Large campaigns (like Presidential ones) need skilled technical communicators

Editor’s note: What you’ll find in this post below this editor’s note are pages that do not exactly fit the mold of my previous postings on this blog, for they are dressed up a little.  While I have been in graduate school working toward a degree in teaching English to speakers of other languages (TESOL), I have come to the realization that I know little about the genres within the field of technical communication, yet I’ve noticed that the foreign demand to learn more about the tech comm realm in English is really high.  I have taken about three technical communication courses in an attempt to shore up my deficit, even though the courses were not required for my degree.  The text that appears below is my first attempt to write a “white paper,” a genre that may or may not be familiar to those in marketing.  Specifically, my classmates and I were told to write a paper about working with large amounts of text with fairly recently developed content management tools, namely XML, DITA, and single-sourcing.  The basic idea behind content management, beyond mere storage and retrieval, is that much communication in a workplace contains a lot of repeated text with some variations according to specific circumstances.  In other words, we are talking about form letters on steroids.  While technical communicators are employed as grantwriters, editors, and D-I-Y handbook authors, they are most closely associated with high-tech industry where they take the highly specialized jargon of engineers and translate it into plain English so that we can, hopefully, learn the ins and outs of using the most modern cutting edge gadgets at least as well as our pre-adolescent children do.  Their well-honed writing and editing skills document the work of engineers, for engineers have more specialized and important matters to attend to rather than get bogged down in writing.  Technical communicators not only document what the engineers do, but they strive to keep the whole company in the loop on what is coming through the pipleline, gathering feedback from all of them in the process, plus reaching out to users of the new technologies in progress, both internal and external, to focus the company on what users need.  They funnel this feedback back to the administrators and engineers so that improving product design becomes a continuous collaborative process.  In fact, technical communicators will often manage engineering projects, rather than business persons with MBAs or even the engineers themselves, because technical communicators are better equipped to facilitate collaboration between all stakeholders.  This, in a nutshell, is the world of information development.  As I approached this “white paper” assignment, I reflected on the nature of politics and the parallels between crafting new policies to meet citizens’ needs and inventing new products to meet user’s needs.  Small campaigns, of course, cannot afford to hire a team of technical communicators, but they do not need to as the task of communicating amongst staff, the media, and constituents is not so cumbersome.  However, by the time one runs for U.S. President, one must communicate with millions, so the need for collaboration, the need for a consistent message, the need for information development, and the need for handling textual content reuse–form letters on steroids–means that these big campaigns need technical communicators at the core of their communications.  Campaigns should assemble tech comm teams made from workers who have specialized skills that complement each other rather than a collection of generalists.  Already, 10 Republicans have formally announced their candidacies for U.S. President.  How can they possibly break through from single-digit voter support?  They are fooling themselves if they think they can successfully go from no name recognition all the way to gaining the lead and separating themselves from the rest of the pack without the help of skillful technical communicators.  Tech comm is about much more than developing a campaign website.  I recommend reading the works of JoAnn T. Hackos for further insight on information development and technical communication.  By updating the way a campaign communicates, a candidate can be more persuasive about fixing what’s broken in Washington, DC, when they assemble a juggernaut team that bowls over politics as usual.  Americans are innovators . . . at least in technology and industry.  We need political leaders that are also adept innovators.  The “white paper” is written as if to technical communicators working on a campaign, so the pronoun “you” in the text that follows means “you, the technical communicator working for a presidential campaign.”  Most of the “white paper” appears below the fold, so you’ll have to click the mouse again if you want to keep reading.–DJW




Information development can easily be extended beyond engineering firms as single-sourcing, XML, and DITA have heightened the capacity for content reuse of textual data by any organization that generates wide varieties of documents on a massive scale disseminated in both print and online formats. U.S. Presidential campaigns generate wide varieties of documents on a massive scale that are disseminated in both print and online formats. One feature of political communication is repetitive text, thus a technical communicator’s tools for content reuse are ideal for streamlined campaigns to reinforce the candidate’s brand through consistent and disciplined messaging. Though the early adoption phase of these tools is past (Dayton & Hopper, 2010), the tools are still far from universally used, and technical communicators need to not only familiarize themselves with these tools, but advocate for their use in planning the pivotal work of the technical communication team. Summaries of the workings of these tools are presented herein, and the relevance of technical communicators to the operations of very large political campaigns set forth.


