Tuesday, May 5, 2015

The Lessons From Ben Carson's Opening Salvo Stumble

As I wrote in my most recent blog, Dr. Ben Carson's initial post-announcement email to potential supporters had four small problems and one deal-killer.  Hopefully, he'll recognize and learn from his mistakes, but this blog isn't for him - it is about how to avoid those mistakes in your own campaigns, or in the campaigns of candidates you support.

1. Be careful who you choose (and trust) in your campaign advisers and campaign outreach team (fund-raising, messaging, social media, news media).  Dr. Carson put the cart before the horse when he started appealing for funds before he gave anybody a reason to support him (beyond is intelligence and polished speaking style - both plusses, but not enough to carry a candidate into office).  They must work as a team, not as independent silos, each going in its own direction.

2. Whether you're making your case for why people should support you (which, as noted below, must come first) or raising funds, personalize your appeals.  Do not send out email blitzes addressed to "to whom it may concern" as Dr. Carson did.  "Dear Americans" does nothing to build a relationship between the candidate and the potential supporters/voters.  In the age of social media, building a perceived relationship is vital, and it starts with addressing each potential supporter by name.  The tech is there, all that's lacking (in Carson's case) was the insight that this was important.

3.  If you have a slogan (as Carson does - HEAL  INSPIRE  REVIVE - or Obama did with "Hope and Change") make sure that you explain what it really means.  In Carson's case, he didn't say what needed healed, who needed inspired, or what needed revived.  As an aside, I think those are particularly lame, especially in comparison to Obama's "Hope and Change."  Those are beautifully effective, because each voter has his or her own hopes, and everybody wants some kind of change. With that slogan, Obama inspired his supporters while allowing them to fill in the blanks.  Remember on inauguration day 2009, the woman interviewed on the Washington Mall saying "I won't have to make my mortgage payments now that Obama is President."  She had self-defined her hope (free housing) and the change she expected (Obama would take care of her mortgage for her).  The HEAL  INSPIRE  REVIVE slogan does none of those things.  Don't make the mistakes here that Dr. Carson's making.

4.  Don't make fatuous statements that are blatantly false on the face of it.  When he said that we were more closely connected than ever before, that's nonsense.  Every study I've seen - every news report you've seen - points to the increasing isolation of America, and the replacement of real connections with social networking "connections" which gain the patina of connectivity without any real personal connection.

 Even worse, though, was his statement that "our country had never been more divided."  Two points here.  First, setting up an obvious contradiction like this does nothing to position you as an expert - it makes you look like you're playing word games, or trying to pander to both optimists and pessimists.  However, even worse, that statement about America divided is factually incorrect.  We fought a civil war - that was America divided, for sure, and 600,000 people died putting the pieces back together.  More recently - and in Dr. Carson's lifetime - we had race riots in Watts and Detroit, civil rights marches in Selma and political marches in Chicago that turned bloody. We had Kent State, and million-man marches against the war.  In the mid 60s through the end of Vietnam, America was more divided than at any time since the civil war - and any thinking individual knows that, even if they're too young to remember the Chicago Seven, the Symbioneses Liberation Army or Kent State.

This is nothing less than talking down to your audience - they will not thank you for that.  Perhaps liberals can get away with that reaching out to their poverty-line constituents, but conservatives tend to be better educated and better informed on the reality of political issues.

5.  Don't succumb to political catch phrases.  As an example, Dr. Carson closed with "... and God Bless the United States of America."  There's nothing wrong with that sentiment, but that is exactly the same word-choice used by both Clintons and by Obama in virtually every speech they give.  If you want to invoke God's blessings on America, find a better and more inherently honest way of doing it.  This should be applied broadly, to every political cliche.  Avoid them and be original - voters will thank you, and respect you.

6.  Now for the really major lesson to be learned from Dr. Carson's first email pitch (see my blog for the text, as well as for my analysis).  Dr. Carson committed the unpardonable political sin of putting the cart before the horse. Before he'd done anything (in that email, at least) to create a connection with the recipient - or to provide that recipient to easy access to the dynamic political positions Dr. Carson embraces - that email "put the arm on the supporters."  He asked them to open their wallets without giving them any reason to do so (beyond the hollow platitudes noted above).

This is insulting on a deep, and perhaps subconscious level.  On the more conscious level, politically active and aware potential supporters will recognize this and ask themselves, "with our crowded field of candidates, which just keeps growing, why should I pour my hard-earned dollars into the campaign of someone who - as far as I can tell - has no positions, and has no more respect for me than to see me as a walking, talking wallet."

Keep in mind that of the four links in that one short email, all of them went to the same fund-raising page (he didn't even bother to make four different pages), and neither the email itself nor the fund-raising page had any links to Dr. Carson's positions.

