How to Stand Up Your Surrogate Program

This originally appeared on Campaigns and Elections.

Designing a surrogate program for a campaign is an art. Campaign managers or press and advance teams must be part diplomat (because surrogates have egos), part logistician (because you need them for a specific function, time or place) and part coach.

Surrogate support is about message development, media training and helping surrogates find the candidate’s voice within themselves. To be successful, you need to create an army of advocates, match needed campaign themes to surrogates best qualified to deliver them, refine your work and find your best surrogates in the field based on measurement of media or public response.

It’s a fluid process—surrogate programs never run perfectly. But if your surrogate program is doing its job, you’ll have a better chance of keeping your surrogates on message and on the reservation.

During the 2008 campaign, I worked on the press and advance team at Obama for President, and was tasked with coordinating surrogate programs in five states. When one of our surrogates on the trail went rogue for a day, calling Vice Presidential Candidate Sarah Palin a dictator, comparing her to then-Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez and calling her out on “drill, baby, drill,” we had to bench him for a couple of days. At least until that media cycle passed and Obama’s press and advance team in Chicago could help us recalibrate and set new messaging themes.

Parenthetically, this high tech exec whose first name is synonymous with online exchanges, was a “Technology Surrogate” we engaged to discuss the flattening of government, how the Web would democratize voter participation and to appeal to millennial voters. But global oil policy, international trade, ANWAR, and fracking was not in his job description. Thus, keeping your surrogate both on campaign message and aligned with his or her area of expertise seems the most important skill.

Message discipline and subject matter expertise, please.

Credibility is also critical in surrogate programs. CEOs are not used to subjugating their personal brand to the candidate’s brand. Policy experts don’t often want to be reigned-in. That’s your job and you must do the HR functions with aplomb.

Here are eight block-and-tackle tips for campaigns now standing up a surrogate spokesperson program for 2016:

1. Identify Evangelists

Who is on your surrogate wish list? Spend some time thinking through who would best embody the policy initiatives your candidate cares about, come down on the right side of your issues, and is eloquent and perhaps “known” in a specific subject area.

2. Create a Training Bootcamp

Bring the surrogates together for a half-day of message development coaching and speaker training. Prepare your surrogates to be nationally quoted.

3. Ensure Media Savvy

Rehearsing in a “studio” is always best. Use a video camera and playback monitor to show the surrogate where they might improve.

4. Develop FAQs

What are the frequently asked questions? Give your surrogate a “safety word” (sorry) or way to segue out of a question. “If Joe were here, I am sure he would say…” or “I’m not qualified to speak on behalf of Joe on that one but my sense from the campaign is…”

5. Develop Bridging Statements

Since you cannot always be everywhere, provide bridges through which the surrogate can answer nearly any question posed or tackle any chicken dinner circuit event. Watch the Sunday morning political talk shows for perfect examples of bridging technique.

6. Message Development

Create a three-pronged message triangle. To keep your message soundbite worthy and able to be consumed in 142 characters, it really needs to be as easy as the old Bud Lite Commercial: “Tastes Great; Less Filling.”

7. Have Daily Message Calls

Surrogates or the press aides handling them should be able to call in to campaign HQ every day for the daily message. Every surrogate should be ready to weave-in a new angle.

8. Provide Social Media Support

Campaign HQ can offer tweets, artwork, and social media guidelines. If your surrogate is also empowered to post on social media including his or her Facebook account or personal twitter be sure you make it easy. Authenticity is important but a playbook will help.

Remember, the surrogate is serving voluntarily as an adjunct to the candidate and your team is responsible for electing him or her. As you’re keeping people on message, make sure they also understand how much you appreciate their involvement.

You will know if the surrogate is “in it for the right reasons” pretty quickly. It’s not about self-aggrandizement.

Mike Smith has 30 years of public affairs and political campaign experience. He worked on the Press and Advance Team for Obama for President in 2008.

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