Six years ago this week I made the career-altering decision to temporarily leave Washington, D.C. to join a top-tier congressional race.
Rahm Emanuel, who was then chairing the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, had asked me to take a leave of absence from my job with Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.) and move to Media, Pa. Waiting for me there was the comm director position on former Vice Admiral Joe Sestak’s House campaign. I landed in Media on July 5. In a whirlwind campaign, we came from behind to knock off 20-year Rep. Curt Weldon (R) by a 12-point margin.
With control of Congress up for grabs in November, it’s a safe bet there will be a record number of Capitol Hill staffers from both parties soon deciding to make the leap to the campaign world. While no two races are exactly alike, what follows are some basic survival tips for new campaign comm directors.
Be empathetic. Few things are as important, and more overlooked on a campaign these days than empathy. It's critical to be able to see things from the perspective of your new colleagues. No matter how successful you were in previous jobs, when joining a campaign you will initially be viewed with an understandable dose of skepticism by folks on the ground. Start off on the right foot and don’t force your agenda on others.
Check your ego at the door. You may have been successful doing things a certain way in previous jobs, but those experiences may not be applicable in your new role. For instance, while it may have been relatively easy to generate coverage for an incumbent by doing a stand-up press conference any given day on a particular issue, more than likely reporters will not flock to cover a challenger candidate before Labor Day. You will have to be innovative.
Find out what’s worked in the past and what hasn’t. If they haven’t sought you out first, seek out the political veterans on the ground and get to know the campaign’s consultants. They bring a broader perspective and can be important allies especially when the going gets tough, which it will.
Craft a strategic communications plan. Once you have a working knowledge of what matters most to voters, you are ready to develop a strategic communications plan. When it comes to crafting a campaign plan, it’s important to adhere to basic principles: accountability, structure, smart messaging and themes. These will enable you to be aggressive, agile and accurate – got that?
Build momentum (and your own credibility) by securing early wins. Whether it’s securing extensive local news coverage for a campaign event, or placing an important op-ed in the local paper, one of the best things you can do early in your tenure on the campaign is to secure early wins. Not only does this build momentum for the campaign but it also establishes your credibility with the candidate and the rest of the team.
Keep calm and carry on. Remember, no matter how perfect your communications plan is, at the end of the day, crises will occur and circumstances on the ground can change literally overnight. Mistakes are bound to happen; you’ve got to learn from them. The candidate and his or her team will be watching how you react and will be turning to you for guidance. It’s critical that you keep your cool at all times and stay focused. Attitudes truly are contagious — positive as well as negative ones.
Keep morale high. Schedule team bonding activities outside the office. Every other Friday on the Sestak campaign, we held a game night. A campaign with high morale is a fun and positive place to work. Staff and volunteers are motivated to succeed and meet goals. Make sure your campaign staff, including volunteers understand how they support and contribute to the campaign’s success.
Empower those around you. Recognize you cannot do everything yourself, and even if you could that wouldn't be the most effective use of your time. When you delegate work to your employees, you multiply the amount of work that you can do. You also create opportunities for your staff to develop their work and leadership skills.
Avoid burnout. There’s no question that campaigns are intense, high-pressure, high-stakes environments. There’s always more to do than there is time to do it. To compensate, there’s a tendency among some campaign staff to work ungodly hours, seven days a week. Sleep deprivation impairs judgment. Be smart. Don’t let yourself and your staff fall into that trap — least of all your candidate.
Also, be sure to carve out at least some private time for yourself and encourage your staff to do the same. No matter how crazed things get on campaigns, I would find time to work out at the gym. Some of my best ideas for campaign events came to me while I was on the elliptical machine. Taking care of yourself not only benefits your sanity, but also gives you an edge over the opposition.
Ryan Rudominer is a senior communications strategist.