Grassroots Tips

Laying the Groundwork for Productive Media Relations

media relationsYou have probably noticed that, as a rule, the more successful conservatives are at impacting politics and society, the more attention they will get from the media – and that this attention is almost always biased.

But if you have been involved in politics for any length of time, (or you plan to be), at some point you’ll have to deal with the media. Whether it’s as a candidate, a campaign manager, worker, volunteer or just as an activist, everyone associated with politics is a target of the political media. It’s what they do.

Since they are a fact of political life you may as well make the most of it and be prepared to deal with them as effectively as possible, making sure that the way you go about it actually helps support and advance your goals, rather than set you back.

This means that, in order to be more effective, conservatives need to be prepared to deal with the media. With that in mind, here are some fundamental principles to lay the groundwork for more productive media relations.

Don’t ignore them:

The media is often referred to as the “fourth estate” or the “fourth branch of government”, and with good reason. Whether we like it or not, there is simply no denying that the media has a tremendous impact on politics and society in general by virtue of its ability to help shape public opinion.

Remember, the media goes on without you. And if you choose not to have any input in the conversation, you can’t really complain about the results. Don’t ignore it just because you don’t like it, or it doesn’t like you.

Get to know them:

The better you know the members of the media who cover the topics that you are involved with, the more effective you can be. In fact it’s a two-way street, in that they need sources that are active in the areas they cover in order to do their job. So put together a list of relevant media sources, (TV, radio, newspaper, Internet), and spend some time introducing yourself and letting them know about the issue or group you’re working with.

A big part of media relations is actually knowing them.  In other words, build relationships.

Always be honest:

As the saying goes, honesty is the best policy. Whether you’re dealing with reporters on a story, or writing an op-ed column or a letter-to-the-editor, you’ll always have better success and a greater impact if you shoot straight with people and they come to expect that from you. Remember, conservatives already operate under a “cloud of suspicion” with most of the media because of their liberal bent.

Don’t make things any harder on yourself.

The caveat being that, as Proverbs tells us, only a fool utters his whole mind. In other words, some things just don’t need to be shared. That said, make sure that what you DO share is the truth. This makes it easier to keep a productive relationship after you’ve gone to the trouble of building one.

***

Conservatives already have enough trouble getting a fair shake in the media. Following these rules will help you get better results.

How to Create a Campaign Plan

Before you get started on any campaign – whether it’s an election campaign or an issue based campaign – you NEED to have a plan. But just as the plan is important, so is the planning process itself. As former President (and General) Eisenhower once said, “Plans are useless, but planning in indispensable”.

Over 2,000 years ago, Chinese General Sun Tzu described what he called the “Five Elements of the Art of War” as follows:

  • Measurement of space
  • Estimation of quantities
  • Calculations
  • Comparison
  • Chances of victory

He stated that: “Measurement of space is derived from the ground. Quantities derive from measurement, calculations from quantities, comparisons from calculations and victory from comparisons.” To put that in political terms, you need to evaluate the environment, research the numbers, determine what’s needed to win, compare yourself and the opposition and then realistically estimate if you can win.

In other words, YOU NEED TO PLAN.

Planning forces you to think things through, weigh the options and see potential opportunities and problems. Once you’ve got a plan it’s much easier to know “what’s next” on a day to day basis, and you’ll know “why” it’s better to do things a certain way and not just guess or roll with the flow.

This section will give you a good thumbnail guide on how to plan a campaign, and how to do the research and make the evaluations needed in order to decide what kind of strategy and tactics you should use.

The Basics of Campaign Planning are:

    1. Evaluation: Identify all of the factors (current or possible) that can have an impact on being successful.
    2. Research & Targeting: Analyze what’s needed to achieve the results you want – and how you stack up. Do you have what you need? Can you get it?
    3. Strategy: Develop a strategy that maximizes your strengths and the opposition’s weaknesses. How can you make the most of your likely resources and opportunities?
    4. Tactics & Implementation: Determine what tactics you should use to implement your strategy – and when to use them.
    5. Timeline: Start with Election Day (or another critical day, such as a key vote you are lobbying) and work backwards, building in enough time to get the things done that need doing.
    6. Budget and Finance: How much money will it take…and how will you raise it?
    7. Review: Evaluate and review the plan and your progress on a regular basis – then make adjustments.