You are viewed as much more relevant to answering the documentation and information development needs in Silicon Valley than you are to the same types of tasks in Washington, DC. This is unfortunate, for the average U.S. citizen views Washington as dysfunctional while the same citizen may be constantly amazed by what emerges from the technology pipeline. Remember the disastrous rollout of the Affordable Care Act enrollment website? It is an example of what Washington botched that the Silicon Valley would have gotten right. Your skills are transferable. What you can do to revolutionize campaigns might go a long way toward convincing voters that the candidate you work for may be able to transcend Washington, for what you have to offer is not politics as usual.


The campaign manager may not know what you, as a technical communicator, are capable of delivering to a U.S. Presidential campaign. Have you been hired as an outside contractor for a single project, such as building a website, and nothing else? Once the website is online, is your work with the campaign terminated? Even if hired for the long haul, does the campaign manager assign you a budget and tasks to accomplish? You need to open the eyes of the campaign staff to the ways in which campaigns are broken, how they fail to find a message, how they fail to stay on message, and how they flounder as they compete against a crowded primary field even if led by comparatively visionary and honorable candidates. With public relations specialists who sometimes go rogue, campaign spokespersons who sometimes misspeak, surrogates who sometimes appear to be posturing for future elections for themselves rather than getting their endorsed candidates across the finish line in the current election, and campaign advisers who induce candidates to try to become something that they are not, campaigns revert to damage control mode. This is politics as usual. A team of technical communicators with the right tools can foster more disciplined campaign rhetoric.


EXtensible Markup Language (XML) and Darwin Information Typing Architecture (DITA) are now ubiquitous, and single-sourcing is now a widespread practice. That does not mean that campaign managers know anything about these tools. They might know that XML is used in conjunction with text to form a document. Do they know that DITA further extends the usefulness of XML? Chances are, the meaning of single-sourcing in a politico’s mind has something to do with a company’s supply chain, such as contracting with one vendor.


Databases to store text emerged many years prior to XML. The tool used for storing text and retrieving it from databases was Standard Generalized Markup Language (SGML). HyperText Markup Language (HTML) also preceded XML by years. HTML is a tool for displaying text online, but was not ideal for storing huge amounts of textual data (W3schools, 1999). SGML was not useful for displaying retrieved textual data online (Critchlow, Ray, & Ray, 2000). XML was based on SGML (World Wide Web Consortium [W3C], 2013) and can be used for textual storage of data as well as for online display, but was not designed to replace either SGML or HTML. XML can bridge between them and can work within them. XML is unlikely to be used as a storage tool for the largest databases, and HTML is still better for aesthetic online display (W3schools, 1999), but XML as a storage tool and as an output tool for both print and online text makes single-source authoring possible. The best use for XML is for the reuse of textual data. “XML was designed to describe data. HTML was designed to display data” (W3schools, 1999). Like HTML, the XML markup includes tags enclosed within angle brackets, such as <p> to set off a chunk of text as a paragraph. HTML will display <p> in paragraph form. XML labels a chunk of text as a paragraph when enclosed within <p> (the starting point of a paragraph) and </p> (the ending point of a paragraph). In XML, the paragraph enclosed within <p> and </p> also constitutes an element. In fact, any textual data preceded by a tag enclosed within angle brackets and followed by its counterpart tag within angle brackets and preceded within those brackets by a backslash becomes an element in XML. The element can be tagged as whatever one chooses to be the label of that element. This open-ended attribute of XML tags contrasts sharply with HTML tags, for HTML tags are finite and the use of a tag that HTML does not recognize may be flagged as a syntax error.


