To most political operatives, the idea of formal professional development is as foreign a concept as working 9-5. But training and preparing for a range of inevitable crises before they hit can be an essential part of the practitioners toolkit.
A recent article on crisis management training at SXSW got me thinking about how valuable training for similar crises is in the volatile world of politics.
I touched on this topic several years ago, focusing on how the military trains for combat. It’s a well-known saying that the best plan goes out the door once the bullets start flying. But that doesn’t mean the Army just hands a rifle to everyone who shows up and hopes for the best. No, they train and train and train.
Why bother, when you know the plan is going to change the minute something happens? The Army trains because two things happen. First, individuals become a team. Second, what you learn while training can be applied, either in part or in whole, on the battlefield.
The same can be said for political campaigns. We know the crisis is going to happen. Can we prepare for it now, so we can respond faster and more effectively when it hits?
The major objection to training is the time it would take to do it. Once election season ramps up, the concept of “done” goes out the window. There is no “done” — just too-tired-to-physically-move.
So for your convenience, here’s five questions you can go through on a Sunday morning at Starbucks to plan out what crises to train for, and how to conduct the training without taking the entire campaign off course.
1. Who is on my team in a crisis?
These are the people who need to be part of the training. Imagine everyone on the same page about what to do in a crisis before it ever happens. What would that do to your response time? How much would that help when other issues come up, knowing the path forward on a related event?
Think broadly about your team, give them roles, and be sure you have their emergency contact info. Press, donors, social media, event logistics, transportation, opposition research, policy.
2. What crises are likely to happen?
At some point, your opponent will make a mind-blowingly awful, off the cuff remark that deserves immediate, uninterrupted attention. Likewise, your candidate will probably say or do something to set the outrage machine in motion.
Are there policy issues you know will come up and create a problem? What are wedge issues coming up in other races like yours around the state or country?
It’s not hard to let your imagination run wild about everything that could possibly go wrong… just make sure it’s a sunny day so you’ll have ample opportunity to return from this dark place.
3. When are upcoming events that could present an opportunity for a crisis?
Are there events on your calendar that could result in a crisis? Debates are a particularly rich time for crisis management / rapid response. Having a plan in place to capture a text transcript and video from debates and quickly distribute them can make all the difference to managing post-debate buzz.
4. How should we respond?
Who are your first three phone calls when this happens? What would the press release say? Do you host an event? Where? Who would you contact to book the venue? Can you be more creative than calling for an apology, or demanding your opponent “come clean?” It’s amazing what you can come up with over a venti latte when the actual fire is not burning.
5. How can I bring these pieces together to create a training exercise?
Now that you know who should be on your team, what potential crises could come up, when a crisis is likely to occur, and how you would respond, you have all of the raw materials to create a training exercise.
It doesn’t have to be anything formal. Take an upcoming event or a quiet weekend and prepare to put your team through a couple of fire drills. Bring everyone into the office on Saturday (ok, everyone who’s not already there) and present a scenario. Walk through the plan. Then execute the plan all the way. Write the press releases. Have friends of the campaign play the role of hostile reporters. Throw mock press releases from your opponent and their surrogates into the mix. Email a bunch of angry tweets from made up social media influencers and ask the team to respond.
It’s a great exercise to go through the mechanics of a crisis. While it’s unlikely the exact scenario you created will occur, the people and activities will be similar.
Best of all, when the bullets start flying, you’ll be ready.