A good plan is a collection of answers to a series of good questions. Pull all of those answers together and organize them in one place. Then write out a formal plan. And to get the most out of any planning process, make sure that all of the key players who will be involved in carrying out the plan are part of the process. If they don’t “buy in”, they will be less likely to help.

Don’t try to plan in a hurry. If the purpose is to develop a good plan, then you need to respect the process and take the time to do it right. Depending on how much time you have available, or who else may be helping you, (or how big your campaign is), you could spend a few weeks on doing it right. At the same time, you want to avoid “analysis paralysis”. As Patton put it, “a good plan, violently executed now, is better than a perfect plan next week”.

Don’t expect what you do to be perfect. No plan ever survives contact with the enemy. Or as Mike Tyson once said, “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth”. Things change.

Your plan has to be flexible and able to adapt to circumstances – which means the “planning” doesn’t end with the first draft. It’s an ongoing process. So once a plan has been implemented, schedule regular meetings of all the key players and review the situation. Have things changed? Does any element of the plan or the timeline need to be altered to deal with those changes?

Evaluate, research, plan, implement and adjust. Then repeat!

If you do the planning that you need to do on the front end, you’ll save yourself a lot of time and headache later, not to mention increase your chances of being successful. So take your time and don’t take shortcuts. You’ll be glad you did it right.

Remember, “If you fail to plan, you plan to fail”.

Know Your Environment

Before you can put together a good plan for any type of campaign, you have to have good information. That means that you need an honest evaluation of the things that will have an impact on the campaign and its ability to succeed. In other words, you need to know your environment. It’s like the water that you’re going to have to swim in.

In political campaigns, knowing your environment means knowing any outside influences, knowing the campaigns and/or candidates themselves, knowing the issues and the media that you may have to deal with. If you’re aware of what the environment will be like, then you’ll know what your plan needs to address and what you need to plan around – or even try to leverage to your advantage.

Here’s how to break it down:

Know the Outside Influences:

Whether you like it or not there are some outside factors that aren’t related to you or the opposition that can have an impact on any campaign. You need to take them into account and determine what kind of difference they could make.

Below is a short list of items to consider, but make note of anything else that could have a major impact.

• If it’s an election, what other races are on the ballot? President, governor, senator, representative? State and/or local races? Are any of them popular (or unpopular) enough to impact voter turnout?
• Are candidates in other races likely to draw more favorable or unfavorable voters to the polls?
• Major endorsements? (Who’s supported by the big names, and will it matter?)
• Are there any key referendums on the ballot?
• If it’s a lobbying campaign, who supports and opposes it? Establishment/insiders or outsiders?
• Are there any special interest groups or coalitions at work? Will they help or hurt?
• Who can you expect to work against you? If it’s an election, how is all of this likely to impact voter turnout?
• What are the economic conditions? What impact will they have?
• Is there an intense anti-establishment atmosphere?
• List any key events or dates between now and the election (or any key vote that you may be lobbying) and how they could impact the campaign.

The more that you know about the outside factors that you can’t control, and the events that are looming on the horizon, the better the chances that a campaign plan will be realistic about what you can and can’t do. The point is to try to avoid creating a plan that runs smack into reality or events that you could have anticipated.

It will help you avoid having a plan that forces you to swim against the tide – or at least give you a realistic idea of just how hard you’re going to have to swim!

Know the Campaigns:

The next step is to take a realistic look at the campaign itself, as well as the opposition. What are the strengths and weaknesses? Does it have what it needs? Is it likely to? Sketch out an honest profile of both sides. Start with a simple “T” chart for strengths on one side and weaknesses on the other. Pull this basic information together and review it.

