Dan Eldridge, a highly successful local businessman, called me seemingly out of nowhere one day to tell me he was planning to run for County Mayor in Washington County, Tennessee. This position is known as County Executive in most states. What he would like me to do, he said, was to “write a press release” for him. Once we got together I realized he was at the earliest stages of a campaign, and I advised him that he was going to need a lot more than “a press release” in terms of campaign communications.
That was August 2009. At that time no one thought Dan stood any chance of winning. This youthful forty-something entrepreneur was about to face a formidable gray-haired career politician in a Republican primary that would be a winner-take-all contest May 4, 2010 (there was no Democratic opponent). Here is the story of how a dark horse ran to victory in part through social media.
During our first meeting I advised Dan that he needed to be on Facebook. We created his personal page and he quickly enjoyed connecting with old friends and family. Next, MarketingMel worked on his logo and web site creation, and from there I created his Fan page linking it back to his web site. At first Dan was hesitant about the fan page, but I assured him that his natural transparency would shine on the web and I would be there to administer the site.
Turn naysayers into advocates
As it turned out, there were few naysayers on the Fan page. One man from the start had lengthy, negative questions but we always responded positively and asked him to attend our town hall meetings. Although he declined, after the election he came back on the Fan page and said that he didn't vote for Dan but he would now support him as Mayor.
How to multiply your friends: Neighborhood gatherings and photos
As part of our campaign strategy, we held a series of neighborhood gatherings. Local movers and shakers from throughout the region hosted Dan in their homes. Each time they did I would post and tag the photos of the event hosts. This became an “ah-ha” moment for many who didn't know Dan but perhaps knew his friends or his friends' friends.
My Flipcam became a trusty friend. I can remember the first time I used it as one of the party hosts, Tommy Greer, Dan's CPA, was introducing Dan with a ringing endorsement. The camera was so tiny Dan had not seen me with it and he turned to me in front of the crowd and said, “I wish you would have gotten that (introduction) on tape.” It was a great feeling to smile and say, “I did.”
I used the Flipcam to get third party endorsements of Dan throughout the campaign and we posted them to YouTube and his fan page. The Flipcam came in very handy for an interview with his three children as they walked the trail with him and again on election day when his cute, 18 year old daughter Meredith voted for the first time with her parents. The local TV station loved that angle as well, and eagerly showed up to interview her and her parents on election day.
What the other candidates did/did not do
Most noticeably, the other significant candidate played “follower” to our leader position. It was only after Dan said that he was on Facebook and Twitter that the opponent appeared there — and he never generated the momentum we had. A third, one-issue candidate also ran but was not a key competitor.
Generate Election Day Excitement
On election day I went from precinct to precinct taking and posting pictures of the poll workers. One thing we know in PR is that perception is reality. I wanted all of Dan's Facebook fans to think that everyone was out at the polls voting that day and by golly, they better be there too!
Conclusion: Work Hard and Think Strategically
It must be said that Dan Eldridge was and is a hard worker. He wanted to win and never took anything for granted. He was still shaking hands as the polls closed at 8 pm May 4th. Dan garnered 51% of the vote with the other two opponents taking 35 and 14 percent. In addition to all of the hard work, Dan will tell you that his social media presence was a game changer. He said other mayoral candidates from across Tennessee told him ours was now a bellwether for local campaigns state-wide. So if you get a call from a candidate asking for a “press release” you'll still want to write it as I did. Just be sure you have a good social media strategy in place as well.
Mary Ellen Miller, MBA, is a President and CEO of MarketingMel, an innovative marketing, public relations and social media strategies firm in East Tennessee. A former television news anchorwoman, and magazine editor, she co-founded an ad agency and worked in mar-com for attorneys, a university, a defense contractor and a digital media firm. She started her firm in early 2009 and is delighted to be a member of SoloPR. Follow her on Twitter @ MarketingMel.