Winning a campaign takes a lot of planning and a little bit of luck, a long-time political consultant once told me. The luck this graybeard was describing is not the dumb kind, although that term would certainly apply to a number of campaigns last election cycle.
Luck, he says, is actually more about timing. More specifically, luck is the ability to take advantage of earned media opportunities that arise during a campaign. These opportunities could be anything from highlighting a misstep by an opponent to tackling an issue aligned with your candidate, or simply the chance to land a key quote in a news story.
Failure to capitalize on these opportunities can turn a once-promising campaign into a hard-luck story.
As you draw up your campaign plans for next cycle, here are some pointers to help you capitalize on those earned media opportunities when they arise:
Don’t count on finding a silver bullet. Campaigns win by achieving incremental victories -- a collection of well-timed actions that translate opportunities into momentum. You are rarely going to find an earned media opportunity that will take you from 20-points behind to a 10-point victory. What you will find are a variety of smaller opportunities that together can build a larger narrative to swing voters toward your candidate.
Remember that voter contact is the meat, opportunities are the gravy. A lot of amateur-run campaigns make the mistake of believing that earned media is a suitable alternative to paid voter contact. The truth is that you can win a campaign without being mentioned by the media in your district, but you can’t win if you fail to build a ground and air operation that identifies, persuades and turns out voters.
Be (really) prepared. The number of campaigns I've seen that lack a press list and a working relationship with local media is surprising. You can’t adequately take advantage of an earned media opportunity if you don’t know who you can pressure to write or report something. Furthermore, a cold call to a reporter who has never heard from your campaign will do little to persuade the journalist to write a story. You need to take time, hopefully at the beginning of the campaign, to identify key political reporters and then develop relationships with each of them. Also, don’t forget political bloggers in the area. They are equally important.
Create a way to identify earned media opportunities. This is where most campaigns go wrong. Even the best-planned campaigns often fail to hit on a comprehensive way to monitor the political and media environments. The easiest, and perhaps most basic way to begin to comb the environment for earned media opportunities is by collecting and reviewing daily media clips, watching upcoming votes and keeping your pulse on the news before the cycle even begins.
Assess opportunities quickly. Nothing will paralyze a campaign faster than indecision. Your campaign needs to get in the habit of processing information and opportunities in a timely fashion. We generally hold morning conference calls with key campaign staff and consultants to discuss any potential opportunity, and whether it makes sense to move on it.
Part of this process includes asking a number of questions: Does this make sense for our campaign? Is the story a stretch, or is it believable? Does this opportunity dovetail with our messaging and work with our overall strategy? The worst thing you can do is to sit on an opportunity because you’re not sure that it's the right fit. Understand that your inability to make a decision is, in itself, a decision, and not usually a good one.
Plan before you act. Once the campaign makes a decision to move on an earned media opportunity, you need to plan out your attack. Develop your pitch and timeline. Identify which reporters you are going to pitch the story to. Think about how your opponent will respond and calculate that into your overall plan. The worst thing you can do is to send out a press release without thinking through all possible scenarios. If you fail to plan, you could lose control of the story and hand your opponent a sharp tool to use against you.
Think outside the box. If you have a story that isn’t strong enough for traditional media outlets, don’t be afraid to give the piece to a local blogger. If the blogger is established and legitimate, it’s likely that local journalists read the blogger’s posts on a regular basis. This can help plant the seed for a story in the local paper a few days later. Remember that stories that last several news cycles are usually built from the bottom up.
Don’t be wrong or inaccurate. Peddling a story that includes wrong or inaccurate information will relegate your campaign to a proverbial deserted island. Few journalists will listen to, much less believe, any pitch that comes after a botched push by your campaign. This doesn’t mean that you can’t spin certain information. It just means that you should double and triple check the facts before you start pushing a story.
Know the pizza delivery rule. Your window for landing an earned media opportunity is generally minutes, not hours. You need to make the decision, develop the plan and have the tools in place to land a story in a matter of 90 minutes (or less).
Know when to let it die. Some campaigns fail to understand when a story is dead. This puts them at a significant disadvantage because they are concentrating on keeping alive an already dead story instead of looking for that next opportunity. Determining when a story is dead is more art than science. But that’s why most winning campaigns have skilled and experienced consultants.
Tyler Harber is a Republican consultant and pollster. A partner at the Prosper Group, Harber has worked dozens of campaigns in the U.S. and abroad. Follow him on Twitter (@THarber).