Thursday, January 19, 2012


Christmas tree lots. They’re set up overnight, they open on a busy corner, they run for a few weeks, and they’re gone. Employees often come from out of state, and, let’s just say, it’s easy to question the skill sets of a lot of them.
The same can be said for political campaigns.
Are there exceptions? Yes, especially when the staff hires are local.
We have some incredible, battle-tested political talent in this state,  but the number of Lee Atwater wannabes and “I read PRIMARY COLORS, watched THE AMERICAN PRESIDENT, and have THE WEST WING box set” types can really do more harm than good if they’re given too much rope.
This cycle, there’s been a lot of that from the presidential campaigns. It’s too late to do anything now, but to the out-of-staters who made South Carolina home for a couple of months and to the fresh-faced campaign workers (who aren’t limited to the “just got out of college” set) who think campaigns are a great career path, take an old guy’s advice for success down the road.
1) Don’t act like you’re local iffin you ain’t.
It’s important to learn your area, who the players are, what the personality dynamics are, and how things are done, but that takes time. I know that with a presidential campaign, especially in SC, time is a commodity. After Saturday, we won’t get another presidential campaign visit until 2015, but that means you have to squeeze more in to that finite campaign calendar. Make friends, let them guide you, and LISTEN to what they have to say. If you try to do things YOUR way, you’re failing yourself and your candidate.
2) Know the rules.
This goes both toward an application of the law and just how things are done. Never assume. Find a strong legal counsel – one recommended from people in the know. Talk with state party officers, major donors, activists. The way you do things in Wisconsin may very well be different than the way things are done in South Carolina. In fact, I’d pretty well bet on it.
3) Build relationships.
Sensing a theme yet? When former House Speaker Tip O'Neill said that, “All politics is local,” he wasn’t kidding. It wasn’t just some nifty saying he thought would look nice on a bumper sticker. You can’t go in to an area and think you know it all…or anything, for that matter. The local elected officials, party officials, and activists got there before you, and they’ll be there after you. They’ll be your best sources of information, networking, and volunteers.
4) Utilize relationships.
When you build relationships, you’ll discover that people want to help you. They, just as much as you, want your candidate to win. Let them help. Plug them in so that they can actually help. Don’t just give them busywork. Don’t let their emails and voicemails go unanswered. Aside from showing no common courtesy, ignoring or discounting what were once enthusiastic supporters makes them, at the very least, blasé about your efforts. At worst it makes them frustrated or angry at you, which could spill over to your candidate. Neither of those would be considered “good things.”
5) Be appreciative and keep your word.
Real friends are very difficult to come by in politics. It’s a difficult and sometimes painful lesson to learn. When you find friends, keep them. If somebody helps you, make sure you thank them appropriately. It’s important to embrace the “Dance with the one who brought you” philosophy. If you make a promise, keep it. The only thing you can ever really control about yourself is your word. The second you go back on it, is the second those friendships and loyalties disappear. Trust is paramount, and friendships must be reciprocal. Just because you’re working on the same campaign with someone doesn’t make you friends, though. Sometimes you’ll work with people you can’t trust, and this is the most difficult concept for a lot of people to grasp because you still have to be nice. You’re temporarily on the same team and likely will be again down the road if you decide to stay in politics. Just know the difference between friends and people you work with and have to be nice to.
Politics isn’t brain surgery – especially if your job is to build grassroots support. Strategy and messaging are coming from people above your pay grade. Should you show initiative and do some out of the ordinary things to help your candidate (like creating blogs or creative collateral)? Absolutely. Should you forego your duty to build relationships in order to do these things? Absolutely not.
Your time as a presidential campaign staffer is short. Make sure you leave something for yourself when it’s over. Make sure you have a network in place and an established reputation that will make candidates want to come to you down the road. Then you can set up your very own Christmas tree lot.

Taft Matney is a partner with TM Public Relations, a strategic communications and governmental affairs firm in Greenville, SC. Follow him on Twitter ( and "like" TMPR on Facebook (

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