“It is said that if you know your enemies and know yourself, you will not be imperiled in a hundred battles; if you do not know your enemies but do know yourself, you will win one and lose one; if you do not know your enemies nor yourself, you will be imperiled in every single battle.”–Sun Tzu: The Art of War
BY: B Keith Plunkett
Last week, the Mississippi TEA Party released it’s legislative report card at the state capitol. The ratings garnered some attention due primarily to the low grades of Lt. Governor Tate Reeves. In fact, that may be the only reason it garnered much attention at all, and therein lies a big problem for the TEA Party and it’s relevance in future political debates.
The TEA Party and it’s loose confederation of smaller community groups is a lesson in what grass roots passion can do. Unfortunately, it’s also a lesson in what happens when independent minds that coalesce around an ideal don’t form an organizational plan to maintain the publics passion and awareness for the subject. Independence may be what is right with the Mississippi TEA Party, but it is also what is wrong with it’s ability to maintain standing.
Ask your run-of-the-mill-regular-Joe-on-the-street what the Mississippi TEA Party is and you will probably hear a few different answers. That’s because while the TEA Party has worked hard to speak out about what they are against, it has done a poor job of defining WHY they support specific legislation.
Part of this is a naiveté of the communications process. It takes months of consistent messaging to positively affect a public conversation. Organizationally, the TEA Party has been all over the place; lacking consistent talking points that allows advocates to begin singing the same tune. TEA Party leadership sometimes seems content that the slightest headline of the groups participation in a subject means a message has successfully been shared with all. But, that belies a lack of understanding.
Not everyone is listening all the time, and not everyone listens in the same way to the same type of communication. Consistency across mediums is hugely important. Engagement is what drives participation. That engagement must find inventive ways to tell stories that resonate.
The anger of 2008 is dwindling, and in it’s place there should be a positive message of why the TEA Party position is the best one. Good messaging ties the brand of an organization to a specific positive ideal. Bad messaging, or a lack of messaging, allows others to define what the organization is, and what it stands for. The Mississippi TEA Party doesn’t have control of it’s own image. Therefore, consistent references to the group as racists, homophobes, and backwards fanatics stick.
The unfortunate part is that many of the TEA Party people who are most active are studied, intelligent and willing to share their fervor. I have met many and I appreciate their drive and passion. However, the message isn’t sharpened, and member statements seem to flail around subjects without landing consistent points that the general public can recognize.
I recently read an article written by my friend and TEA Party faithful Laura Van Oversheld. In it, she attempts to explain why the pushback at the state level is necessary in the face of federal overreach, and why the grading system was necessarily harsh on some officials. It makes sense, and had it been properly honed into a clearer and more concise message that could have been shared before the release of the report card, it would have gone a long way to ratchet up the urgency and downplay the drama.
While I’m all for holding feet to the fire, the effort has to find a place of construction instead of destruction. It’s also important to know where the opposition is coming from–”know thine enemy”.
That enemy in the short term may have been the political moves of a few Republicans, including the Lt. Governor. But, it was only because he had licked his finger, stuck his hand in the air and knew which way the political winds were blowing. The TEA Party’s willingness to come out strong against the Lt. Governor shows real guts, but for real political change the organization must look to change the direction of the wind.
The real opponent here, especially as it relates to immigration, is a decades long collaboration of Mississippi Democrats, left leaning groups, the Mississippi Legislative Black Caucus, union interests, and businesses dependent on cheap labor. They have controlled the behind the scenes narrative that shaped how many issues for this session were going to play out. In a word: consistency. They’ve been at it a while.
Education, abortion and a list of other issues are no different. Opponents of change will continue to promote messages that cast doubt on education reform, immigration reforms and anything that forces changes to the system that they find themselves profiting from.
I have had the honor of getting to know some really dedicated and good people in the TEA Party movement, people who understand a need for educating the public on what they stand for, and collaborating with others to promote a conservative agenda. However, I also have met a few that feel like the group now is the center of the universe, and who would rather angrily dictate to elected officials what must happen . . . or else. The latter shows a lack of understanding, and serves no purpose except to relegate the group to the ash heap of history.
Maybe, as many in the TEA Party argue, it is a sad commentary of our current place in history that an action or inaction of government, and whether that action passes constitutional muster, isn’t enough to garner public attention. Regardless, it is necessary to understand that convincing the public requires more. It requires planning that properly introduces the problem as it exists. But, as with any great organization, there has to be a consistent narrative that explains how problems will be solved, and to show who the solution would benefit. It has to be an engaging experience that wins support by providing convincing arguments. Dismissing entire groups of people’s concerns doesn’t work. That’s what happened in the last few weeks of the Personhood Amendment battle, and we all know how that turned out.
The upside to all of this for the TEA Party is that there is a vacuum in conservative messaging, and very little in the way of conservative information being promoted to the general public. Little organization around central themes and consistent messaging has been done. And of that, even less has been properly promoted as a solution to the problems we face. A conservative group ready to jump into the fray can have a great deal of influence if a plan is developed and maintained.
The TEA Party is a good source from which such a message could come, and the members are passionate enough to consistently work the plan. The question is can they bring together their conservative, independent minded community to collaborate on a messaging plan to make it happen? To do that would require honest self assesment about what the TEA Party is and what it is not.
About Keith: Keith Plunkett has worked on communications issues with a range of public officials from aldermen to Congressmen, and a variety of businesses, governmental agencies and non-profits. He serves or has served as a board member of several non-profit, civic and political organizations. Contact him by going to HorizonMediaMarketing.com or follow him on Twitter @Keithplunkett
- The Scattering Herd: Mississippi Republican Legislators (mississippipep.wordpress.com)
- TEA Party blames Lt. Governor for failed immigration bill (mississippipep.wordpress.com)
- GOP elite holds off the tea partiers (politico.com)
- Is the tea party still relevant? – The Washington Post (mbcalyn.com)