Unconventional Wisdom: Events

As I looked back on 2010 and saw the great big failures, they troubled me.  Messaging failures, generally unprepared or unqualified campaign staff, candidates unwilling to learn, listen and/or improve, and of course strategies that were designed to fail from the start…  But then there was a feeling of downright anger.  How the hell can Democratic campaigns fail so often at the very basics of setting up an event?  Does no one teach this stuff anymore?  Do people not learn from event to event?  Do they not see the big greasy piles of fail due to some form of rose colored glasses?

What am I talking about might you ask?  Podiums with corporate logos instead of campaign logos, candidates speaking in front of mirrors or distracting paintings, rooms with 10 times as many chairs as attendees…  This stuff isn’t at all hard to avoid and the positive impacts on your campaign are high for low cost in terms of time, effort and money.  Why not give it a shot?

Starting from the beginning, long before the event.  In political campaigns, this could be months in advance, or it could be a day or three prior.  Fill out an Event Request Form, just as I explained in Tools for a Better Organized Campaign.  This will give you the basics of the event, written down, because as we learned in Organizing – The Foundation of Progress, rule #9: If it’s not written down, it doesn’t exist. Some where in the future, I’ll introduce a full event briefing, which will put even more of the details on paper (or on your smartphones) and better prepare you and your candidate for the event.

In this first step of completing the form, you will answer some very important questions such as:

Is this an event we the campaign are hosting, executing and in “full control” of?  Is this an event someone else is hosting, executing and in “full control” of?  What are the objectives and opportunities of this event?  Who will my candidate, surrogate or staffer be meeting, speaking to or with?  Will there be press present, audio? video? both? print? Will we, the campaign, be able to record/photograph the event?  Will the host have photos taken?  What potential challenges are there and how can we mitigate those challenges?

In this process, it is important to talk to as many people with information and experience with the event as possible, particularly with regard to events external to the campaign that are repeated/annual.  History is a strong data point with regard to events.  If the event has had 30-40 people attend the past 4 years, but the organizers are telling you they are going to have 200 this year, be realistic.  Assume 30-40 is more likely until significant evidence indicates otherwise.  You should visit and walk the venue, take pictures.  Think about where attendees with enter, where they will gather, will there be food/drinks somewhere drawing the mingling crowd?  How many chairs will there be, how will they be arranged, where will the walkways be?  Are there tables?  Sketch these things out as best you can.

Where will the candidate enter the room?  Will the candidate have access to a “green room”, or a restroom, prior to entering the venue?  When they enter, will they be overwhelmed with the crowd as they enter?  Who will walk the candidate in, meet the candidate at the car/bus?  Will someone be introducing the candidate to the attendees as they mingle?  Will the candidate be going straight to the “stage” upon entering to speak, and straight out after speaking?  How will they enter and exit? Is the facility handicapped accessible?  Where are the rest rooms and are they Handicapped accessible?  Where will people park and how far will they walk to the entry.  What can we do if the weather is bad, do we have umbrellas and volunteers to meet people at their vehicles and walk them in?

One of the aspects to think about is photos/video, what will be seen and how can we make sure the candidate looks good and campaign logos are included in photos?  If the event is “campaign owned”, you have very few restrictions on where you can put signs, banners, balloons, etc.  Every organizer should have high weight clear fishing line, sticky-tack (the blue stuff is better than the white stuff), clear tape, a staple gun (and staples), coat hangers, paper clips (variety of sizes, binder clips as well), and whatever selection of rope/string/twine you can amass.  Having your own folding tables, table cloths and such also comes in handy as well, plus a chair or two – you may be able to borrow these from local supporters, organizations (VFW halls, churches, local county party, even a friendly restaurant/bar, if you don’t ask you won’t ever get what you are looking for.)

So you have your adhesives and such, where do you put signs?  I start with where the candidate will be speaking, the front of the podium if there is one, and then behind the speaker’s primary location, picture a tic-tac-toe board on the wall.  Put signs in the top and bottom corners, and in the center…obviously if you start with the center at the candidate’s chest height it is easier to achieve symmetry.  The logic is that you want any picture taken to include the campaign logo (and url if possible), assume photographers will reject any preset media areas and take photos from wherever they please.  The sign over the candidates shoulders will be the most visible in photos, often you can remove the center sign after

putting up the outer corners and use that sign for the front of the podium or somewhere else in the room.

Hanger'd Flags, USA, Florida, JacksonvilleIf there are flags behind the candidate, this is where those coat hangers come in to play.  First, research flag code and observe the rules therein.  Here is a key passage, Section 7.k.:

When used on a speaker’s platform, the flag, if displayed flat, should be displayed above and behind the speaker. When displayed from a staff in a church or public auditorium, the flag of the United States of America should hold the position of superior prominence, in advance of the audience, and in the position of honor at the clergyman’s or speaker’s right as he faces the audience. Any other flag so displayed should be placed on the left of the clergyman or speaker or to the right of the audience.

