The 2020 US election is finally, finally, more or less, over. I do hope we have all learned a few things. Some of what I learned is in a webinar I just did for PRSA Puget Sound’s Chapter, “Interpreting the Election,” also featuring Biden-Harris Campaign Insider, Troy Blackwell.

Here are the three most important lessons that pertain to communications:

1. Money can’t buy you love or votes, but relationships work really well.

NPR did a great interview with Ami Copeland, former deputy national finance director for Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign, about the monumental spending of the 2020 campaign. In it she quoted an old political rule: “Early money screams, and late money whispers.” She went on to explain:

With early money, we see that campaigns have more time to be innovative. They get to try new voter contact and persuasion programs, invest in technology, text messaging, and ultimately create a campaign that has agility. Also, money begets money. The earlier campaigns are able to raise money, the more they get at the end of the day. However, on the flip side, campaigns can do less with money that comes in late, as we saw with many of these Democratic Senate pickup opportunities this cycle. Just because, traditionally, campaigns budget against what they think will come in; they are less prepared to spend it outside of that budget. So, they end up just doubling down on what they’d been doing before and not know whether or not it’s working until the end.

That’s a big lesson there for all of us in communications. When you are on a tight budget and need to carefully target your communications, you can be more innovative, think differently, and very likely have great impact. When you just throw money at a “general public,” it lands on deaf ears.

We know that when political candidates invest in grassroots organizing, and have local people bring local messages to a neighborhood, it works. PR people have known that for years, yet have never received the credit they deserve. Instead, marketers like to spend big bucks on splashy things and claim attribution when it’s not there.

In reality, and what case study after case study at PRSA ICON illustrated, is that when you have a well-coordinated effort that includes paid, earned, and owned efforts, you get measurable results. This month’s Measurement Maven, Maria Olmedo-Malagon, taught us this in her brilliant presentation about the 2020 census. She also reached out and partnered with local non-profits and empowered local groups to make their own decisions as to how best to amplify the message. It’s what Barack Obama did so brilliantly in 2008. And it works.

#2. Quality does not equal quantity.

The other thing we’ve learned is that “quality” media coverage does not equal the circulation of a media outlet or even the credibility of the media outlet. It includes a combination of the right message reaching the right audience at the right time.

Throwing millions at TV in the last two weeks of a campaign had little effect. Especially if the people you are trying to reach don’t watch TV and spend their time texting and/or chatting on What’s App, or watching TikTok videos. Putting money behind the right messages, targeted at the right audience, via their most credible sources, works. Think about it, The Wall Street Journal has great reach and credibility, but if your audience is first time 18-year old voters, it’s not going to have much impact. Instead you should define quality as not just the influence of the media outlet, but also whether the story contains your key messages, desired quotes, desirable photos, and reaches the right audience.

#3. Be who you are and see who is pleased.

This is something my therapist told me many times: “Stop trying to please everyone, just be who you are and see who is pleased.” Donald Trump and Joe Biden never wavered from their very real and authentic personas. The people that voted for them were sufficiently happy with the persona they preferred to want that person to run the country. Or perhaps they were so enormously not pleased by one candidate that they voted for the other. The winner clearly pleased more people in states with lots of electoral college votes than the other guy. ∞

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