Billboards, record-keeping, crisis management

Craig Varoga

People say large billboards are good for candidates without high name recognition. But I often see them used by candidates who are well-known. What do you think?

Billboards are great for low-budget and low-profile campaigns (state legislators, city council, judges) that cannot afford TV or radio ads. In these down-ballot races, few people will know your position on any single issue. To win, name ID is the priority. Billboards, bumper stickers and yard signs will help increase that recognition.

In high-profile, better-financed races (Governor, Senate, Congress, Mayor), name ID is still important, but it is not enough. You must communicate compelling reasons why you are the best choice. Outdoor advertising is just one option in a larger voter-contact program that includes TV, radio, direct mail, newspaper, and phone banks.

Billboard companies will help you choose locations. Show them a district map with targeted precincts; advertise there. Use billboards especially in rural areas that don’t have the media concentration of urban areas. They can help sustain visibility when you’re off other media.

If you want a billboard at a busy intersection, ask a simple question: Are you advertising to your voters, or commuters on their way back and forth to work? Most billboard companies offer volume discounts, for number of locations and amount of time. Get your bang for the buck.

Is it a problem if we don’t keep complete records on every contributors’ occupation, employer and mailing address?

Yes. In federal and most state elections, you’re responsible for making the “best effort” to obtain and report this information. That means including this statement in all fundraising materials: “Federal law requires political committees to report the name, mailing address, occupation and name of employer for each individual whose contributions aggregate in excess of $200 in a calendar year.”

The FEC will not consider it a “best effort” if these requests and statements are in small print, difficult to read or difficult to find.

What’s the worst crisis we can expect on a campaign? How do we prepare?

Consider these real-life crises: Candidate is indicted two months before election; opponent sues to remove candidate from ballot; campaign manager in high-profile race disappears without a trace; anonymous smears are faxed to reporters during statewide announcement tour.

Understand the distinction between a problem and a crisis. A problem can be serious (wrong TV ad in wrong market), annoying (broken copier) or embarrassing (volunteer caught tearing down opponents’ yard signs).

In contrast, a crisis is the make-or-break moment of your campaign, the political equivalent of an earthquake or hurricane. Prepare now, to avoid getting killed later.

Set procedures, including office hours, signout sheets and staff protocol (e.g., don’t bother the candidate or family with problems). Assign job descriptions, learn staff strengths and weaknesses. Establish relations with press and opinion leaders.

Build a 24-hour communications system (pagers, fax, home phone numbers, e-mail). Every day, know your exact cash-on-hand. When chaos strikes, know where your people are and whether you have the money to respond.

Detect early warning signs, including: Calls not returned, deadlines missed, decisions delayed, unrealistic expectations, financial sloppiness, excuses. At the moment a crisis hits, gather the inner circle and identify the problem. What happened and when? How extensive is damage? What’s the worst-case scenario? Does opponent have similar problem? Did the candidate or staff cause the problem? Is there anything “in the pipeline” that should be stopped?

Contain the crisis. Designate one spokesperson. If bad news is inevitable, release it in a single news cycle. Tell the truth. Don’t create a feeding frenzy by covering up. Require public unanimity from advisors. Keep supporters and staff well-informed – it will help them weather the storm and continue doing their jobs. Don’t shut down the rest of the campaign, it’s a sure sign of panic.

If smeared anonymously, rebut the charges and get back on offense. If the manager disappears, get a new one. If you end up in court, refute the charges and question the timing and political motivations of the accuser. If the crisis was caused by staff, either discipline or dismiss the offending individuals.

Craig Varoga is apolitical consultant with offices in Texas and California. Fax questions to him at 713-529-1998, or e-mail to

COPYRIGHT 1996 Campaigns & Elections, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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