Tip Sheet: Communications Lessons from the 2008 Presidential Campaign Trail


When I started my volunteer work with the Barack Obama for President Campaign in the frigid Iowa winter in late 2007, we were happy to draw crowds of 750 to 1,000. These were largely comprised of Iowa college kids in Iowa City or blue-collar and black families in industrial Cedar Rapids--in other words, "true believers." When I last left the campaign bus in Texas, after Obama had won 10 primary states in a row, we had just completed an arena rally in Dallas with more than 20,000 people inside--and there were 2,000 people outdoors waiting to hear him speak. Even on this scale, the media relations, PR and public affairs skill sets employed on the political campaign trail mirror what PR pros are doing every day in business. I've been an active "political junkie" with national campaigns for more than 25 years, during which time I've learned that the currency of political campaigns is the promise of future employment, consulting positions and the changing of the guard on K Street. In this election cycle, I have provided advance (meeting planning) and press (media relations) for Obama for President, so I can share some insights on the communications functions and skills required to endure a tough campaign. What follows are just a few of many. Why Volunteer? The benefits of honing your communications skills on the campaign trail include: Making (lifelong) national media contacts with all the TV networks, print and radio; Understanding deadlines and the "CNN" hourly news cycle; Improving skills of message development, testing, persuasion, speech writing and Q & A prep; Reaching the "public" across America in a more grassroots, intimate way; Building coalitions, delivering votes or precincts and learning how congressional districts operate (public affairs techniques); and Exercising a civic role and helping a legislator run for elective office provides access to government not found in a textbook, whether or not your candidate wins. What Communications Skills Transfer? Of course, written and spoken communications abilities are key for campaign staffers. Today's campaigns move at record speed so the ability to think on your feet is vital. Other tangible skills you need: Knowledge of how "pool" reporters and TV media work; Ability to work a riser and give priority order to local media. This is counter-intuitive. Yes, CNN and MSNBC are important; but the media representing the voters of that state are more critical to your candidate. International media is even less germane; Leadership and self-starter attitude. The minute you start on a campaign, you are the person "in charge." Whether that is media sign-up sheets and credentialing at the door, rating which media are higher in the pecking order to meet your candidate, you will likely make that call; Using volunteers to build a grassroots communications network. Word of mouth and Blackberrys are the prime modes of intra-campaign communication; An understanding of all forms of electronic media, including podcasts, blogs, digital video and Facebook or YouTube postings; and Collaborative work habits. There are no prima donnas on the campaign communications staff--except maybe the speechwriters. The single best piece of advice I have gotten in my political consulting career was last summer at the Barack Obama Campaign Bootcamp in New York. This is where I learned that "Life is short, and campaigns are even shorter." The grassroots trainer was telling us to leave our egos at home, and to find the endorsements, the community grassroots organizers, the people who can drive seniors to the polling place and the folks who will put our volunteer staff up in their homes. These functions are the guts of what make campaigns work. PRN CONTACT: Mike Smith is CEO of Michael Smith Business Development. He can be reached at mike@michaelsmith.biz.

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