Throughout the summer, the Northwest Arkansas Emerging Leaders (www.nwalead.com) have hosted a monthly breakfast focused on teaching political candidates and campaign workers the ins and outs of running for elected office. Breakfast topics have included "what makes a good candidate," "finance and fundraising" and "ethics and lobbying." One more breakfast remains in October that will provide a review and discussion of all aspects of running for elected office. To register visit the Emerging Leaders' website - it is free!
In September the topic of discussion was how to deal with the media and developing an effective marketing strategy for your campaign. Laura Kellams, a former political reporter with the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, and Terry Benham, a consultant with Impact Management Group, sat on a panel moderated by Martine Downs-Pollard where they provided expert advice on being a candidate and running a campaign in today's 24-hour news cycle.
The panelists did a superb job of relating real-life examples of what you can do right and what you can do wrong in your campaign.
The first step in running for office and developing a media strategy is to find out what issues are important to your constituents. The best way to do this is to run a poll. Current poll results are very clear. What matters to voters today are jobs, followed by jobs, and then more jobs - with just a dash of health care. Once you know what is important to voters then you are able to craft your message to address these issues. Another good point is that if you don't have a solution to the issues raised by the polls or disagree with what your constituents are focusing on then maybe you shouldn't run for office that year.
Once you know what is important to voters and have developed your message to respond to these concerns it is critical to prepare short, concise talking points that outline your positions. Often candidates make the mistake of speaking in long, complicated paragraphs when they should be using bullet points.
With talking points in hand the candidate needs to stay focused and disciplined in sticking to these positions and points. Never feel like you have to fill an awkward silence during an interview with impromptu or extraneous information. This may make you a boring candidate, but "interesting" does not always translate into "winning." A master politician is able to redirect or relate any question back to one of their talking points or positions. The old adage of answer the question you wish they had asked applies here.
Utilizing social media is a new phenomenon for candidates that can be one of the most dangerous. Twitter and Facebook are important, relevant parts of a campaign, but they cannot be entered into lightly. Have a strategy and stick with it. If you are using social media solely as a means of publicizing events and links then you can probably get by without expert advice. However, if you plan to fully utilize social media to include policy and position development, expanding your messaging to new groups and managing volunteers then strongly consider working with tech-savvy consultants that can help you maximize your reach and impact.
The panel spent a lot of time discussing the news media and both agreed that candidates have to remember that reporters are people too with deadlines and family obligations and a genuine desire to get the facts right. They recommend engaging the news media assigned to your position outside of work and politics to strengthen your overall relationship. The reporter will never really be your "friend," but if you have a good overall relationship it will be very beneficial to you in the long run.
The news media can really become your best advocate or worst detractor when your campaign is faced with a crisis. Terry said that his best advice when facing a crisis is that it is never as bad as you think it is. With that optimism in mind, the panel agreed that candidates with some distress in the campaign should not hide from the issue or duck reporters' calls. Every candidate should provide their cell and home phone numbers along with email addresses to the media and when they call - even during a campaign crisis - pick up the phone. You give a story more legs by hiding.
If the story is inaccurate you hurt yourself by not being available and correcting the story. Under no circumstances should you be dishonest and if your campaign is facing a crisis and the facts are against you - admit it. Then, work to change the facts of the story so you can move forward. Applying this advice to a purely arbitrary situation might go like this:
Candidate Bill has filed an inaccurate financial/fundraising report and the news media calls him on it. It appears he is acting dishonestly or trying to hide where his donations are coming from. Candidate Bill needs to immediately respond and if his financial report is inaccurate, admit it and file a corrected report (i.e. admit the facts are not in your favor and then change the facts).
The last point is to remember that a reporter is not out to get you (almost assuredly). They are doing their job and you should not take stories personal. They are busy and want to do their jobs and accurately report the facts. Once again, if the facts are against your campaign, you cannot fault them for reporting it.
A successful run for public office requires dealing honestly with the media and implementing your marketing strategy. If you stick to your position statements, stay focused, be responsive to the media and always remember it is not as bad as you think it is you will make it through the election.