Communications Lessons from Boston’s Mayor Race
November 6, 2013
November 6, 2013
(Photo credit: MartyWalsh.org)
In communications, you have to know when your audience is paying attention and take that opportunity to engage them in a meaningful way.
Boston Mayor-Elect Martin J. Walsh and his advisors saw and seized that moment the week after he won the city's Sept. 24 preliminary run-off on the strength of a good old-fashioned, union-led get-out-the-vote program.
It was then that Walsh rolled out a series of endorsements from a diverse segment of neighborhood leaders and elected officials that dominated the city’s political conversation for the first half of October, created his margin of victory and ultimately wrote the “more than a union guy” headlines that you're reading today.
Those endorsements, the grassroots work of fellow union leaders (they don't call them “organized” labor for nothing), and millions of dollars in advertising and direct mail injected into the race by outside groups proved too much for John R. Connolly to overcome in a civil campaign with few glaring differences on substance.
Of all the communications tools under the microscope in the first hotly contested mayoral race since Mayor Thomas M. Menino was elected 20 years ago, the influence of third party spending proved to be the most unexpected and the one that public affairs pros locally and nationally will analyze the most intensely in the days ahead.
The race also underscored another truism of public affairs – “personal” (Walsh's biography) will more often than not trump “policy” (Connolly's plans). The gritty appeal of the Dorchester-born state legislator with a troubled youth proved more compelling for a majority of voters than the leafy persona of the West Roxbury city councilor educated at Harvard.
Another hidden communications lesson in the election results: In the information buffet of modern day, media endorsements no longer hold the influence they once did. Both major metropolitan papers backed Connolly. It will be interesting to see how Walsh deals with the editorial boards and columnists who directly or indirectly supported his rival. You’ll also see some harsh post-mortems for Connolly’s campaign; the media can be tough on political figures who fail to fulfill their expectations.
Back on October 17, both candidates appeared at a Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce forum and each was asked about their heroes. Connolly cited his friend Geoff Chapin, the CEO of a Boston-based energy efficiency services company called Next Step Living Inc. Walsh, without hesitation, picked the late Joe Moakley, a bread-and-butter South Boston congressman known for delivering jobs, housing and social justice.
It was an apt and clear metaphor for the choice Boston voters faced – the choice between faith in an emerging future and the desire to get things done right now.
Ironically, in his victory speech, Walsh and his advisors took the biggest communications risk of the campaign: They set unnecessarily high expectations. Promising to make everyone's “dreams come true” is something no one can fulfill. Even so, it will probably be forgotten as a brief rhetorical lapse in an otherwise flawless public affairs strategy.
Join Solomon McCown on Thursday, November 14 for an energetic post-election discussion with some of the region's leading journalists.