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Thursday, June 28, 2012

Privacy, Legality, Video: Putting untested people under the spotlight

Once, I was working at a political organization and we were running an issue campaign. Without giving specifics, we were at a college and working with a student leader, let's call her "Jane." Jane wanted to get results. She disagreed with her college's leadership and wanted to pressure them to take a different action than the one they were taking. I was there to help her, assist her, enable her, and do what she wanted.

All sounds great.

Well, Jane says something on camera that was prescient and poignant. She saw I was recording her because she said this into the camera. I upload her statement and it gets scant attention, maybe 50 views.

Over the next week Jane gets pressure from her college community that her comments were "inappropriate" and "extreme."

From the comfort of our computers it will be easy for us to chastise Jane for her reaction to these silly complaints: she gets very very angry at me. She accuses me of recording her without her consent, she accuses me of undermining her behind her back by uploading this video.

When it comes to video, people react in weird ways.

If you're running a campaign, it will seem like a great thing to put 'testimonials' on your website, vague statements of endorsement from community members and voters who love your candidate. But when normal people end up under the spotlight, their reaction is often to run and hide in a dark corner and not stand on principle.

It can seem schizophrenic. It can seem spineless. It can seem like a betrayal.

It's really not, it's just normal, irrational, human behavior. It's the reaction of someone having to operate in the political world for once, where your words get locked in and people's feelings easily get hurt.

Frustratingly, many of these people start yelling about their "privacy" being violated and how it's illegal to tape people without their consent, and similar inanities. If you have their consent, you're always in the right. If they have no reasonable expectation of privacy, you're also, in many jurisdictions, similarly in the right. It might be tempting to create a waiver of some sort for people like this to sign, but that becomes unnecessary paperwork. When you hear them quote made-up legal arguments to you, just nod and say you'll hear them out and take their complaints seriously.

Normal people on video can often have very unpredictable and seemingly irrational reactions. Don't let this advice make you resistant to putting them online, however. It's always good to get people more involved, more engaged, and more prominent within your campaign or political organization.

But don't be surprised if you get a meek request a few days later to take the video down. Don't rely on new, untested people to support a video project. Many of them will get cold feet after you've put the video up. The best thing to do is to treat new people to the spotlight, even a very dim spotlight, carefully. Don't make them the centerpiece of your videos, add them in to the sideline and take them down later if they ask. Involve them only so far as they're comfortable.

I ended up doing as Jane asked, but she nevertheless ended up angry and bitter with me. She never returned my calls or emails after that, and her colleagues on that campus were agitated with me from then on. She spread her anger to my colleagues and even to our donors. It was a real mess because of her irrational reaction. If I had reacted with righteous indignation at her request, though, and handled it with less tact, I'm sure it would have been a thousand times worse.

People new to the political spotlight can react in unpredictable ways.

Don't use people who aren't used to political stress as centerpieces in your videos. Often they'll overreact, and make irrational statements about the law and their privacy being violated. If they complain, take the videos down. But assume that many new people won't be comfortable with even a small spotlight over time.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

What should I do if I feel I have more experience than someone I’m interviewing or working for?

Never make assumptions about the qualifications of those above you. You might be a better worker, you might be a better pedigree, you might have more experience, but respect the hierarchy.

It can be very frustrating and demoralizing to do this, especially when you see someone who seems incompetent running a department, project or aspect of a campaign where they are making major mistakes.

When you're interviewing, and when you're starting on a campaign, understand your metrics and the goals that have been identified for you, and focus like a laser on those.

Most organizations will tolerate incompetent staff more than they'll tolerate drama, office politics or whiners. If you come to a supervisor and say that you want to take Incompetent Izzy's responsibilities, they'll worry about the office drama that will create, the needless drama attached to such a move. You might be completely in the right, but your boss won't want to create two new problems by solving one.

