowing media and constituents to ask questions via the comments thread.
Remember What You’re Running For
You decided to run for office because you saw a need in your community. The reasons that pushed you to run are still valid, and still important.
The greatest threat a crisis can pose to a campaign is the loss of perspective. In the heat of battle, it is easy to let the shifting ground consume your focus, your energy, and your attention.
Don’t let the urgent outweigh the important.
Take a deep breath, trust in your campaign message, and keep moving forward.
Morgan Harris is co-founder and managing partner of Acacia Consulting Group. He has served as a communications consultant for campaigns of all sizes, including gubernatorial, congressional, state legislature, mayoral, and city council races. An expert in message strategy and delivery, he has more than 20 years of experience in public relations and marketing, handling clients including Walt Disney Pictures, Pixar, IFC Films, Netflix, Paramount Pictures, IFC Films, and Cirque du Soleil. Morgan lives in Chicago with his cats and his Netflix account.