Now, the coat hanger…  When you have flags hanging from staffs, they are generally limp and in many cases hard to identify.  As photo backdrops, they can look a bit “lacking” as a result.  To correct this, take the coat hanger, upside down, and tape the stem of the hook end to the staff just below the bottom of the flag, as seen in the photo at right.  The end result can be seen in the photo at left featuring three hanger’d flags

Hanger'd State of Florida Flag

behind a microphone stand/podium at an Alvin Brown for Mayor (Jacksonville) Press Conference.  Note that the American flag is the tallest, slightly forward and at the speakers right (photo left), with the State of Florida flag in the center and the city of Jacksonville flag on the right.  Be sure not to put the hanger too high on the staff, causing a very unnatural draping in the flag, angles can be used as I did with the Florida State Flag to alter the drape and emphasis a key symbol or section of the flag (Florida’s state seal in this case).

To the left, you have the final product, candidate Alvin Brown surrounded by some of the areas elected Democrats.  Positives: Flags are visible and identifiable, well presented and adhering to code.  Podium/mic stand has a campaign placard with logo including the candidate’s name.  Negatives:  podium/mic stand is a bit low or the placard should be affixed higher, to be sure it is included at least partially in photographs (particularly in newspapers that will crop the photo down significantly.)  The large placard below the podium is angled quite a bit, thus creating a reflective glare in the photo, it needs to be firmly propped up and affixed to prevent it from shifting during the presentation and fixed at closer to a 90 degree angle to prevent glare.  There is no url on the placard on the podium. Nit Picking: Voters and people in general have preconceptions of leadership and appearance is part of that, in this case, one of the focuses will be height, the candidate looks tall if you crop the right of the photo off, but with State Senator Tony Hill behind him (over his left shoulder), the candidate “loses a few inches” in perception.  Project power and power will be perceived.  If your candidate is not tall, create presentations where they appear taller.  In this case, the short podium does that nicely, but the offset of Senator Hill erases that effect.

Throughout the rest of the room, if you have the opportunity, you should place placards at or just above shoulder height on walls at whatever density you can achieve with a pleasing aesthetic.  Assume people will take photos during the mix and mingle portion of the event, the logo/candidate name/url should be displayed in those photos if at all possible.  In a very large room, you might put one placard on the wall every 4-10 feet, in smaller rooms, put them closer, even down to just the width of one placard between placards.  You can create nice visuals by “stair stepping” or “checkering” the placards.  Affix them all in a straight line adjacent to one another (add a laser level to your tool kit), then adjust the 1st placard up one placard height, so the bottom right corner is touching the top left corner of the 2nd placard in the row, then drop the 3rd placard down one placard height, so the top left corner of the 3rd placard is touching the bottom right of the 2nd.  There is all sorts of visual art that can be achieved, you can take out the center row leaving the high and low…get creative, find a good look that works in the room.  HANG THE PLACARDS WITH STICKY TACK AND COLLECT AND RE-USE the sticky tack when the event is over.  The placards and sticky-tack should last the duration of the campaign.  Store it in a zip lock back (add a box of bags to your tool kit, as well as trash bags, large heavy duty trash bags, don’t go cheap, you will suffer the consequences, I prefer drawstrings too).  Look around the room, think about where people might want to take photos, how can you make sure there is a logo in that shot?  If you had taken photos when you first walked the venue, you should have looked at those with that thought in mind and had a plan.  If you have banners or 4×8 signs, is there a good place for such in the room?  Will it be effective or distracting?  Putting a 4×8 with the candidate’s face right behind where the candidate is speaking will not play well.  Placards on the doors entering and leaving, 4×8 or banners at the sign in table can be useful in drawing attention and indicating “this table is official.”

An important aspect of setting up and event is knowing who and how many people will be there.  You must have a hard count, people you are certain will show up, people who have verbally told you (or an organizer, staffer, volunteer) they are attending for certain, within one week of the event.  Anyone confirmed more than a week out should be reconfirmed a few days prior to the event.  EVERYONE should be called in the last three days and reminded, typically the script of this something like so:

Campaign_Caller_001:  Good evening Mr. Jones, My name is Campaign_Caller_001 with the XYZ_Candidate campaign.  How are  you this evening?

Mr. Jones: I’m fantastic, Michigan lost, how could life be better?

Campaign_Caller_001:  That’s wonderful, I’m calling to ask if you have any questions about Tuesday’s event at Your_Town’s High School Auditorium with Celebrity_Draw_002?

Mr. Jones: What time am I supposed to be there again?

Campaign_Caller_001:  5:30pm sir, do you need directions to the school?

Mr. Jones: It’s at the high school on Unpleasant View Drive, right?

Campaign_Caller_001: Yes, that is correct, and you will want to park in the back and enter through the East doors, we will have signs directing you there around the school.

Mr. Jones:  Great, I’m really looking forward to it, thanks for the call.

