Eight Principles of Winning Media Campaigns by Joe Slade White

By at June 23, 2011 | 5:14 pm | Print

Eight Principles of Winning Media Campaigns by Joe Slade White

1. Timing is everything.

• Take control of the dynamic of a campaign at the critical moment of the campaign – even if that means you must let the opponent make the first move.

• Define, or redefine, the race coherently and decisively on your terms from your very first step.

• But unleash your strongest positive and strongest negative at the right moment – usually much later than you think.

• All campaigns want to move voters who are against them, immediately, to being for them. But most voters need to move first to undecided. If you try to short circuit that step, and try to push voters too far, too hard, you risk never moving them at all.

• Campaigns that depend solely on a sudden surge of emotional momentum, too early and without strongly anchoring their lines, risk being blown off the mountain at the first strong gust of negative. Emotional surges are central to every upset – but the timing must be perfect and as late as possible.

• A strong compelling and emotional spot that tells the candidate’s story, and that links issues and values to the elements of that story, is the best way to anchor lines securely.

2. Break the code.

• Every election has a unique dynamic that has to be unlocked or “broken” like a code. That unique code defines how critical groups of targeted voters view a campaign.

• My friend Bob Gogerty taught me that breaking the code of a specific election, like deciphering any code, takes discipline, research, but also a leap of intuition that looks at a puzzle in a way that has never been done before.

• People who are afraid of uncertainty – who KNOW what has always worked before, find it very difficult to break the code, usually because they don’t want to believe it exists.

• Voters will always give you the key to break the code, but you have to listen, and be open for the “click” of the tumbler.

• Once the code is broken, the answer will often fly in the face of conventional wisdom. Conventional wisdom is often right – and sometimes wrong – but the insight that comes from breaking the code is almost never conventional.


3. Connect through emotion – the path of least resistance – the Responsive Chord.

• But the emotion, the message, must occur in the voters, not in the ads. How an ad makes the voter feel – how it makes them respond, becomes the most important design element of an ad.

• When the emotion is in the audience, it creates within each voter a unique response, which is deeply felt, lasting, authentic, and powerful.

• If the message is honesty, don’t talk about honesty – show it. Voters will respond. Most campaigns try to ram messages down peoples’ throats. It’s why the best standard political ads are so popular and effective that they need 1,500 points.

• If the desired emotion is anger, the ad must not be angry – instead, the voters must feel anger, and feel it themselves – not because they’re told to, but because it is their genuine response. That is the core of the Responsive Chord.

• In an age of cynicism, brought on by counterfeit sincerity and gimmicky ads, low-key emotional authenticity is an ad’s (and a campaign’s) most powerful weapon.

4. Tell Stories.

• Every person in the world, in their life, has some interesting story to tell – something that has changed their life. Every issue can be expressed through a story. Story telling initiates the spark of an emotional connection. It makes candidates three-dimensional, and issues and campaigns come alive.

• Two-dimensional candidates are vulnerable. A flat figure is always easier to knock down, than one who gives voters something to believe in. Emotional depth is the third-dimension.

• All good story telling causes the audience to participate – and more with their imaginations than with their eyes.

• Too many campaigns present issues one dimensionally – appealing only to the head and not to the heart – and never move anyone anywhere except by dragging them.

• Good stories and the Responsive Chord technique create multiple layers of messages in different voters far better than ads that are seen as blatant appeals to special interests.

• Give voters something to vote for. You can sometimes win solely by giving voters something to vote against, but decisive wins, in genuinely contested races, are most often achieved by giving voters something to vote for, and against, for the same reasons.

5. Thirty seconds is plenty of time to do a lot, but only if you don’t try to do too much.

• Focus. Keep It Simple.

• One test of a political ad is simple: can you diagram the ad in the same way you can diagram a good declarative English sentence? Does the ad move a strategy forward? Does the ad have a structure and contain details of strategy (spoken and unspoken) that are there for a purpose?

• Quality IS strategy. Mediocre ads drain a campaign of resources (time, momentum, and money) and send a message that is at once both weakened and vulnerable.

• Never mistake expense or complexity for quality. Quality is the result of dedication to details and strategy. In certain situations, the simplicity of a message means that the right spot is simple and therefore, inexpensive. The secret is in making the right strategic choices within a budget.

• Never try to fit 34 seconds worth or words into a 30 second ad. Voters will dislike you without even knowing why.

• Most political ads appear not to have the slightest idea what they’re about, what they’re trying to do, and a moment after they’re done you wonder, what the hell was that all about?

• People always want to get in one more thing. Don’t.

• Another test for television ads: Turn off the sound and Look. Does it work? Then look away and listen. Does it work?

• At some point, in every campaign, a candidate needs to look voters in the eye and reveal something about themselves – who they are, what they believe, and what they want to do.

• Write the way people talk – not the way people read.

• Three points of simple straightforward information, delivered in a clear, and low key manner, can be the most effective way to set up a surge of voter movement. The initial movement will be negligible, but once delivered, the information can transform the terrain of a campaign so basically and so completely that momentum, once ignited, burns like a wildfire. Yet without that initial and underestimated step, a campaign can find itself slogging away for every inch as if through quicksand.

• Some of the most important statements one makes in life are expressed in less than thirty seconds – “I love you.” “I’m sorry.” “Will you marry me?” “Please.” “Thank you.” “Eat your peas or else.”

• Clutter on television is a great ad’s best friend. Clutter inside your ads or your strategy is your worst enemy.

