Every presidential election is a showcase for public relations and political strategy, but the 2016 race has taken PR to a whole new level. There’s ongoing coverage about the candidates themselves, but then there’s the spin, counterspin, punditry, analysis, and back-and-forth around each campaign’s communications and media strategy.
The pace of the coverage and social media amplification is dizzying and even exhausting for close observers, but it’s also instructive. A public relations campaign for a product or brand isn’t all that different from a campaign to sell a president. Here’s what PR people can learn – so far – from the 2016 election campaigns.
Earned media beats paid advertising. As PR people we knew this, of course. But it’s particularly striking in the case of Donald Trump. Now, I’d argue that Trump’s pre-existing celebrity, coupled with the sheer number of GOP primary candidates, really propelled him during the early part of the race, but there’s no denying the estimated $2 billion in earned media coverage of his campaign helped keep him dominant. It’s a lesson that future candidates will be hard-pressed to implement, but they will certainly try.
Keep it simple. One of the raps on Hillary Clinton is that she’s a wonk. She loves policy and tends to get lost in the details of her plans. She never tires of pointing voters to the exhaustive policy papers on her website, and that’s usually when she loses them, so Clinton has learned to simplify her message. Obama, too, did poorly when he showed his lawyerly side, but far better when sticking to soaring principles. A good PR campaign – like a stump speech or policy position – should be crafted in simple terms that capture their essence.
Connect on an emotional level. This, of course, is where Trump excels. Love it or hate it, he evokes a visceral response with his calls to action on immigration or slashing criticisms of traditional politics. President Obama, particularly in his first campaign, did a masterful job appealing to emotion with his “hope and change” message, and the First Lady showed her talent for eliciting strong feelings in her convention address. In a very similar way, the best storytellers in our business know that emotion sells, and the learn to connect with people through storytelling techniques that connect on that level.
Seize the bandwagon effect. It’s a widely known secret in PR and media circles that coverage begets coverage. Sometimes all you need to do is crack a key media outlet, and the rest will follow. Campaigns know this, so they jump on a new poll or an opponent’s careless remark to try to ride the media snowball as far as they can. This works for brand PR programs also, particularly if they start with stories in trade or niche media outlets and expand to larger and more general press.
Stay on message. The guy who perfected message discipline in politics may have been James Carville, with his, “It’s the economy, stupid” mantra during Bill Clinton’s first campaign in ’92. The candidate who did it best in 2015 and ’16 was Bernie Sanders. Even in one-on-one media interviews following a rally where he unloaded the full stump speech, he’d often answer in soundbites from that very speech. The message was nearly always light on executional details, but his focus on the “rigged economy” was a key reason for his success. Similarly, in a brand PR campaign, even the most stellar media feature or social post is wasted if it doesn’t convey the attributes that no other brand can claim.
Use the data. Politics pioneered the use of demographic and behavioral data to reach specific segments of the electorate because elections focus on winning over a very narrow slice of persuadable voters based on geography, age, race, and beliefs. Nowhere do we see this more than in swing state field operations, where a good campaign knows everything about its party’s members, as well as how to use data to reach volunteers, donors, and potential supporters. For many PR people, use of data science is not as natural as it is for our digital advertising counterparts, but the lines between the two are blurring. We’re learning to use data to influence our messaging, develop and market content, and even as news resources in the form of branded data bureaus.
Cultivate direct, unfiltered relationships with constituents. Earned media is still important to breaking through in a crowded field, yet trust in major media outlets is at an all-time low. The candidates are right to engage both fans and foes on social media platforms, and social posts are often great media fodder; just look at Trump’s tweets! In the same way, every brand CEO should use their voice to build a relationship with customers, prospects, employees, and stakeholders. It cannot and does not replace earned media in most cases, but direct engagement through digital and social channels is a valuable dimension to any good PR campaign.