Monday, July 11, 2005

Blogs, Jazz and Message Development

Anyone who has been around politics very long knows what it means to be "on message." Campaigns spend tens of thousands of dollars on polling to determine the precise wording of messages used, and to this day many consultants and campaign managers believe that only strict adherence to the script -- like a conductor insisting on strict interpretation of a piece of classical music by an orchestra -- can avoid the gotcha-politics-driven backlash that often comes with getting "off message," or away from the campaign's scripted arguments.

The strictest political message mavens insist that only disciplined repetition of the identical words and phrases recommended by their poll can avoid getting the campaign into trouble. Even in an era with so many more communications media, this approach still works well for small, down-ballot candidate races and for lobbying on relatively obscure issues. That's because they receive so little attention that it's entirely possible to be "on message" during the handful of times the press and the outside world is actually paying attention.

The transition to the 24-hour news cycle has changed that, though, for higher-profile candidates and for issue campaigns taking on publicly debated topics. Reporters just won't print the same quote from you tomorrow as they did yesterday: Campaigns must constantly give the media fresh, raw meat, or else they may just decide to feed on you! That means the message has to change slightly each time you deliver it, while still remaining faithful to the campaign's overarching themes and goals.

Just as orchestral interpretations of classical music parallel the classical political "message repetition" concept, the development of the super-flexible 12-bar blues form in the American South offers a useful model for cultivating political messages in the new environment. In his classic treatment,
Jazz: A People's Music (1948), Sidney Finkelstein declared that:
The folk twelve-bar blues is a perfect art form. It may seem to repeat the same musical phrases over and over again, but this is because the variety of the form is provided in the words, the poetry. ... The sung blues often attained ... a fine, if still simple, musical form. The second line would repeat the first, but the melody would change; the third line of words would be different, but the melody would end up as in the beginning. This provided a fine unity and variety, built upon an interplay of words and music.
To me, that's the perfect model for a campaign's message-delivery strategy. Polling-developed messages should be repeated, but the "melody" varies on the second repetition -- that could mean varying the messenger, the context, or otherwise giving a different look and feel to essentially the same words and phrases. The words to the third phrase, though, are entirely different, and often in blues they provide a "proof" of the previously repeated phrase (or for our purposes, the repeated, poll-tested "message"), even as, for continuity's sake, the song returns to the original melody. Take this oldie but classically structured goodie from Texas blues legend Bobby "Blue" Bland:

I don't want no woman telling me what to do.
I don't want no woman telling me what to do.
I'm full grown baby, just as grown as you.

That's a strong message, delivered forcefully. Even though the third line might not be identical to the song's overarching theme, it provides a proof or an argument to support the big theme, while simultaneously bringing the melody back to the initial phrasing. After all, if a tune only had one phrase to it, repeated over and over, who would listen?

The same is true for campaign messages. If you have nothing new to say, and no new way to say it, people won't want to hear from you a second time. Campaign messages and message delivery methods must be designed to foster these planned variations in lyric and melody. The best campaigns generate a particular rhythm they're able to maintain in their communications, both with their supporters and with paid and earned media, that builds toward a crescendo on Election day.

Blues songs themselves are actually layered with this repetitive structure. Many blues tunes use the above repetitive blues style for two verses or so, then interlay a "bridge" with a completely different melody and rhythm 2/3 through the song, only to return to the original structure at the end. It's a uniquely American art form that fits in with American sensibilities -- comfort food for the brain whose rhythms and melodies tap deeply into the public's sense of self. And what politician wouldn't want their messages delivered as powerfully as the best blues tunes?

The transition toward blogs and so-called "grass roots" media necessitates even more variation to remain competitive. The main beef by professional political consultants regarding blogs is the possibility that they may get the campaign "off message," that the blogger might phrase something or reveal some tidbit that doesn't jibe with how the campaign manager or pollster might have put it. If the campaign manager possesses what I described above as a classical music mindset, they may be especially resistant to any messages that weren't handed down straight from the top.
In smaller campaigns, that's still probably wise advice. Maybe not for long, though.

At this point, I think every politician should have a blog, even if they don't update it frequently. It humanizes the candidate and lets them communicate directly with their core consituents. Plus it creates a vehicle that will be there for the campaign to use if and when you need that particular tool. The time to start a blog is not when you need to get your message out in the next 30 minutes. Grass roots media allow campaigns (or their proxies) tremendous flexibility to get out in front of issues quickly and to respond to looming attacks within the same media cycle.

The transition to an era predominated by the fast-reaction times of grassroots media requires even more flexible communications skills than did the transition to the 24-hour news cycle. (Indeed, we're fast approaching, I fear, the 60 minute news cycle.) That transition will require a shift in approach -- one that's not been fully developed as of this writing -- toward a campaign communications form that's analogous to improvisational jazz: e.g., based on the above-described form of the 12-bar-blues cycle, but with an infinite variety of personalized riffing that makes each performance unique.

