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PR And “Conventional” Wisdom

The public relations community watches U.S. political conventions a little differently than average viewers. Sure, we look for the highs and lows, gaffes and guffaws. But mostly those who toil at PR agencies or in corporate communications like to spot lessons that can be translated to the work we do for clients. The past two weeks’ worth of convention coverage offers a stark contrast in how to appeal to the electorate and plenty of punditry on what works and what doesn’t. Here’s our hot take.

When it comes to media events, cover the details

Both conventions had their mishaps, but the GOP convention mistakes were mostly avoidable, primarily through lack of planning and attention to key details. We’ve already covered the Melania Trump speech scandal (why did no one check it?), and the unnecessary media distraction that followed. But what about Ted Cruz’s failure to endorse the candidate?  What kind of negotiating skills does it show that he was given a primetime slot with no promise of support? The Democrats had their problems, too, particularly the visuals of Sanders delegates with their mouths taped shut in protest, and the booing of respected party speakers. But because things outside of your control will inevitably happen, it pays to nail the details that can be managed in advance. The goal of any communications event to to avoid distraction and focus on a simple message.

Go beyond the base

Selling your candidate – or product – is often done through effective third-party spokespersons, a time-honored public relations strategy. Yet in this context, effective doesn’t simply mean a good delivery. The best surrogates make the case by reaching beyond a candidate’s base. The RNC tapped speakers to articulate Trump’s stance on hot-button issues and amp the fervor of fans and delegates, but was there even one surrogate who tried to appeal to wavering Democrats or undecideds? That role seemed to belong to daughter Ivanka, who showcased a remarkably smooth delivery of a far gentler message. Yet, the content of her speech was almost jarring because it diverged so sharply from that of others, and it contrasted even more with her father’s address immediately after. I’d also argue that a speaker whose last name isn’t Trump might have done more with that calmer rhetoric.

Contrast the GOP surrogate choice with that of the Democrats this week. With his strong appeal on behalf of a party that he technically doesn’t belong to, Independent Mike Bloomberg spoke directly to undecided voters, including so-called “Business Conservatives,” with an appeal to elect a Democrat. It was an unusual moment for a convention, and the media responded.

Boldface names draw fickle viewers

This is America, the birthplace of celebrity obsession, and the candidate who wants to drive appeal beyond political junkies leverages names with strong and loyal fan bases of their own.  Though not everyone loved every celebrity equally, and some were criticized on social media, the blue party has always had an advantage when it comes to A-listers.  The big names drive viewership and web engagement in real time, and post-event coverage increases exponentially. They also offer bragging rights to top donors and delegates, so here the Democrats win.

Steal some thunder with social

Deft social media usage offers the opposing party a way to disrupt the goings-on and grab attention in real time. The master of this, of course, is Trump. His call for Russia to access Clinton emails may have been an example of his shoot-from-the-hip style, but we think he said it to win the news cycle at a time when the DNC was dominating it. While Trump’s comment was over the top (and probably not endorsed by his communications staff), we do advocate for smart and creative use of social media to tweak competitors, “newsjack” a breaking event, or simply stay in front of customers in the absence of hard news.

Let visuals do the talking

Whether video or still images, visuals pack a visceral punch that talking heads can’t. While both campaigns employed videos to win over hearts and minds, it’s hard to compete with the Clinton campaign’s use of Donald Trump’s own words. And the visual image of Hillary Clinton “breaking through” the panel that contained a montage of every president in U.S. history made for strong social sharing.

A positive story wins the day

Or does it? We won’t know until November. But in a typical brand campaign, an optimistic message is ultimately more appealing than a takedown. In fact, the classic “hero’s journey” archetype is at the heart of many successful storytelling campaigns. We wouldn’t likely advise a client to constantly bash a competitor in the hope of converting customers.

The 2016, election, of course, isn’t a typical brand campaign. It’s not even a typical election.  It’s a PR and marketing campaign like no other in history, and the “lessons learned” have only just begun to emerge.

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