What Black Lives Matter Can Teach Us About How to Run a Winning Campaign
Here’s some advice for all of your aspiring politicos out there…
Do you want to see a campaign, one that went from zero to seventy in only three years? The only current campaign whose influence now is global with pop-up branches wherever and whenever the situation merits? And the only campaign able to mobilize literally thousands of people in minutes worldwide. Then take a look at “Black Lives Matter.”
Much has been written about Black Lives Matter (BLM) is as a movement, but little has been discussed about the BLMcampaign itself. And make no mistake, it is both. There’s much to be learned from the BLM campaign, regardless of which side of the aisle you sit or your opinion about their message and tactics. Let’s take a look at a couple of lessons of the BLM digital campaign that you might be able to adopt for your own public affairs and political campaigns.
A Quick and Clear Mission and Message
I don’t think it hyperbole to say that the overwhelming majority of people in the United States and a fair number of people worldwide know the mission and the message of Black Lives Matter. Now whether or not they agree is another matter entirely. But people certainly know what BLM is. That’s the first step in any successful campaign. People need to know who you are and what you stand for. There’s no benefit to being a great candidate or cause if you can’t get out from the dark. Daylight is the direct result of effective messaging.
The mission and message of the BLM campaign crisp, simple and easy to understand without a whole lot contemplation or head-scratching. BLM (complete with a three-letter, roll-off-of-the-tongue-easily acronym) has replaced well-known and sentimental terms like “Civil Rights Movement” as the go-to phrase to describe racial justice advocacy. BLM is so engrained in the public psyche; it’s now a proprietary eponym that now refers to any modern-day racial justice activity and mindset. This is quite feat considering the movement only started in 2013 as a response to the Trayvon Martin verdict.
Those of us who run campaigns whether on the left or right, public affairs or political campaigns need to take this lesson, internalize and stamp it onto our foreheads if need be. I’ve seen many well-meaning candidates fail to connect with voters because the mission and message weren’t clear. I’ve also seen more than my share of public affairs campaigns that in their attempt to be educational, mire the audience in an avalanche of minutiae that not only made them tune out, but left them unclear as to what the call to action was. “Ok, now we know all of this. But so what…”
As a political candidate, your messaging should quickly be able to answer these two questions: Why are you running?and Why should I be motivated to act? If you’re running a public affairs campaign, the audience should know why you are doing this campaign and most importantly, what they are expected to actually do next.
In the case of BLM they are asking you to believe that Black Lives Matter and to join the movement to ensure it. That’s it. Simple. Crisp. Accessible. It’s a clear mission and message that gives voters and target audiences a clear sense of what they are getting involved in and expected to do. Without this kind of message clarity, you and your campaign are in for a Sisyphean task that most likely won’t end in a win.
Tailor Your Social Media Strategy for Audience, Not the Platform
Well, this is nothing new here. These days, if you are going to connect with voters, convince people to buy and/or support your cause or product you have got to have a solid, digital strategy in place with ample attention paid to social media. This is not news. But what is news is that as the digital strategy field moves to the forefront of campaign strategy, a contextual voice, tailored to your audience’s needs along with appropriate vernacular is critical. I can’t overstate this. Just as traditional messaging must be tailored to the intended target audience, same with the social media messaging. This is where BLM got it right, and many other political and public affairs campaigns affairs have gotten it wrong.
BLM used a simple hashtag (#blacklivesmatter) and with that hashtag provided a social media home for people who were frustrated, hurt, angry etc. about the Trayvon Martin verdict in Florida. The first noted use of the phrase was from Alicia Garza, one of the three BLM founders who first used the term in a Facebook post about the Trayvon Martin verdict. Co-founder Patricia Khan Cullors, responded with the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter. Third co-founder Opal Tometi commented in support and the Black Lives Matter social media campaign went viral. Organic and effective.
Why did this work? It worked because it captured the zeitgeist of the Black community. Regardless of how a person thought it best to deal with racism many people, regardless of race, were horrified by the idea that an unappointed neighborhood watchman killed a young kid buying candy and a soda and got away with it. Furthermore, the victim went on trial in the court of public opinion for it. Black Lives Matter was an outlet for that disappointment in America, but moreover it was a communal online safe space to share that disappointment, and then organize to bring about the change they wanted.
What BLM did effectively was to target the message for a Black online audience that was already aligned in their disappointment, thus creating a “base.” This was somewhat of a departure from the traditional civil rights messaging that was tailored for a mixed audience. Additionally, the language and vernacular used in those original posts and first forays into organizing were tailored to a Black audience. And that language resonated with Black people who felt the pain of this verdict as a collective.
Once the base was solidified the BLM message then emanated outward to a more inclusive one involving supporters of all race, but the core audience remains the same. That would never have happened had there not been a concerted (albeit organic) effort to use the tropes, language, zeitgeist and slang of the target audience in the social media messaging.
What does this mean for you and your campaigns? Firstly, it means, you need to speak like your audience. Too often, social media campaigns boast all of the analytical bells and whistles that you could possibly ask for but yield relatively little traction. Bernie Sanders ran an excellent campaign given his obstacles but one thing he could not overcome: his failure to capture the attention of Black voters. His social media strategy shortcomings with Black voters offer some clues. Most of the Sanders’ campaign social media posts and calls to action were targeted to a social media spacerather than really tailoring for target audience.
Social Media Gaffes Were a Death Knell for the Bernie Sanders’ Campaign with African-Americans. Avoid These Mistakes!
Though Sanders and his team were effective in the social media space overall, including raising unprecedented amounts of money from Average Joes, their social media contributions in Black online spaces are a case study in well-meaning, but less-than-effective social media messaging. The posts from Sanders campaign sometimes felt like the one uninvited guest at the party that interrupted a group conversation and is awkwardly not fitting in with anyone. This certainly didn’t help his case with Black voters who use social media at a rate much higher rate than their proportion in the United States.
With a better social media strategy, would Sanders have gotten the majority of the Black vote? I’ll be honest. Probably not. Clinton had much better name recognition. But he would have done better with them. And that would have lookedbetter for the campaign overall. And the not-so-pretty narrative that “Bernie can’t get Black voters” would not have been baked in like it was. And no Democrat wants the “Can’t-Connect-With-Black-Voters” albatross slung around their neck. It’s bad for the brand.
For your campaigns, make sure you understand not only who you need to talk to, but how they talk on social media. Don’t be that well-meaning, but uninvited guest at the party that everyone looks at like “How did you get here? You’re awkward. You should probably leave.”
Talk like your audience. Don’t focus primarily on the medium or the message but instead focus on the audience. The medium and the message are simply vessels to reach them. Message well to reach the goal, but don’t lose sight of the actual goal—converting voters and supporters to your side.
And it’s worth noting here that how one communicates on social media is NOT the same as how they talk in real life. Phrasing, humor, conveying of emotion, all of that differs greatly from community to community, from online to real life. BLM mastered for their audience and tapped into the zeitgeist. Hence the success of the mission, the message and the campaign. So step back, analyze those voices in your secondary and primary pre-campaign research and then tailor your social media strategy to the online personand community. If not, you’ll risk losing swaths of voters and supporters that you can ill-afford to.
Dr. Tricia Callender, Ph.D is the President and CEO of Spanner Strategies, LLC, a digital campaign strategy firm with offices in New York and Johannesburg, South Africa. She can be reached at email@example.com.