ATLANTA—When Brian Robinson was working on Capitol Hill as a communications director for Georgia Republican Reps. Phil Gingrey and Lynn Westmoreland in the 2000s, there were plenty of ways for him to get his bosses’ messages out there.
“The AJC, the Atlanta paper, had a Washington bureau with numerous reporters who covered the delegation. The TV stations here in Atlanta had bureaus that fed video back,” he says. “If you had a somewhat rural district, there were radio stations with local news-gathering operations. And every county had a newspaper that had actual staff there—real people who put out news every day. And if you had events, they could come to them.”
But over time? “All of that’s kind of disappeared.”
Speaking to a packed room at the NCSL StaffHub 2022 ATL meeting Oct. 10 during a session titled “Secrets to Strategic Messaging,” Robinson, owner of a Georgia-based communications consulting firm specializing in public affairs messaging, says although the media landscape has greatly changed, communications for legislative staff is still powerful and necessary. And it sure helps to have some planning in place when sharing those messages, especially in emergency situations.
And he should know.
Robinson says that while working as the deputy chief of staff for communications for Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal (R), initially he had no formal messaging plans in place—when something came up, he figured he just knew what to do. But that was before “Snowpocalypse,” a winter storm that wreaked havoc on Atlanta in January 2014.
So much of what we do is boring but important. A lot of it is not sexy … So, we have to find opportunities to insert ourselves, to insert our bosses.
—Communications consultant Brian Robinson
Starting around noon, it quickly paralyzed the area, with motorists—and children on school buses—stranded for hours, while those who could drive spent six hours or more to travel a mere 10 miles. Deal was bashed by the media for his lack of response, receiving heavy criticism for waiting until 11:30 p.m. to finally make a live TV appearance, despite Robinson’s pleas to do so much earlier.
“You had cars abandoned, people sleeping in restaurants. My gosh,” he says. “It was just a complete nightmare. And we had a problem at this juncture: We did not communicate on time because we acted like it was somebody else’s problem.”
That’s where planned strategic messaging could have come into play, but Robinson says it wasn’t until the next day that the governor delivered a slew of TV messages to share the state’s response.
“We had the National Guard going to rescue school buses,” he says. “We had tow truck companies around the region pulling tractor trailers that had jackknifed off the interstate to open them back up. We got the mass transit trains running again, keeping the rails clear of the ice.”
The plan now? Overcommunicate.
“Literally every 20 minutes we were putting out something new so that no one could say we were doing nothing,” Robinson says. “No one could say we were hiding. And I’ll say this for the governor: He just got his teeth kicked in on that night. But he took his lumps, went out there and day by day, it got a little bit better, a little bit better.”
Armed with a new strategy for responding during the next weather emergency—a plan openly communicated to, and even created in partnership with, the media—the office received buy-in from the public and the press. And, one month later, when a second ice storm hit the city? The plan worked.
Tips for Being Heard
What, exactly, is a strategic message? Robinson says it’s having a message, and then getting agreement on it—which is often the hardest part. It’s also determining your audience, deciding how to deliver your message and who will deliver it, and coming up with a goal. Here’s some of his advice on getting your messages heard:
- Limit the use of abbreviations and acronyms, and stop throwing around bill numbers as if anybody outside the legislature understands them. “Do y’all remember what the bill number was for Obamacare? And I don’t have any idea if it was a House or a Senate bill. But I know ‘Affordable Care Act,’ and I know ‘Obamacare.’”
- Invest in video. It doesn’t have to cost a lot of money, but legislators need to be equipped to speak directly to voters on free video platforms. A simple microphone and a quiet room without an echo will help deliver quality sound, and an HD camera is preferable, but an iPhone will work. And make it short—30 seconds or less, which means a tight, scripted message, although one that doesn’t sound overly rehearsed.
- Use Associated Press style in news releases. News organizations write in AP style, so write your release like a newspaper story. Robinson says he always wanted an editor to be able to copy and paste his release into a story, whether it was being delivered in print or online. Do this and “you have gotten out an undiluted, unfiltered message, which is exactly, at the end of the day, our goal.”
- Tell a story. Don’t talk in terms of huge numbers most folks can’t wrap their heads around. Make it about where that money is actually going or share the story of someone whose life was affected or changed because of a certain policy or issue. For example, say you’re touting a $2 billion tax cut. “What is that per capita? What is that per household? All of a sudden, that $2 billion is a number that people understand, and it becomes relevant to them. They know how it touches their family and their lives. Break down these numbers, make them human.”
- Meet the moment. “So much of what we do is boring but important. A lot of it is not sexy … So, we have to find opportunities to insert ourselves, to insert our bosses.” If you’re working on something the media is already reporting on, that means it’s something that people are already talking about.
- Build relationships with the people who cover you. They’re not always going to write the things you want, but getting to know the reporters who write about you can go a long way to helping you get your message out.
Lesley Kennedy is a director in NCSL’s Communications Division.