Campaign_Caller_001: My pleasure, please call us at 555-867-5309 if you have any questions.  See you Tuesday at 5:30.

Now you’ve reminded them to attend, and likely generated a bit of positive mojo for being “on top of it” as a campaign.  Adjust your hard count based on the feedback of these calls.  Facebook “I’m attending” doesn’t count in a hard count. Call the people and make sure they verbally commit to attending.  Maybes don’t count.  Numbers matter, be precise.   Once you have this hard count, and you know what the setup of the room is, if you are doing a presentation with attendees seated, take the hard count, subtract 10-20% and setup that many chairs.  You can always add more chairs (make sure they are available, but if there are more chairs, people will naturally filter to the back and the ends of aisles, creating a sparse crowd.  You want the candidate, press and attendees to feel like the place is packed, whether it is 20 or 2000.  If my hard count is 45, I set up 25 to 30 chairs, depending on the room configuration.   As you configure the room, remember to allow for a “press box” area, if possible a media riser (a platform typically 6″ to 32″ in height that allows the media to setup a camera on a tripod to see over the crowd, typically the same height as the stage or a bit higher).  With a higher riser, you can put people directly in front of the camera shot, causing the room to look more full, with a lower riser, you may want to leave an aisle to allow a clear shot of the candidate and presentation.  The media riser should have a “Mult Box” for the media to connect to the microphone audio feed and any other sound feeds (if you are presenting a video or have a call-in speaker for instance) as well as access to power (via extension cords, taped and covered with a mat for safety if possible).

Behind the flags in the photo above you see a curtain obscuring what’s behind the presentation, in this case it is the stage/podium of a union hall.  They utilized what is called “pipe and drape” to create a false background behind the candidate, making the event look more formal/official.  These are fairly simple in design and can be rented relatively inexpensively and also allow you to hang banners from the pipes, particularly handy in situations where there is no other means to hang a banner in the room.  You can also create pvc pipe frames for your banners fairly inexpensively, find someone crafty – this can be particularly handy for walking in parades with banners.  With the pipe and drape, you can create an alternate entry method for the candidate or other speakers, potentially allowing a “surprise effect.”

Candidates/campaigns often shoot for quantity over quality with events, trying to hit 5, 7, 10 events in a day, as was discussed in Conventional Un-Wisdom: Scheduling, in most situations, quality is more important than quantity.  The candidate should take the time to speak to as many people in the room, specifically ask for their support (vote, money, and/or time), and thank them for coming out to the event, as is possible.  If you over schedule the candidate and rush from one event to the next, you are missing opportunities to activate volunteers, increase output from existing volunteers, and of course positive donor and voter impacts as well.  If your campaign feels like speed dating, you are probably doing it wrong.

The candidate should work the room with a local surrogate, someone who knows much of the audience and easily connected with them, and ideally a campaign staffer is also nearby to collect notes, business cards and answer any questions beyond the candidates purview as needed.  That staffer can also assist in increasing efficiency by helping to transition the candidate away from one target and on to the next by either taking over the existing conversation or introducing the next person.  This requires talent and practice to be executed gracefully and without negative impacts, but in larger rooms a necessity or the candidate will be bogged down by the small handful of people who are already maxed out in support or rejection of the campaign, extra time with the candidate isn’t going to change anything.

Signs identifying the presence of the campaign event should be visible along the path leading to the event as far as a few miles down the road.  People who were already soft on attending will absolutely flake if they become unsure they are at or headed to the right place.

The last piece of the basics is flow in and out, with data capture and personal contact.  Ideally you want a sign in table just inside or just outside the main entry, if you have a large hallway outside the event room, setting up outside the room will allow you to have some control getting people signed in before they enter.  If the event is ticketed, you have further control, as well as additional complexities I won’t get to here.  Sign in should be efficient and orderly, and if an extra staffer/volunteer and “work the line” to keep people happy, calm and understanding the process, things will go smoothly.

If you do sign in outside, you can do further data capture inside, with staff/volunteer asking “ID questions” to those that enter, and then re-asking the same questions to those same people post event.  “Do you support XYZ Candidate?”  Coming in they may be unsure, going out they may be excited and strong supporters…take the time to ask why and of course ask them to volunteer, donate, etc.  There is a delicate balance between approaching attendees enough and harassment, courtesy and friendly demeanor go a long way to maintaining balance.  Apologize and take the blame, don’t pass it off on your peers, staff or boss.

Capturing sign in only on the way in is not enough, you need to capture feedback/data on the way out too.  Was the event good?  Did they like what the candidate had to say?  Did something said or done upset them?  What corrective measures can be taken before their support/vote is lost?

The more you do it, the better you get at it, and you will learn and grow, as with everything else.  These are just a few of the basics, there is so much more that can be done, and good event/advance staff are extremely valuable.  Anyone can be trained to do the basics, but there is real talent and doing great events top to bottom.

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  1. Okay, I checked out your website. I’m making progress every day.

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