Communications Lessons from the Massachusetts Senate Race

LTW Logo for CG Blog

So, Massachusetts has a new Senator. As Scott Brown packs his truck for Washington, many residents are still suffering whiplash from a campaign that seemed to come out of nowhere and quickly grew into a national event. Politics aside, there are a few communications lessons from Martha Coakley’s epic defeat for anyone trying to use media to advance their organizational agenda:

-Don’t go quiet.  In the race for the Senate seat previously held by the late Ted Kennedy – the “liberal lion” who represented Massachusetts for 46 years, Democrat Martha Coakley seemed to have every advantage. Many viewed the primary as the “real” election, including, it seemed, Martha Coakley’s election team. While she went quiet after the primaries, Republican Scott Brown seized his moment to dominate media coverage. Even in a less contentious scenario than a political campaign, there is constant competition for mindshare and the opportunity to influence public perception of issues/causes/organizations simply by being “out there.” If you’re not talking about the issues most important to your mission, others will be.  (And if you find yourself frequently saying, “We should have been in this media story!” it is probably a sign you’re being too quiet for your organization’s own good.)

-Stay positive. Once Coakley started talking, she moved into attack mode. Supporters on both sides of the race were turned off by a very negative tone the campaign took in its final weeks. (One friend went so far as to rejoice when, post-election, ubiquitous political attack ads gave way to familiar, low-budget messages from discount furniture chains…“I have never been so happy to see a Bernie and Phyl’s commercial!”).  Use negative messages sparingly – or they can lose their power. Aside from turning off potential new supporters, a consistently negative tone can also exhaust your base. (PETA lost plenty of friends over the years when its in-your-face approach seemed less about awareness, and more like a stunt.) Make sure the tone of your message is consistent with the values of your organization, and that it will help you reach your end goal.

-Be in it to win it. Scott Brown didn’t stand a chance on paper. But he ran a campaign like he could win. Likewise, many organizations operating in the field of social benefit aim to deal with massive challenges: hunger, poverty, environmental issues, cancer. Sizing the problem may be good strategy and important information, but on the communications front it is even more powerful to focus on solutions. What is your organization doing in a unique way to make a positive difference? Tell that story.