IN Forefront: “Out Of The Wilderness”

In the wake of a bad election, you can cast blame or look to the future. I did the latter in a recent post for the Indianapolis Business Journal’s Forefront blog:

It’s chilly out here. Some days, it seems like the rain will never end. I wish it was easier to start a fire, but kindling is hard to come by.
Welcome to the wilderness. I’m an Indiana Democrat, and I’d like to leave this place before winter comes.
You don’t need me to tell you that Tuesday night was a rough one for Democrats nationwide and here. You do need me to tell you how we fix it.
Some of what I write here may seem harsh at first blush. I don’t have all the answers. But I can tell you that we have to fundamentally change the way we approach elections if we want to find the pathway back to political success in Indiana.
Borrowing some of former Gov. Mitch Daniels’ 2004 campaign language, here’s my stab at a roadmap to an Indiana Democratic comeback:

CITIES MATTER
The future of our party is in urban and suburban areas. Why? Because progressive people move to cities. I wrote about it after the 2012 election, and Tuesday’s results proved it again.
If we want to take back the Governor’s Office in 2016 or 2020, we have to build a strong brand in densely populated places where our voters live and where moderate voters can be persuaded to vote for smart candidates with vision and ideas.
That effort starts next year with mayoral races across our state. Here in Indianapolis, it should be a lighter lift now that Mayor Greg Ballard has announced he won’t run for a third term. But we’ve got to have strong candidates in other big cities who can make the case that Democrats should be leading because we’re good at governing.
That brings me to what’s probably my most important point.

IDEAS MATTER
I have no idea what the Democratic platform was this election cycle. I read the document, but it said nothing. (I can say that because I wrote previous versions of the platform that similarly said nothing, and this version was based on those.)
We have to stand for something, and that doesn’t mean just trotting out tired old clichés about “fighting for our schools” and “protecting our seniors.”
For many years, I was the voice of what we opposed. Now we need to figure out what we’re for. Minimum wage hike? Legalizing marijuana? More local control for schools? Universal pre-K? Criminal code changes? Ethics reform at the Statehouse?
Throw it all out there, and let’s have a conversation.
Oh, and one more thing I feel compelled to note because the “traditional public school” campaign rhetoric failed so completely on Tuesday: Hoosier families like school choice. Get over it, y’all.
We used to be the party that voters trusted on education. We let the Republicans steal the issue away from us because we were more interested in pining for the past and protecting the status quo.
Here’s the incredibly simple equation for a quality education: great teacher + student. Where it happens isn’t important. The type of school isn’t important. If we want parents to trust us with their votes, we have to focus on their kids, not the dollar signs.

MONEY MATTERS
Everyone loves to hate money in politics, but try running a campaign without it. For a long time, Indiana Democrats relied on a few flush-with-cash sources to make ends meet. As those wells began to run dry, we backfilled, but we never really approached it strategically.
We have to diversify our funding sources so that we’re not treating our donors like ATMs.
The good news? There’s money out there for candidates who stand for stuff. Here I go again with all that pesky “we need to have new ideas” rhetoric, but if we build an agenda, new money will come.

CANDIDATES MATTER
Recruiting people to run for office, especially in an environment like this one, is a tough task, but there are folks out there who want to be in public service for the right reasons. They want to give back, and they are willing to endure the long, thankless hours for a chance to serve.
If you are running for office for the perks or the power, you don’t get to put your name on the ballot. And that goes for incumbents as well as challengers.
In the races we can win, we have to put outstanding people on the ballot. Our communities are filled with strong, qualified leaders, and some of them are Democrats. We have to persuade them to run.
THE BENCH MATTERS
We lost the Governor’s Office in 2004, and we lost the Indianapolis Mayor’s Office in 2007. Those two offices created generations of political talent.
With legislative maps that prevent us from making any sizable gains at the Statehouse, we have to look elsewhere to grow our bench. Follow me back to my argument that cities are our future.
Not only do we need to recruit high-quality candidates to run for Mayor in every city in Indiana, but we need to use these progressive areas to cultivate new talent. City council members aren’t high-profile, but those offices are a place where young leaders can get their feet wet and learn how to govern.
And I’ll just say this for anyone who’s still reading the Longest Forefront Blog Post Ever: There is no substitute for working in government. You can set up all the leadership training programs you want, but until you’ve been in the trenches, you don’t know how it feels.

