Rethinking McCain’s Communications Strategy
Posted on June 6, 2008(This originally appeared in The Politico)
John McCain is great in town hall meetings. He is not so good at giving major speeches. As I like to say, he can hit a curveball, but he can’t hit one off the tee.
Barack Obama, on the other hand, hits a 350-yard drive every time he steps to the microphone, but has shown some vulnerability in debates.
It follows, then, that if McCain is to be successful this fall against Obama, he must play baseball and not golf.
McCain's latest proposal, challenging Obama to a series of town hall forums, is smart strategy. That Obama didn’t immediately agree to McCain’s proposal shows that his team has some nagging doubts about it.
But McCain needs to rethink his entire campaign strategy if he is going to compete with Obama. Here are some ideas:
1. Short is sweet: With all due regard to Mark Salter, who is a wonderful writer, McCain should ditch the long flowery speeches and beautiful rhetoric. He is just not that good at giving speeches. No amount of media training between now and November is going to make him any better. Keep the speeches short.
2. Smaller is better: Let Obama be the rock star. McCain should be the folk singer. He should use smaller venues. You can get just as much energy from a small venue as you can from a large venue. Remember, it is about the cameras, stupid.
3. The venue is the message: Make the places you visit part of your message. Go to the most popular bar in the biggest city in the state. Visit the local VFW hall. Visit the hospitals and health clinics. Tour the community colleges. Go to a high school football game in Texas and a college football game in South Bend, Ind. Make these visits your sound bite for the day.
4. Don’t wear a tie anymore: Only 6 percent of American men wear a tie to the office each day, according to NBC News. Be with the 94 percent of the people who don’t wear ties.
5. Listen before you talk: Make a point of listening to people's stories at each stop. Listen to their concerns and their anxieties, and then react to those stories in your own remarks.
6. Find surrogates who are not politicians: Community leaders, country music stars, racecar drivers, baseball players, anybody who is famous for anything other than politics. Using fellow senators as surrogates when congressional ratings are in the toilet is not a winning strategy. Maybe Chuck Norris will come out of retirement.
7. Reach outside the GOP: Packing the halls with preppy young Republicans is no way to attract Reagan Democrats. If working-class Americans won’t come to your rallies, go to theirs. Whether it is union meetings or even the NAACP, play on the home turf of the Democrats.
8. Find ways to be funny and show that you are having fun: By now, the obligatory visits to Jon Stewart and "Saturday Night Live" have pretty much run their course. But that doesn’t mean that having fun and being funny shouldn’t be part of McCain’s communications strategy. He has a wicked sense of humor, especially when he talks about himself. He shouldn’t be afraid to be funny.
9. Viral market the heck out of everything: God knows the Obama people know how to use the Internet. Think Obama Girl. Creatively telling the positive stories about McCain in short clips on the Internet should be a bigger part of this campaign. The opposing team will do negative clips. McCain has to keep it positive and keep it real.
10. Reinvent the modern campaign: The Obama primary campaign was nearly perfect. It used the most modern techniques (heck, it invented them) to make Obama a true modern phenom. McCain’s people need to study what Obama did and adapt those techniques to the Republican’s personality and his strengths. The long-winded speech is not McCain's strength. But his personality, his courage, his integrity and his life story are strengths that can be highlighted in a truly modern campaign.
John Feehery worked for the House Republican leadership from 1989 to 2005. He is the founder of The Feehery Group, a strategic advocacy firm.