By: Paul Bentz
The end of 2011 marks the completion of my tenth year at HighGround. Starting out in 2002, I was just a young lad looking for guidance along the way and hoping to make a difference. Honestly, I had no idea what I was doing – I’m sure there are a few people out there who still think that today.
Public affairs is an amazing business, and I have learned a lot. There is still so much I need to learn and so many ways in which I am still just a newbie. However, I thought it would be fun to share ten things I have learned so far during my time at HighGround. I have learned significantly more than these ten things, but they’re a good start:
1. You learn more from losing than from winning.
As cliche as it sounds, it is most undoubtedly true. When you win, you let the success wash over the things that went badly or the sloppy execution. You forget about the missteps or the ideas that fell flat. When you lose, everything is amplified. The extended game of “what-if” makes you to sit back and analyze what happened. You break down your efforts like a sports color commentator and look for the things that went wrong. Plus, you usually have some ‘splaining to do to a client. Losing makes you better for next time. Now, don’t get me wrong, I love winning, but some of the biggest lessons I have learned have come through a loss.
2. You can’t tell people that they don’t vote – even if they don’t.
When I started, I thought you needed to talk to every voter and was a huge believer in voter registration. I was wrong. When it comes to elections, those who vote – vote and those who don’t – don’t. The name of the game is “high-efficacy” voters because they are the ones you can count on to show up at an election. During the Prop 400 campaign, I made the mistake of telling a prominent business group we weren’t going to spend money on reaching out to a certain group because that group didn’t vote. Huge mistake. Chuck was receiving calls before I even made it back from the meeting.
3. Campaigns don’t just “happen.”
When I thought of campaigns, I always thought of the ones you see in movies with people hanging out in a huge headquarters making signs, handing out buttons, and making phone calls with massive amounts of bunting in the background. Reality is far different. I was amazed by how much thought and strategy goes into every level of campaigning. Without an overall strategy, a campaign floats from one place to another engaging in fights and getting side tracked in various pursuits. One of my favorite parts of the job is developing a campaign strategy from start to finish giving us a roadmap of where we want to go. You often end up having to change the strategy, but having a roadmap keeps everyone on the same page and moving in the right direction. I have had to make passionate pleas for candidates and campaigns to stick with the plan – and in the end, they usually do.
4. Keep a sense of humor.
Some of our most successful and award winning efforts have come from using humor to call attention to an issue. One of the things I am most proud of is the “Arizona Sing-A-Long” with the singing frog from last election cycle. It was one of those ideas that started with “Now, hear me out” when I explained it. However, once everyone got on board, they jumped in with both feet. From the quest to find the right puppet to building a set in my office, everyone began to share my passion. One of my best friends who isn’t even involved in politics provided the singing voice. It was quite a thrill to see this ridiculous frog signing and dancing on national television. When it comes to getting your message across, humor can work while keeping things fun.
5. Perception is reality (and that reality is driven by the media).
For as long as I could, I rejected the idea of blaming the media. I stood firmly, believing that the members of the media were an altruistic bunch dedicated to making sure the world receives an unbiased view of important issues. Again, I was wrong. Call it jaded. Call it bitter. Call it what you will, but the fact is, just like a campaign, the media has a narrative that they are trying to create. They pick where and when you will read about things and how “important” they will make them. They pick characters to assassinate and people to promote. Reporters want conflict and scandal. They want to play, “gotcha!” It’s hard to get news agencies to focus on good news and you might as well forget about getting them to report on endorsements. Sometimes it comes down to clashing ideologies. Other times reporters simply don’t “like” the people involved. Despite declining readership and viewership, voters still draw their opinions from the media and who unequivocally and unfortunately hold the key to setting perception.