What Do Sam Adams and the Chamber of Commerce Have in Common?

The last thing one expects when prepping a kid for a history test is to spot a public affairs lesson in the story of the Tea Party.

No, not that Tea Party. The one 238 years ago. At Boston Harbor. Involving the stuff you drink.

What struck me as my daughter and I went over the events of that winter night in 1773 was how the Boston rebels spread the story of their tea-dumping escapade from colony to colony. They so masterfully laced the tale with real-life heroes, villains and action that the story ignited support for revolution among colonists who – despite high taxes and heavy-handed British rule – weren’t yet sold on the idea.

Storytelling. This, says former White House communications director Kevin Sullivan, is the most powerful way to drive a public affairs message home and inspire people to act.

“Paint a picture,” Sullivan told those who attended the Public Affairs Council’s National PAC Conference in Miami, Fla., in February. “Build a drama, be a storyteller… it’s the most effective way to communicate. People remember stories.”

This seems a no-brainer. But apparently not, since experienced communicators such as Sullivan recognize their audiences need reminding.  Sullivan began his conference speech – one that focused on how to be a “trusted advisor” — with a story. He ended with a story. He dropped mini-stories in between each “lesson.” And he captivated his audience for nearly an hour. Stories about people, he pointed out, are far more interesting than stories about policies or legislation.

But policies and legislation are typically the material a public affairs professional has to work with. How does one tell a story about something as seemingly academic as, say, “government regulations that hamper the free enterprise economic system”?

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce did it by using the tools every good storyteller does – creating protagonists, posing a threat or obstacle and illustrating some “transformation” in which the heroes either deliver the goods or win the day.

In the chamber’s “American Free Enterprise, Dream Big” campaign, launched in mid-2009 to counter what it considered an anti-business White House, the villain was a new sort of burdensome “tea tax” — government regulation. The threat was a modern sort of British suffocation – the strangulation of American jobs. And the heroes were the political candidates who would rescue jobs on the stallion of less government intervention.

In a Des Moines Rotary Club appearance that underscored the campaign’s storytelling mechanism, chamber President Tom Donohue motioned to Suku Radia, CEO of Bankers Trust, noting that the Ugandan native came to the United States to attend school, decided to stay and “rose to lead the largest independently owned community bank in Iowa.”

Then he turned to John Ruan of Ruan Securities and reminded his audience that Ruan’s father “started a company with a single truck during the height of the Great Depression and built it into a vast financial empire.”

“There are millions of other stories just like theirs across this great land,” Donohue told his listeners before diving into the regulatory evils that threatened “the American Dream.” “Perhaps you share a similar one… of dreaming big, starting a business, and working hard to earn success.”

The chamber ran ads in states with vulnerable Democrats picturing out-of-work Americans cradling their heads in their hands after losing jobs because of environmental laws, lawsuit-happy politicians or strict financial regulations. One ad showed parched farm fields and blamed California Sen. Barbara Boxer for “protecting the three-inch smelt instead of protecting California jobs.” Even though Boxer won reelection, I guarantee as a former resident of the drought-plagued state that this sort of ad goes over big.

State by state, the chamber publicized how many jobs each would have to create in the next decade to make up for jobs lost in the recession (in Missouri it was nearly 450,000; in Illinois it was more than 670,000).

So what was the “transformation” required of every good story? It was the chamber’s storytelling, in part, that probably convinced some Americans to break with a once-popular president and flood Congress with new Republicans whom they believed could beat back any job-killing menace.

Imagine if the chamber had tried to pull off its campaign with egg-headed recitations of the virtues of the free enterprise system. Imagine if Samuel Adams, who immediately worked to publicize and defend the Boston Tea Party, had stripped the rebellion of its characters and plot and instead told the story this way:

In direct action demonstrating resistance to the Tea Act passed by the British Parliament, Massachusetts colonists objected to the violation of their right to be taxed only by elected representatives by successfully unloading British tea into Boston’s harbor.

Instead, Adams’ “messaging,” if you will, resonated with on-the-fence colonists because it involved people like them, doing extraordinary things: slipping aboard three ships after dark, using tomahawks to split tea chests in half, tossing 45 tons of the stuff (worth a modern $1 million) overboard. There was even humor: The rebels – seized by some strange fit of conscientiousness – swept the docks clean of tea and sent the ships’ captain a new lock to replace the one they’d mangled.

The chamber’s “messaging” resonated with voters because it involved people like them, enduring extraordinary times.

In my living room this week, it was because she was reciting a great story that my daughter — animated by the drama she could picture in her head – rattled off dates, places, crusades and characters and barely recognized she was studying for a history exam.

In the parlance of the public affairs profession, I think that’s what we call a “desired outcome.”

Contact Dana at dwilkie@pac.org