8 min read

Messaging Does Not Generate Attention, Action and Provocation Do

Every time Democrats lose or even just underperform in an election, we see a series of recriminations about their messaging, particularly how poorly it performed compared to Republican's messaging, and the need for better, more effective messaging in the future. But these conversations are often short-sighted, failing to examine how parties and candidates reach specific audiences and media with specific messages in the first place as well as what makes some messages salient and other messages, even popular ones, relative snoozefests.

In particular, I'd like to encourage my peers — and the candidates and leaders and funders we work with — to invest in media infrastructure (which I've written about at length elsewhere) and embrace more risk-taking, surprise and even provocation as key tactics when planning media strategy, which I'll discuss more in this essay.

Media Cover Action and Controversy, Not Talking Points

When I started out in communications work, part of my job was going through paper copies of wire service clips that arrived in a large bundle at an office and tracking media coverage on climate and a bunch of other issues. That was just 15 years ago, right at the tail end of George W. Bush's second administration and before Barack Obama's historic victory.

A lot of the newspapers that carried those clips are dead and gone. But if you work in so-called "public relations" in Washington, DC, you're often still operating under a lot of assumptions left over from that print-driven media era: that statements from powerful institutions and elected officials will be disseminated by the Beltway press to mass audiences, where it will inform the electorate.

That model is increasingly dated. Instead, in a social media era with fractured audiences, attention is often driven by engagement and figures ranging from Joe Rogan to Taylor Swift can create their own content for the consumption of millions of potential voters, activists, and other influencers, who can in turn generate even more content and commentary. The mainstream model of top-down dissemination of information is still there, of course, but it operates, and is pushed around by, a much larger, richer, harder-to-measure ecosystem with far fewer gatekeepers.

In this context, doing something novel or provocative can generate controversy and therefore a great deal of attention through discussion, arguments and more follow-on discussions and arguments, which generates cascading waves of media attention before audiences move on to the next thing.

For Donald Trump, "controversy" was often the result of horrible statements, including abject racism and slander. But he also generated controversy when he criticized his own party's complicity in the Iraq War. In many ways, Trump was a tabloid-brained provocation marketing machine, generating $1.9 billion in earned media coverage in 2016 by one estimate, compared to $0.7 billion for Clinton.

Democrats can generate "controversy," too, but quite a bit more calmly and for the forces of good. Bernie Sanders repeatedly trolled Jeff Bezos and Amazon from the Senate floor, provoking the company into making a bunch of silly PR missteps and eventually leading them to raise wages for some workers. Harry Reid also used his position in 2012 to repeatedly dunk on Mitt Romney for not releasing his tax returns, which prompted the Romney campaign to respond, generating more attention for Reid's trolling. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's "Tax the Rich" dress used symbolic provocation and ensuing discussion to drive coverage of a given issue. More substantively, she also skipped Inauguration to stand on a strike line with Teamsters, something Labor Secretary Marty Walsh also did more recently with Kellog's workers, too. Earlier this week, Sen. Ron Wyden trolled Elon Musk, the wealthiest person in the world, after Musk did a Twitter poll about paying his taxes. Musk responded with a juvenile sex joke, further driving attention for Wyden's wealth tax proposal.

Of course, these are exceptions to the rule. Most political PR is relatively staid and risk-averse: Politicians and advocacy groups release reports, hold press conferences, and do panel discussions, little of which generates attention outside the issue constituencies that are already tuned in. And I've ended more than one interview or recruiting call when it's clear that an organization just wants to impress its donors with a few quotes in the New York Times and call it day.

Exercising Power Drives Media Attention, Not Standalone Stunts

Often, communications departments and staff are relatively disempowered in political structures. Specifically, communications staff are tasked with generating attention or worse "awareness" around an issue or piece of legislation without access to any levers of power that, if exercised, might generate attention.

For instance, when I was on the Hill, we passed the first piece of climate legislation out of the House in a decade. But news outlets were reticent to cover it because they rightfully expected it to never get a standalone vote in the Senate, which Republicans controlled at the time. A Senate staffer suggested House members walk the bill over to Sen. Mitch McConnell's office as a stunt to generate attention. I pointed out that that such a stunt could generate much more significant attention if we were also able to make a credible case to reporters that Senate leadership would use some actual power to bring up an actual vote on the actual piece of legislation, perhaps through the budgeting process. Even if this staffer had agreed with me 100%, they simply wouldn't have been able to act on that unilaterally, of course. And ultimately, reporters know the difference between a stunt and an exercise of power.

More prosaically, offices and organizations differ widely in how they conceive of communications positions. In a lot of cases, communications staff are early career and tasked with getting things out the door, but what they're conveying is largely shaped by principals and chiefs of staff. In other cases, communications directors can be relatively empowered, helping shape an organization's policy agenda. More rarely, they are senior executive roles or even combined with other executive functions. Sometimes, executive-level staff or funders have robust communications background and invest in high-value work. Regardless, communications and messaging can't be isolated from the exercise of power or viewed as an appendage to what political actors are actually doing.