SOME THINGS DON’T MATTER
I would love to tell you that we can win down-ticket or off-year statewide offices. Barring an anti-incumbent wave or an outright fluke, winning those offices isn’t in the cards.
Similarly, there are Statehouse and Congressional districts where we just can’t win.
I’m not saying we shouldn’t run people for these offices. In fact, I’d argue that the statewide offices should be another place where we recruit rising stars who know they almost certainly won’t win, but running will help them raise their name ID and win something else (see also: South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg).
But when it comes to doling out resources (candidate recruitment efforts, campaign money, staff support, etc.), we have to be particular. We elected Democrats in 2006, 2008 and 2012 because we stayed focused on the races we knew we could win.
That’s a hard thing to do because it requires tough conversations with folks who are running for office for all the right reasons but who just don’t have a path to victory.
Ultimately, though, avoiding the distractions will enable us to rebuild. We can’t do it the same way we’ve always done it, and I know change is hard, but the root word of “progressive” is “progress” – forward movement toward a destination.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve never been much of a wilderness girl. Let’s get out of this place before the bears eat us.

MAPR 2.0: Same Great Service, New Menu Of Services

After two years of using our honestly priced menu of PR services, we know which items sell better than others. Reading this recent Washington Post story about restaurant menus made us realize it was time to overhaul our offerings and narrow the menu down to what clients are actually buying. Because choice is awesome, but too many choices can be oppressive. From the WaPo piece:

“We overcomplicated the restaurants and didn’t give restaurants an opportunity to breathe,” Tim Fenton, McDonald’s chief operating officer, said in an earnings call earlier this year. “We need to do fewer products with better execution.”

Our situation is a little different: We tried to package every possible option and put it on the menu. The result was overwhelming and, in certain cases, distracting.

When we first got started, for example, putting a crisis communications plan priced at $10,000 on the menu seemed like a good idea. But the figure was daunting for the kind of clients we work with, and a few folks mentioned that it didn’t really seem to fit with the model.

What Makes The Derek Jeter Tribute Video Great (Even If You’re Not A Yankees Fan)?

Like everyone else in America yesterday, I watched Gatorade’s cleverly disguised advertising tribute to Derek Jeter. I’m not a Yankees fan. I’m not really even a baseball fan unless I get to go to the game, sit in the sun, drink beer and eat nachos.

But it still brought a tear to my eye.

That’s because that 90-second spot was about so much more than baseball, the Yankees and Derek Jeter’s retirement. It was about moving on. And that’s something we’ve all done.

You’ve left a job, ended a relationship, moved to a new city, graduated from school, watched a kid walk into her first day of kindergarten. You know nothing will ever be the same, and even though you promise yourself that you’ll never look back, you totally sneak a peek.

And let’s be completely honest: We’ve all thought about how it would feel to have those moments of our life set to Frank Sinatra’s “My Way.”

PR DIY: Sometimes, It Makes Sense To Pay Someone Else

Over at Inc., Steve Cody posts four pretty basic tips for startup companies looking to do their own public relations launch:

  1. Identify your problem/solution model. In other words, what’s your story?
  2. Write a press release.
  3. Send the press release to media outlets.
  4. Put the press release on your website.

He’s not wrong. That’s the essence of a launch. What he fails to take into consideration, though, is that people starting up businesses don’t always have time for this stuff. Often, they also don’t have the skill set to boil their big idea into something a reporter can quickly digest.

That’s where our flat pricing model can be a huge asset.

Perfecting Your Pitch: You Can’t Know Every Reporter

A good friend who also works in the PR business recently asked me how I’ve dealt with the constant churn of reporters in our local Indianapolis media market. (For those tuning in from outside the market, we’ve experienced a lot of turnover and layoffs at the state’s largest paper, and our TV market has been similarly disrupted.)

Like all flacks, I have developed relationships with many of the beat reporters who cover my clients. Unlike all flacks, though, I really like reporters because I used to be one, and I know it’s a tough job made increasingly tougher by shrinking profits and soaring corporate expectations. Because of that past experience, I’ve never been one to leverage a personal friendship to get something covered. It’s just not my style. I’ll pass along tips and story ideas, but I’m not going to call someone up and say, “Hey, we’re pals, and I need a favor.”

I’ve always believed a good pitch will connect no matter who’s up at bat.