DO NOT do that yourself, or on behalf of your candidate.  Allow potential supporters to learn all about your positions - make it easy, and make it clear - before you ask them to support you.  If they are impressed with your issue positions, they'll eagerly support you.  If not, they'd never have been on "your team" anyway.

In professional public relations, gaining support has four distinct steps.  These should be followed in politics - whether it's in a fund-raising email, or social networking, or in media public relations. These steps are always in the same order:

First, create awareness. Assume potential supporters don't know you (or at least they don't know your issues), and give them the information they need to begin figuring out who you are and - perhaps - why they should support you.

Next, generate interest.  Once they know who you are, it's time to give them real reasons why they should support you. This applies to the local school board as much as it does the White House.  People must be aware of  you - and interested in you - before they take the next step.

Once they're aware and interested ... and not a moment before that ... motivate action.  This means getting them to walk their neighborhoods, or put up yard signs, or open their checkbooks. Any action can only be successfully supported after the potential supporters know who you are - and know why they should care about your candidacy.  Doctor Carson jumped to Step Three before even touching on Steps One and Two.  If he continues on this path, it will ultimately be a very short path.

You don't have to make that mistake.

The fourth step is usually overlooked, but it's essential.  Once you've created awareness, generated interest and motivated action ... evaluate that three step process. Identify what works - and what didn't work.  Instead of trying to fix something that didn't work - reinforce those steps which did work.  Let potential voters tell you HOW to reach them.  Given the chance, they're eager to help you refine your campaign - but only if they believe you're on their side.

Following these guidelines - and especially the four-step process borrowed from media public relations - you'll be light-years ahead (in terms of voter/supporter loyalty) of candidates like Dr. Carson who have no personal experience with politics, and who put their trust in consultants who ignore these rules in favor of (often) lining their own pockets.

How Ben Carson Blew His Campaign Launch - A Cautionary Tale

 I like Ben Carson.  I think he's got sound, pragmatic conservative principles, and I think he's incredibly powerful on the speaker's platform.  I worry that he's had no experience in governing - or in being CEO of a major corporation, non-profit foundation or any other organization that would give him executive leadership experience.  After eight years under a President who'd never run any organization (and proved incapable of running USA, Inc.), I'm not sure we need another President who'll need OJT (On-the-Job-Training).

Still, I've been willing to give him a fair hearing, and have visualized myself voting for him, and living in a country led by a man of his intellect and principles.

But now, not so much.  


I think he blew his campaign launch.

Worse, I think he did so in a way to suggest to me that, when it comes to politics, he's either tone-deaf or he's listening to a "Junior Varsity" campaign manager or consultant.  Since a President can't be politically tone-deaf, nor can he afford to listen to second-rate advisers.

In his first post-launch email to potential supporters, Dr. Carson made several vital mistakes, but one in particular stands out.  I'm going to republish that first post-announcement campaign email, then I'm going to ask you if you see what he did wrong. 

Then I'll tell you what I think he did wrong.


Dear American, I've got a big announcement that I'd like to share with you.

I am running for President of the United States, and I ask for your support.

If this great nation is to survive the challenges of the modern world, we need to heal, we need to be inspired, and we need to revive the exceptional spirit that built America.

Working with you and all of our fellow citizens, I want to lead that revival.

I am not a politician, nor am I politically correct.

But I believe my values, my life experience, and my willingness to speak the truth and seek solutions prepares me well to lead our nation toward more prosperity, security, and freedom for every American.

So I ask for your commitment, right now, to this campaign. If you will be among the first to make a secure contribution to Carson America, I will be forever grateful.

Never before have we been so closely connected to each other, but more divided as a country.

Our political class has failed us, and as a nation we must work to reestablish what Abraham Lincoln once called a government of, by and for the people.

While I know it won't be easy, I truly look forward to the journey ahead, and I hope that you will join me.

Thank you, and God Bless America.


Ben Carson
Ben Carson


OK - there's his message.  Think a minute - what did he do wrong (or, what could he have done better - even a lot better)?  Don't rush to judgment, just read it again.  BTW - there are several problems with this email, but there is only one really big problem, one sure to set his campaign off to a faltering start.


I'm going to start with some of the smaller problems, then work my way up to the campaign-killing whopper of a blunder.

1.  The email is addressed to " Dear American."  Not "Dear Fellow American."  Not "Dear Patriotic American."  Just ...  "Dear American."  

This is a problem for two reasons. First, the technology to allow a mass email to be personalized has been around for going on two decades.  An impersonal email is not necessary, and it is certainly not welcoming.  Next, by not qualifying what kind of American, the salutation falls flat on its face.  It does nothing to motivate.

