Congress Needs a Marketing Plan

By: Joey Gale

I’ll preface this by saying that I am studying marketing, and believe in its ability to solve problems. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t have wasted a lot of money on my education.

So let’s talk marketing. A company creates and executes a marketing plan to provide goods and services to satisfy customers’ needs and wants. That’s the most cookie cutter definition there is. On top of that I believe when marketing is done right it can be a powerful tool. We see marketing every day and it has the potential to strongly impact our feelings, emotions and interactions.

Eat this food! Buy this product! Use our service! Companies use marketing to get a message across, increase brand awareness, and/or boost sales. Now change those concepts to fit into a political lens. Marketing can be used to gain votes, increase awareness of political projects and accomplishments, build understanding, and increase approval ratings.

So why doesn’t Congress market itself to the American people?

Before I dive into why Congress needs a marketing plan, let me first give you a crash course marketing lesson.

You may be most familiar with the Marketing Mix: Product, Place, Price and Promotion, or the four P’s of Marketing. Have you heard of them? The marketing mix is what all good marketing plans address. It is what you’re selling, where you’re going to sell it, how much it will cost, and how you’ll promote it. I hate the four P’s. They’re out of date. While still potentially useful, the 4 Ps don’t address modern marketing principles. I like the POES model a lot more.

Paid, Owned Earned and Shared. P.O.E.S marketing.

-Paid marketing consists of things like paying for a billboard, a TV ad, sponsoring posts on Facebook and Twitter, magazine ads, etc.

-Owned Marketing or media is really what you control and say. Think PR here. A press release, your Twitter handle and Facebook page. The YouTube videos you post. The things that you have complete control over.

-Earned marketing is when a news organization like CNN picks up the story. You essentially earn the attention of the media. The media can be bloggers, news sites, the evening news, etc. Earned and Shared sometimes get confused.

-Shared marketing. Think of something like a viral story, or a really popular YouTube video or hashtag. “Shared” are the things that people, not reporters, find and share the heck out of on social media and word of mouth. There is even a point when shared can cross over into earned if it’s popular enough.

Moving back: why Congress needs a marketing plan.

On Tuesday we had the opportunity to meet with the Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack. Since one of our focuses this week at The Washington Center is on “Politics in the Media,” I asked the Secretary what his thoughts were on how the media tells the USDA’s story.

Vilsack straightened

He immediately started off with the claim that the media projects a “myth” that Congress doesn’t do anything. He then confidently followed up explaining that Congress and the government really do make positive changes in the lives of many Americans, but that story never gets told.

As he dove into his explanation on why, his response progressively took shape in a way that framed Congress as the problem for not allowing the right stories to be told.

“Congress simply doesn’t market itself well enough” Secretary Vilsack said. That sentence alone is what sparked me to write this post. As a Marketer, my eyes widened, my heart started racing and my brain started problem solving.

Ok. So we have the 8th person in the line of succession, essentially the 8th most powerful person in our country (if not the world), saying that the system doesn’t do a good job at Marketing.

WHAT! That’s a major problem.

Sounds to me like we need to fire our Chief Marketing Officer and hire a new one. Except — big problem —  the U.S. doesn’t really have a “marketing department,” nor a CMO. Other than when the government is rolling out something it really needs “participation” in, like the Affordable Care Act, we don’t really see Congress marketing itself to tell its success story. I may be jumping to conclusions, but this may strongly, if not directly, correlate to Congress’s approval rating.

I want to throw my business glasses on again, though I want to note that government shouldn’t be run like a business… because it’s a government. When the recession hit back in the late 2000’s, corporate marketing budgets across the nation were slashed. Marketing efforts decreased, money was allocated elsewhere, and marketing was thought of as wasteful spending. However, as history has shown, those who spent the most on marketing during a recession really came out as winners both in the short and long terms. A Google search of “marketing in a recession” will bring up the proof.

So why did I bring that up? Because Congress has a really bad reputation right now. With expectations of gridlock becoming even more of a reality, and approval ratings hanging out around 15%, Congress needs a strong and focused message and story more than ever. They need to fix their brand image, they need to boost their approval rating and share with the American public what is working, instead of what the media shares about what isn’t.

I’ll put this into perspective at a very micro scale. Let’s look at the Student Senate at Drake University. As a student who has worked in some way or form with the Student Senate over my last four years at Drake, I’ve learned one thing. No one really knows what the Student Senate actually does.

We typically explain what we’re set up to do, but never what we set out to do and actually accomplish. On a small scale at an institution with only about 5,000 students, we still find it incredibly difficult to explain and share what we do and what we get done. Now scale that back to the US government. Marketing is crucial for the American people to understand what actually gets accomplished.

At Drake, we made a very simple and straightforward plan. It’s called the “Senate 60.” 60 goals, projects, and initiatives created from the students that we plan to accomplish during our one-year terms.

We have a social media campaign to share updates on those goals, we have posters made when goals are accomplished, and update each other frequently about what progress is being made. While the scale, cost, and magnitude of this idea may change at a large scale, I strongly believe that the United States Congress needs to adopt this model at its core.

Congress earns a lot of media. There are news organizations who devote everything to cover what happens in DC. Media coverage on Congress is mostly negative these days. Congress doesn’t control a lot of the message that everyday people hear.

The bigger problem I see though is that most Americans aren’t directly connected with outlets to receive first hand messages. We as Americans aren’t properly set up to actively receive the owned messages that Congress and politicians share. We get them through the media. So in the POES model, the E (earned) takes up pretty much everything, and the P, E and S are off doing things in the background.

If a congressional “Marketing Plan” is built on solid values of morality, truth, and accuracy for the citizens of this country, our faith in our Government would likely be restored. Or at least the approval rating of Congress would go up.

Have comments? Let me know below.

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