Tuesday, April 12, 2011

What We’ve Got He-ah Is ... Failure to Communicate

No, the post’s title does not refer to the idyllic past to which the Alabama Republican Party wants to return the Department of Corrections, though I wouldn’t be surprised one bit if they would take it several steps in that direction if they could. Instead, I am thinking of another opportunity we Democrats have to move from our B Game to our A Game.

I am thinking rather of communications - and not the general concept of communications, which embraces everything from paid media to shoe-leather canvassing. I am thinking of “communications” in the sense it is usually used in the professional political world. In that sphere, the “communications” function is usually referring to the campaign’s or party’s point person for media relations. Of course, the state Party has for years had a communications director on board during election years, as have gubernatorial campaigns and other major campaigns. In both election and off years, the Party chairman and executive director have also undertaken part of this function, and the state Party has overall done a good job of it for some time.

Unfortunately, the state Party has to focus most of its attention on the major metropolitan dailies, the television news, the Associated Press, and to a lesser extent, the dailies in mid-sized cities like Anniston and Dothan. This leaves a big gap in an area where we Democrats have been getting our clock cleaned the last couple of cycles, and have to do a better job: smaller cities and rural counties outside the Black Belt. Across the Tennessee Valley, down the eastern and western borders of Alabama, and in a few pockets like Walker and Talladega Counties, these counties used to be part of our base. Now they are battlegrounds where we are barely holding our own. The immutable math of Alabama politics for the next decade looks a lot like this: we’re going to win the inner cities and the Black Belt. We’re going to lose in the white flight suburbs like Shelby, Baldwin, and Autauga Counties. If we’re going to regain legislative influence, and win statewide races, we have to regain ground in the mid-size and rural counties in the rest of the state. And a big part of that is going to be influencing the media atmosphere in those counties.

Now, I am not going to name names here. Or preach. But what I want to do is illustrate the sort of effort I have in mind. In trying to figure out how well local Parties have been getting the Democratic message into the news, I spent some time looking, with the help of Google and the search functions of several newspapers’ individual websites. I found a great article in The Demopolis Times, which ran during the 2008 Democratic National Convention.

The 2008 Democratic National Convention.

I don’t claim to have checked every non-metropolitan paper, and I won’t name the ones I did (as I am not finger pointing), but I was not able to find a story quoting a county Democratic chairperson in any non-metropolitan daily newspaper during the 2010 election cycle. (I spot-checked about 15 or 16 smaller dailies and larger weeklies.) Now, anyone is welcome to post a link in the comments, showing me one I missed - and I hope someone does. I want to recognize those local chairs who are doing a good job. But anything short of 100 links I somehow missed won’t change my conclusion: I should have found such a story in every paper I checked.

We are going to have to do a better job of presenting our case on the front pages of these non-metropolitan newspapers if we are going to overcome the Republican bias of Fox News and the Newhouse papers in Birmingham, Mobile and Huntsville. Fortunately, this is something that doesn’t take a significant amount of money, and really doesn’t consume that much time. It doesn’t take a county Democratic chair that long to say “The Republican Legislature has shown its true colors by refusing to take the sales tax off food.” - and that makes a great quote on page one.

Our new state chairman, Judge Mark Kennedy, has begun one thing I like. He has started releasing statements on a more regular basis than any of his predecessors, on a wide range of current issues. Not every one makes the lead story in the news, but some do. Do I expect county chairs to call their local papers daily? No, at least not until fall of 2012. But we can make some hay during the legislative session, and begin to posture ourselves for 2012 and beyond.

There are a few points to keep in mind in raising the local-media profile of your county Democratic Party:

  • Cultivate a regular contact. You don’t want to avoid anyone on the small staff of a local paper, but, as a local Democratic leader, you probably have a good idea who is the most sympathetic - or at least the least unfair - member of the staff. Your talking point has a much better shot at page one if it goes through such a writer.
  • Take the initiative. This is probably the most important point of all. Media folks are like the rest of us; they never have enough time for everything. This is even truer as media outlets reduce their staffs in the wake of the Bush Recession. If you wait for them to call you for a quote, the Democratic message will be unread in your county. Call your contact at least once a week during the legislative session, and every day during the general election campaign. Even if you don’t have a point to push (and you should), they may have a political story they’re working on, and that would give you the perfect chance to work the Democratic position into the story. Be ready with something worth saying, and the Democratic message will be read in your county.
  • Be confident. I know some people, even Party leaders, who don’t feel comfortable in the limelight. First and foremost, I promise you, no local Democratic chair is going to face a lectern like the one in this photo. Raising the Party’s media image is a matter of a phone chat, or talk over coffee, with a local reporter whom you already know well. If you absolutely, positively don’t feel comfortable doing this sort of thing, designate a vice chair or other person as your local communications director. Just keep in mind, at the local level, it is the chair the local media wants to quote.
  • Coordinate the message for repetition. I am hoping that one of the things Judge Kennedy will be able to do is establish some sort of message tree - based on email or text - out of the Party office in Montgomery. Ideally, this would send out “today’s talking point” on one issue or another. Repetition increases the effect of any message. If a voter hears our Supreme Court nominee say something on WSFA or reads Judge Kennedy’s comment in The Montgomery Advertiser, then reads the same point made by a local chair when turning to The Alexander City Outlook or The Troy Messenger for their local news, it’s a lot more apt to stick.
  • Tie in to the lead news story. This point is closely related to the previous one; it is likely that any coordinated effort will be closely linked to the lead story in that day’s news. But even in the absence of a lead from the state, a local leader should be alert for local opportunities. A perfect example is the story linked above from The Demopolis Times. If you look at it, you will note that it is essentially an Associated Press story, re-written by a local writer with a few localized quotes from Chairman Coplin. (If you closely read your local paper, you will see that is a common writer’s way of getting a long story with little work.) A story about the Democratic Convention that probably wouldn’t have made the local paper got in, because of what I suspect was good work by the Marengo County Party to make it happen.
  • Don’t forget local radio. This is a tricky one. A lot of smaller cities now have local news/talk radio outlets, and some of them actually have fair Arbitron ratings. On the other hand, this is a medium that the loony right has claimed as its own, and the demographics of that listener base may make it unworthy of a big investment of time. The important thing to avoid is giving them the chance to say “the Democrats wouldn’t come on the air with us.” On the other hand, if the issue is one where that audience might be receptive - the GOP refusal to rescind the legislative pay raise they ran against comes to mind - it might be worth calling in, or making yourself available in the studio.

In his play The Critic, British poet and Member of Parliament Richard Brinsley Sheridan had one of his characters say, “The newspapers! Sir, they are the most villainous, licentious, abominable, infernal— Not that I ever read them! No, I make it a rule never to look into a newspaper.” As Democrats, we often feel this way about our local papers. A big part of putting our Party back in its historic position of leadership is doing our part to turn that image of the media around - or, more precisely, turning around our image in that media.