2.  His campaign slogan is "HEAL  INSPIRE   REVIVE" ... and in general, that makes sense. However, in this letter, he affirms that he wants heal, inspire and revive America in one throw-away line, but he never says what we must heal from, in what way we need to be inspired, or why (or how) we should revive our country.  Without substance, those are empty words, no more meaningful than Obama's "hope and change" campaign slogan from 2008.  

If Dr. Carson wants to lead his party and our country, he's going to have to do better than an empty slogan.  At the very least, he should have spent a short paragraph on each one (heal, inspire, revive) saying what he means, and more important, why he's the only (or best) candidate to heal, inspire and revive America.  At best, this is a lost opportunity.  At worst, the sheer banality of the words might lead some to consider him yet one more cookie-cutter candidate.

3. He included a very provocative sentence - "Never have we been more closely connected to each other, but more divided as a country."  Not only is that a poorly constructed sentence (hey, I used to be an editor), but without explaining what he means, it seems false on its face.  Consider:

"Never have we been so closely connected ..."   What does that mean?  For myself, I feel America (and Americans) have never been so isolated, one from the other.  I do not feel connected, and many people I know have expressed to me the same isolated lack of connectedness.  Perhaps he means the mindless drivel that substitutes for real connectivity on Facebook and Twitter - but if so, he should say that.

Now consider:  "but more divided as a country."  I guess he can be excused for overlooking the American Civil War, but I really can't believe a man - especially a black man - who's on the far side of 60 could say that with a straight face.  After all, he lived through the anti-war and civil-rights movements of the 60s and early 70s.  I remember the marches (Selma, Washington), the riots (Watts, Detroit), the police crack-down (Chicago '68), and he does, too.  In that seminal ten-year period, America was divided in a way she hadn't been since our Civil War, a full century before, That tumultuous ten years of riots and marches, draft-card burning and brutal police crack-downs, certainly reflected an America that is far more divided than it is today.  

Dr. Carson should know better. He graduated in '69 at the peak of those movements, and would have been in his first year at college when the Kent State shooting, the riots and marches, and follow-up massive college closings all took place.  How could he have forgotten that?  All of which suggests that this line, too, is just a "thow-away" line with no substance beyond the fact that maybe it sounds good.

 4.  I'm not going to nit-pick here, except to say that "and God Bless America" is really tired, hackneyed and trite.  Dr. Carson, if you want God's blessing on America, don't use the same line that the two Clintons - and even Obama - repeat every time they say anything more than "good-morning."

OK, those are the small, but easily-avoidable mistakes that were made in this email.  Now let's get to the big one, what I'm calling the "campaign killer."  Sure, one email won't kill a campaign, but if the pattern follows through to other emails, it will surely make Dr. Carson look irrelevant, at least to potential supporters.

What is this campaign killer?

Before he did anything to win prospective voters to his side - before he gave any meaningful reason why Republicans and conservatives should support his candidacy - he asks for money.  He has four links embedded in that email, and all four lead to the same fund-raising page.  There is not - neither in the email nor on that fund-raising page - any link to Dr. Carson's positions on issues.  It is those positions that have the potential to attract or repel potential voters - but just try to find them. I dare you.

This makes him look grasping, and perhaps a little desperate. Worse, it sends a clear message to potential voters:  "all you're good for is cash - just "trust me" and send me lots of money and everything will be fine."

That may have once worked (though I doubt it), but with conservatives being deluged daily by appeals from candidates, and from causes, and from independent special-issue advocacy groups, one more blatant dollar appeal, made without any justification as to how effective he might be as president isn't going to work.  Worse, it's going to drive thinking voters who want information, not superficial sloganeering, away from the campaign.

Really bad initial email.  You should have given me a reason to support you electorally before you put the arm on me for bucks.  Right now, I’m like, “why should I support Ben Carson?  What does a neurosurgeon know about running the country?   After eight years of a guy learning how to run our country "on the job," don’t we need experience?"

I’m sure you can answer all of these, Dr. Carson – I imagine that I if you’d tried, you’d have easily won me over. But instead, you lunged for my wallet – and frankly, I resent that.  Worse, that dollar-grab has gone a long way toward making me even more convinced that a candidate that doesn’t understand this basic bit of politics is probably not the best one to run my country.

Nice try – grade, C- (and that’s charitable).

Well, that's the "campaign killer" that inspired this blog.  Ben Carson might be a good President, and he most assuredly is a superb neurosurgeon, but he apparently has no idea why people might choose to support him - or why he needs to win their intellectual and emotional support before they'll open their wallets to him.  A man that "tone deaf" toward his supporters does not strike me as the best man to lead our country.  

Sure, he's got time to turn this around, and I hope he reads this blog and takes it to heart - but I'm not holding my breath.