by | May 21, 2024

Why you should throw out your election-focused campaign plan

Mariam Kemple-Hardy, Global Campaign Director at Oil Change International, reflects on traditional approaches to campaigning in the run up to an election – and why they’re too often counterproductive.

I was recently asked for advice on developing general election campaign plans – and my muscle memory kicked in. I prepared to list off the greatest hits: the candidates’ pledge, the campaign manifesto, and the trusty supporter pack prompting them to “ask three top questions on the doorstep”.

That didn’t happen. Instead, I surprised myself by launching into a full-blown rant that, in summary, ran thus:

“Election campaigns are useless – plan for the first 100 days of a new Government instead.”

General wisdom is that the election will be in the autumn. You might be dusting off your draft election plans right now to get them match-ready. But I’d like to take this opportunity to share my hard-won experience and encourage you to throw them out!

The next general election will be my fifth. For the past four, I’ve written various shades of the same plan. As charity campaigners we’re stretched thin, and these days it feels like we’re fighting on every front. So, everything should pass the impact sniff test – is there an opportunity for change that will genuinely be missed if your organisation doesn’t step up?

Looking back over the past four elections, I have to be honest and admit my plans routinely failed that test. I now think they not only lacked impact, but may have actively undermined my ability to secure change after the elections.

Shouting to be heard? Save your energy

The first reason is the utter noise of an election. For parties, candidates, and the media, everything is happening all at once. It’s a frenzy where the sheer politics of it all takes over. It’s impossible to be heard. None of the politicians are in listening mode anymore, they’ve switched entirely to broadcast.

All election campaign plans talk about ‘reshaping the media narrative’ to your organisation’s advantage – but I now believe this approach can be counterproductive. Elections are times when the best laid plan can be thwarted by a shock poll, a gaffe on the election stump, or simply a candidate eating a bacon sandwich. You’re locked into your election narrative and schedule. When a reactive opportunity falls in your lap, you won’t be able to respond if your media team is exhausted from last week’s big media push that fell like a stone into the void of election comms chaos.

Plan for conversations – not pledges

What about securing candidates committed to work for your organisation’s cause? The trusty ‘PPC Pledge’. In my experience, these pledges are usually so topline that they don’t really hold candidates to anything.

I’ve used pledges to reach out to new MPs and secure meetings, but I think the same engagement could easily have been achieved without them. Somehow, we manage to build relationships with MPs in the years between elections…

Don’t use up your supporters’ good will early

What about the argument that election campaigns are a great way to move supporters up the infamous ‘engagement ladder’?

Having nothing to say to your supporters during an election would be, admittedly, weird. But they’re human beings with busy lives. Some people give a huge and ongoing amount of time and energy to the cause, but most don’t. Shouldn’t we tap into their good will when it’s actually time to lobby the new Government?

A different approach

So, what would I do differently this time?

First, I’d make sure we have up-to-date lines on core asks: key problems, why anyone should care, and what a new Government should do to solve them. This prepares you to react if your issue does come under the media microscope for a day. A big, well-resourced organisation working on a likely big election issue (e.g. housing or the NHS) might even want a mini-report or new “killer stat” kept on ice to use at such moments.

Second, I’d consider this period just the first part of a longer strategy of supporter engagement. I’d begin by doing the opposite of what candidates are doing and flip from broadcast to listening mode. The furore of an election encourages people to think about what could happen under a new Government – so, it’s the perfect time to ask your supporters what they care about, what their experiences are, and what they want to see from your organisation. This fosters the sense that our work together is for the long-term, rather than flaming out after a big election push.

Next, I’d identify a handful of the most dedicated supporters – those who have the time and the energy and, where possible, are experts by experience. I’d use election opportunities to  help develop their skills and confidence as spokespeople. Going to hustings, pitching to the media when the moment comes, meeting with PPCs etc. This way, you develop a practiced army of the best advocates for your cause ready to engage the new Government.

Finally, and most importantly, I’d put the rest of my effort into preparing for the days after the election. Instead of a manifesto, what five things does a new Government need to do in its first year? What’s the letter you’ll write welcoming your new target Minister? What new research report will you launch in the first 100 days?

This will be a change election. Unlike so many times before, I’d want to put my time and money into preparing for the change – not the election.

Mariam Kemple Hardy

Mariam Kemple Hardy is Global Campaigns Director at Oil Change International



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