We work hard to be up to date with the latest innovations in communication technology. We hire the best consultants, pollsters and vendors. We go on talk shows. We “win the news cycle” more often than not. We blog. We tweet. We micro-target. We’ve got content going out through 100 different channels. So why isn’t it adding up to something bigger?
Cognitive science research tells us that no matter how messages are distributed, they are received subconsciously, emotionally and most importantly, cumulatively.
The quote from the movie Cool Hand Luke is “a failure to communicate”, but successful communication requires that all those bits of media content accumulate over time into one cohesive and compelling idea.
A great example of this done well, is the entire history of advertising for the GEICO company. They have had many different ad campaigns over the years, but they all say the same thing: “It is really easy to save money by switching to Geico”. Specifically, 15 minutes could save you 15% or more. Whether “It’s so easy a caveman can do it” or “people who save money with Geico are happier than Dracula at a blood drive”, the message stays the same, and every man, woman and child in the world has it permanently etched into their cerebellum. They parody that fact with their new tagline, “GEICO: 15 minutes could save you—Well, you know.”
The private sector and the marketing and advertising industries are aware of this (with varying degrees of success in their application) but the political campaign industry suffers from several bad habits that severely exacerbate this problem.
One cause of uncoordinated messaging is the habit of letting media consultant determine the messaging for their particular media channel. This often results in print materials that aren’t in synch with TV ads, blog posts that contradict speeches, and a general failure to speak in a unified tone.
Messaging also gets fragmented by targeted audience. While targeting voter segments with issue appeals, you have to make sure that those messages reinforce your over-arching message and at the very least, don’t conflict with each other.
Another contributor to fragmentation is the idea that you can use different messengers to deliver different messages in one campaign. Often campaigns use surrogates to attack their opponents. The problem is that voters remember the message – not the messenger. To them, messages from your candidate, the spokespersons, the National Committees, and even independent expenditure campaigns all blend together in their minds. All communication, verbal and non-verbal, reflects on your candidate’s character. If your goal is to make your candidate seem dignified, and everyone representing them on television is snarky, your cumulative message will be that your candidate is snarky.
Effective messaging requires advance planning and daily coordination, and an internal campaign infrastructure designed to facilitate it. The communication strategy and day to day application of that strategy must be coordinated by a central position in the campaign. Your vendors can tell you how to best express that strategy in their given medium, but given the multiplicity of communication channels now in play, somebody has to focus on coordinating message strategy, language and timing across all those channels.
So create the staffing and procedures you need in your campaign to assure that every single voter contact reinforces one compelling idea. You can win the news cycle every minute and every day, and still lose the campaign, if what you say from day to day doesn’t add up to one cohesive, persuasive, emotionally compelling idea.