Project Wonderful

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Ask An Election Nerd: How Do I Break Into Communications?


This is by far the most frequently asked question on my blog or maybe it just feels this way because my answer is "I have no freaking clue." Like working on the hill, or running for office, working in communications is one of those campaign worker fetishes I just don't understand. Look forward to a post on my intense dislike and suspicion of the press later this month.

Luckily I am blessed with many friendships within our little subculture and as Bob Einstein says to Jerry Seinfeld in a delightful episode of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee you are never too big to use your friends. (Watch that show, by the way. I have been home sick all day watching it and it is hilarious.) So, I asked Communications Guru and ultimate FOCS, Austin Webster, to help us out. This is seriously great and well thought out advice. Please feel free to tweet Austin and thank
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1) Who are you?

My name is Austin. I live and work in Sacramento, California as an agency public affairs and legislative relations staffer for the state. Additionally, I do consulting for political communications and strategy for various Democratic candidates and elected offices. I have been a part of at least one campaign every year since I was 16, and have experience working in local, state, and federal elections. I’ve done everything from volunteering and field manager to communications director and campaign manager.

2) What is the difference between communications on a campaign and in a legislative office?

There are a number of differences between communications on a campaign and for a member of the legislature (or any other elected official). On a campaign, communications staff focuses more on the candidate. This means a lot of messaging, managing the constant media flow, and a very high level of intensity from start to finish. This also encompasses a lot of other things like designing lit, ads, and getting your candidate as much face time with the press as you can. Your number one goal is to win the election.

Communications in an office tends to be focused a little less on the person and more about the bills authored or sponsored by your member. Once elected, the legislation proposed or passed by your member basically speaks on their behalf. Communications is handled differently for each office, depending on the rank of your member. A Speaker, Pro Tem, or party leader will often have 1 or more communications staff where as a freshman member usually has their communications handled by their Chief of Staff. Some offices leave a majority of their communications to their district offices. Another key difference is you will often work with other offices (mostly from your party) to draft a cohesive message on a bill or issue.

Regardless of campaign or office however, both situations have one common element: your job is to make your candidate/member look good and keep their name known to voters. Remember, even if you just won, the next election cycle is already right around the corner.

3) What do you do in a typical day?

On a typical day, either on the campaign trail or in a legislative office, I try to start by reading over any news that may have been run that morning about my candidate/member. If you have staff, it is great to have someone put together a report for you highlighting anything of interest. If you don’t have staff, I recommend using Google alerts in addition to checking the major media outlets in your area. If you are senior staff on a campaign, you will likely spend a great deal of your day in meetings, talking to the press, or attending events with your candidate. Mid-level communications staff will be doing a lot of the day to day work of drafting press releases, managing social media, etc. On smaller elections, where you may be the only communications staff, it is really just a balancing act.

If you work in a legislative office, always try to get at least 5-10 minutes face time with your member first thing, even if it is just to touch base. Many members will try to do a daily briefing with their COS and Communications Director, but during session it can be difficult to find the time to meet for an extended period more than once a week. As I mentioned, a lot of your day will be centered around responding to press inquiries about legislation or working on other projects your member may be pushing at the time.


4) How do I get a job in communications a) on a campaign b) in a legislative office?

a)Much like Nancy says in her post about finding your next campaign, getting a position in communications on a campaign is mostly about finding a “sponsor”. Many communications staffers start out as vols, interns, or FOs who express interest in communications early on and have a member of the senior staff who is willing to support them. Drafting a few good press advisories or designing an awesome piece of lit can get you in the door, but it ultimately comes down to someone being willing to tell your candidate or CD that you can do the job.

b)Positions, communications or otherwise, in legislative offices can be incredibly difficult to get at times. I currently work with a member of the California State Senate, and many of the positions within the state legislature are filled without being advertised anywhere. Often, staffers will pass the word of a vacancy along to people they feel may be interested and the position is filled that way. If a job makes to the point it gets posted, it often isn’t well paying or for a member you want to work for. In other words, it’s who you know.

If you are dead set on working for the legislature and didn’t get brought on when your candidate won, try getting an entry level legislative aide or reception position. Always be sure your values are a least mostly in line with your member or you may find yourself working on legislation you don’t believe in or are totally against. If you can’t find a member or open position, drop off a resume and ask to intern. A few months of an internship with the right member can help you get in with other offices much easier than being an external applicant.

5) What skills are transferable between communications and field?

A lot of the skills you need for field are transferable to communications. It can be a lot of long hours, high energy, and a lot of interacting with people. I think you need to be dedicated, believe in your candidate, and be good at talking to people to do both jobs.

6) What's the biggest difference between communications and field?

It may be because I started in field and still love it, but I always try to think of communications and field as being two sides of the same coin (or whatever analogy works best here). Field and communications are all about getting your candidate’s name recognition up. The biggest difference is how. Field staffers go to the voters to give them the information, where as communications tends to be enticing the press to come to you to get the information. Communications staff also determines the message that field delivers, but both are integral pieces of the same program. I am sure other communications and field staffers would have a different opinion, but that just tends to be how I look at it.

7) What else should we know?

A few tips:

•Communications on a campaign is all about your message. Design a strong message, stick to it. Your message should answer “Why is your candidate running?” and should be incorporated into everything that your campaign sends out.

•Keep your messaging, slogan, and lit simple and consistent.

•Nancy and I joke about it quite often, but I am completely serious when I say field staff should NEVER talk to the press without expressed permission. Instruct your field staff that if a reporter approaches them in the field that they should give the reporter your contact info, a piece of lit, and politely tell them to get in touch with you.

•If you are on the communications staff, every other staff member (campaign or legislative office) should know how to get in touch with you. Your email, phone, and cell phone number.

•Always respond to press inquiries ASAP. Know your press corps and don’t play favorites.

•Don’t hide your candidate from the press and don’t shy away from negative press. Bad press is a political fact of life, have a game plan for every potential negative situation and get out ahead of it when it breaks. Bad press will not just blow over.

•Have fun and be creative, but don’t go overboard. Voters like something that is new and fresh but not something that is too far from the norm.

•Remember that your job is all about managing perceptions. We all know the semi-organized chaos that a campaign really is, but most voters don’t. If your campaign at least looks well run from the outside, it can win a lot of voter confidence in your candidate.


I feel like I put a ton of information on here, but also feel like I barely scratched the surface. If there are specific questions you guys have from the campaign trail or other communications things you are interested in please let me know and I’d be more than happy to answer them. You can either contact Nancy or contact me directly at my contact info below. Good luck out there!
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You can bother Austin @AustinJWebster on Twitter.




1 comment:

  1. This could not be anymore helpful. Thank you so much

    ReplyDelete