The granularity of the elements is up to the XML authors or editors, too. More granular elements can be embedded within less granular elements, too. Consider the following examples. A mailing address element may be recorded as <address>123 Main Street, Apartment A1, Anytown, ME 00000</address>. At a very granular level, it may be recorded as<house>123</house><street>Main Street</street><room>Apartment A1</room><city>Anytown</city><state>ME</state><zip>00000</zip>. The tags are chosen by the XML author according to however the author wishes to identify the data (element) enclosed by the tags, for example, the <street>and </street> tags may enclose more than just Main Street, for <street> and </street>may enclose the entire mailing address instead of the paired tags <address>and</address>, or may be a larger portion but not all of the address, such as<street>123 Main Street</street> or <street>123 Main Street, Apartment A1</street>. The XML author could embed the most granular elements shown within a larger element tagged with <address> and </address>, or perhaps use less granular elements within a larger element, such as <address><street>123 Main Street, Apartment A1</street><town>Anytown, ME 00000</town></address>. Meanwhile, HTML will not recognize any of these element tags and will display the information to be displayed according to how the content is set off by tags it does recognize, for <p> will cause the address elements to appear in paragraph form and <li> will cause the address elements to appear in list form, and <h1> will cause the address elements to appear in first-level headed form and so forth. This is how XML may be used to describe data and how it differs from the markup governing how it is displayed in HTML

DITA adds to the functionality of XML by allowing for content labeling, storage, and retrieval at the meta-data level. The most basic unit within DITA is a stand-alone topic. The topic contains any context it needs for interpretation within it and needs no external qualifiers. The topic, in self-contained form, constitutes a chunk of information decontextualized from any other content and thus is a component suitable for content reuse in any myriad of documents and can appear at any location within a given document. The topic can also be indexed for simplifying storage and retrieval purposes. Authors can associate keywords with a topic so that a search by those keywords can retrieve any topics the author associated with those topics. From the content retrieved, the author can select which of the topics to include in any given document in any preferred order. DITA can stipulate which topics appear in any document, and since each topic can stand alone, content can be recombined in innumerable ways (Russell, 2007).


DITA also enhances the way that XML handles variables. For example, like a form letter, a document may contain identical information but may need to be disseminated to a large number of recipients, so names and addresses are variables that must be customized to reach every intended recipient. Another example might be one of localization. Perhaps a document announces a program to air on television. The synopsis of the program is identical on every document disseminated, but the air dates and TV channels are variables that differentiate the documents, for Philadelphia air dates do not need to be displayed on documents printed in the Seattle area and vice versa. A further example of localization may be the order in which topics are displayed in the document according to preferences of viewers in the Philadelphia television market versus the viewers in the Seattle market. Perhaps the program to be aired covers a wide range of issues, but the Philadelphia viewers may be more interested in issues of police brutality while Seattle viewers may be more interested in environmental issues, thus the document may place topics in a different order from market to market so that the topic to serve as the hook for an intended market might appear first. In this fashion, DITA maps out meta-data between the various iterations of a document.


Additionally, DITA enhances the creation of glossaries, tables of contents, indexes, and cross-references, so DITA can also map meta-data across documents, not just throughout documents. One of the criticisms of content reuse is the decontextualization of content when some documents might be enhanced by the inclusion of information that needs context in order to be interpreted correctly (Andersen, 2007). Perhaps quotes from prior eras from debates on legislation before Congressional Committees may enhance a document, but the removal from context would cause the content to be misconstrued. Links to external sources may help to resolve such dilemmas and DITA does not constrain authors from adding such links. Such capabilities as linking, indexing, glossing, and cross-referencing may help technical communicators in organizing stand-alone topics capable of reuse that incorporate such material. The best solution for addressing the shortfalls of the tools is to have the right people on the job, namely competent technical communicators like you.


Single-sourcing, within the technical communication field, does not pertain to a supply chain characterized by an exclusive contract with a single vendor. Instead, it is the practice of all of an organization’s contributors of textual data compiling all of that data into a single repository, perhaps at just the project level or perhaps at the aggregate level, that can be accessed by any authorized individuals within the organization to create whatever document they wish from the reusable content within that repository and disseminate that material in either print or online form. XML and DITA make this possible. Instead of an organization assigning responsibility to various individuals for creating documents from scratch, which may lead to inconsistency in messaging or even branding, accessing the reusable content allows for more consistent messaging that reinforces the singular identity of the brand. Graphic elements that represent the brand, such as logos and color combinations, can be reproduced consistently across document types via stylesheets. Consistency of lingo can be reinforced with style guides and glossaries.


