Who are you and why are you running?

If you are the only candidate in your race, then you don’t really need to clearly articulate who you are and why you are running. For everyone else, however, this is a critical first step. If you can get this message down on paper in a concise statement, it makes everything that comes after—building your website, planning your advertising, designing brochures, fundraising and even your day-to-day operations—much easier to plan and execute.

There is another reason why it is important for you to sharpen the definition of your campaign. In 2012, there will be thousands of candidates running for office. Not all of them will be on the ballot with you, but all of these candidates compete for money, media coverage and voter attention. The guy running for U.S. Senate may not have any connection to your race for city council, but he is probably asking for money from your voters and he will be the person hogging the media spotlight.

With more and more blockbuster federal races reaching out across the country for financial support, you could very well find yourself competing with candidates from other states for campaign contributions and for the attention of activists.

For most of the media covering political campaigns, the attention starts at the top of the ticket and works its way down. In 2012, the professional journalists and top-tier bloggers will be focusing on the presidential race and a handful of campaigns for the House and Senate. Eventually, the media will work its way down the ticket and your race stands a chance of earning some coverage. But that’s not likely to happen for a while.

The truth is that media coverage of your local race is unlikely to start until after Labor Day. And if there is a particularly contentious federal race above you on the ballot—one that is capturing everyone’s attention—you might be watching the MLB playoffs before you see coverage of your campaign.

With this congested environment in mind, think again about how you want to focus your campaign message so it breaks through this clutter. For candidates running in 2012, this basic rule has never been more important.

Think about past presidential campaigns and their pithy slogans: “Change we can believe in,” “It’s the economy, stupid” or “Morning in America.” What do those three have in common? They were all simple, clear concepts that reflected the tone of the times and gave voters something easy to remember, even if they couldn’t recall the complete details of the campaign’s message.

Obviously you don’t have the resources of a presidential campaign to hire “Madison Avenue” PR firms to craft your slogan. What you do have is the time to whittle down your message to its essence, and then to test it against people who will give you honest feedback.

Some questions you should be asking: Is it clear or complex? (Here’s a hint: If you can say it in five words it’s clear; if you have footnotes, it’s too complex.) Does it fit your image or is it goofy? Does it mean something or is it too generic? The media environment has moved from 30-second sound bites to the 140-character tweet, so brevity is the touchstone here.

Once you have your core message—whether it’s a slogan, a phrase or a mission statement—use it as the jumping off point for all of your online communication and advertising. If your slogan is short enough to fit in the header of your website, that’s great. But also make sure it’s woven into all of your other online activities, so you’re constantly reinforcing this message. You’ll be blogging, tweeting and advertising about lots of specific issues. If you can take the time to reference your core message in each of these activities—beyond just a tagline included in your press releases—you’ll greatly improve your chances of creating a lasting impression with voters.

This may seem obvious to many, but sadly we’ve seen too many candidates put off the question of why they are running and why a majority of voters should vote for them. When you’re out knocking on doors or churning out the umpteenth blog post of your campaign, it may get stale repeating the same message over and over.

Flip it around and put it in the context of all the other campaigns bombarding each voter and you’ll realize that if it’s difficult for voters to focus on the messages of multiple candidates. You’re not helping them or yourself if you are the candidate with the long-winded and ever-changing message.  

Steve Pearson is the president of CivicNEXT, which offers social media solutions for campaigns and organizations. Ford O’Connell is the chairman of  CivicForumPAC and editor of the Political Quarterback.

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