Take a good look at the opposition as well as your own campaign from several different perspectives, then specifically focus on doing more detailed research of the opposition.

Candidate profiles would include:
• Biography / Resume – (On paper, who looks more qualified and has the best story to tell?)
• Personal strengths and weaknesses – (Of candidates and campaign leadership)
• Stands on the Issues – (If it’s a candidate campaign, any flip-flops or philosophical problems?)
• Support from special interests – (Which political groups are involved for whom, and does it hurt or help?)
• Political experience – (Does anyone have any? Past campaigns? Does anyone have experienced or “smart” help?)
• Financial support – (What kind of donors? Self-funding? Access to donors?)
• Resources – (Does either campaign have what it needs to win, or is it likely to?)
• News clippings – (Collect any useful news clips / articles on the issue or candidates)
• Existing networks – (Who’s well connected and has access to others to build support)

Opposition Research: most of the information below can usually be found with the government body they represent.
• Votes and/or stands on issues: are they consistent?
• Accomplishments – (What have they sponsored or co-sponsored? Have any of their proposals become law?)
• Attendance records – (Did they show up for work regularly or not?)
• Campaign and personnel finance disclosures – (Look for any position switches within days of getting major contributions)
• Any resume inflation?

What jumps out as an obvious weakness that the public would care about? Why is that? Know the answers and you will be able to plan to exploit and leverage your strengths and the opposition’s weaknesses. You’ll know what “ground” you would rather fight on.

Sun Tzu put it this way, “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the results of a hundred battles”. Don’t’ lose on account of ignorance.

Know the Issues:

Whether you’re running a grassroots organization, a lobbying campaign or an election campaign, issues matter. As legendary South Carolina political consultant Lee Atwater used to say “Issues win campaigns”, and he was exactly right. Issues win campaigns because campaigns are about people…and people are moved by issues.

Issues can be used to unite voters behind a cause or a candidate, or divide them away from one. They can also be used to compliment a candidate or group’s image, if they’re consistent with the current image, or what you want to portray.

Choose the Right Issues. Most people hate politics. They don’t usually get involved in it because they’re bored and lying around with nothing to do. Something motivates them. They care about something. Take the time to find out what that is.

Find the issues that are relevant to the people whose support you need – AND that are important enough to move them to take action. The kind of issues that not only motivate people, but that sometimes may even divide your supporters passionately from your opponents.

In many cases it can even work to your advantage to make an election, a vote that you may be lobbying, or even a PR campaign, into a “referendum” on a specific issue or group of issues. In other words, you can piggy-back on public support for an issue that people care about by equating support for your cause or campaign with support for that issue.

Take a look at the issue environment and determine which issues will have the greatest impact on your campaign, (or could if they caught fire).

You can check any recent polls that have been done that mention specific issues, make note of those that get a lot of play in “letters-to-the-editor”, consider doing a “focus group” of campaign supporters and reviewing major issues with them, or even send a web-based “issues survey” or poll to everyone on your email lists.

• List the “hottest” issues?
• List issues that have the potential to be “hot”?
• List those that are relevant to the supporters that you need

Remember that in order for an issue to have an impact, people must be aware of it – AND the differences between you and the opposition. They have to be highlighted aggressively and repeatedly.

Know the Media:

Communications are a critical part of any type of political campaign and, like it or not, that usually means dealing with the media, (both the “old” and “new” varieties). In order to do that effectively you need to gather some basic information about who you will be dealing with.

List all media outlets that would conceivably cover your campaign or issue: ex. radio, TV, newspapers, blogs and other notable outlets. List key contact information, political ad rates, deadlines and endorsement policies
Determine which outlets will be most relevant to the campaign and how to use them. (Ex., blogs, Facebook, Twitter, Supporter social media accounts, etc.)
ID and create a list of key social media contacts (ex., media, bloggers, key “influentials”). Communicate and share campaign updates with them on a regular basis

***

Follow these steps and make sure you have a realistic view of the environment the campaign will take place in – and be prepared to deal with it (or even leverage it)!