Obama and Romney Have Message Strategies, Do You?

Last week I wrote about arts organizations being “off message,” but over the weekend I realized how ridiculous that was. To be ‘off’ message implies that there was a message to be ‘on’ in the first place, and that going off was a temporary deviation in an otherwise well delineated strategic course of action. Obama was pulled off message recently, for example, when Republicans made hay over Cory Booker’s apparent disloyalty, but that was a relatively minor detour for a message strategy that quickly resumed course.

I’d love to describe a similar example in the arts but relevant comparisons are hard to make because strategic messaging in the arts is essentially non-existent. Consider what a presidential campaign might look like if it were run by arts marketers and you get a sense of what passes for strategic communications in the cultural sector:

CELEBRATE BARACK!

JOIN US FOR OUR SENSATIONAL SECOND TERM!

Or:

EXPERIENCE THE MAGIC OF MITT

DON’T MISS THIS MIRACULOUS MORMON MOMENT!

To the extent that message strategy happens in the arts, it usually involves a group of enthusiastic but largely under-informed insiders sitting in a conference room using tradition, gut instinct and creative inspiration to develop clever ways to boast about what’s coming next. The most popular ideas are put through the design/copy mill, mocked up for presentation and then shown to the boss so she can pick her favorite. Research may be used if it’s available and perfunctory nods may be made toward new audiences, but the process tends to be one of finding attractive ways to be catchy and using comfortable old clichés to tell aging audiences how wonderful we are.

In presidential politics, by contrast, campaigns are run by teams of highly skilled strategic communications professionals who isolate their target audiences, conduct in-depth research into their motivations, develop and test multiple messages to determine which ones do the best job, balance and combine various messages that appeal to both decided and undecided targets, then outline a message strategy that describes with excruciating specificity what must and must not be said.

In the arts, we use subjective, self-centered approaches to saying what we feel like saying or what we think we ought to say using familiar, old-fashioned promotional messages that core audiences are used to receiving. It’s virtually impossible to go off message because we haven’t bothered to think critically about the language we use or ask if it’s doing what it’s expected to do. And we haven’t described a framework for developing messages that deliver predictable results.

In politics, meanwhile, candidates rely on objective, audience-oriented, strategic approaches to saying what must be said using a language that’s meticulously crafted and rigorously monitored to deliver the necessary results. Their message strategies describe a clear path to victory so deviating from the path carries extraordinary risks and candidates are well advised never to go off message.

Can the arts develop a message strategy that describes a path to victory? One that motivates loyal supporters while at the same time mobilizing undecided audiences? One that can be safely used to get people to choose us when they can just as easily choose something else? Absolutely. But it will mean taking a cue from politicians who focus more on the audience than on themselves, who use objective, external data to guide their message choices, who take time to learn what needs to be said rather than saying what they feel like saying, and who, when they find the message that’s most likely to deliver results, stay on it.

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