Skip to comments.Repost - Controlling the Agenda in Government: How Clinton did it (Jan-01 leaked memo to Tony Blair)
Posted on 12/04/2002 8:08:44 PM PST by Political Junkie Too
Memo to Blair: take control
THE following is the full text of the Gould memorandum, Controlling the Agenda in Government: How Clinton did it:
In the last few days I have been in America talking to Clinton aides about how they managed the communication process in government. The best conversation I had was with Doug Sosnik, who for seven years worked in the White House, first as Clintons political director, latterly as Clintons senior strategic and political counsellor. Effectively he was in charge of strategy, message and communications planning for Clinton. He left the White House seven weeks ago. This is basically what happened and how they did it.
The Clinton problem
For the first two years in government they had a strategy based around a glut of daily initiatives and frenetic activity. Clinton was in non-stop campaigning mode, making up to three speeches a day and travelling all over the country.
This strategy failed because the press got bloated with announcements, becoming numbed by them and discounting their importance. And despite the fact that the Government was doing a lot, no pattern was building up and no one could make sense of what the Administration was doing. This contributed to the Administration being knocked off course and losing control of the agenda to a series of marginal issues.
This strategy manifestly failed in the 1994 elections and led to Clinton feeling frustrated that he had done a lot but was getting no credit for it.
Sosnik described this early communications strategy as feeding the press, essentially the continuation of the successful techniques of the election campaign into government where they no longer worked. Their new strategy took time to develop and only began to work about three years into the Administration. It took a lot of anguish to get it right.
How they solved it
In general terms they solved their campaigning and communications problems by a number of shifts:
Governing rather than campaigning. Sosnik says the essential requirement of incumbency is to be seen to be acting governmentally rather than politically. The media will always try and interpret events through a political prism and you always have to get back to speaking and acting for the nation. Even as the election approaches, we should keep a sense of governing for as long as possible.
Less rather than more. They moved from a flood of daily announcements to two or three bigger initiatives each week.
Turning down the volume. Rather than having the volume at ten every day, and ceaselessly campaigning in government, they slowed down and deliberately cooled the temperature.
Varying the pace. They would always try and vary the rhythm. Sometimes they would campaign with great intensity, sometimes they would slow right down. Sometimes they would look for fights, sometimes for consensus. This would be true in the short term but in the long term also. There are times when Clinton-and-Blair have to pull back and give the public a break. All the time they would be shifting the pace, controlling rather than following.
Values and message at the heart of the grid. The grid followed message, themes and values and not the other way round. It is essential for the accumulation of initiatives to translate into a narrative for government, and they managed to do this by always building on themes and values.
Long-term planning. Their core planning cycle was a year. Not a year in outline, but a year in detail. Eighteen months out from the election.
Accepting that you cannot win every day. There will be bad days, bad weeks. Rather than fighting this, use this as evidence of resolve and the fact that you are following your own agenda, not the medias. Sosnik says that you can keep going against a bad press for weeks or even months providing that you consciously implement your agenda, and that eventually the media will come around to what you have been doing. He thinks that the press demands bad periods and certainly in a four-year term will need at least one bad year. Understanding this is key to breaking clear of the press.
Discipline and focus. Set targets for each three-monthly period. Maximum four or five themes for each planning cycle. Be relentless. If crime needs to be fixed, concentrate just on it for the three-month period until you get the issue back.
Connection through visuals. Not Clinton as a politician in a suit but Clinton a person with people / children. Sosnik was adamant that visuals, particularly visuals with people, broke through media cynicism. Politicians holding press conferences dont get heard so much any more.
Delivery is not enough. Just doing things is not enough, people wont notice, wont give you credit. You have to communicate what you are doing, why you are doing it, and where you are going.
Regionally. This is obviously more important in the US, but is still relevant here. They had a sophisticated electoral map and worked out where to concentrate campaigning resources, where Clinton should visit most often. This seems simple but we still have not done it.
The Clinton Administration had three main planning cycles:
A yearly grid. Every key date, every possible message opportunity was set down a year in advance. Any date that is any kind of message opportunity is set down. Sosnik said this long-term plan was the key to setting the agenda and getting a rhythm for government. He says that in our position it is absolutely the first thing we should do. This is not just a collection of dates, it is a political grid and will take time to prepare. But once it is done, confidence will flow back.
A three-monthly grid. This is based on themes and message. They would work out what they wanted to achieve in each period and set down to do it. They would not try and do more than four or five things in each three-monthly cycle. But these objectives would be explicitly set down. The key point here is that it all starts from values and themes.
A monthly grid. This was based around a system of blocking off time, which I did not understand but will try and get hold of.
The Clinton daily routine is similar to ours, with an 8am media meeting followed by message and policy meetings. The only real difference is that the message for the day is more explicitly set down and agreed.
Values and themes
Probably the biggest difference to us is the way they build out from themes and values. They didnt start with policy initiatives and try and add message, they started with themes and values and fitted the policy announcements around them. They used: opportunity, community and responsibility, and everything on the grid flowed from that. This probably sounds too simple and straightforward for us, but it kept them on course and if we had a similar message we would not be in our current mess on crime. It worked because it is a hard and concrete message that you can plan from. Responsibility means crime, welfare, etc, opportunity, education, and the economy. They kept this up for at least six years.
Sosnik says what we all know that until you agree the dozen or so words that sum it all up, you cant really progress at all.
Implications for us
All of this is about taking power away from the media and grabbing back control of the agenda. It is neither about simply fighting the media nor feeding the media. It is basically about outwitting them and setting out our stall on our terms.
