Three Ms of a Campaign: Message, Media, and Management

November 16, 2011

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The Three M's of a Campaign
Part 1—Message

The target audience for the message of the Florida Children's Campaign consists only of people who truly drive politics in the state: frequent voters, political contributors, and community leaders.

It was and continues to be our belief that when these audiences are motivated to put children at the top of their priority list, candidates and elected officials will respond. Will Rogers said it best, "Smart politicians know where there's a parade and get in front of it."

Smart politicians know that among Florida's 11.7 million adults who are eligible to vote, only 70 percent (8 million) are registered, and only 30 percent of those 8 million registered voters cast a ballot in the primaries. A startling number of elections are actually decided in the primaries because of the impact of carefully "drawn" district boundaries, favoring one party or the other.

Florida, like many states, has a "closed" primary system—restricting the choice of voters to candidates within their own party. Florida voter registrations run fairly equal between Democrats and Republicans, therefore only half of primary voters, or as few as 11 of every 100 eligible voters cast meaningful ballots for the candidate who will ultimately represent their district in the state or national capital.

Smart politicians do the math and run their campaigns accordingly. They restrict their outreach to a narrowly defined voting audience. In its mission to win victories for kids, the Florida Children's Campaign uses the same targeting strategies that partisan candidates use to get elected.

Political contributors—the small number of politically active people who are the source of most campaign donations, along with the 300 to 500 community leaders in every county who are "insiders," members of the most influential boards, groups, or associations, whether they be business, economic development, health, civic, or educational—make up the balance of the target audience for a political campaign. Identifying this group of contributors/community leaders by name, address, and telephone number, can lead to the development of a statewide database, making it possible for a children's campaign to put key messages and print materials in the hands of the most influential people.

Arriving in Tallahassee only a couple of years ago, I remember a meeting where children's advocates spoke about reaching community and business leaders with their message. I remarked that the idea was great, but who had the list? I really thought one was available. But it wasn't. As valid as their intentions were, assuming "the public" is their audience would not bring their desired results. So we went about the business of developing a key leader database and a compelling campaign message.

Effective political communication is a conversation, not a lecture. Campaign messages must resonate with the target audience, speaking to issues of great concern to them.

Care should be given to the best way of linking children's needs to thematic goals unfolding in political circles and throughout the media. For this reason, polls regarding voter attitudes about children's issues become essential, providing a road map, ensuring the "hottest" buttons are pushed in the campaign message delivery process, whether it be through direct mail, hand-outs, or through the media. The Florida Children's Campaign commissions our own polls and makes active use of the excellent data provided through the Coalition for America's Children, such as the Great Expectations survey. We also use poll findings posted on the Internet from various interest groups.

Another way to ensure that children's campaign themes stay "on message" is through the development of a consensus platform, narrowing the list of agenda items put before the voters for their active consideration.

The foremost guideline we follow here is the "30-second" rule: the time it takes for a voter, campaign contributor, or community leader to retrieve our campaign letter from their mailbox, read it, and drop it into the first garbage can they pass by. Thirty seconds is also the length of most public service announcements and television news clips. We found it simply isn't possible to go to voters with a 25 item children's agenda, or 15, or even 10. It must be pared down to three issues, carefully selected to spark voter interest and call them to action.

Election year conversation about children in Florida is guided by our three-pronged consensus campaign platform, developed through citizen input at eight regional Community Action Days. These priority issues are parent training and support services, quality child care/after-school care/school readiness, and vocational training and job preparedness. Platform issues were chosen from 18 key challenges to the health and well-being of Florida's children, compiled from polling results, focus groups, and indicators highlighted in the Annie E. Casey Foundation National Kids Count report.

This consensus building process leading to the Florida Children's Campaign platform involved more than 325 citizens statewide representing politically active organizations and such diverse interests as AARP, powerful law firms, major business and industry, unions, retailers, health providers, educational associations, senior citizens groups, civic and social organizations, and grassroots networks. Guided by expert facilitators to ensure fairness and impartiality, participants worked to prioritize the top issues most likely to translate into action that significantly enhances the well-being of Florida's children.

If all this sounds like a lot of work, it is. But we keep in mind there is only one opportunity to make a first impression with a voter, political contributor, or community leader.

The most compelling messages are the product of excellent research and broad-based collaboration. But if time does not permit this level of coordination before engaging in election year conversation in your state, an "interim" platform is advisable, the product of polling research, with a consensus process to unfold before the next major election cycle.

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The Three M's of a Campaign
Part 2—Media

Quite frankly, in politics, talk is cheap. While constituent groups like to boast of their power to influence political outcomes, most often that "power" is not translated into political action. We are finding that when our constituency leaves the comfort of their kitchens and backyards to communicate our message in public, through the media, candidates and elected officials take notice.

The media-print and broadcast-plays an important role in any political campaign. The media is the public's voice both locally and statewide. Therefore, we made a commitment to learn how to access the media so that our campaign message was amplified.

The Florida Children's Campaign did this by watching, listening, and reading. We considered the following questions: (1) What's the audience focus of the various media outlets? (2) Do the radio stations or other media sources target certain populations in the community? (3) Do the TV stations focus primarily on local news or do they rely heavily on national network broadcasting? (4) Is access available to cable companies which broadcast special emphasis programming?

With these questions in mind, the Florida Children's Campaign developed a statewide media database, listing basic contact information as well as general managers, key editorial editors, assignment editors, and news directors. This information is available to us at a click on the computer.

