With the ongoing failure of local news sources, local candidates find themselves with a new challenge. They also have a new opportunity.
Candidates for town, county, and local state representative offices will often find that their constituents are unfamiliar with, or wholly ignorant of, they key issues that they are running on. Because of this, may consultants will advise candidates not to try to educate but to focus on tactical technique like driving voter turnout of known supporters, lawn signs, punchy direct mail, and the like.
It is my opinion the reason they do not advocate voter education is not that it doesn’t work, but rather because they don’t know how to do it. This results in elections based on arcane political strategy rather than issues. This is bad strategy. It is also bad for democracy.
In this article, we will discuss how to push out detailed, high impact, relevant, accurate information to the voters and create a more educated electorate. You will learn how to help this educated electorate make better voting decisions by voting for you, assuming you are a candidate who deserves their vote.
People Want to Be Informed
While it may not seem like it, people want to know what’s going on. Some have looked at the loss of readership among local newspapers and viewership of local news as a sign that people do not want local news. I disagree. I believe that people stopped reading newspapers and watching local news because it stopped giving them the news they needed.
Local news coverage is precious hard to find, and what there is can be irrelevant and inaccurate. Local government is complex and arcane. It takes a skillful reporter to dive into the mundane, mind-numbing aspects of the process to understand what is really going on and make it accessible to readers. That is very difficult work. Most reporters, working on deadline, just take the easy way out. They report on meetings, throwing in a few quotes from the record, providing a fractured, out of context narrative. This leaves voters uninformed and confused.
This lack of quality information is potentially disastrous for our democratic system. Without information, people cannot make informed decisions. It also creates an opportunity for candidates who want their campaigns to be more than soundbites, bullet points, and headshots.
Establish Your Brand
If you are running for local office, it is likely that most people do not know you, what you stand for, or much about the issues that you plan to address. Not only do they not know what solutions you offer, they don’t know the problems the solutions are to.
At the very least, a dedicated, civically engaged voter should be able to learn who you are, what you’re about, and what you believe. The next step is pushing that message to more voters, but first you need the message.
This means that you need a platform, ideally a web site, that contains at least these three components: biography of the candidate, a video introducing the candidate, and a statement of positions.
Biography of the Candidate
Who are you? Where do you come from? What will make a voter feel like they can have a beer with you? Why are you running? What is personally important to you? This makes you human, not just a political entity.
A Video Introduction
This can be a fancy, expensive affair, or it can be as simple as a selfie video introducing yourself. The important thing is that voters can see your face and hear your voice. Talk about the same things as your biography.
Statement of Positions
What are the issues? Where do you stand? What solutions do you offer? You would be amazed how many candidates do not have their policies and opinions on their web site. How can a supporter tell someone why you should vote for them if they don’t know what you stand for.
This is just the beginning, but it is vital. If a supporter is telling their friend to vote for you, the friend is going to ask how they can learn more. If there isn’t a web site with basic information, how can they possibly close the deal?
Different Types of Supporters
As you run for office, you will find that there are different types of supporters offering different degrees of support. Diehards, identified supporters, and casual supporters.
These are the people who are with you through hell and high water. They don’t care who they offend as long as it helps get you elected. They’ll argue with anyone at any time, with or without resources. They may be fiercely loyal to you, such as close friends and family, or they may be loyal to your party, and their fierceness comes from their loyalty to the letter after your name rather than your campaign itself.
These are people who are willing to offer you public support. They might support your campaign with sign placements, door knocking, phone banking, or other work. They might not actively work for the campaign, but they’re ready to tell friends and family why they should vote for you. They will carry your message if you empower them to do so.
These are people who will definitely vote for you, but they are hesitant to openly campaign for you. Maybe they can’t express political opinions for business of professional reasons. Maybe they just want to stay out of the fray of our vicious, hyper-partisan modern culture. They’re willing to help, but only if they can do so in a way that provides them personal cover so they don’t feel they are out on their own.
Almost all campaigns do a good job of mobilizing the diehards. Most mobilize the identified supporters well. Very few effectively mobilize the casual supporters, and that is a lot of what we’ll be talking about in this article. Casual supporters may outnumber identified supporters 10 to 1. Imagine the impact it could have on your campaign if you could mobilize this tremendous base.
Creating an Arsenal of Facts
A General wouldn’t send their troops out into battle without weapons, but too many campaigns expect their supporters to wade into the vicious field of social media without tools to support them.
In absence of an Arsenal of Facts, I have heard political organizations suggest that when supporters see their candidate attacked online, they should simply comment “I support Sally and think she’s doing a great job,” or something similar. This is better than nothing because it disrupts the narrative that everyone agrees with the detractor. However, it falls short because its a partisan argument rather than a factual one. Supporters may also not be comfortable stepping in because, should they find themselves being asked to back up their opinion with facts, they would be hard pressed to do so.
In the next section, I have created examples of the two strategies and how they might look on a Facebook post.
The Arsenal of Facts is, quite simply, a resource of articles and links that supporters can link to when carrying the campaign message. It could be as simple as a free blog with a series of articles by the candidate or staff on relevant issues, or it could be a complex web site with search capability, analytics, and more.
