Friday, September 18, 2009

What Should Politicians Be Looking At…on TV?

Summary: A new campaign strategy? Using television to connect politicians to their voters.

There’s a fascinating article on Politco’s new page, Click, discussing what television programs members of Congress watch.

For example, members interviewed reported enjoying shows such as USA’s “Monk”, NBC’s “The Office”, and re-runs of “Seinfeld” among others.

But what was more interesting is the idea of what they should be watching. From the article:

"TV and pop culture provide a quick and easy way to stay in touch with what is happening in America and what is being discussed around the coffee maker and the water cooler," says Pete Snyder, president of New Media Strategies. "When your job is decided every two years by the whims of the electorate, you had better damn well know what they’re all about."

In addition, explaining the often-arcane nuances of policy and legislation to constituents is a key part of a Congressman's job description. Using pop culture to do so can not only help a lawmaker communicate more effectively, it can enhance their profile with the media.

How’s that? Synder gives the example of a good line for trying to explain how complex legislation gets through the committee process could: "I don’t know. It’s more of a mystery than the last episode of 'Lost.'"

"Instant quotability," Synder says. "Your media requests will soar."

Democratic strategist Michael Meehan agrees. He says it's imperative that congressmen watch shows that their constituents are watching. "It's vital for long term survival of their congressional careers for members to stay connected with their constituents," he says. "Pop culture is one of those ways."

Like everything else when developing a political message, targeting is a critical aspect of this strategy. That’s why members of Congress - or at least their staff - should check the ratings of television programs in their districts.

"There are regional and local differences in programming and advertising, so it's important to know and keep that local connection back home. That helps with both politics and policy," [former democratic strategist Jeff Eller] says. "Members would be well served to study the local ratings like they study polls."

At the same time, Snyder says all politicians should familiarize themselves with TVs "eight hundred pound gorillas," such as "American Idol" and "Dancing with the Stars."

"Any politician worth their salt should know the two finalists on 'Idol' by name – kind of like a pop culture 'price of milk' question on the campaign trail," Snyder says. "Nail it, and you are someone people can relate to. Blow it, and you’re hopelessly out of touch."

He also recommends a full plate of political and media satire, such as the "Daily Show," "Late Night with Conan O’Brien" and "The Colbert Report."

"You can see how everything you’re working on is playing out there and what potential ambushes to avoid," Snyder says. "If you don’t feel you have the time, make your press secretary show you clips and keep you informed."

Not only is this a great article about message strategies, it also reinforces the idea that in order to represent one’s constituents, a member of Congress (or any politician) really needs to live like their constituents. Television can serve as a great tool for appearing to be outside what some consider the isolated culture of Washington.

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