With this contact information in hand, the Campaign develops press releases and makes pitches for coverage of our activities, resulting in some "home runs," including televised prime-time town meetings on children's issues, televised debates where youth direct questions to candidates, news coverage of campaign rallies, and radio "talk" show appearances in key markets.

The Campaign has generated print ads, appearing in statewide publications, such as our four-color, full page ad in Florida Trend, the leading business magazine (60,000 circulation), and we formed a partnership with the Florida Cable Television Association to air a public service announcement for 90 days throughout the state.

Overall, the Florida Children's Campaign stresses that strategic media communications serves four major functions:

  • To win voter awareness and understanding of the campaign point of view and place in the broad context of political events.
  • To establish rapport with those individuals, groups and public audiences whose sentiment and support are necessary to achieve our goals.
  • To enlist volunteer participation, enhance professional standing, and increase financial support for our campaign
  • To promote our platform which will result in the betterment of children and the community as a whole.

Most campaigns are won within a spread of 6-8 points.

The political consideration behind our media outreach strategy recognizes that candidates and elected officials will take us seriously only if we're talking to their constituents.

Consider for example that most campaigns are won within a spread of 6-8 points (for example, 53-47, or 54-46). If through our media outreach strategy, using the "Who's for Kids and Who's Just Kidding?" slogan, 3-4 percent of the voting public base their final decision on their perception of who's best for kids, that "safe" margin of victory is now a "toss-up" election.

No smart candidate will ignore those numbers. Therefore, no smart candidate will be able to ignore a children's campaign with an active and well-honed media strategy.


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The Three M's of a Campaign
Part 3—Management

Like any campaign, the Florida Children's Campaign lacks the time, money, and human resources to "do it all." Choices have to be made. But how?

Our most important management tool was the development of a strategic plan, outlining in summary fashion the campaign mission, vision and priorities, including outcomes, activities, infra-structure, types and frequency of contacts with the target audience, and revenue needs.

Our most important management tool was the development of a strategic plan.

Our strategic plan not only is useful in promoting internal communications between staff, but also improves external communications between staff and volunteers, most of whom are scattered throughout the state and who need a unifying "action" document to stay on track. Our strategic plan is not lengthy; in fact, it consists of fewer than 750 words, outlining specifically what we want to accomplish.

Adherence to the strategic plan is integral to our success. It helps us stay"on message" to our intended audience in time frames advantageous to building an informed voter base. It also helps us to sort through the many requests received in the office, providing a polite way of saying "no" when an incoming request, however worthy, does not match our current campaign emphasis. We like to say that we will not spend one dime, one hour, or the energy of one volunteer on activities that do not take us where we want to go.

Another management tool we have found effective was the development of a central campaign structure, patterned after real-life political campaigns, controlling the core message, theme, and images, complemented by grassroots input in the development phase and vast grassroots dissemination.

Campaign materials are produced by a central creative team, all with political campaign experience. Local print inserts, linked directly to the core campaign themes, provide community-based statistics and situations. To help other advocacy groups who want to distribute information about their specific platforms, and to gain their support, the central creative team produces voter friendly hand-outs from the advocacy group's sometimes complex service-related information.

The most important infra-structure consideration in Florida was the development of a State Campaign Committee of influential Floridians who open doors and recruit their peers and community leaders. Equal number of registered Democrats and Republicans serve on the Campaign Committee, most with backgrounds of service as elected officials (former only), political consultants, community organizers, and business and civic leaders.

Because effective campaigns must be responsive, flexible, and opportunistic, the Campaign Committee is empowered to act in a decisive manner in coordination with the professional campaign staff. The Campaign Committee is not advisory to another policy making body and is not dependent on approval from the parent organization's board of directors. It is truly an affiliate structure, with the authority to make and follow-through with decisions .

A grassroots network, Champions for Florida's Children, is raising awareness at the local level. Timed with the launch and major activities of our Campaign, volunteers go door-to-door in their neighborhoods, distributing a colorful voter outreach door-hanger. Our call to action is as simple as remembering the 3V's: Voice, Vote, and Volunteer.

The Florida Children's Campaign Web site, makes communication with large numbers of Floridians effective and efficient. People can click to the webpage and keep pace with campaign developments while also downloading sign-up forms and hand-outs.

A range of centrally planned campaign activities is building grassroots support for the mission of the Florida Children's Campaign while promoting voter awareness: First and foremost, candidates will receive questionnaires regarding the Florida Children's Campaign platform. Their answers to our "yes" and "no" format will be posted on our Web site and distributed through all available media and grassroots networks prior to election day.

Youth candidate debates, where Florida's future voters question candidates directly, give seemingly powerless children a strong voice during the election season. These debates pit candidates head-to-head before panels of articulate high school students who have researched the issues and who ask tough questions. This is a favorite of the media, with many debates aired on television, radio, and covered widely in newspapers.

Televised town meetings between elected officials, child advocates, and youth encourage constructive public dialogue about the need to empower communities to search for creative and new ways to meet the needs of children.

Frequent voters receive messages from campaign volunteers throughout the year including questions to ask candidates. Most important, our volunteers stand at the polls on primary and election day, handing out information to voters, beginning the process anew for the next campaign cycle.

Roy Miller serves as Campaign Director for the Florida Children's Campaign. This article was originally published on Connect for Kids (now SparkAction) in Februrary 1999. It was reviewed and updated in 2011 and 2012.

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Roy Miller





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