The important thing is that there’s some way that a supporter can go to this site, search for the topic in question, find a link, and deploy it.
This will be most effective if you are responsive to your supporters, giving them a way to tell you what they need, and creating articles in as close to real time as possible.
As the candidate or campaign staff, you should be able to stand toe to toe with any detractor in a debate in any setting. As the candidate, however, you can’t be arguing in the comments (as we’ll discuss below). It brings down your prestige and is a waste of your valuable time and energy. Your supporters are happy to do it for you, if you give them the tools to fight with.
A given article may vary greatly in size and complexity. Some could be as simple as a list of supporting links with explanation of what each contains. Others might be lengthier policy papers.
Articles on issues should be well supported and as long as they need to be to clearly express the point. It could be prudent to have a short, quick primer on a topic and a second article which is a deep dive into the issue.
For articles countering attacks, smears, and lies, they can simply address the facts without addressing the attack. For example, if an opponent is attacking your attendance record, write an article which provides supported evidence of your attendance record and any context, such as how you rank among your colleagues.
In the case of the attendance example, there is no need to explain such an article. Constituents are naturally curious about that question. Other issues, however, might need explanation as to why you would be addressing them. Do not address your opponent directly. Instead, refer to questions you have received. “I’ve gotten some questions about my diet and particularly whether or not I eat babies. I do not eat babies, and I’d like to share with you what my typical diet it.” For example.
Empowering Your Supporters
What different does providing well written, properly researched, factually based articles and resources that they could link to?
The diehard supporters would have facts to support the arguments that they are ready to have. Even if they already had the facts, this gives them a way to engage in debate without the exhausting process of having to reframe the argument in every comment.
The identified supporter, who usually does not have sufficient facts in hand to effectively debate, will now be able to carry your message into the argument.
Even the causal supporter would be able to bring your information into a conversation in a non-committal way. “I don’t know anything about this, but I’d like to hear your thoughts on this article.” Even independents might pose such a question when seeing a post in obvious opposition to another clearly laid out set of facts.
Ideally, you will be available to create new content as needed. You likely have supporters who are ready and willing to wade into the quagmire of social media on your behalf, as long as you equip them with arguments. In this situation, they may encounter a negative post that you have not yet addressed in your Arsenal of Facts. If they can report back and get a resource promptly created for them to deploy, they can be a powerful resource to respond to and neutralize negative and false narratives in the social media space.
This is especially powerful because it will increase the perception of support for your campaign. In local campaigns, most supporters lack knowledge to engage in debate, leaving the candidate to do the arguing themselves. If your arguments are carried by your supporters, especially in debate with your opponent directly, you, the candidate, look more professional and dignified.
Engage from the High Ground
A candidate should never be in a comment fight.
That point should be bigger.
A candidate should never be in a comment fight.
If you are a candidate, you should never comment on anything controversial. “Great picture” “Adorable dog” “Congratulations on your wedding” These are okay. This is engagement. If it’s political, however, you should almost never comment.
If you do comment, comment with a link and little else. Your time and your energy is too valuable to be mucking about with people who have all the time in the world and will never be convinced.
As an elected official, you should speak with elected authority, as explained in a recent article. A candidate may, at times, get into comments, but should always bear in mind the dignity of their role when doing so.
The important thing is maintain the high ground, both morally and tactically. Think of it this way. If you were at an event with the mic in your hand, and a member of the audience asked an aggressive question, you wouldn’t put the mic down, climb off the stage and go argue with them on the floor. You’d stand on the stage, mic in hand, controlling the situation, and answer the question as the expert. The questioner is a face in the crowd and you are the candidate.
Same thing on social media. If someone makes a negative or questioning post, and you get into the comments, then you’re just a voice in the rabble. However, if you compose an article or video and a supporter comments with the link, then you are speaking with appropriate gravitas to your position as candidate and to the office which you seek.
Video and Social Media
One of the most powerful and underutilized tools today is easy and free video on social media. The best way to make people know, like, and trust you is to be in front of them on a regular basis. If you are a business, this means the consistent branding allowed by community publications, but a political campaign is a much shorter period. For a campaign, online, authentic video is very powerful.
Video does not have to be expensive or highly produced. It can be as simple as posting a Facebook Live video. Just open the Facebook app on your mobile device, go to your campaign Facebook page, go where you would go to make a post, and click “go live.”
Then speak openly and honestly about issues that matter to you. Educate the public, share your plans, tell your story, answer your critics. Anything you want to say, say it there. It’s free, and you can and should do it as often as you like. Multiple times per day is not too much. People will choose how much they want to engage, but if the content is not there, they will definitely not engage. (Be sure to ask your supporters to share it.)
The only thing better than content is more content. In national politics, there is a danger that pieces may be taken out of context and turned against you by use of their effective political networks. In the local context, there is a much greater risk that potential voters will simply fail to learn anything about you.
Even if something is turned against you, consider this. That political network that would be used to spread the nasty piece: if you followed the instructions in this article, you’ve got a pretty powerful one yourself.
Are you looking to build a powerful infrastructure for your campaign or business which will allow your supporters to drive your message home for you? Contact me. I’d like to talk to you about how I can help you build your communications machine.