Building Relationships from Six Feet Away

Who knew when I wrote Post It and They Will Come that a month later we’d be talking about all-virtual campaigns? (Actually, this guy knew.) Campaigns and organizations are in frantic mode, trying to figure out how to run field campaigns without being in the field.

Will canvassing become a thing of the past? Will anyone ever meet one-on-one again? Will every training be a webinar now?

I don’t know the answers. But I do know that we can’t simply ignore the need for personal interaction in campaigns. We can’t just not canvass and also not come up with a replacement. So, thinking creatively, not so creatively and somewhat unrealistically, I’ve compiled a few ideas.

Immediate and Obvious Solutions (aka not so creative ideas)

Use existing social networks. I listened to a podcast the other day that was a little embarrassing for me. The main point was that field campaigns can’t just be about volunteers talking to strangers. I should have known better already! 🤦🏽 The best messengers are the people that a voter already knows. To operationalize this concept, every campaign orientation should start by asking participants to write down the names of their contacts who live in the district. Then each person tells why they support the candidate and brainstorms how they would relate that story to their friend to ask them to vote. To let volunteers know they’re serious, campaigns should then ask volunteers for the names and follow-up to see how the conversations are going.

The trendy term for it is relational organizing. Candidates often ask supporters to talk to their friends and neighbors, but they don’t always make it a systematic part of the campaign. Now’s the time.

Most campaigns couldn’t win on the family-and-friends model alone, but it’s a good start.

More phonebanking and texting. Kind of a no-brainer. Who knows? Maybe social distancing will lead more people to actually answer the phone. #SilverLining

Could Be Done Quickly, At Least for Small Campaigns

Virtual House Parties What if the phone or text script included an invitation to a small-crowd conference call or video chat with the candidate? A candidate who isn’t shaking hands has more time! Lots of big campaigns have virtual town halls but they don’t replace the personal interaction at the door. A small conference call or video chat isn’t a perfect replacement, but it could approximate some face-to-face relationship building.

Send photos of the named volunteer/texter with the message on texting apps. This idea would mean sending smaller batches of initial texts in apps like GetThru or Hustle. If the text says “Hi! It’s Mira from Michelle Obama’s campaign. Have you received your vote by mail ballot yet?” my photo — with a “Hello, my name is” sticker and Michelle Obama button — should show up too. That way, the voter knows that there is a real volunteer/organizer at the other end of that text.

Oooh, Wouldn’t That Be Cool??? (aka somewhat unrealistic ideas)

You: Mira, if they’re unrealistic, why are you even including them here?

Me: just in case some ambitious (and venture-funded) app developer reads this post 😉

Integrating video call apps into predictive dialer or virtual phonebank technology. The idea is that when a campaign calls a voter, the caller/volunteer appears on the phone in addition to the caller ID. Just like when you call your bestie overseas on WhatsApp or FaceTime with grandma. It’s still a call in the middle of dinner, but at least the voter can see that it’s a real person calling.

You: Can I video call someone who doesn’t have the video chat app installed on their phone?

Me: Probably not. But those people could stay in the traditional phone or text bank.

You: How fast do you think someone could code an app like that?

Me: I have no idea. But probably not between now and August. Look out 2022!

Someone asked if a video call might be kind of intrusive. More intrusive than a stranger knocking on the door? #NewNormal

Some of these ideas are not original. I compiled them here because most of the discussions, webinars, blog posts or other pieces I’ve seen were a little theoretical. I tried to put some specific, actionable steps together here. Let me know what you think.

Post It and They Will Come.

My first campaign was in 1988 when I might have been the only person in America who thought that Michael Dukakis could win. (Spoiler alert: he couldn’t.) When I was assured that he was pro-choice, I agreed to knock on some doors.

Since then, my understanding of campaigns and the campaigns themselves have evolved. Do you know a [clears throat awkwardly] seasoned campaign person who insists that the only real organizing is in person and all that social media stuff is superficial? Do you know a [clears throat awkwardly] junior organizer who insists that social is the new organizing?

Trigger warning for organizing purists (like me): For simplicity’s sake, I refer here to campaign tactics as “organizing.” In our jargon-y, insider’s club, we might be more comfortable calling them “mobilizing.” But that’s a subject for a different post. (Hint: the difference has to do with consensus and ownership.) Please feel free to disagree in the comments.

Newsflash: they’re both right. As I work to adapt my pre-Internet campaign training to the digital era, I’ve come up with four “translations” between IRL organizing and digital.

First, through campaigns with feminists, union members, teachers and a lot of candidates, I’ve learned that if something is too easy, it probably won’t work. Tacking a flyer for a meeting on a bulletin board? Anyone can do it and no one will come. Knocking on a worker’s door, asking to come in and engaging in a conversation about her work and what she would change (read: start a relationship)? That’s different. Same with social media. The easy stuff rarely moves anyone. Building two-way engagement is hard, but it’s the only thing that works. In my friend’s race for the California Assembly, he’s followed up several Instagram follows with a DM. And every one of those followers said they filled out their vote-by-mail ballot for him.

Remember that flyer on the bulletin board? It’s part of what we call “creating the environment.” Social media is a great way to create the environment. If I want someone to come to a canvass, it’s unlikely they’ll do it from a Facebook post alone. But if they see a post, plus an Instagram story from the last canvass, plus an email from an organization they trust, then get a personal text or phone call, they might do it.

Next, people take action for lots of reasons, but one of the most important is a relationship. We build relationships through stories and video is the most effective one-way medium to tell a story. It’s the closest we get to a relationship on a passive platform. Some of the presidential campaigns have learned this lesson. Think about those videos of Elizabeth Warren making phone calls on camera to a supporter or taking hundreds of selfies with supporters. Do you feel like you know her just a little bit better than you would from reading her website? (Also, remember that part about if it’s too easy, it won’t work? Good video is hard.)

Also, volume. Back in the day when the only method of recruiting volunteers was to call and ask them, we had a formula:

10 live bodies = 20 confirmed = 100 asked = list of 400 names and numbers

It’s not that different with social media, except that the ask is a lot less personal, so the volume has to be that much greater. Instead of a direct personal ask of 100 people to get 20 yeses, any kind of digital ask has to reach exponentially more people to get the same result. The 2018 midterms were a good example. Many campaigns and organizations built tremendous lists of followers. When they posted volunteer opportunities, complete strangers showed up to canvass or phonebank from social media posts alone — partly because the pool of followers was so deep. Also, remember that part about creating the environment? It really helps.

When the senior and junior campaign organizers argue over tactics, you can be the peacemaker. They are both working at similar concepts with different applications. We can’t silo the organizing and digital (or anything else for that matter). The most successful progressive campaigns are based on building relationships with a combination of online visibility and personal communication.