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Leah McElrath Renna

Leah McElrath Renna

Posted: September 9, 2008 04:38 PM

For God's Sake, Get on Message! Ten Tips for the Obama Campaign


Obama's campaign manager was recently quoted as saying, "There's a lot of hyperventilating about national polls," David Plouffe said, "When you look at battleground states, we feel very good about where we are." In response, I suggest that we'll stop hyperventilating AFTER we've won the election. Most of us are out here watching, listening to and reading media that shows a campaign continually in responsive mode and not in charge of the message -- add that to recent poll results and you'll have to forgive us if we're a bit nervous.

In the last eight years, we've gone from a national budget surplus to an insurmountable national deficit. Seven years after 9/11, Bin Laden is still at large. We've lost more than 4,000 American soldiers fighting in a country that wasn't involved in the attacks on ours. We and the rest of the world have witnessed evidence of US government sponsored torture -- and seen the world-wide good will that 9/11 garnered us squandered to pursue the interests of big oil. We've gone from fulfilled dreams of home ownership to record numbers of home foreclosures. Retirement savings that were growing are now devastated by market declines. This is the Democrats race to lose.

And, if the Obama campaign doesn't get on message, we WILL lose it.

As a Democrat, I am nervous and on the verge of desperation. As a media relations professional -- someone who does messaging and media training for a living -- I am simply puzzled. This is not hard stuff. The Democrats MUST stop responding and become more proactive. Here are ten tips for the Obama campaign, gratis:

1. GET ON MESSAGE AND STAY ON MESSAGE
. McCain = Bush, the economy sucks, our national security situation is more dire than ever due to the failed Republican policies. Repeat, repeat, repeat, repeat, repeat, repeat...

2. STOP REPEATING REPUBLICAN PROPAGANDA FOR THEM. If you don't believe that McCain is a maverick, then say what he is. Say he's unpredictable and impulsive in his decision-making and ask people if those are really the qualities that we want in our Commander in Chief.

3. Stop talking about Sarah Palin and rebutting her lies. NOBODY CARES WHAT THE FACTS ARE. They are influenced by her persona -- the impression they take away from her appearances. When you allow yourselves to become distracted and start serving as a Republican fact-checker, you come across as petty and self-congratulating. Same applies to McCain.

4. FOCUS ON OBAMA'S PERSONA AS COMMANDER IN CHIEF. Obama's special gift as a politician is to inspire people's trust -- work it to its fullest. Be hopeful and positive, sure, but also be strong and fierce. Show that Obama's leadership will combine the strength of the sword with the compassion of the chalice. He did a great job of this in his nomination acceptance speech -- but lately his pull-quotes are either wonky-to-the-extreme or on the self-congratulatory side.

5. BOLSTER OBAMA'S COMMANDER IN CHIEF CREDENTIALS. Get as many visuals of you with General Wesley Clark and other leaders in the fields of defense and foreign relations circulating as you can. The Republicans are running on the myth of McCain as a benevolent warrior -- and will be further ratcheting up the fear level in the weeks to come if their convention was any indication (repeated exploitation of 9/11 imagery, hundreds of recapitulations of McCain's POW story, etc.). GET AHEAD OF THIS ISSUE NOW.

6. USE MORE AND BETTER VISUALS in general. Recently, I was in South Carolina and saw, over and over again, one particularly ineffective Obama ad about reworking the US economy to employ more skilled labor again. Not only was the message was too esoteric for the purposes of the final 60 days of the campaign, but the visuals used in the ad were pathetic. Were they perhaps close-up photos of the time-ravaged faces and hands of working class Americans (toward whom the ad was apparently aimed)? No. The most common visual was windmills. Yes, that's right. Windmills. How working class America is supposed to be swayed to vote Democratic when they are viewing ads about windmills is just beyond me. Let's have some ads of a flag draped coffin in close up -- and then multiplied by more than 4000 times. Let's have some ads that feature a close up of a foreclosed home and a family who has been evicted -- then multiply that times however many thousands of foreclosures have taken place. Now those are visual that will reach working class Americans.

7. DON'T BE AFRAID TO GO NEGATIVE. Not all negative campaigns are equal. Describing John McCain as unpredictable, short-tempered and impulsive in his decision-making is a far different field of play than belittling John Kerry's war record. This is a war -- play to win. Once we're back in office, you can be as gracious as you please.

8. KISS: keep it simple, stupid. Every time we Democrats get into the "we're right, so if maybe we just explain it well enough then they'll understand" mode, we lose. The reality is that the vast majority of people feel condescended to when things are "explained" to them. Most people function on "gut" feelings and imagery and understand things best when they are presented in simplified, symbolic and concrete terms. This isn't because most people are stupid, however. It's because life is overwhelming as it is. People do not have the time, attention or inclination to take in and process units of complex information. If we learn nothing else from the influence of Karl Rove, let us at least learn this.

9. THE SUPREME COURT. My God, the stakes are high. Perhaps some ads that delineate how high and use testimonials from women might be in order? We do, after all, need to reach undecided women. My bet is that Sarah Palin's glamour will be a little less appealing once women are reminded that, under a Supreme Court dominated by Republican-appointed judges, their daughters might face a future in which they will not have the freedom to terminate a pregnancy even in the case of rape or incest.

10. GET ON MESSAGE AND STAY ON MESSAGE. McCain = Bush, the economy sucks, our national security situation is more dire than ever due to the failed Republican policies and the loss of the American moral high ground. Repeat, repeat, repeat, repeat, repeat, repeat...

Mr. Plouffe, with all due respect, when we see a few of these changes in effect, maybe then we'll be able to feel good with you. Until then, I'm keeping my paper bag at the ready.


Leah McElrath Renna is a Managing Partner of Renna Communications, a progressive public interest communications firm, and a practicing psychotherapist.