A number of vendors are now producing content management software to further enhance and capitalize upon the single-sourcing trend. In some organizations, management has viewed the acquisition of such software as deskilling and demystifying document production, thus making technical communicators more expendable, but Rebekka Andersen (2007) and JoAnn T. Hackos (2007) posit that upper management is often not fully versed in the roles that technical communicators may play, the skills that technical communicators possess, and the consequences likely to arise from discontinuing the employment of technical communicators. Technical communicators, consequently, need to apprise management of key technical communication needs that management may not be aware of. The tools themselves, of XML, DITA, and single-sourcing, cannot compensate for inexpertise of those who author and edit the content. Though management needs to be apprised of these tools, management also needs to know that competent technical writers are more necessary for the production of flawless documents and disciplined messaging than these tools are.


Single-sourcing allows a team of technical communicators to be more productive and efficient through specializing the tasks that team members perform. Hackos briefly elaborated on this point in her landmark book Information Development, writing, “Not only are editors required to ensure a common look and feel among the authors, but individuals must take on responsibility for information architecture, repository management, tools management, and information output design” (p. 68). Single-sourcing, then, is intended to be a collaborative tool. Rather than each technical writer producing an individual document from start to finish, assigning specific roles to each technical writer will result in a consistency of voice and a reduction in duplicated work efforts. After all, content reuse is intended to reduce duplicated efforts and maintain a consistency of voice, so there is no point in forfeiting that advantage by incorrectly allocating team members.


Make no mistake about it, campaigns are in the business of innovation and information development, and thus have technical communication needs, but your team of technical communicators may be the only ones who understand this. Is the presidential candidate you are working for searching for, finding, or developing new solutions to national problems? If not, why would she/he be running for president in the first place? Think of innovating as engineering. It does not matter that political innovation does not generate tangible gadgetry the way the Silicon Valley does. Help the rest of the campaign staff recognize that the development of a new solution is, in fact, a technological advancement. Conceptual gadgetry is created. Though intangible, it has been engineered. Consider this: When a candidate sits down with opinion/editorial journalists to pitch a new solution to an old problem in the hopes of gaining endorsements, she/he needs to be able to explain how the new solution will work. Sometimes, in declining to endorse such a candidate, these editorialists report that the candidate has grand ideas but is short on specifics. Why should a candidate be short on specifics? If technical communicators were placed in project management roles and the technical communicators facilitated the collaboration of all the stakeholders tasked with fleshing out a new policy, would the candidate be short on specifics? Being short on specifics is a clear indication that a campaign is not employing technical communicators like they should. It is also a clear illustration that formulating a new policy is akin to inventing a new gadget.


Documents like lists of instructions and style guides are useful deliverables for campaigning just as they are for engineering firms. Public relations specialists, such as campaign spokespersons and surrogates, are not nearly as prepared to produce those documents as you are. Though political scientists educated in polimetrics conduct much of the usability testing, who is most qualified to incorporate the data that they generate into DITA so that print and online documentation is optimized for the audiences on the receiving end? Campaign managers need to see that not all the dots are connected within the organization if no one is attending to the technical communication needs of the campaign. Furthermore, because the campaign has technical communication needs, why should campaign managers expect that other staffers can just “wing it” if asked to fulfill those needs? It would make no sense to have anyone but technical communicators fill those needs. How can information development be separated from successful campaigning? The two are linked, hence the need for technical communicators.


JoAnn T. Hackos (2007), a highly respected scholar within the field of technical communication, created a scale by which organizations could be measured in terms of maturity, specifically Information Process Maturity Model (IPMM), and the practice of single-sourcing is one of the benchmarks that set the more mature organizations apart from less mature companies. The six levels of the scale are as follows:

