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NOTIONS: Lessons learned from the candidates' communications

October 27, 2008

Have I told you about my e-mail from Sarah Palin?

Did you know that Obama campaign manager David Plouffe briefs me on campaign strategy?

I've let slip, haven't I, that Bill Clinton invited me to his place to munch on potato chips and watch Hillary's televised debate?

I receive streaming video from Gov. Mitch Daniels letting me look in on campaign stops statewide.

His opponent, Jill Long Thompson, connects via Facebook.

And at 3 a.m. one Saturday, Barack Obama texted me to say he'd chosen Joe Biden as his running mate.

Am I some bigwig? Nah-just Bruce the Voter.

It used to be that political participation, especially at the state and federal levels, was often detached and impersonal. Oh sure, if you wanted, you could sit with the masses at a speech or rally, attend a $2,000-per-plate fund raiser, maybe meet a surrogate or two.

But for most citizens, being involved and informed meant contributing a dollar to the presidential campaign fund via one's tax return, then letting the mass media channel the candidates' messages.

No mas.

At the beginning of the current campaign season, I set out to study campaign communication. I have this theory that big corporations, small businesses, notfor-profit organizations, colleges, universities and others could be far more successful if they'd communicate like the best political candidates.

So early in the primary season, I went to the Web sites of leading candidates for president and governor, Republican and Democrat, and signed up. I "friended" some who had a presence on Facebook. If text messaging was offered along the way, I opted in. In some cases, I made donations, just to see if donors were treated differently.

Then I watched and learned. Some observations:

Be your own media. There's still a significant role for traditional media. But it's shrinking, fragmenting and evolving. What's more, news content usually isn't (and never should be) controllable. So no organization, political or otherwise, can rely solely on media relations or advertising to connect with audiences.

Instead, you have to supplement mainstream and online media by building and continually feeding your own media. And don't think the tools of old-newsletters, memos, annual reports, direct mail, even Intranet and e-mail-will suffice. You must advance your use of new media as quickly as your audiences or they'll move on without you.

(If you don't believe me, ask the McCain campaign which fund-raising mechanism works better: the "emergency telegram" they sent me last week via the U.S. Postal Service or the Obama campaign's online solicitations that helped raise $150 million last month alone. Note to McCain campaign: Telegrams, circa 1945, aren't a good way to contemporize a 72-year-old candidate.)

It's the list, stupid. Many companies and not-for-profits now have Webmasters. Few have list-masters. Yet continually updated lists, segment-able and personalize-able in myriad ways, are the lifeblood of contemporary communication.

Of all the campaigns I followed, Obama wins big on this one. When messages arrive from the candidate, they're addressed to "Bruce" and signed "Barack." I also hear not only from the national campaign, but also the state coordinator, the county coordinator, even the township coordinator where I live. I get "faith and values" messages because I said I was interested in that. While my sons, who gave $5 or $10 are asked for repeat gifts at that level, I'm asked to repeat at or near the level of my initial $50 gift. By contrast, the messages from other campaigns lacked this level of customization.

I saw one report that the Obama campaign now has more than 9 million eaddresses in its database-nearly four times the circulation of USA Today.

Make the message personal.

Hyperbole costs credibility. But too many candidates-in their funding appeals and other messages-exaggerate. They talk platitudes and wonkery. They tell me what's wrong with their opponents instead of what's right about them.

The most effective messages are woven around stories. They're personal-from candidates, their wives, their kids, their moms, their staff, their supporters. They let me in on something. They enlighten. They provide inside information. I'm made to feel like a shareholder, not a prospect.

Think in pictures. Most candidates still send words. Daniels and Obama have excelled at behind-the-scenes photos and streaming video. This is the 21st century. Bring the story to life with sound and images.

Engage, don't just inform. Most campaigns, like most companies and notfor-profits, sent messages at me. The Obama campaign asked, time and again, to engage me: Make calls, walk neighborhoods, help raise funds, attend a coffee, attend a rally, host a debate-watching party, vote early, give us feedback and ideas, etc. If your customers, shareholders, employees, patrons, donors and others are to also be your evangelists, it's no longer sufficient to merely inform them. You must engage them.

May the best communicator-er candidate-win. Election Day is Nov. 4. Please vote.



Hetrick is chairman and CEO of Hetrick Communications Inc., an Indianapolis-based public relations and marketing communications firm. His column appears twice a month. He can be reached at bhetrick@ibj.com.
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