Strategic Communications and the Midterm Elections

Debra Pickett, Page 2 Communications

If there’s a lesson for strategic communicators to learn from the midterm elections, it’s that the traditional focus of our work – messaging – matters less and less.  Indeed, the decisive factor in wins and losses up and down ballots across the country generally was not strategy at all.  It was tactics.

Communications professionals, whether working for political candidates or commercial clients, tend to begin their work with a market-facing, big picture focus: What’s the mood of the voter/consumer and what can we say that speaks to that mood?

Our job has long been seen as packaging (or re-packaging) our client in a way that matches what their potential supporters/buyers want.  But this, we must now understand, is not the work.  The data that has informed our ideas of what people want – polls, surveys and focus groups – can no longer be relied upon to guide the creation of a message that, if effectively delivered, will win the election or make the sale.

Voters who profess to hate the Affordable Care Act vote to expand Medicare, an essential component to the plan they oppose.  Voters who support a left-leaning Democrat in one election swing to a far-right Republican in the next cycle.  Poll them on their reasons and, yes, they are likely to respond with ideological language to justify their decision.  But their responses are largely performative: ideological content that has been consumed as entertainment is echoed back through armchair punditry that mimics the original delivery.

Communications technology has outpaced our ability to make thoughtful, philosophical decisions. Information now moves at the speed of our gut reactions.

The candidates who succeeded in this election cycle cannot be grouped together under any strategic messaging umbrella.  Democrat Joe Manchin is said to have held his seat in conservative West Virginia because he voted to confirm Justice Kavanaugh.  But Democrat Jon Tester held his seat in equally conservative Montana after he voted no on Kavanaugh.

The solidly conservative Republican sixth district in Georgia, which rejected moderate Democrat Jon Ossof in a 2017 special election, elected liberal Democrat Lucy McBath in 2018.  The population of the district didn’t change; the majority still identify themselves as conservative Republicans.  But McBath didn’t come to them with a message for conservative Republicans.  She spoke, regularly and passionately, on an issue that is said to repulse conservative Republicans: gun control.  The mother of a teenaged victim of gun violence, McBath ran on a platform that would seem to directly contradict the ideological leanings of her targeted voters. And yet she won.

We are seeing now, in electoral politics, that people will vote against their own interests and, indeed, even against their own deeply held principals, for a candidate whom they find confident and compelling.  It’s not the message.  It’s the messenger.

People are drawn to authentic messengers.

Notably, being authentic is not the same as being truthful.  The assumption that candidates lie is now baked into our politics and, not only is there no penalty for lying, there might even be a bonus for it.  Lying is an assertion of strength and confidence, while the act of equivocating or trying to avoid a difficult truth – the pitfalls of messaging that is too strategic for its own good –  is seen as weak.  To be authentic is to lack shame or doubt.

As strategic communicators, we can best serve our clients by helping them develop their skills as messengers rather than by trying to spin their messages.


About the Author: Debra Pickett is a principal consultant at Page 2 Communications in Chicago.  The boutique public relations and media strategy agency serves legal industry and public affairs clients.  An award-winning print and television journalist, Debra has covered and worked on numerous national and local political campaigns.

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1 Comment

  1. Peter Woolfolk on November 12, 2018 at 10:03 am

    As a former press secretary for three senior members of Congress, having been a member of the Clinton Administration and spent eight years as a radio/TV host and producer I do agree with Debra. Many elected officials need grooming to make effective presentations.