  • Level 0, organizations that she describes as “oblivious” (p. 38), might have no technical communicators on staff or might not know how a technical communicator’s role should be integrated into an organization’s plans.
  • Level 1, organizations that she describes as “ad hoc” (p. 40), know that they need technical communicators to manage information development, but the organization may not know how to direct them or may not empower them. New hires, likely to be inexperienced, may be uncertain of the best practices of information development.
  • Level 2, organizations that she describes as “rudimentary” (p. 43), are in transition. They now know what a technical communicator does and how information development is supposed to proceed, so fundamental changes occur within the organization as that knowledge is implemented. Production becomes centralized, thus this is the level at which single-sourcing commences (p.45).
  • Level 3, organizations that she describes as “organized and repeatable” (p. 45), have “newly defined process standards,” have incorporated usability studies into the information development process, have “[standardized] the information types so that they contained a standard set of content units”—XML and DITA could fit here—have established collaboration among stakeholders as the operational norm, and can “implement a content-management system that advances their goals of reusing information in multiple deliverables” (pp. 46-47).
  • Level 4, organizations that she describes as “managed and sustainable” (p.48), have firmly embraced collaboration, are able to act upon feedback from usability studies and more advanced metrics at all stages of information development, and are poised to continually innovate.
  • Level 5, organizations that she describes as “optimizing” (p.50), are transcendent, can pioneer uncharted territory, and set standards higher than any predecessor.

Campaigns can easily be sorted into these levels. You may already have a good idea where your campaign is positioned along that scale. If so, you may want to share this insight with your campaign manager, especially if your campaign has not yet adopted single-sourcing practices. If you assert yourselves and inform your campaign managers as I have repeatedly urged, your campaigns are likely to be close to or at Level 2, for Hackos projects that it takes about two years of earnest endeavor to reach Level 3 (p.45). Campaigns will not likely ever reach Level 4 because they are too short-lived, but Level 3 is an achievable goal that allows your technical communication teams to truly transform campaigns with XML, DITA, and single-sourcing as your tools.


One of the chief ways in which campaigns mirror the perception that Washington is broken is the sense that campaigns do not tell the truth. When a candidate is perceived as a “flip-flopper,” campaigns find themselves on the defensive. If you, as a technical communication team, laid the foundation by archiving whatever the candidate has said on the public record, then painstakingly indexed and cross-referenced the archives with the candidate’s stated positions during the campaign, you may be able to deflect that criticism. For example, if the candidate insists that her/his views have remained constant, you can retrieve a cross-sectional sample from the archives as evidence of it. If a candidate says that her/his views have evolved over time, you can retrieve a longitudinal sample from the archives as evidence of it. Aside from the candidate, campaigns can make unforced errors when spokespersons, surrogates, advisers, etc., stray off message. This is particularly troubling as the media dig into these stories because the errant staffer diverts attention away from the candidate. In such cases, the staffer often has to resign. This turn of events happens all too often and it is due to running the campaign as an ad hoc organization. If your technical communication team wrote a style guide suggesting the best terminology according to polimetrics feedback from vetting words and phrases before focus groups, those who are the public relations specialists are more likely to stay on message. Furthermore, if you use the style guide to compile a glossary for all the textual data in your database, you can help the candidate define herself/himself on her/his own terms because the wiggle room for the media to parse and spin the candidate’s words has been reduced.


In an ad hoc organization, each mouthpiece of the campaign may craft a document from beginning to end without involving anyone else in its creation. Perhaps a campaign manager will have to sign off on the document before release, but that does not alter the fact that campaign communication is being disseminated from multiple authors who may approach these communication tasks from very different angles. The potential for unforced errors to be revealed to the public eye as contradictions in message is high. With the collaborative nature of single-sourcing, a myriad of staffers can still come forward with textual data to input, but the content reuse will make campaign communication seem like it possibly emanated from a single author. Suppose a staffer accompanied the candidate to a town hall where the candidate addressed an issue brought forward by a voter in attendance that had not been addressed by the candidate before. The new revelations about the candidate’s views will need to be added to the database for possible reuse. Suppose the staffer sent a transcript of the exchange via email to a technical communicator designated as a gatekeeper. The exact quote would be indexed, cross-referenced, and glossed according to the style guide. With DITA, the new content would serve as the basis for composing a stand-alone topic to be entered into the database, indexed, glossed, and worded so as to be consistent with the style guide and also consistent with the candidate’s own views. The content now exists in the repository ready for retrieval. Suppose that, in the aftermath of the town hall meeting, media outlets began to barrage campaign spokespersons the candidate to repeat his position on the new issue. Staffers, hundreds of miles apart, could access the same press release (composed from topics retrieved from the repository), print it off, and put it into the hands of waiting journalists. Simultaneously, the press release is emailed to bloggers and other pundits, and a copy of the press release is posted on the campaign website. All documentation proceeded through the hands of the technical communication team, thus merging inputs and widely dispersing outputs.


