Two Unconventional Conventions: Takeaways for the Communicator

BY Tanner Edwards

September 4, 2020

Public Affairs

The nomination speeches have been delivered, the digital balloons dropped, and the Rhode Island calamari has captivated social media. The two major party conventions – unconventional as they were – are history, and the country now turns to the final two-month sprint to Election Day.

As the politicos watch for post-convention changes in the polls, there’s already plenty to be learned from the Democratic and Republican National Conventions, especially for communicators. Here are some takeaways from two memorable weeks, that may inspire a “post-convention bounce” for your next communications campaign:

Mosaics vs. Message Discipline

Amid the intensity, fracturing, and digitization of the COVID era, capturing an audience’s attention is certainly as difficult as ever.

Throughout the conventions, two approaches to address this environment stood out: one that featured short segments, fresh themes, and varied messengers, and another that plowed through the clutter with relentless message discipline. They both proved highly effective when properly managed.

The DNC leaned more heavily into a mosaic of programming, the sort of content stream that we find on our social media feeds every day. This approach dazzled during the convention’s “Roll Call Across America”. It felt less coherent, though, during the DNC’s keynote address, which focused on a bevy of rising stars but too often felt like a group Zoom call gone awry.

One week later, the RNC put more stock into a night-after-night drumbeat of provocative core talking points on social tensions and progressive policies. This consistency was displayed even in the setting for many of these speeches, with the same static flags and camera angles set on repeat in Washington’s Mellon Auditorium. Though perhaps lacking in imagination, this strong, attention-grabbing message discipline seems to have refocused the campaign – centering the conversation on civil unrest in a way that is perceived by allies as helpful to the president.

Know What Zooms and What Doesn’t

For many of us, the Zoom window is our main connection to the world in the COVID era, and the conventions demonstrated the importance of using this portal wisely.

The DNC creatively played on Zoom’s “Hollywood Squares” layout to reunite past presidential candidates for a hang-out talking up Vice President Biden. Yet they ran into the limitations of the platform when trying to recreate a live-audience atmosphere at the end of the convention’s big speeches, with a “Zoom wall” that was more eerie than charming.

Convention organizers were smart to feature tightly framed addresses like Michelle Obama’s that successfully brought the fireside chat into the Zoom age. When the lines between a remote speech and an address to a live audience were blurred, though, the result could be off-putting, as was the case with Kimberly Guilfoyle’s fiery but discordant remarks.

The value of a stellar Zoom background is well-chronicled, and many convention addresses were elevated by a crafty use of that tool. Though ethically dubious, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s address from Jerusalem was bolstered by the glittering cityscape in the frame behind him. And at the DNC, Senator Elizabeth Warren’s address featured “BLM” spelled out in blocks in the background of her classroom setting, in a nod to the transformative movement.

The Power of Authenticity and Calls to Action

Both conventions hit high points when they limited the sugarcoating of this grim year, a lesson in staying relevant by being authentic.

The DNC’s drive-in fireworks show to cap off the convention – masked and socially distant – was a masterstroke, messaging safety, resilience, and national pride while bringing people together in a COVID-safe way.

On the other hand, the president’s controversial acceptance speech on the White House lawn was less successful on this score – presenting a picture of patriotic escapism that was visually striking but untethered from the daily realities and restrictions for so many during the COVID era. The president was more effective when he spoke with those on the front lines of the pandemic in a conversation that was better at acknowledging the state of the nation and building credibility.

The conventions also highlighted another reality – that amid a public health crisis, a sharp economic downturn, and social tensions and injustices, people are very eager to take action.

This wasn’t lost on DNC organizers, who urged viewers to “text VOTE to 30330” throughout their programming nearly as often as they mentioned their nominee. Surely that contact-building effort helped power the staggering $70 million raised for the party during the week of the DNC, while similar efforts helped boost the GOP to a $76 million haul amid their convention activation work a week later.

In this unconventional year, these efforts are instructive indeed for communicators: there is a huge desire to make change, and bold messages grounded in the realities of our time have the power to galvanize even amid the COVID chaos.


BY Tanner Edwards

September 4, 2020

Public Affairs