In the previous post of this series, I mentioned how a small group of committed activists with limited funding managed to end New Hampshire tea party Congressman Frank Guinta’s tenure using creative direct action.
In this post, I’ll discuss how to control the political conversation and media narrative of your congressional district, putting your representatives on defense over their record. Accomplishing this goal will require a combination of branding, social media savvy, and the voice of the people.
The primary goal of narrative control, in this case, is to turn your Congressman’s name into a toxic brand that nobody wants to associate with.
By Election Day, you want this brand to be so powerful that people will associate it with a losing effort. Because nobody wants to root for the losing team. Establishing a negative brand around your Congressman’s name will only become more effective the more you do it, and the closer you get to Election Day.
One effective way to shape a congressman’s brand is with creative direct action, as described in the earlier post. But branding is best done through consistent use of memorable visuals, catchy slogans, and associations with his or her deplorable voting record.
During June and July of 2012, I and a fellow organizer pinpointed the heavily-traveled sidewalks in Manchester and printed hundreds of flyers that read “FIRE FRANK NOV 6” featuring an unflattering picture of Guinta. We then spent several weeks strategically placing the flyers on telephone poles and public walls around these heavily-traveled pathways, where we knew people were walking to and from work.
After three straight Thursday nights of papering, my friend and I were having a drink at a local bar when we found ourselves in a conversation with a pair of undecided voters sitting next to us. We mentioned Frank Guinta’s name, and the other bar patrons mentioned seeing flyers around town with his name and face on them.
“I remember them! They said, ‘Fire Frank’ or something like that,” one of the bar patrons said to me. “I wonder who put those up?”
My friend and I grinned at each other. “I’m not sure, but I reckon that guy’s not too popular in this town,” I said.
“Fire Frank” became our brand, as it was easily memorable and conveyed our message. Over the next few months, this phrase found itself on 50-foot signs at direct actions, letters to the editor and op-eds in local newspapers across the district, video testimonies we recorded, and the name of our social media efforts.
B: SOCIAL MEDIA
As most of us are aware, traditional media is becoming more and more a thing of the past. While newspapers, radio and TV still exist and still serve as the primary source of information for a lot of people, all of those media sources now take their cues from whatever is trending on social media.
Ryan Holiday, author of “Trust Me, I’m Lying,” wrote all about how to manipulate the traditional media news cycle by knowing how to control the conversation in the blogosphere. The short of it is this: if social media is repeatedly turning out posts that gets lots of likes, shares and retweets, the traditional media notices and reflects it in its coverage.
Once you’ve established your brand, the effort to oust your Congressman should be alive and well on social media, with consistent posts that promote your brand and help it go viral. Use twitter to post unflattering facts about your Congressman’s record every few hours, and make sure to use links (shortened with bit.ly or tinyurl) to back up what you say, while mentioning your Congressman’s official twitter handle and campaign handles as much as possible.
Follow all of your local TV stations, radio stations and newspapers on your brand’s twitter account, and as many local political reporters as you can stand. Monitor their tweets to see if they’ll be covering any events where your Congressman will be. Then, gather some friends and some materials to hold a direct action that is guaranteed to turn media attention away from the Congressman and towards you and your group.
Your Facebook posts can be a little longer and more descriptive, and posting images and photos will ensure your posts get more likes and shares. Make sure you add all of your volunteers and other members of the community as friends, and mention them in comments using the @ symbol whenever you want them to share something you’ve posted.
Place a special emphasis on your friends who are heavy users with extensive networks. You can even make a group where all of these heavy users with vast networks are administrators, and give the ones you trust admin access, so they can do a bulk of the posting and sharing for you. If you or anyone you know is good at making memes or animated gifs, and if you can make these gifs relate at least tangentially to your congressman, their voting record, or your brand, start a Tumblr page that features these memes and animated gifs and share them widely.
A humorous and memorable meme is essential for viral success on social media. In New Hampshire, we made a series of popular memes that had Guinta’s face photoshopped onto the face of the Dos Equis man, using Quickmeme for the font and text. Each meme would refer to Guinta’s voting record, or humorous and embarrassing news stories about Guinta, with a link included in the description.
When your photo, brand and link are all packaged neatly, they’ll spread like wildfire. Some of the best memes we made of Guinta were ones spoofing his ongoing federal investigation over $355,000 in unaccounted campaign funds, and one that spoofed Guinta’s involvement in a Manchester bar fight when he was mayor of the city.
After these memes were created, we shared them on the Fire Frank Nov 6 Facebook page, Twitter and Tumblr, where our networks shared them widely with their friends across the district. In doing this, we turned Guinta and his record into a laughingstock, only adding to our brand’s notoriety.
C: VOICE OF THE PEOPLE
To really drive home your effort and make it stick, you need volunteers from across the district who are willing to speak on the record against your Congressman’s voting record. These volunteers have to be diverse: you’ll need women, students, workers, teachers, small business owners, Latinos, seniors and other groups to widen your reach to as many people as you can. These volunteers must be able to share their own story, and how it relates to your Congressman screwing them over with his voting record.
When you have your volunteers lined up, interview them on video, and make sure the footage will have high-quality video and audio. These videos should then be edited down to about two or three minutes, sticking to just one or two poignant parts of the interview.
Post your videos on your brand’s YouTube account, and share them on your brand’s social media platforms. To reach traditional media, write 150 to 200 word letters to the editor in the voice of your volunteers, get your volunteers’ approval, and email them to the op-ed editor for each local newspaper in your district. These papers are starved for content and readers, so unless they’re heavily biased in favor of your Congressman, they’ll print at least half of the pieces you send out. Check the following issues of those papers for your letter, monitor the letter to the editor section of those papers’ websites, and keep an archive of whatever they print.
In one instance, we recorded a video of a New Hampshire volunteer named Jack talking about his experience in fruitlessly searching for jobs after he was fired from his last job. He even went to one of Guinta’s town halls and asked his Congressman if there was anything he could do to help him.
Guinta was caught on video saying that not only would he help Jack, but he would give Jack his cell number, take Jack’s resume and send it around, and personally pick Jack up at his house and go job-hunting with him. However, Guinta never followed through on his promise, and Jack never heard from Guinta again, despite repeated attempts to contact his congressional and campaign offices.
Jack eventually lost his home, where his daughter was also staying, and was forced to break apart his family unit. Our video of Jack was shared on the front page of a progressive blogging site in New Hampshire, and my blog summarizing Jack’s story was published on Michael Moore’s blog, meaning negative attention at the national level for Guinta.
In the final piece of this series, I’ll explain how to use tried-and-true political organizing techniques to turn out the vote against your Congressman, ensuring his or her defeat on Election Day.