Traditional Media

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By Damian Connon   

Generating and directing media coverage is a difficult ‘dark art’ at the best of times. It is always a challenge to find original, relevant and understandable messages and ideas, which at the same time are not too ‘dumbed down’. Photos have to be compelling and eye-catching, but if too extravagant it could appear to be a stunt or make your candidate look like a clown. The good news is that during an election campaign, papers, radio and TV stations are covering and giving lots of priority to political stories. The bad news? All of your competitors are fighting you for those column inches and to dominate the airwaves. So what can you do to gain an advantage?       

Try to maintain positive, professional relations with media. Even if it does seem as though they are not treating you as well as you deserve. Also DO try to keep an eye on how much coverage other parties are getting: the number of front page stories, photos published and stories carried prominently on TV and radio news bulletins. Different countries have different rules: you might be entitled to as much as your share of the vote in the last election, in the last poll – or you might not be entitled to anything at all!       

If you are getting disproportionately ignored, do contact the news editor. Try to make the case that you’ve got a good/unique story to tell and their readers/audiences would benefit from hearing it. Ask if there is anything you could change about how you are organising your events to improve the likelihood of coverage (timing, notification, structure and messages could all be tweaked to help get better coverage). You can be sure that your counterparts in other parties are complaining if they’re getting a bad deal. It almost certainly will annoy your media colleagues, but sometime the loudest voice will dominate.       

It can be useful during a campaign to conduct regular media briefings. For bigger parties this might be daily. Or for parties who get less attention from the media, every couple of days. Ideally, it will be in a regular spot so that journalists remember the location! This also reduces transportation of backdrops, lights, podiums, etc.       

Campaign planning
Under the intense pressure of an election campaign there is rarely enough time to run a campaign, let alone plan one. So it is a very good idea to have as many plans as possible in place before the campaign begins. Ideally, you will have a framework prepared for the most critical last weeks of the campaign, when most people make up their minds about voting and when being visible to the public is most critical. This can be as detailed as you need it to be, but it should be well thought out, and agreed and familiar to the key decision-makers in the political and communications roles.      

The purpose of a campaign plan – or ‘grid’ – is to give everybody on the team an overview, and to facilitate efficient work. It is important to consider spacing out your events to take account of your capacity to organise interesting events, and also of the media’s ability or probability of covering them. This point is particularly important if there is a system of proportional media coverage (stopwach). If in doubt, spend your time organising a smaller number of well-researched, well-run events, rather than lots of lower-standard events; quality rather than quantity.       

During the campaign itself, it is useful to issue a media notice by email containing details of important events taking place the following day. Even if there are no specific media events organised, the schedule could contain details of speeches or meetings in which senior figures are participating. For very important and last-minute events, it could be useful to send an SMS to political correspondents, news editors, photographers, etc.       

If your party does not have a press clippings or media monitoring service, it is a good idea to plan to do an early morning newspaper review, so you have an overview of the big stories and can fine tune your messages and events as needed. This task would likely need to be rotated, as all those early starts will quickly wear out a press officer if she or he has to do it all on their own!       

Ideas for media events
Most campaigns will contain a number of similar elements – set-pieces like: launches to get the campaign going, unveil posters, publish the manifesto, showcase an election broadcast and, eventually, to wrap up the campaign.       

There will also usually be opportunities to present different policy ideas. These need not take the format of a press conference; it is usually a good idea to present your ideas with visuals that create an idea of the policy in action. A press conference provides little visual material for TV stations and photographers to work with. And even the best communicator will struggle to make detailed policies interesting in a room full of bored journalists.       

In the election campaign for local councillors in 2009, the best covered media event that the Irish Greens held was a press event to outline the party’s plans to improve cycling facilities in Dublin.       

A dozen bikes and helmets were borrowed from a cycle shop, and journalists and photographers were invited to accompany politicians on a mini tour of the city to point out good facilities as well as bad points (they also were treated to refreshments and pastries in a café in a new, pedestrianised urban plaza which has good bike parking – as well as good coffee.) A similarly successful event was held on a regular Dublin bus, hired for a couple of hours, to point out public transport facilities to media.       

Politics – as well as policies
Making policy more interesting and understandable is one approach to take. (For an education event, why not consider holding it in a school or playground with children spelling out your message on large toy letters?). But Greens also have a tendency to talk exclusively about policies, and wonder why we suffer from a lack of coverage. We sometimes forget that journalists are often – and sometimes more – interested in the processes of politics and the personalities involved.       

It is a good idea to prepare research on your political opponents – both their ideas and their people – and work them into sound-bites that can used in conversations with journalists.        

As green party campaigns are usually more poorly funded than our competitors, we often have less money to spend on expensive items like outdoor advertising. We can try to use public relations to leverage our spending. Consider hiring a mobile ‘ad-mobile’ for a press launch – a photo of this in the papers can be worth 20 billboards, and can make your budget go further.       

Useful campaign accessories:     
1. Stand with multiple microphone clips: keep photos tidy, stop journalists ‘crowding’ your speaker.
2. Digital camera: good for web use, and for smaller newspapers that don’t have their own photographers or can’t use photo agency pictures. Preferably a Canon or Nikon SLR with an external flash unit.
3. Digital audio recorder: It is a good idea to record any press conference, in case of quotes “out of context”, and also for podcasting.
4. Video camera: There is not very much work involved in putting up a YouTube clip.
5. Name plates: A good idea for press conferences, so photographers can sort out their captions more easily.       

Other ideas:
1. Create a ‘war book’ or election book, of election-focused messages, including positive messages, attack messages and defensive sound-bites to cover difficult issues. This is ideally prepared in advance of the campaign so that key candidates and spokespeople can be familiar with them and repeat them for consistent messaging.
2. Media monitor alerts: Have a system with which you can send SMS alerts to volunteers and supporters alerting them to listen to radio broadcasts – especially those featuring green candidates – and text in with supportive messages.
3. Issue a media notice on the eve of voting about when the campaign’s key individuals will be casting their ballot, so photographers can catch this image for the following day’s newspapers.

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