When you respect the hierarchy, and you act as a team player, you become enormously valuable. You might be secretly frustrated that Incompetent Izzy is messing up mailings and screwing up the phone call campaign, but when your goals are clearly identified as recruiting volunteers, then you have to do that and not worry about the other details. You have to trust your boss and the rest of the hierarchy to operate and fix those problems.

I once had a boss in a political organization whom I felt was making major mistakes all the time. I started contacting his boss, a Vice President, and trying to explain how to fix the situation, patiently explaining the many counterproductive things going on. Years later, over beers, my old boss and I were reminiscing and he explained to me that every email I sent had been forwarded to him by the Vice President, with a request to fire me. Here I was, trying to save the organization and do good by correcting problems, and the VP was trying to fire me instead. But that's the mindset of a supervisor, it's not "how can I do this most efficiently and effectively" it's "how can I keep this ship running with the least amount of hassle and drama" - when you come to them with things outside of your area of responsibility, you look like a complainer, a whiner, and a malcontent.

You want to respect the hierarchy, and only worry about things in your zone of responsibility. And don't try to leapfrog a bad boss by going to their supervisor, that's a trick that won't work either. If you think you're smarter, harder working, or have more experience than who you're interviewing with or working for, pat yourself on the back but put your nose to the grindstone. If you are seen as a source of drama, you'll often be quickly fired.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Being Detail-Oriented on a Campaign

A challenger for Congress recently submitted the required 1,000 petition signatures to get on the ballot. The problem was that Jack Hoogendyk in Michigan signed the petition as the circulator in Michigan when he was giving speeches in DC. Obviously what probably happened here is that someone was either signing the candidate's name, or he was signing them and back-dating the signatures. Either way, little details can make a big difference. Now, the incumbent is pointing this out, and each false submission is a possible misdemeanor. It's a sloppy mistake, and one that could easily have been avoided. When you work on these kind of campaigns, be aware of the little details, they can add up to larger problems.

Now, when voters who read this story in that part of Michigan look at the candidate, the most charitable thought they will have is that Hoogendyk can't handle a simple petition count correctly. It's a gift to your challenger, to be able to regularly point out "this guy can't even collect a thousand signatures correctly."

Do your career and your candidates a favor by always being attentive to the small details, always caring about even the small formalities, because they can turn into legal and political liabilities later.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Crackpot theories and bitter old people

You'll often hear a variety of crackpot theories from people on "when and why politics changed."

Once it was a noble tradition and only good people ran for office. And only good people voted for them.

Now, they'll say, it's just bad people and bad tactics. It's all corrupt, they say.

And when you hear this, realize what it is: laziness and cynicism. It's the attitude and opinion of people who don't like hard work, and don't like the challenge of possible defeat, and people who are, for lack of a better word, losers.

Don't let crackpot theories get you down. Don't let them demoralize you. Many old people have wisdom, but many old people have a lifetime of regrets they want to project upon you. Misery loves company and they want to make you as bitter and jaded as they are.

This article, from St. Louis, well epitomizes both trends. His theory is that the development of Miller Lite set off a trend in politics that lead to the destruction of a common American identity. In this fool's mind, no doubt, modern partisan politics derives from the "corporations" upending, apparently, the common cultural unifier of beer.

This kind of crackpot theories make for interesting barroom conversations. It can provide an interesting aside when you're in a small group and need some smalltalk. But recognize that it carries with it the mental infection of cynicism.

If you truly believe this, then you can't believe that reaching voters on their issues is worthwhile, it's just a trick, a game, mere salesmanship. Reducing the importance of politics down to the use of business tactics means that each person is just a point-of-sale, just some sucker to win over.

Politics is more than that, it's much more important. It's not about happy feelings and faux camaraderie while watching a sports game in your neighborhood bar. Politics is about who rules, who has the guns, who gets to use the state's monopoly on violence. Politics in other countries is often settled by bloodshed.

