Message and the Power to Motivate

This past weekend, the New York Times published a series called “What Went Wrong?”, which is trying to do a bit of a post-mortem on the Clinton campaign and explain, as the title suggests, what went wrong (note how the focus isn’t on what went “right” with the Obama campaign, which is actually a better question).

Mark Penn, the chief strategist of the Clinton campaign — and for those in the PR field, he’s also the CEO of Burson-Marsteller — wrote his take on why his own strategy failed. From his ed-op piece, entitled “The Problem Wasn’t the Message — It Was the Money“:

“From more aggressively courting young people earlier to mobilizing the full power of women, there are things that could have been done differently.

While everyone loves to talk about the message, campaigns are equally about money and organization. Having raised more than $100 million in 2007, the Clinton campaign found itself without adequate money at the beginning of 2008, and without organizations in a lot of states as a result. Given her successes in high-turnout primary elections and defeats in low-turnout caucuses, that simple fact may just have had a lot more to do with who won than anyone imagines.”

I read this, and I wondered, “but wasn’t it the message that drove people to donate to Obama?”

It was the entire Obama narrative — the concept of unity and creating a movement — that drove people to action, and to donate.

Think of key phrases from the campaign, from the “Yes We Can” slogan to lines like “we are the change that we’ve been waiting for.” The phrasing of words are specifically designed to target activation. Look at, for example, the words above the e-mail signup, and compare the phrase against the competition. What’s more likely to induce action? “Get Involved,” or “Get E-mail from Hillary”?

Language that urges inclusion and the concept of literally “buying into” the campaign — almost like an investment — is what activated donations from contributors. Flipping a slogan from “Yes We Can” to “Yes She Will” doesn’t give people the same kind of buy-in that a “we” message can.

A truly action-inducing campaign’s message needs to be more than just a collection of dial-tested phrases and slogans. Sure, polling helps to refine your messages, but there’s the notion that all of these dial-tested phrases need to end up coming together as a solid, inter-woven narrative that is designed to use the concept of “inclusion” to motivate supporters towards action.

That’s not to say that the Clinton campaign didn’t have emotionally-invested supporters (and we know that she did, and we’re clearly seeing it now). However, when Penn talks about message and Obama’s “money” as separate, non-complementary concepts, I scratch my head a bit and wonder, because it was the message that allowed for supporter-based small donations to flow in.

~ by Brad Levinson on June 10, 2008.

One Response to “Message and the Power to Motivate”

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