How to find the right message
Finding the right message is probably the most important task in a political campaign. Unfortunately, it is also among the most neglected ones. At the start of many campaigns there are enthusiastic and lengthy discussions about posters, pictures, events and ‘give-aways’. It is in fact better to begin with a simple, but sometimes very tough, question: What do we have to say? What is the key argument to convince voters in the short and precious time that they give us?
Sometimes, the answer to this question is obvious and easy to find. At other times, the situation is complex and it is hard to come up with a good message. There are also those occasions when you simply can’t see the wood for the trees.
But with the right message for your campaign, life is so much easier. Your message becomes the heart of your campaign. It serves as a guideline, as a leitmotif, and everything you plan will have some element of the message in it.
What is a good message?
The message consists of the eight sentences (or less) that answer the voters’ question: Why should I vote Green this year? There is no magic formula, but it will come more readily if you ensure that it has the following characteristics:
- A good message is simple and clear. It is written in plain colloquial language, not in the flowery phrases used by politicians or the artificial slogans of advertisers.
- A good message is true and credible. Be aware that truth and credibility do not necessarily coincide. A message can be true, but at the same time not credible, because the voters don’t believe it. As an example, I would never say that people should vote Green because we are the “party for the economy” – even though I am convinced that the Greens have the best ideas for the best economy. Because nobody would buy it. I would instead say that people should vote Green because we are the party which reconciles economic interests with environmental concerns: “Greens know how to grow sustainably”. This is a message which is both true and credible.
- A good message gives a reason to vote Green at this particular election. Therefore, it is not enough to say: the Green Party promotes the environment and social justice. No, you must make clear what your answer is to current problems. Write a message in the specific context of the present campaign – and not as a general statement.
- A good message gives voters a clear choice. It shows the difference between you and your main political opponents: This is what I stand for and this is what the others stand for.
- If you come under attack, a good message will defend you preemptively.
Developing a message
Reserve a few days, not just a few hours for message development. Talk to ordinary people about their expectations, worries and hopes, about their opinion of the Greens and the opposition parties. Compare what you hear with your own opinion – and see if there are gaps that need bridging. Then go into retreat with your core campaign team. Message development must be done in a small team, not more than four or five people. The bigger the group is, the more diffuse the discussion will be.
Message box: A good tool for message development is the ‘message box’, as it arranges the most important aspects in a systematic order:
- What do I say about myself?
- What do I say about the opponent?
- What does the opponent say about me?
- What does the opponent say about himself?
This ‘message box’ is an auxiliary analytical tool to help you focus on the most important points. You will have to do most of the work, however, with creativity, in discussion with others, and using common sense.
Testing the message
Once you think you have found the right message, start testing it. You don’t have to spend tens of thousands of euros on focus groups. Go out into the street or to the pub next door and talk to those people you know are potential voters (it is probably not a good idea to start with a 62-year-old conservative banker). Introduce your message in a normal conversation and observe the reaction. Or be open and frank and say: “I believe the Greens deserve your vote, because…”, then ask your counterpart if he or she agrees.
Spread your message:
After you have found the perfect message, internalise it. You should be able to recite it quickly, like a shot, even as you lie awake in the middle of the night.
After internalising it, start spreading it. As the leitmotif of your campaign, you can include your message in:
- the interviews of your candidates
- direct talks with citizens
- your most important campaign material (newspapers, flyers, commercials, etc.)
- your online communication (website, blogs, social networks)
Of utmost importance: never tire of repeating it again and again. Always remember: only when you can no longer bear hearing it, will the journalists start to recognise it. And only if the journalists cannot bear it any longer, will the voters start to remember it. This is precisely what you want! Therefore, the rule is: One message, a thousand voices! (Not the other way round.)
What is the difference between the message and a slogan?
The message is not identical to the main slogans on your posters. But these slogans, which consist only of a few words, should be a condensed version of the message, which consists of a few sentences.
By Robert Heinrich
Director of Communications for 'Bündnis 90/Die Grünen' since 2007, Robert was part of the team which led his party's European and national election campaign in 2009, with a strong focus on the Greens' online campaign, which invested heavily in social media, volunteers' participation, and dialogue. Prior to that, Robert worked as a freelance journalist for several newspapers, magazines and radio stations, and, from 2003 to 2007, was Head of Staff in the office of the Secretary General in the Green national party headquarters. He studied political science, economics and sociology in Leipzig, Washington and Berlin.