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For PACs, Communications Planning Is Paramount in Election Years

For PACs, Communications Planning Is Paramount in Election Years

January 2024

The educational role of PAC professionals continues to expand, and their efforts in this area are never more important than in election years. Having a strong communications plan in place is critical. Experts speaking at the National PAC Conference this March in Fort Lauderdale shared their strategies.

“We’re always educating our people,” says Ted Burnes, senior director of political affairs and RADPAC at the American College of Radiology. “That means internal communications is of paramount importance and requires strategies and tactics that must continually evolve.”

RADPAC is leveraging social media as a core part of its election comms strategy. “I believe we are one of the few PACs with an X (formerly Twitter) account, and we use social media extensively, especially as Election Day draws near,” says Burnes.

RADPAC members are physicians and, as such, well-educated and highly sophisticated. “You always need to respect your members and never to appear patronizing,” Burnes says. “Even so, we use social media across a range of platforms to remind them to make sure they are registered to vote, when those deadlines are, and bringing to their attention other key dates — deadlines for early voting, for example, and what days the primaries are held. We use X to list the recipients of our contributions. We use LinkedIn, too, which is less personal than X but also offers a level of professionalism that can be helpful.”

Presidential Elections Are ‘Special Times’

RADPAC’s communications, which are segmented by its members and their congressional districts, become “a lot more aggressive in years when there is a presidential election, in part because this is a time when people are more focused on politics,” Burnes says. “It’s important to remember, as PAC professionals, that there is really no such thing as a non-election year because there are elections going on all the time. But presidential primary seasons and presidential elections themselves, of course, are special times.”

Eric Blackwell, director of government and political affairs at NRG Energy, says his team’s communications are also segmented by states and congressional districts. “While we are based in Texas, we have a footprint in every state,” says Blackwell, who will speak at a session about PAC communications strategies during an election year with Burnes at the National PAC Conference in early March. “We, too, remind our members about key dates throughout the primary season. This has to be segmented because the rules governing voting vary from state to state.”

Burnes, Blackwell and their teams also offer post-election analysis. “We use social media to inform our members of key takeaways after the primaries and after the general election,” Blackwell says. “We also have post-election events where we bring in our consultants and sometimes outside experts to interpret the outcomes. Our communications don’t end the minute the polls close.”

RADPAC holds a raffle, “where participants can offer their predictions about a number of races — the presidential race, of course, but even things like who will have control of the House or Senate and by what margin,” Burnes says. “We also report how the candidates we supported did in their races, which is part of our emphasis on transparency and — bonus! — to publicize our successes. Last time, as I recall, 94% of our candidates won their races, which I like to think tells our members that we know what we’re doing.”

Accentuate the Positive

Transparency is important, but so is positivity in this highly charged political environment. “We face unprecedented internal and external communications challenges,” Burnes says. “This has been especially the case since Jan. 6, with so much interest on the part of our people in positions politicians take on issues that — while important — have little or nothing to do with matters immediately relevant to our association and the medical profession itself. We also have to develop a thick skin because not everyone will agree with the decisions we make.”

Burnes says external communications requires RADPAC to remain relentlessly “positive,” in part to avoid the negativity so typical of today’s politicking. “Maintaining a positive and professional tone gives you credibility,” he says. “This is the case even when making an independent expenditure,” which the Federal Election Commission defines as one “that expressly advocates the election or defeat of a clearly identified candidate and which is not made in coordination with any candidate or their campaign or political party.”

“And as long as you remain positive, the candidate you support in an independent expenditure — once they find out about what you’ve done for them — really appreciates it,” Burnes says. “Staying positive, moreover, builds trust and credibility, not just for your PAC but for your industry.”

By every indication, the educational efforts seem to be working. Writing in The Washington Post, Alexander Hertel-Fernandez, a Columbia University political scientist and author of Politics at Work: How Companies Turn Their Workers into Lobbyists, reports that from 2000 to 2018, “nearly four times as many employees [were] hearing about politics from their bosses.” Responding to a survey Hertel-Fernandez commissioned, corporate managers say mobilizing employees offers a great deal of “bang for the buck,” and 25% say this mobilization is even more effective than PAC contributions. This “new grass-roots game,” he writes, “gives businesses a greater edge in elections and legislative debates.”

The Personal Touch

These educational efforts pose their own challenges, especially since COVID-19. “Like so many companies, we now have a hybrid workforce at NRG,” Blackwell says. “So we have to be creative in how we do our educational events and how we keep people’s attention. Every in-person event we do is also virtual. People like access to a company’s executives, and that is easier, obviously, in person than when you do an event on Zoom. But if they have the opportunity to interact with the CEO, even if it is just by submitting questions in advance, they like that. People want to be heard, so we try to involve executives in PAC events.”

The personal touch, whether in an election year or not, is always important. “Everyone is really busy these days,” Burnes emphasizes. “That makes the personal outreach more important than ever. Believe it or not, we spend a lot of time writing personal thank-you notes — to contributors, to candidates, to elected officials. This is too rare these days, and it has repercussions beyond the immediate recipient of the thank-you note. This kind of outreach builds connection and trust, internally and externally.”

‘We’re always educating our people … that means internal communications is of paramount importance and requires strategies and tactics that must continually evolve.’
-Ted Burnes, senior director of political affairs and RADPAC, American College of Radiology

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