The secrets of successful legislative marketing
© Greg Nash

Many in Congress hope to reap the rewards of their legislative accomplishments in this November’s election. For Republicans, passing tax reform, removing the mandate to purchase health insurance, and approving a broad swath of judicial nominations will top their hit parade. Democrats will focus on how they protected ObamaCare from repeal, held the line on spending cuts, and list the priorities they would tackle if voters returned them to the majority.  And who knows, maybe 2018 will even include some unexpected bipartisan wins for which both sides can take a bow with constituents. 

Whatever the substance, selling Congress’s work is a perennial challenge. The reasons for this communications riddle are numerous. For starters, voters are preoccupied with their personal lives and often distracted, bored, or confused by the details of congressional rhetoric, policy debates, and an arcane lawmaking process. Moreover, in a nation closely divided along partisan lines, legislative “wins” are often zero sum. For example, while Republicans will tout tax reform as the crowning achievement in the 115th Congress, some Democrats will continue to label it as “Armageddon” and “the end of the world.” No doubt, each party’s most faithful followers will believe them. In navigating these shoals, both parties would be wise to follow a few simple rules to maximize the impact of their political communications.

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First, recognize that messaging success is more like a series of niche marketing campaigns, rather than a single national advertising effort. Not only do congressional parties and individual lawmakers lack the resources to execute such a large-scale communications strategy, that approach does not work for other reasons. “You can’t boil the ocean” is an often-repeated phrase among communicators, and nowhere does it apply more than talking to the public about legislative accomplishments. Moreover, we live in a diverse country with assorted political views, varied interests, and short attention spans. A one-size-fits-all approach is a formula for failure.

Author Chris Anderson, in his 2006 book The Long Tail, outlines a better approach. “Our culture and economy is increasingly shifting away from a focus on a relatively small number of ‘hits’ (mainstream products and markets) at the head of the demand curve and toward a huge number of niches in the tail,” Anderson says. 

The good news is technology allows politicians, like other marketers, to follow the Long Tail approach. Finding niche audiences on social media or through online advertising is easy. The beauty of this “narrowcasting” approach is it applies to major legislation, as well as seemingly minor legislative accomplishments. As an illustration, when Congress passed the 21st Century Cures bill a little over a year ago, it offered lawmakers a broad array of potential niche audiences to target and claim credit.

Those interested in boosting NIH funding, mental health reforms, or transformational changes to the drug development and approval process were among the diverse stakeholders members of Congress could appeal to. One lawmaker (and he was not alone) had an active and engaged group of constituents concerned about Lyme’s Disease. He told me the bill’s provision’s dealing with that complicated malady represented the number one benefit of the bill he would tout to that community. For a group of stakeholders, intensely interested in that disease, he was right.

Second, do not forget the rule of repetition. The virtue behind this simple principle is often lost. Here is the typical pattern. Lawmakers consider an issue, debate, vote, and then move on to the next subject. It happens all the time and it is a mistake. Voters don’t absorb information in one news cycle or through a single press release. It takes repetition. Success in this area requires going against the instincts of most congressional offices. Lawmakers and staff are always looking for the next new issue or hot topic. But they need to build on what they have done. Repetition is boring, but it’s successful.

Third, Congress needs to behold the beauty of brevity. Most lawmakers and staff believe three bullet points are persuasive; five, even better; and 10 will defeat even the most recalcitrant opponents.  Wrong. That is not how voters consume and digest information. They tune out lengthy and detailed justifications. Brevity works. “There is a reason why no one puts a laundry list on a bumper sticker,” says messaging expert Rich Thau, president of the research firm Engagious. He goes on to say, “One big idea packs more of a punch than five or 10 smaller ideas combined,” and he’s right. Unfortunately, a lot of legislative communications snowballs into an avalanche of information, which buries the audience, the message and the messenger.

Voters will assemble scorecards before the November election to evaluate the performance of lawmakers. Those representatives and senators who identify and appeal to the preferences of many niche constituencies, remember the rule of repetition, and the beauty of brevity, stand the best chance of joining the 116th Congress next January.

Gary Andres was the Majority Staff Director for the House Energy and Commerce Committee from 2011-2017. He also worked in the Office of Legislative Affairs for Presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush. He is currently the Senior Executive Vice President for Public Affairs at the Biotechnology Innovation Organization. The views expressed are his own.