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.

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