The Case for a Brave Presidential Candidate to Stop Messaging and Start Building

Stop Campaigning and Behave Like a President -- Invest Funds in Creating a Platform, Not Buying Ads

By Published on .

John King
John King

Since there will be a presidential election a year from now, this week got me thinking. It's no secret that the real Jedi Knights of communication don't work in advertising. They work in politics.

The good news for the rest of us is that every four years we can expect someone to evolve the political communication model and transcend the game. In 2004, Howard Dean's campaign revolutionized internet fundraising. In 2008, Barack Obama took things a step further, building his entire campaign from the bottom up. Whether it's Bill Clinton pulling out the saxophone on "The Arsenio Hall Show" (remember that ?) or going door-to-door with pocket PCs narrowcasting, the big communications shifts in politics tend to come from the likes of Trippi, Penn, and Plouffe, not Wieden, Goodby or Fallon .

Perhaps the biggest shift occurred in the 2008 Democratic primaries as Hillary Clinton's "red phone" message squared off with Obama's people-powered platform. Presidential politics has always been about messages and media. The questions have remained largely the same: "Which candidate would you rather drink a beer with?" Or, as Hillary famously asked, "Which candidate do you want answering the red phone at midnight?"

Presidential campaigns are won and lost by a candidate's ability to time and focus key messages (copyright Carville: "It's the economy, stupid") to their advantage.

In 2008, Hillary bet on this tried-and-true messaging model, while Obama did macro-messaging in the form of "hope" and "change," allowing his supporters to fill in exactly what those words mean with action. A battle between "buying" messages and "building" ideas ensued, with Obama edging out Clinton to earn the nomination. Three years later, whether you think the President has delivered on those ideas or not, one thing's for certain: The model will be advanced again one year from this week.

Consider that more than $2 billion dollars were spent on the last presidential election -- almost exclusively on messages. Messages that can only help one candidate win. Messages that expired when the flowchart ended. Messages that tried to steer people through the same old narrative.

There has to be a better way.

There's a reason media departments across the country are filled mostly with inexperienced 23-year-olds. They're the only ones who can spend that type of money on paid media messages without thinking a whole lot about it and still sleep at night. If we're being honest with ourselves, the messaging era has about the same shelf life as the media it keeps in business. Spots and dots fall out of memory about as quickly as the morning newspaper starts to yellow.

So here's what I'm hoping for in a candidate in the next year: One who will push past advocacy to ownership, truly giving consumers the keys to the car and completing the shift from "buy" to "build."

Imagine if a presidential candidate (or a brand, for that matter) spent all his or her money building a platform and beliefs in the world instead of buying mere messages to say it to you. What if, instead of raising money to buy messages, a candidate used those contributions to build a prototype? What if, rather than using the budget to tell you why he or she should be president, a candidate showed you what it would feel like? What if, instead of messaging like a candidate, he or she started behaving like a president?

Imagine how powerful it would be for a fringe candidate to position this way, stating that while he or she may not win the nomination, any supporter would be assured that every dollar raised would be used to start implementing the candidate's vision in the world. Rather than buy messages to tell you they care about schools, childhood obesity and the military, a candidate would reinvest campaign funds to purchase iPads for schools, create a bike-rentals program and buy more Kevlar vests for the troops.

While "putting your money where your mouth is " doesn't sound like a new idea, when it comes to politics, it might just be the next revolution. Wouldn't Ralph Nader supporters be happier today knowing millions of dollars had been put into the world, even if he never did get to the White House?

Not to mention it just might work. In Scott Rasmussen's new book ("In Search of Self-Governance"), he makes the case that people aren't looking for a "left-wing" or "right-wing" government, they'd prefer to govern themselves. With only 17% of likely U.S. voters thinking the federal government has the consent of the people (Rasmussen Reports), a "build" model would allow voters to truly participate, co-create and have ownership of the campaign itself. Sounds a bit familiar, doesn't it? Sort of like "of the people, by the people?"

In the messaging model, the candidate treats supporters like sheep doling out information on a "need-to-know" basis. This shift to a more generous "build" of ideas in the world makes the candidate the conductor and his or her supporters the symphony. And in its early stages, there would be no tradeoffs because the "earned" media a candidate would receive for such a radical approach would be enough to fill the flowcharts with impressions. But, most importantly, win or lose, the "build" model leaves something behind.

John King is the chief communications officer at Publicis Groupe 's Fallon in Minneapolis.
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