TODAY, crisis and turmoil are the new norms rather than the exception. War and terrorism are just part of the challenge. New companies, even industries, rise and fall faster than ever, elected officials no longer have a 100 day honeymoon before they start to lose voter confidence, and in the age of 24/7 news cycle, “breaking news” is ever present.” This was how Marco Cacciotto, chairman of the 47th Annual World Conference of the International Association of Political Consultants or IAPC summed up the theme Eternal Crisis: “Political Consulting in Changing Times,” which took place in the eternal city of Rome, Italy last 17-19 November.
IAPC is the organization of political consultants from all over the globe with 229 members in attendance from the United States, European Union, Latin America, Africa, Australia and Asia. The Philippines has been represented by yours truly since 2005.
Interestingly, the choice of Italy was also spot on. More than 2000 years ago, Quintus Tallius Cicero wrote what is likely the first ever handbook on political campaigning for his brother, Marcus, a candidate for the Senate. And Italy still leads the world in political volatility.
IAPC was founded by Michel Bongrand and Joe Napolitan. The former was French and the latter was American. Both were honored in this conference for their efforts of building and steering the association to where it is now. Napolitan was in fact a consultant whispered about during the days of the late president Ferdinand Marcos. Napolitan used to say “to move the world in the right direction, you need to work on politics.” And since then more and more foreign consultants have been tapped by Filipino politicians and national candidates for various services, principally polling and messaging.
Jim Messina keynoted the event. Messina was the campaign manager for Obama in 2012 and is at present chairman of Priorities (a super PAC) and senior consultant of UK Prime Minister David Cameron. Messina quoted Bill Clinton in his keynote, “all elections are referenda of the future and of people’s hopes and dreams.” That is why Clinton will always be the best case study on messaging. Messina stressed, “it’s the economy stupid!” continues to reign.
Political consultants should be able to see when terrain has changed and it cannot be one template fits all. Political consultants should realize that voter-centric narrative is crucial because voters would want their lives to be better off. Messina noted that the average attention span of people these days is 4 minutes only. “Two things define people these days, their religion and smartphones. If your election is not here (pointing to his cell), you will not be competitive.” The sooner you accept that “we are in the age of personalization,” the better you can reach your voters and communicate with your base. He further emphasized that consultants need to hire people who can converse in a unique way. If it “seemed political, voters just do not want to connect.”
Messina further stated that the “age of diversification of media is a challenge to all campaigns.” In whatever country political consultants work these days, “campaigns need to establish a clear economic imperative.” It has never been about the candidate or the political party. It has always been about making better the lot of voters. Not some but all voters. “You have to dominate the field and you can only do so by getting more people and voters engaged. But the challenge of engagement is redefining the conversation. It cannot be politics only. You have to make it relevant to the voters.” He narrated to the audience that Obama used to say, presidential politics is an X-ray of one’s soul. “It took me a year to learn why I want to do it.” Messina added, “you just cannot run for the heck of wanting to be president. You need to think things through and that is where the narrative emanates.”
The Messina narration was quite interesting in the light of how our “presidentiables” traverse the decision to cross the line and aim for the crown. The last one did it because his political party just thought of the chance of winning after the death of the famous icon and the rest, as they’d say is “bahala na si Batman.”
Are all politics becoming more Italian? Looks like it because trust in political parties has waned across political boundaries. The candidate who is able to put together the economic narrative will be ahead of the pack. The ability to communicate the economic narrative in language owned by voters will win. And no political party or institution can set that aside.
Political parties need a lot of reinvention. Political leaders and operators are becoming obsolete because of the development in media, from platforms to schedules to content. Voters believe media more than political parties.
The lessons learned from the 2014 US elections from Democratic pollster Anna Greenberg were: consolidation and moving the base are vital; one can change the terrain and the economic message is essential. The latter was the crucial mistake of the Democrats. There was no economic message from Obama (how things are getting better), no fundamental discussion on the economy.
Microsoft VP for technology and civic engagement, Dan’l Lewin, discussed the latest buzzword these days, technonomy. It is about the centrality of technology to business and social progress and the urgency of embracing the rapid pace of change. Lewin pointed out three things that are vital to political consultants and public affairs people: mobile devices as sensors, all connected to a cloud and information and data for politics. Lewin calls these the architectures of politics today.
There were so many topics on deck but one that I earnestly listened to was managing opinion and issue response during a crisis. In a crisis, you never know when it hits and there are no real excuses for not having a plan and that it is possible for the politician to end strong after the crisis. Carl Kell dissected the New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s Bridgegate. “In crisis, you need to 1) apologize, 2) launch a personal image repair and 3) look at the administrative culture that led to the crisis.” He cited John Riley’s four-steps to handle crisis: do no harm, communicate, put fire out and be sure to come out stronger than when the crisis started.
How about it Mr. Vice President?