Wednesday morning quarterbacking has grown into a popular sport among PR, media and political pundits in the aftermath of a national election. Who hasn’t weighed in on the reasons The Dems got crushed in the mid-terms? This New York Times piece on L.I. Congressman Steve Israel, whose job it was to shore up the House for his party, pretty much sums it up: he failed.
Truth be told: the Democrats stink in PR. I first learned this in 1984 when I took a leave of absence from Hill and Knowlton to volunteer for the Gary Hart campaign in New York State. (Legendary actor Jack Gifford’s daughter, aÂ Coloradoan, recommended me.) Â Sen. Hart was up against Walter Mondale to secure the Democratic nomination for President. Talk about disorganization and flakey operatives coming out of the woodwork! Following that experience, I swore I’d never work for a non-incumbent Democratic candidate again.
Eighteen monthsÂ ago, I again succumbed to the allure of politics byÂ attending a small, private gathering hosted by L.I. Congressman Steve IsraelÂ during which I asked him how he intended to avoid a repeat of the disastrous 2010 mid-terms? He discreetly outlined a strategy wherein the Dems would position themselves as the party of co-operation and conciliation with the GOP. Huh!?
Six months ago I mentioned this meeting (and that strategy) to a member of President Obama’s inner circle and his chief pollster who spoke at a small breakfast in a private home on Manhattan’s UES. He expressed some surprise and, without skipping a beat, told the groupÂ that this is “no longer the case.” I read this as the Democrats would stop acquiescingÂ to the GOP’s heavy-handed tactics.
Anyway, assessingÂ this week’s election through a PR lens, there are a number of delimitingÂ factors over which the Democrats had little control. Among them:
- State-level GOP gerrymandering of voting districts to uneven the playing field
- New, stringent voter ID requirements that disenfranchised hundreds of thousands of (mostly Democratic) voters.
- A GOP surge of tens if not hundreds of millions of “murky” dark moneyÂ that poured into hotly contested contests in the final days before voting
- A TV industry that sold its soul for the sake ofÂ raking in unprecedented revenue from dubious if not blatantlyÂ inaccurate politicalÂ ads
- The orchestrated effort by GOP leadership and operatives, and the media that serve them, to fabricate phony scandals andÂ lay them at the feet of thisÂ Administration
While these alone may be insurmountable, the Democrats still could have gotten their PR act so much more together. Granted, I wasn’t in the room when communications strategies were developed, thoughÂ I did offer myÂ counselÂ gratis to Amy Dacey of the DNC and others. Â Here are sixÂ piecesÂ of PR advice they might have considered:
- Â The Narrative:Â The messaging was all over the place. Sure, certainÂ narratives appeal to some geographies and demographics whileÂ others don’t. Even so, the disparity between what this President has irrefutably achieved and the misinformed impressions thereof is startling. Â The video below, released on the weekend before the elections, FINALLY captures that success, albeit too late. Conversely, the Dems failed to effectively expose some of the particularly retrogressive (i.e., scary) policies proposed by a growing number of GOP Congressmen.
- Graphics: It’s one thing for President Obama to stand before the White House press corpsÂ or the American people and spout off the hard data showing substantial progress being made across all corners of the economy — from housing to jobs to the deficit to the stock market. Â Still, withoutÂ charts and graphs, the words will invariably fallÂ on deaf ears (and they did).
- Media Surrogates – During that breakfast meeting in Manhattan, I asked Mr. Obama’s advisor why the GOP so thoroughly dominated the national Sunday and cable TV talk show circuit. It sometimes seems that POTUS is the only Democrat out there vigorously defending the party’s policies and progress. He explained that they once tried to coalesce a narrative among a number of CongressmenÂ on a particular piece of legislation. Â None, he said, followed the directive. Even so, there must be some presentable, articulate and passionate advocates within the Democratic Party besides Debbie Wasserman? (I love Harry Reid, but he’s not exactly getting anyoneÂ fired up.)
- Event Strategy – Who hasn’t seen the myriad TV segments and print coverage of Sarah Palin, Ted Cruz, Rick Perry, Dick Cheney, and even Mitt Romney speaking at some NRA or GOP Governors event. This resulting national media coverage doesn’t happen accidentally.Â The event hosts, and their PR teams, work very hard to make sure that journalists attend, and eventÂ luminaries’ speechesÂ are easily accessedÂ far and wide. Â When was the last time you saw something comparable emanating from a Democrat or progressive-hosted event, other than the DNC?
- The Base – In 2012, I (dumbly) donated $50 to the Presidential re-election committee. Â As a result, I’ve been on the receiving end of two, three, sometimes four or five emails a day begging for more money. Â Shouldn’t the Democratic leadership be FIRING UP versus HITTING UP itsÂ base of supporters? I would have probably given more had IÂ been made even slightly aware how that money was being spent.
- Activating the Base – The Democrats have built and have access to an enviable database of millions of followers, most of whom I bet would be delighted to helpÂ advance the cause. Â Yet, again, all they get are dramatic pleas forÂ money. Â I wasn’t sent a single, inspiring message or initiative that I could share with my 7000+ Twitter followers and large networks on Facebook, Linked, and Pinterest. Rather than fundraise off this group multiple times daily, give them ammunition they’d be proud to share withÂ their friends, family and followers.