When you indulge these theories you start the mental journey of becoming a political hack. When you repeat them uncritically or give them credence, you start to view voters in a depressing way. Voters are often fooled, and they often vote for bad politicians. But they also rise above those problems. The people are capable of seeing through a liar. The people often provide an important check on elite power. The people have a stronger attachment to the bill of rights, for example, than the political class or the courts.

Don't let these kind of crackpot theories and bitter old people drag down your love for the people, and your service to the voters through your campaign work. These kind of theories and anecdotes can be amusing in the right context, but they can also cause you to look down on those you're trying to persuade.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Desperate campaign busybodies

Politics is fun, everyone has an opinion about political issues, candidates and government.

Campaigns are not like politics in the same way. Campaigns promote anxiety, fear, desperation and can be nerve-racking. Will you have enough money? Will the volunteers show up tonight? Will that donor's pledge be honored and will they send in the check this week? Will the voters support you?

Campaigns can drive people a little batty.

Some people deal with this in very bad ways. Where a campaign might make you insecure or nervous, it causes in some other people to fixate on foolish things. It causes them to psychologically compensate by becoming crazy in other areas.

People with responsibility can start to become irrational under the stress and pressure. On one campaign I was working, the campaign moved to a warehouse because the candidate didn't want to be above a car dealership anymore, which was really because the head of the campaign didn't want to interact with that donor anymore. Then, once moved to this industrial warehouse on the outskirts of town, assigned staffers to fix linoleum tiles on the floor. There were hundreds, if not thousands, of discolored tiles.

This was an enormous waste of time and effort. But because the candidate was under enormous pressures, they started acting crazy.

If you feel yourself doing this, or you see it in others, remember that every campaign relies on two things: dollars and votes.

You need dollars to pay your bills, to pay your vendors, to buy pizza for volunteers, to buy media to contact donors, to pay the phone vendor to do your get-out-the-vote calls. You need votes, obviously, to win.

Money and votes.

When people obsess over silly things like linoleum tiles, you need to gently remind them that all that matters is money and votes. Fixing tiles does not get you more money and does not get you more votes.

Money and votes.

Desperate campaign busybodies, people under pressure and stress, can easily become irrational and crazy. When they do, remind them of what matters: money and votes.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

How can I vet vendors?

Many vendors have well-deserved bad reputations. Every vendor has at least one former client who is going to say nasty things about them. So how do you differentiate between the two? How can you determine which mail house just screwed up one relationship or project, and figure out whether that mail house is a recipe for disaster with missed deadlines, cost overruns and major mistakes?

The easiest answer is to ask many other similar groups or campaigns to yours. Listen to what they say, are they saying the same things? Is one vendor notorious for overbilling or for one specific problem? I knew a vendor who had a really good reputation among friends, but I noticed that he personally was a bit of a slob. I went against my gut and decided to use him anyway, and sure enough he delivered a sloppy product even though he had this great reputation. Be careful about whom you're listening to for advice, they might be referring a friend and not referring their work ethic and quality.

Ask a lot of similar groups. Also, if you can, try to give vendors a project to start with. Don't make it a major job, just a little thing to see how they handle it. Do they treat it professionally? Do they meet all your deadlines? Do they invoice you for the same amount they quoted when you initially inquired? Do they try to hit you for other fees or charges? You can test these vendors out with a small project.

I had a mail vendor who was a friend, who wrote a direct mail letter that ended up being 400% over budget and four months late. I was flabbergasted, but I paid him because to stiff him the cash would have been to hurt a dozen other relationships, this guy was well connected. If I had vetted him better, I would have avoided the mistake, and saved my organization a lot of money and wasted time. I took the advice of friends instead of doing the due diligence to make sure my friends were vouching for his actual work product.

You can get a lot of bad advice about vendors from people with hidden motives. Some want to help their friends get work, and some want to tarnish a company for sour grapes in the past. The two best ways to avoid being fooled is to 1) ask a lot of people, and 2) give them a small project first. If you have the time to do this, it will save you a lot of time and money in the long run. Always vet your vendors.