That doesn't mean campaign bloggers just "say whatever comes into your head that morning," as a close associate put it to me recently. Improvisation doesn't mean just making stuff up. Again, to quote Finkelstein:

Jazz is largely improvisation, but the division between improvisation and composition is not as drastic as believed, nor is jazz so completely different from all other world music as to exist wholly by its own invented laws. Jazz follows old and familiar patterns of music, and is new only in that it follows these patterns in terms of its own rhythms, melodies, and timbres.

Improvisation is a form of composition. Improvisation is music that is not written down, composition is music that is written down. ...

If we examine carefully what happens in jazz improvisation, we see that it is really a kind of composition. It is the height of superficiality to imagine that a hot solo emerges directly from a performer's "unconscious." People simply cannot create on a consistent level this way. A great hot solo is generally worked up from performance to performance, using the same material. If we follow the work of a jazz performer, we can trace the growth of these solos. When the player arrives at a creation that satisfies him, he remembers and repeats it. At a jam session of high quality, some solos are new and some are old, although the spirit of the occasion, the contagion of the performance, sounds fresh and new.
Such is the level of virtuosity and improvisation that will be required for campaign communications in the coming era. Just like jazz musicians, improvising campaigns aren't spinning thoughtlessly, they're reacting to notes sounded by the other players in the race -- your opponent, special interests, the media -- based on a baseline knowledge of the campaign's message and strategic approach, playing off of current events or opponent's messages in ways that, like the blues form, may momentarily stray from the base message but always return back to it. Some improvisations will be tested and discarded; others will become part of the nightly routine.

Like jazz varies depending on the artist, the quality of improvisational blogging will largely depend on the skill of the blogger. The ability to turn around high quality prose or broadcast material quickly will increasingly become an important commodity in politics, much more so than now. Blogs, podcasting, and the reduction in production costs for all grass roots media will increasingly allow many small-timers to play like the big boys, providing potential strategic advantages even in the smallest local races.

We're not there yet, but we're headed there fast. Today, only the highest profile campaigns garner enough media attention to necessitate such sophisticated tactics. But one can already see the outlines of the inevitable future as modern media accelerate toward their obsession with immediacy. (The
scoop is dead, but everybody wants to be first, anyway.) Message-makers who resist the change, especially those who stick to the repeat-it-ad-nauseum approach, will increasingly cause their campaigns to lose the message wars. Those who've learned to vary their message and rhythms to accomodate the changing environment along the line of the 12-bar blues model possess greater flexibility to operate in the new era. But in a few years, even those elite few may ultimately be forced to embrace full-blown improvisational communications tactics for their candidates or issues to survive.

The old saying is true: Speed kills. Campaigns already don't have the luxury of waiting days to respond to opposition messages and events. In the coming years, if current trends hold, hours and minutes wasted will become decisive. That's when political communications will have to wholly adopt new improvisational methods.

I've seen the future and it's filled with jazz.

See also Grits' previous item on "Blogs role in political campaigns."


jdallen said...

Yeah, good post. Of course, though, a blog can be written by anyone - and the politician is always able to do what they do best, claim responsibility for good posts and deny poor ones.

Can a good jazz musician can turn an error into a new riff? Not being a player at all, I don't know. But I do know that a politician can almost turn a lie into the truth, a mistake into "I meant to do that." And the good ones can make us believe it.

Steve Bates said...

"Can a good jazz musician can turn an error into a new riff? Not being a player at all, I don't know." - JD Allen

Oh, yes, JD, a good jazz musician most certainly can. I don't perform jazz, but I've spent 30 years working in a field of music that not only permits but requires improvisation; I've done what you describe many, many times... and often enough, the results have been convincing to audiences. I can't vouch for your lies-into-truth political parallel, though! :)

GFB, this is one of your truly inspired posts, and a well-chosen analogy. Thank you!

Steve Bates

Amerloc said...

<< (Indeed, we're fast approaching, I fear, the 60 minute news cycle.)>>

Which is indeed scary - there's an implication there that if we're not paying more attention to the news than to our work.... we'll miss what's "really" going on.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Thanks, guys.

@ Amerloc: the 60 minute news cycle comment refers to how fast political campaigns must react. With media outlets from CNN to Austin's local Channel 8 news running on one hour loops, constantly updated, I think, in the future campaigns will need to respond in the next HOUR's media cycle, not the next day's. Obviously, voters are on information overload already.

@ JD: Turning errors into art may be one of the most useful roles campaign blogs can play. Blogs are a relatively informal place for the pol to say, "What I really meant was ..."

Anonymous said...

Very nice --literate and timely. What an excellent way to advise people to stay within a message frame without being a robot.

I've been a media trainer for many years and coach my clients to stick with their core themes without becoming repetitive.

I'm not a musician but love the blues and jazz and your analogy is so apt.

Well done