For what it is worth, Sosniks advice to us is:
Start with a one-year plan until the election. This is the essential tool in getting control of the agenda back.
Agree the few words that are the core message and make sure everybody is comfortable with it.
Use the hostile press to break out of the sense that we are overly political and spin driven. Allow our agenda to emerge over the next two to three months.
Follow the voters rather than the media.
Change pace. Dont just keep going at breakneck speed. Use the summer to get the fundamentals right and give the voters a rest.
Stay focused. If you want to fix crime, fix crime and dont get distracted.
I am aware that all of this seems very straightforward, even elementary. In part this is because I have not been able to capture all of Sosniks ideas. In truth, if we did all the above worked of (sic) a long-term plan; built the grid out from themes and values; developed a message and stuck to it; orchestrated pace and campaigning rhythm; governed rather than politicked it would be a revolutionary change for us. We can do all this, but time gets shorted. If it is any consolation, Sosnik and all the other Clinton aides were certain we would do it and would crush the Tories. Sosnik has just left the White House and would be delighted to help.
A companion piece was written to put the memo in context:
TUESDAY, 23 JANUARY, 2001
BILL HELPED BLAIR BEAT TORIES EXCLUSIVE
By TREVOR KAVANAGH Political Editor
AN astonishing new leaked Downing Street memo reveals how former U.S. President Bill Clinton gave Tony Blair lessons in how to "outwit" the media and "crush" the Tories.
The memo, the fourth leaked to The Sun, urges Mr Blair to pick fights with "hostile" papers and bulldoze his way through bad Press coverage.
The four-page document was written by polling guru Phillip Gould after a trip to the White House to pick the brains of Clinton's top adviser Doug Sosnik.
It shows the intimacy of the Blair-Clinton administrations - and the U.S. advice has been followed to the letter by New Labour.
The memo says: "There will be bad days, bad weeks. Rather than fighting this, use it as evidence of resolve.
"You can keep going against a bad Press for weeks or even months, providing you consciously implement your agenda. The key is breaking clear of the Press.
"Sosnik and all the other Clinton aides were certain we could do it and would crush the Tories."
The memo, penned just after Blair was jeered by Women's Institute members last April, explains Sosnik's guide to outsmarting the media and establishing Labour as a "responsible Government."
It calls on ministers to stop peddling endless propaganda and "turn down the volume." It also tells them to "vary the pace" and give voters a rest from politics.
It adds: "There are times when Clinton-and-Blair have to pull back and give the public a break."
The advice explains Mr Blair's decision to "disappear" for almost two weeks over Christmas.
The memo also calls for Clinton-style long-term planning that commits ministers to a detailed and carefully-prepared agenda.
The memo adds: "Every key date, every possible message opportunity, was set down a year in advance.
"Sosnik said this was the key to getting a rhythm for government. He says it is absolutely the first thing we should do." This planning system is now a central part of Labour's political management.
Can we all say "GRAVITAS?"
What bothers me about alll this is, is that if more seasoned politicos were involved and not the X42's "still wet behind the ears" crowd, these points would have been obvious.
We are unwittingly lending weight to a bogus theory: i.e., The Political Genius of William Blythe Jefferson Clinton. WBJC was elected twice ONLY because a Third Party candidate bled 11% and 9% from his feckless opponents. It clearly would have been more than enough to serve as his margin of defeat, even against Dole. Had the campaign lasted another 6 weeks, Old Dole would probably have beaten WBJC!
His erstwhile pal, the ferret-faced Tony Blair, is still in power (IMHO) because of 9/11. Prior to that date, I am convinced the guy was on his way out. He immediately joined himself at the hip to George Bush, whom he previously made no bones about despising, for the War on Terror, which incidentally fits in with his War on the Tories.
God, I pray that GWB can get something done with this congress! We need him for another term, and with a well led Republican Congress.
The media have only themselves to blame. I am currently reading the book John Adams, by David McCollough, and the part about Washington's and Adams' presidency and the emergence of activist journalism is fascinating when juxtaposed against the era of Clinton and Bush.
Oh, Mr. Sosnik... < < knock knock... > >...
you just *really* let the skunk out of the bag with *that* little admission.
"...seen to be acting..." - ?
SEEN to be acting?
seen to be ACTING?
That's an *exact* description of the *entire* 8 years of your Commie scumbag adminstration, Mr. Sosnik - "Seen To Be Acting". RIIIIIIIiight....
Thomas Paine solidified support for a revolution.
Today, Howell Raines at the New York Times would do the Gazette of the United States proud.
Don't forget this:
The New Republic: MEDIA REX
... I had read articles about an administration report on the "media food
chain," and asked the White House counsel's office for a copy. ...
Press Briefing Transcript: McCurry on "Media Food Chain" Report
... it? Why would the White House waste its timeputting together this
"media food chain" theory? MCCURRY: It's not a waste of time. ...
|Excerpt:'Communication Stream of Conspiracy Commerce'|
|Topic: White Water Excerpt:'Communication Stream of Conspiracy Commerce' The Secret Life of Bill Clinton: The Unreported Stories October 1997 by Ambrose Evans-Pritchard The Secret Life of Bill Clinton
|Return of the Clinton enemies list|
|Topic: White Water Return of the Clinton enemies list September 22, 1998 Joseph Farah Thanks to the work of London Telegraph investigative reporter Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, the Communication Stream of
Isn't that just typical. Keep at it until you have a political issue, not until you've fixed the problem.
BTTT - Great article.
Blast from the past ~ BUMP ~ PING
So it's Sosnik's fault the Dems sound like robots all the time?