To take another example from the Trump era, the president being a tax cheat was a potentially very resonant story. There was just one problem: Rep. Richard Neal, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, did not want to secure Trump's tax returns, something that even became an issue in an unsuccessful primary challenge. No investigation? No drip drip drip of news? Then all you have is a message with no news hook.

The Russia story also illustrates the power corporate media — even relatively friendly opinion-based media — has over the Democratic Party. The Russia scandal was great fodder for TV: there was a constant stream of news and leaks, there was the threat of prosecution, and the story was obviously quite appealing to a lot of Democrats. So Democratic staff were constantly in the position of having to accommodate or not accommodate media outlets' strong interest in Russia stuff. If they had told MSNBC hosts, for instance, that they didn't want to talk about Russia today, those hosts simply would have found people other than elected Democrats to talk about the topic. The option to explicitly talk about Democrats' agenda — the Better Deal at the time — was rarely on the table.

Looking Ahead

What could putting some of these ideas into practice mean over the next year or so? Specifically, it might involve trolling Republican members of Congress who voted against local infrastructure projects or — God willing — provisions of the Build Back Better agenda if it passes — in addition, of course, to talking up the benefits of these laws to constituents. More generally, I'm a huge fan of Democrats working in solidarity with unions. Labor organizing and strikes are wildly important and they offer tons of opportunities for political leaders and advocates to show support, including standing on strike lines, policy support, and encouraging people to donate to strike funds and mutual aid. As others have pointed out, it's a rather obvious way to appeal to working class voters!

It also means electing representatives who have a more aggressive, provocative stance when they publicly campaign. I'm not sure how much of that can happen overnight, but part of the generational turnover in legislatures will involve electing more online representatives who are skilled at managing and building attention across media platforms. If media power is concentrated with political leaders who have an old school view of media, changes are only going to happen at the edges.

Finally, going outside the mainstream press is a reliable and interesting tactic, particularly because the mainstream press still covers that coverage. Barack Obama did it with Youtubers, Sanders went on Rogan, and a plethora of politicians have taken advantage of podcasts — or launched their own — to reach different audiences. More recently, AOC sat down with Starbucks workers who are organizing a union and promoted the coverage from More Perfect Union, a relatively new labor-focused media project.

What This Doesn't Mean

Democrats will often have a few responses to this line of reasoning, which I'd like to address directly.

We can't lie to people. Yep! That's 100% right. Thankfully, narrative, emotional appeals and even provocation can be 100% honest, fact- and science-based, as all the great social justice leaders and rhetoricians of the past thousand plus years have demonstrated.

We can't be like Fox News. Our base isn't a bunch of hooting, bloodthirsty freaks. Yep! Effective messaging and media work is resonant with specific audiences. Appeals to liberals will be different than appeals to conservatives, but again the tactic of provoking conversation and engagement doesn't have to be that different.

Actually, everyone who disagrees with me needs to shut up and allow my ideologically preferred messages to take center stage. A lot of discussions about messaging are just proxies for intra-party ideological strife. That's expected, but even in that context, I'd love more discussion of why a particular message is going to be more or less salient, attention-grabbing, or provocative than another. This is a challenge for progressives, who don't control the framing of their message in unfriendly outlets and it's also a challenge for conservative Democrats in that their messages are often explicitly not meant to generate significant amounts of attention.

The real problem is disinformation. Disinformation is very bad and we should combat it, but if you had $100M to spend on media and messaging, how much of it would you put into getting your own message out vs. responding to your opponents' misleading message? As rationalists, it's very easy for liberals to latch onto "disinformation" as the core problem we're facing, particularly when disinformation is visible and ridiculous, but the absence of good, reliable information is arguably more important. Strategically, our opposition's disinformation can be a means to distract and divide our attention and resources, but more often it's often a means of disciplining their own base and legislators, which makes their ideologues worse, but does not necessarily help them build their audience.

Will Anyone With Power Actually Listen to This Free Advice and Armchair Quarterbacking?

Probably not! But at a minimum, I hope I've offered a more specific set of problems and potential solutions than "do messaging better." The incentives to avoid risk-taking in politics are very high. Nobody wants to spook the markets, freak out donors, piss off leadership, or run the risk of being Twitter's main character for a day. Arguably, even well-intentioned communications functions aren't intended to build power, but to placate constituents and mitigate class conflict or manufacture consent.

I've been working in politics and advocacy for about 15 years, with training primarily focused on public relations and earned media. But I've increasingly turned my attention to things like email programming, instructional materials, report editing, and non-communications work like woodworking and bike repair because my peers and I have a lot of trouble convincing candidates, advocacy groups and funders to invest in media infrastructure at scale or adopt more modern, aggressive strategies for generating attention.

At the end of the day, success in politics — from civil rights to labor struggles and climate action — requires both winning elections in the short-term and increasing the power of a multi-racial, working class coalition every day forever. That, in turn, requires continuing to cut off corporate influence in the party and in our political system generally. As the labor organizer and scholar Jane McAlevey has written, there are no shortcuts to building power. So by all means, let's debate messaging, but let's not lose sight of the fact that it's downstream, always, from power.

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