• Creativity that is disconnected from strategy is self-delusional and self-destructive. It’s a car careening out of control down a curving mountain road. It’s no longer a question of whether or not something bad is going to happen, but when – and when it does it won’t be minor or reversible.

• Voters will vote for stupid and sloppy campaigns, but only under duress.

6. Research for the emotional details.

• Respect the voters. If respected, voters will tell you everything you need to know. They will also be surprised.

• Emotional details are the key points of strength and vulnerability in your opponent and yourself that trigger an emotional energy in voters, both positive and negative.

• Look for patterns – watch for the anomalies – good polls are three- dimensional maps and no hard battle is won without understanding the terrain.

• Out-dated assumptions account for most campaign fatalities.

• Sometimes, ninety-eight percent of a good poll will confirm what you already know – and that’s fine – it’s the two percent of surprise that gives you an edge – and the surprise will make sense only once you feel it through, as well as think it through.

• Good pollsters tell you what – great ones tell you why – but really great ones are able to say, “Here’s something really interesting and puzzling…” and then dig in to the puzzle to figure it out.

• Focus groups are best for revelations – polls are best for testing – just the opposite of what many campaigns think and do.

7. Find the trigger points.

• Every campaign has a thousand vulnerabilities, but only one that is an actual trigger point – a point that, if hammered repeatedly, will cause the campaign to collapse in on itself. Sometimes a trigger point is an obvious negative, but often, it is actually a candidate’s perceived strength.

• Find that trigger point and hammer it and hammer it again, and when everyone on the steering committee and your best friends say you’ve absolutely hammered it way too much…hammer it four or five times more.

• Never assume that an opponent’s mistake, having been reported on the front page of the newspaper for days, has influenced even one damn voter.

• When an attack is focused, low key, and backed with factual citations, voters do not see it as “negative,” especially if the Responsive Chord allows the voters to draw the negative conclusion themselves.

• Any good attack paralyzes an opponent’s campaign for at least 48 hours and then forces them onto your terrain, on your terms. Good attacks invite over-reaction – and that destroys balance.

• Capitalize on your opponent’s mistakes. But don’t interrupt them. Never be paralyzed by your own mistakes – correct them if necessary but keep moving.

• Figure out the one thing an opponent absolutely believes is his or her strength, and then use it against them. It demoralizes an opponent.

• Never be afraid to apologize, from strength, to voters for a mistake. Never whine.

• Raising doubt is much more deadly than certainty. Certainty can always be argued – doubt permeates.

• Humor is a means of delivering an attack that defies response. But humor, like all negative, is like working with nitroglycerin – it can destroy your opponent’s campaign or it can blow up in your face. It demands coolness and calm. Done clumsily it is self-destructive, instantly and irreversibly.

8. Anticipate.

• Expert ski racers and winning racing car drivers are already three turns down the course in their minds.

• In campaigns, eighty percent of all negative attacks can be predicted. In speeches, interviews, and news releases, an opponent will almost always tell you exactly what the attacks will be, and how they’ll be delivered, weeks in advance.

• The hardest decision, which only comes from experience, is to know when to pre-empt and when to lie in wait. Pre-empt an attack only when it can be truly destroyed with less effort, expense, and strategic cost than responding later.

• Pre-emption should turn vulnerability into a strength. It requires guts and finesse and it demoralizes the opponent.

• But when a great response will actually do more harm to the opponent, lay a trap, wait patiently, and then strike quickly.

• When attacked unexpectedly, use the energy of the attack to throw the opponent – as in judo. Deflect the attack and counter-attack immediately. Then, before the opponent can recover balance, attack at once, strongly, on a different front.

• Make sure that you are responding to the real message of the attack – the underlying responsive chord the attack evokes in voters – and

not to the literal message of the attack itself. A response that limits itself solely to the literal attack, will only reinforce the attack, and cannot meet the real threat.

• Don’t let your opponent define the fight. Remember the moment in “Raiders of the Lost Ark” when Indiana Jones, threatened by the warrior juggling two swords, first looks worried, then he thinks for a second, and draws the pistol.

• Never get drawn into a fight that is stupid and irrelevant. That sounds obvious, but it rarely is under fire. Never change plans if your opponent wants you to. That also seems obvious, but it’s one of the most frequent mistakes campaigns make.

• But when the time is right, change plans easily and quickly. Patience under fire is sometimes good. Paralysis never is.

• Beware of detailed plans masquerading as a strategy. Their appearance of substance is the only thing more dangerous than no planning at all.

• But strategy that isn’t accompanied and grounded by great detailed planning is inviting disaster. A great creative ad that isn’t connected to a plan is like a child’s helium balloon tied with a loose knot – it may be pretty; it may be fun; but it’s going to have a bad ending.

• When you think the opponent’s been done in, never make the mistake of letting up too early. Remember all the rules we learned when we were young from horror movies – they apply to campaigns.

A final thought.

Anyone who thinks that these or any principles can be applied with mathematical precision and without exception is living in an alternate reality, and we wish them luck.

In the real world, mistakes happen, things go wrong. Get over it. Some of the best ads I’ve ever produced resulted from being forced to deal with the unexpected and taking advantage of accidents. It happens.

Joe Slade White and Company brings a proven, 30-year record of winning the toughest elections and ballot initiatives, in virtually every state in the nation. With more than 400 political campaigns under our belts, the firm has compiled a winning record of over 75% with clients including Presidential candidates, U.S. Senators, Governors, County Executives, Members of Congress, and Mayors.

(c) 2011 Joe Slade White and Company      (202) 470- 0412        www.JoeSladeWhite.com



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