How do you communicate with respect – while working to deliver your intent? Ask Abraham Lincoln.

B&W image of US President Abraham Lincoln

One of the most useful tools I’ve encountered in my career is a set of tools for organizing winning political campaigns – four rules that when followed, can drive effective segmentation, targeting and mobilization in any organization and in many markets

These rules below were actually spelled out by Abraham Lincoln in 1840, well before he became President of the United States:

* Make a perfect list of all voters
* Determine with certainty whom each voter will support
* For someone who is undecided, send someone in whom they trust to persuade them
* Turn out all the good Whigs (supportive voters) on Election Day

These rules may seem basic, simple, and self-evidently applicable to the task of winning elections. 

At the core of their value to business communication professionals is a basic respect for the agency of each employee, customer, or stakeholder – their ability and right to accept messages, engage with them, interpret them as they choose, and act – or not act – on their intent.

Indeed, in a business context, each rule provides a framework for recognizing the freedom each individual has to make his or her own choices and share his or her opinions. 

In recognizing this freedom the corporate communicator can use the rules to create richer, more interactive and more effective relationships with the people upon whom success depends.

Make a perfect list of the voters:

A perfect list does not necessarily mean the ‘list of all employees,’ or a “list of all customers.” More frequently, it may mean a list of all individuals who can influence an outcome—or at least of those most likely to influence an outcome in a certain way. No list is ever perfect—but continually maintaining lists and looking for ‘who’s missing’ will keep it valid and relevant.

Determine with certainty whom they will support:

Knowing with certainty whom is on your side not only provides you with a sense of your odds of success, it also forms the basis of building a support team to expand your coalition—by working with them to engage their peers, friends, and colleagues to seek their support for the current initiatives.

Send someone in whom they trust

In engaging people who are undecided, or are persuadable to a point of view, they need to be made see that backing that point of view is tangibly in their own self interest. Anodyne messages from the CEO—or worse, the disembodied ‘Voice of the Corporation’ – are not going to cut it. Identifying credible individuals who agree with the organization’s positions, support its desired outcomes, and are willing to act as advocates–is arguably the most important success factor in any initiative that requires any degree of persuasion.

Turning out the Good Whigs

Unlike election campaigns which focus on a single day, organizational initiatives often require a continual series of ‘election days’ where people need to take action to deliver particular outcomes. Having a clear understanding of the key people who are on your side provides the ability to mobilize your supporters to act, consistently, effectively and responsibly. By using knowledge of how your support base is structured, it is possible to develop mobilization programs (either centrally or through teams of credible people) that encourage people to take the required actions and deliver the outcomes in question.

Why the Lincoln Rules are Really Different

Fully integrating the Lincoln Rules into corporate or organizational communication strategy may well require a paradigm shift for communicators and the organizations they work in. But there are some clear advantages to those who wish to take the leap:

1) The Lincoln Rules do not release anarchy—in fact, quite the opposite. By acknowledging the freedom people already have in making choices about participating in your corporate initiatives, they provide the ability to engage people in a way that authentically respects their agency.

2) The Lincoln Rules challenge an organization to get a clear picture of where support or resistance to its desired outcomes can be found—thus building a foundation for a credible mobilization campaign—and highlighting the challenges in the way of success

3) By focusing on identifying, connecting and mobilizing those people who actually see their own self interest in the success of organizational priorities, it is possible to build on those connections and develop ateral and direct communication networks to complement the organization’s formal channels. This approach also delivers outcomes based on the personal credibility of network members—as opposed to glossy design, clever wordsmithing, or expensive executive conferences.

4) Energy and passion are channeled by focusing on the people who care about and support initiatives—rather than dulled or destroyed by ill-tailored, one-size-fits-all communication approaches. 

In short, because they recognize agency – the basic freedom that all employees, customers and stakeholders have to chose to embrace, resist or follow the initiatives they are approached about – the Lincoln Rules can provide a simple, actionable and resilient guide to ensuring the success of any communication initiative.  

For more about driving successful communication initiatives in your organization or community, make an appointment for a free 40 minute strategy session with Mike Klein at

Mike Klein

Mike Klein is Principal of Changing The Terms, a consultancy focused on internal, change and social communication. Mike has worked with organizations in the US and Europe for more than 20 years on pressing strategic communication challenges, and is a prolific writer and commentator on communication strategy topics. Mike is also the Founder of #WeLeadComms, an initiative to drive open recognition and in the communication profession. He holds an MBA from London Business School, and is a former US political consultant.




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