Memo: this isn’t the Wing Wing
You don’t live in the West Wing. I know that it’s great. I know you like to think that you are Josh, and that your slightly grumpy mate is Toby. Or that you are all sensitive, and so you’re CJ. Or that you are an intellectual leader of the human race, and basically President Bartlett.
But you aren’t. You don’t live in the West Wing. And if you learnt your campaigning from the West Wing, then that’s probably why you’re shit at it.
For huge numbers of people I meet in campaigning jobs these days, Aaron Sorkin’s classic show comes up as a key inspiration for their involvement in politics. I’m not naming names, but there are lots of them. Peter McColl has written very eloquently here before about why he hates the West Wing. I don’t hate the West Wing. I love it. I have watched every episode. Twice. But it is the worst way I can think of to learn how to do politics.
There are lots of reasons why the West Wing isn’t a good way to learn. Primary among them is that it is not designed as a way to teach you how to campaign. It is designed to be a dramatic TV show.
But also crucial is that, for almost all campaigns, we have neither the pulpit nor the spotlight of the American presidency. If everything you say will be picked over by the White House press corp, then you need to very carefully hone every message, and you need a new message every week.
If, on the other hand, you are running anything but the Labour or Tory Westminster election campaign, then messaging is not about having something new to say every day. It isn’t about (as one West Wing episode is called) about the “Third Day Story”. It is about telling the same story again, and again, and again, in as many new ways as you can. It is about choosing the one thing you want to say, and making sure that every interaction you have with every member of your campaign audience is about communicating your key message.
One person who didn’t learn their politics from the West Wing is my hero of the month, Sam Coates. Sam is currently running the election campaign for the Green Party in Wales. Their key message is this: “2nd vote Green to defend public services”. That is really 2 messages, and it’s a little complex. But I think it was the right choice.
And every one of the communications I have seen Sam put out has been about finding a way to explain details of that message. Their election leaflets have focussed on this, again and again. Their WONDERFUL Ivor the Engine Driver themed election broadcast says the same.
I haven’t yet done any canvassing for them (next weekend), but I’m certain that when I do, I will be given clear instructions about what to say. Even the descriptor on their twitter account explains the second vote.
Sam understand one thing: unless you, the campaigners, are bored sick of the message you are trying to communicate, no one has heard it. Unless you are bored to death, with it, and then say it another 10,000 times, almost no one will have noticed. In the West Wing, the president makes an announcement, and then everyone moves on. At one point, Santos spends a whole day talking about the same thing. That’s considered to be ‘staying on message’. In almost all other campaigns, staying on message means repeating the same words again and again – maybe in new and different ways, but still, the same core message – for at least 2 months. Because people are busy. They only just keep up with the news that is directly about them and the world around them. They might just hear your campaign message once. And if it’s about something that directly impacts on them, their community, or something they personally care about, then they might just listen. But unless you tell them the same thing again twice more, they probably won’t remember.
The West Wing is about a floundering presidency (what does Bartlett ever actually achieve?) under the glare of 24 hour rolling media. For most campaigns, even 24 seconds of coverage is doing well. And if you’ve wasted those seconds complaining about who funds your opponents, or how they are lying (assuming that this isn’t a way of telling your core story) then no one, literally almost no one, gives a shit. And you have missed a chance to say what you want to say.