Ten and a Half Communications Blunders and the Lessons They Can Teach Us (If We’re Willing to Learn)

“Amateurs built the Ark, professionals built the Titanic.” That statement is often used to remind us that even inexperienced people are capable of great things, while those who should know better… often don’t.

The latter part could certainly apply to the communications “efforts” of Democratic Party units, Democratic candidates, and progressive organizations this year, particularly in Michigan. Many political campaigns and organizations pay communications staff to produce and disseminate messages to the press, social media users, and voters, among other audiences. Yet many entities found the return on their communications investment to be lackluster.

It's not that hard to see why.

I’m embarrassed - embarrassed - at how horribly we in Michigan failed to communicate any sort of motivational or inspiring message to get our voters to vote. Despite major innovations over the last eight years, the Granholm 2006 campaign had a better communications operation than did the Schauer 2014 campaign. And our digital strategy? Well, I’m not even sure there was one.

I share these examples in hopes that we as Democrats will learn from our mistakes and grow as a Party. If we choose to, that is.


EXHIBIT A: A mailer from a statewide organization promoted only two of the three Supreme Court candidates: Richard Bernstein and Judge Bill Murphy. The third, Judge Deborah Thomas, was not included.

Problem: There are two issues here. First, the mailer inaccurately presents Bernstein and Murphy as the complete Supreme Court ticket when, in reality, there was a third candidate. This leaves the false impression that you only vote for two people - that you're done when you vote for Bernstein and Murphy. Second (and more importantly), Judge Thomas is African-American while the other two are Caucasian; in omitting Thomas, they risked alienating a constituency Democrats need.

Solution: Even with limited space on your lit piece, be strategic in who you include or exclude from a mailing. Of course you’ll never be able to fit the names of everyone you want to fit on one single lit piece. But adding Judge Thomas to the mailer would not have cost anything extra (except a little space, which wasn’t used well in the first place, believe me). The bigger cost was found in the votes that Judge Thomas lost because of the omission - and the people who were needlessly alienated.


EXHIBIT B: Mistargeted sponsored content on Facebook.

Problem: I saw Facebook ads, boosted posts, and other sponsored content for a host of candidates in whose districts I don’t live.

Solution: Ads can be targeted based on geography. With a few exceptions, ads should only be seen by people who (a) live in your district and (b) are of voting age.

Rule of thumb: If I can’t vote for you, I better not see your ad. (If you’re trying to get people to volunteer or donate, that’s a different story. Even then, targeting is necessary.)


EXHIBIT C: A campaign email in which the Sender field was different from the person whose name was at the bottom. The 'sender' was a staffer, while the person signing the bottom of the message was the candidate him/herself.

Problem: Inconsistency. Also, if it's supposed to be from the candidate him/herself, then you're losing out by not identifying the candidate as the sender.

Solution: Have someone - or two or three people - *proofread* your communications before they go out. At a place where I used to work, we had a VERY thorough process for proofreading emails and other outbound communications.



Problem: Well, the tweet is about diversity… so where’s the diversity in that picture?

Solution: Again, a proofreading/checking process may have caught this.


Problem: “Weiser” refers to Ron Weiser, a Republican running for U-M Regent. That’s right - the Twitter account of the Democratic Party’s standard bearer pushed a message favorable to a Republican candidate.

Solution: Be cognizant of your role and place in the overall Democratic Party campaign. It's no small responsibility to be in charge of any aspect of the campaign that heads the Democratic ticket.


EXHIBIT F: During the last few weeks of the campaign, the Schauer Twitter account tweeted or retweeted dozens of times each day.

Problem: That kind of hyperactivity on Twitter can clog up people’s Twitter feeds - and give them ample reason to unfollow you.

Solution: Be more selective in what (and when) you tweet.


EXHIBIT G: Some organizations run multiple Twitter accounts. Sometimes those Twitter accounts tweet the exact same thing at the exact same time.

Problem: This can (a) clog up other people’s Twitter feeds and (b) make it so that other people who check Twitter throughout the day won’t see your message.

Solution: Tweets should be spaced out so that multiple people can see your message throughout the day. If I’m following three Twitter accounts which tweet the same exact thing, I’m 3x as likely to see it if you tweet it at different times, compared to if you just tweeted it out at the same time.


EXHIBIT H: Many communication to voters used such "inside" terminology as "CD," "SD," and "HD."

Problem: Those of us in politics know what is meant by those acronyms: Congressional district, Senate district, and State House district, respectively. But your target audience for this communication - swing and sporadic voters just won’t understand them. More to the point, they don’t know which of those candidates to vote for - they just see a bunch of names and faces.

Solution: Consider your target audience. Do they know what is meant by CD, SD, or HD? If not, don’t confuse them. If political communications professionals can’t consider our audience when producing said communications, how will we ever get them to actually vote?


EXHIBIT I: When you knock on doors for a campaign, you’re usually given a script of what to say to voters (not verbatim, of course, but mostly as a guide). In helping out a Michigan legislative candidate this cycle, I was given a script that said that folks should vote for the candidate because they “understand the needs of residents in the Nth district” (paraphrasing).

Problem: Your target audience - be it swing voters, sporadic voters, or anyone else - won’t care what district they’re in. They know their communities (city, for example), but not their district. Most people who do know what district they live in are either (a) definitely going to vote for you or (b) definitely not going to vote for you.

Solution: Let’s say that the candidate “understands the needs of people in [TOWN].”


EXHIBIT J: An Election Day email from a Democratic Party unit.

Subject: URDENT GET OUT NOW LOW DEM TURNOUT - polls open until 8 pm
Next line: Get out and VOTE NOW

Problem: Oy. Where to begin? Well, for starters, you have the typos (“Urdent”). The ALL CAPS conveyed a sense of panic - and no, that didn’t help either. The second line (“We can sit on the sidelines”) makes no sense, particularly within the context of this email. (Perhaps they meant "can't" instead of "can" - if so, there's another typo) It all looks like a discombobulated mess. But above all, it’s clear that this email was not created with the audience in mind. The folks on this listserv? If they care enough about politics to be on your listserv, then they care enough to vote. I bet you that nobody was going to be reminded to vote just by seeing this email.

Solution: Sometimes, it's best not to send an email at all. Just saying.


BONUS: Okay, I don't really consider this a blunder on the level of the others, and it's best not to go into much detail about what prompts me to write this. But I'll just suggest that political jobs are not normal jobs. The strength of our communities depends on Democratic success - and that success hinges on all staffers, consultants, and candidates being at full strength. There's a ton that goes into planning certain life events. There's also a ton that goes into winning an election. You can't focus on both at the same time.

Not all major life events can be planned for. But some are.


Michigan Democrats' field operation this year was like the Tigers’ starting rotation: Top notch, among the best in the business. But like the Tigers' bullpen, our communications effort was the weak link that cost us the big prize.

I love the Democratic Party and the Detroit Tigers. I hope they both win it all soon. But before that can happen, each will need to fix what's hurting them.

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