10 years ago, when I was 22 years old and one year out of college, I started my first “real” job as a speechwriter and public relations writer in the office of Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack, who now serves as the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture. Working in politics and government was an invaluable experience, and I’m grateful to have been part of it. It taught me a lot about how to understand people, their motivations, passions and alliances. It was fun to be close to the center of decision making for my home state’s government, and to get to feel like I was close to “the action.”
I’m still something of a political junkie and I follow political campaign news quite closely, considering I no longer work in that field. Many Americans have an intense interest in politics similar to sports fans following their favorite teams. While politics can be frustrating, and can even be a cause of disagreement and hard feelings, I think there are many lessons that entrepreneurs can learn from the political world.
Here are a few key lessons I learned from working as a political speechwriter, and how they apply to entrepreneurs:
- “Stay on message.” In politics, candidates, government officials and their spokespersons are constantly being judged on their discipline in communicating a clear and coherent message. The media (and the public) have short attention spans, and so every time a politician is in front of a microphone, there is a limited window of opportunity to talk about the “message of the day” and try to shape the public conversation about the issues. In the same way, every small business owner needs to be focused and disciplined in your communication about your company. Your business cards, website and public-facing communications need to convey a clear, concise and relevant message to show people why they should trust you and buy from you.
- “Spin or be spun.” Every political campaign is a constant battle of “spin” – with PR advisers and spokespersons fighting to explain, defend and provide a favorable impression of their candidate, and find the facts to support their side of the story. Whenever a major news story breaks that might be unfavorable to your candidate, as a political PR person you need to “spin or be spun” – you need to have a story ready to explain, defend or provide context for what went wrong, or what could have been done to prevent it. Otherwise, your political opponents will fill the void and create their own spin on the story that might be used against you. In the same way, every business owner needs to be prepared to defend the company from false rumors or negative comments from customers. In the era of social media, it’s more challenging than ever before to stay on top of the “spin” – but it’s also easier to see where your customers might be criticizing you, or misunderstanding your intentions.
- “Play to the base.” Political campaigns are won and lost not by persuading undecided voters, but by energizing and motivating the people who were already likely to vote for a candidate. The core supporters of each political party are known as “the base.” These are the “super fans” of that political party, the ones who care the most about the issues, the ones who are willing to give money, volunteer their time and make phone calls to strangers in support of their candidates. When the base is motivated, they’re more likely to turn up at the polls and tell their friends. When the base is unexcited about a candidate, they’re more likely to stay home on Election Day, or not volunteer, or donate less money. Enthusiasm matters for entrepreneurs, as well. If you’re trying to start a business, your marketing is more likely to succeed if you have an energized “base” of dedicated customers who are willing to “volunteer” by telling their friends about you.
- “Build a movement.” The most successful political campaigns, the ones that really endure in the public consciousness, are about more than electing a candidate, they’re about telling American an inspiring story about itself, and reconnecting America with its ideals. Franklin Roosevelt ran for president at the worst depths of the Great Depression by telling his fellow Americans, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” In 1960, John F. Kennedy promised a “New Frontier” of space exploration and said that the “Torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans.” In 1984, Ronald Reagan ran for re-election with the tagline, “It’s Morning in America,” reminding America of its optimistic spirit. In the same way, some of the most successful businesses take on a more idealistic spirit, infusing their customers with a sense of purpose and community. Every time people make a purchase, they are telling themselves a story and making a statement about their values. Doesn’t that sound a lot like politics?
I’ll always be grateful for the career lessons and life lessons I learned from working as a young political speechwriter. Politics gets a bad reputation for being “dirty” and “mean” and “divisive.” But I think politics at its best can help bring people together to accomplish great things. It’s not always an easy or pretty process, but that’s the reality of democracy, and I wouldn’t trade it for any other form of government.
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