TBT to 2014 and Changing Campaign Strategies

Joe Arpaio & United Way – Where They Line Up

By Randy Murray

In 2014, the RMP team was working on our eighteenth campaign for United Way. At the same time, we were in the midst of releasing our feature documentary, The Joe Show. The interesting thing about this, for me, is that these two stories are both about campaigns. The Joe Show is a film about how one politician used the power of storytelling and the media to change how campaigns are waged, and the United Way campaign was all about holding on to the way their campaign functions. Sheriff Arpaio embraced change – some say he caused it – with his storytelling, while is was to United Way’s advantage to maintain the status quo of their storytelling. And I think both campaign strategies proved to be effective because both used smart storytelling. However, just two years later, both campaign strategies may have run their course.

Sheriff Joe Arpaio

The Wrong Three Acts

Over the years, we learned that simple stories often worked best for United Way because they followed tried and true structures of storytelling: establish your character or objective and present the problem in act one, offer a solution and present a challenge to that solution in act two, and work everything out in act three. While not as recognizably formulaic as a 1980’s romcom (I do love John Hughes movies), both Sam’s Story in 2007 and Jennifer’s Song in 2008 employed a solid three act structure.

However, like so many clients, United Way needs to hit certain corporate messages in their campaign videos. That is why the vast majority of the twenty videos we have done for them have three or more stories. They have more of a news or informational structure: here is an overview of what we do, here are key examples of what we do, and the “ask.” This structure is designed to be informative, and it is, but it is not as persuasive as a story for the sake of good storytelling.

When you watch the 2014 United Way video, I hope you feel concern for the little boy who needed the food bag his teacher gave him on Friday to get through the weekend. I hope you share the pride that Sandra and Mike had for becoming self-sufficient. I hope you are inspired by Fernando’s drive for a quality education and better future. And I hope the cumulative effect of all this emotion is that you, and all the other viewers of this video, connect the dots within this story and decide to support United Way. Because that is what our intent is.

On the other hand, when you watch The Joe Show, our intent is to make you realize that the relationship between news media and powerful politicians is jeopardizing the stability of our democracy. But instead of bullet points and a well thought out argument, we simply tell an entertaining story of one politician. I think the latter approach is more effective.

Who Ya Talkin’ To?

Sure, it seems counterintuitive to say that a story that hits all the important points needed to close a sale is not as effective a sales tool as a well crafted and entertaining story. On the other hand, it does make perfect sense, since we are selling to humans. Yes, as humans we are conditioned – we are wired – to listen to and believe powerful stories. It is human nature so we should not fight it. We should leverage it.

Young Boy at Computer

A Campaign is a Campaign

This point was brilliantly made in a New York Times Op doc I recently watched, How to Win an Election by Sarah Klein and Tome Mason. This short film is based on an interview with political consultant Mark McKinnon.

Using the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections as examples, McKinnon makes the case that great storytelling in campaigns often depends on one of the oldest structures in the business – a narrative arc that starts with a threat or opportunity and features a victim, a villain, and a hero all in a three act play.

Fear, Hope & Seduction

Using those two George W. Bush campaigns (McKinnon was his campaign manager), he explains how storytelling can be a more effective tool of persuasion than simply communicating the features and benefits of a candidate who on paper is more electable. McKinnon disregarded the issues and focused on a story that worked in Bush’s favor. Of course, this is also the idea of Arpaio’s campaign, as shown in The Joe Show.

The Joe Show

The bottom line is that successful campaigns tell a story. Regardless of what you are selling, great storytelling trumps (pun intended) great content. Great storytelling is not about ideology or the type of campaign, great storytelling is about great storytelling. Two of the most powerful elements in storytelling are fear and hope. In 2004, the Bush campaign sold fear. In 2008, Obama’s campaign sold hope. And in both cases, the electorate was seduced by the story.

Campaigns Are A-Changin’

We are in the midst of election year campaigning, and United Way is preparing for their 2016 campaign. While both are experiencing transformative structural change, audiences are becoming more and more fragmented and more and more difficult to reach. Both political and fundraising campaigns are going to become more and more dependent on quality emotion-based storytelling.

United Way is seeing the slow demise of workplace campaigns. America is moving toward a freelance workforce, and large corporations are changing their perspectives on charitable campaigns.

As Bob Dylan says, “The times, they are a changin’,” but our love for great storytelling is not. And I think that is a good thing. At least, that’s my story and I am sticking to it.

Hand on Fence with Sun Flare

Randy is an award-winning director and producer with a passion for helping others through the power of storytelling. He’s also a political junkie, loves college football, and enjoys performing random magic tricks for children he meets in the street.