Consider the preceding graphic. Campaign season starts early in the four states shown. Campaign staffers in all four states can work collaboratively, sending information to be input into your team’s pipeline and receiving output for dissemination from the same pipeline. All four states need robust get-out-the-vote efforts. Advertisements will appear in print and online. Canvassers could be going door-to-door with campaign leaflets in hand. Voters may see their mailboxes stuffed with campaign junk mail. Even email inboxes will contain notes urging voters to make their voices heard. All of these outputs can be assembled through content reuse and single-sourcing. However, not all voters are the same, but your single-sourcing system can handle the variables with ease. The literature distributed in New Hampshire may be replete with New Hampshire references, but you probably want to scrub those and replace them with South Carolina references when distributing literature in South Carolina. The top issues in one location may not be the top issues in another location. The top issues may vary according to demographics, such as senior citizen households or Latino households. Also, you may want to enlarge the typeface for literature headed to senior citizens’ mailboxes and include Spanish with the English in the literature headed to Latinos’ mailboxes. Some voters are high information voters, so you will probably include more content in your correspondence with them. Meanwhile, you merely aim to get the attention of the low information voters when you send mailers to them. Caucuses present challenges not encountered in primary election contests. In 2008, the Barack Obama campaign clearly outperformed the Hillary Clinton campaign in caucus states. In the other political party, the Ron Paul campaign showed surprising strength in caucuses relative to the campaign’s performance in primary election contests. Not only does a campaign need to turn out sympathetic voters in caucus states, it needs to organize those voters. The voters need instructions for participating in caucuses, for the processes for choosing delegates may not be intuitive and may differ from state to state, and you excel at creating lists of instructions. Despite different caucus rules across different states, there is still so much in common from one caucus environment to another that content reuse really pays off. A team of technical communicators can make a huge difference in caucus outcomes. Much of the content appearing in campaign literature could easily be reused in debate prep, speechwriting, press releases, and fundraising solicitations, but there are variables to be considered in preparing these documents, too. Not all donors are the same. Some are repeat donors. Some are labor unions and political action committees that previously endorsed the candidate. Some donors can contribute a lot to a campaign treasury. Some potential donors may need to be further convinced to support the candidate. Debate themes are often agreed upon in advance. Speeches are often tailored to predicted voter demographics for those expected in each venue. Newspaper columnists might rate the importance of issues differently than the bloggers do. The flexibility of XML and DITA combined with the efficiency of content reuse and single-sourcing make all these permutations possible.


Politics as usual is distrusted. You can change that with open communication. Politics as usual is clunky. You can streamline that with single-sourcing. Politics as usual is analog. You can update that with XML. Politics as usual is rife with contradiction. You can reuse content to demonstrate consistency. Politics as usual is indifferent. You can microtarget with DITA. Politics as usual is slow. You can speed it up. Politics as usual is egotistical. You can create a collaborative work environment. Politics as usual is full of hot air. You and other technical communicators offer a breath of fresh air.


Andersen, R. (2007). The rhetoric of enterprise content management (ECM): Confronting the assumptions driving ECM adoption and transforming technical communication. Technical Communication Quarterly 17(1), 61-87. doi: 10.1080/10572250701588657

Critchlow, J., Ray, D. S., & Ray, E. J. (2000). Database-enhanced information development: An informal case study. Technical Communication 47(4). Retrieved 2 Jun 2015 from:

Dayton, D. & Hopper, K. (2010). Single sourcing and content management: A survey of STC members. Technical Communication 57(4), 375-397.

Hackos, J. T. (2007). Information development: Managing your documentation projects, portfolio, and people. Indianapolis, IN: Wiley Publishing, Inc.

Russell, K. (2007). DITA (Darwin Information Typing Architecture). Computerworld, 41(14), 30. Retrieved 18 May 2015 from:

W3schools. (1999). XML The world’s largest web developer site. Retrieved 22 May 2015 from

World Wide Web Consortium, (MIT, ERCIM, Keio, Beihang). (2013) Extensible Markup Language (XML). W3C Information and Knowledge Domain. W3C. Retrieved 3 Jun 2015 from

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