Crenshaw Communications

PR, Politics, and The New Transparency

In a communications strategy that will be studied by future candidates and PR pros, New York City mayor-elect Bill de Blasio opted to make his personal story, epitomized by his strikingly attractive biracial family, the centerpiece of his campaign. His pledge to bring NYC’s “tale of two cities” to a happy resolution was conveyed in ads and stories featuring his wife and children. His teenage son Dante’s impressive Afro was the star of the campaign, followed by daughter Chiara’s flowered headbands.

As the new mayor prepares to take office, his campaign has continued the narrative…this time in an ultra-controlled and, arguably, higher-risk fashion. Just before Christmas, it released a gauzy video of 19-year-old Chiara, ostensibly explaining her recent problems with alcohol and substance abuse. The video is meticulously choreographed and produced. In fact, it’s far more of a PSA than a confessional interview, and its release was obviously timed for maximum empathy and minimum follow-up.

Michael Wolff calls it “a breakthrough example of … (a) new communications form,” going directly to the public rather than through those pesky journalists, who might do further digging to flesh out the story, gather objective opinions, or even offer shadings of their own.

As a strategy it isn’t really groundbreaking. The direct-to-constituent approach goes back at least as far as President Obama’s 2008 election. It was famously used by Sarah Palin, who popularized the term “lamestream” media, after all – but political PR is always instructive for the rest of us.

The de Blasio technique is more than just evidence of the disintermediation of traditional journalistic channels. It also reveals the utility of social media and a kind of mainstreaming of personal disclosures that have the potential to impact brand or personal reputation. PR Newser’s story about GMA anchor Robin Roberts is a good case in point.

Roberts recently outed herself by dropping a casual reference to her (female) life partner of over a decade. It was a piece of information that might, in another time or context, have harmed her popularity, or at least have required some media orchestration. But because this is 2013 and her status is part of a larger story about her health struggles, and mostly because Roberts herself mentioned it in a Facebook post about her year, it caused barely a ripple.

As a communicator, I respect de Blasio’s strategy, and its successful outcome. But I worry about what passes for transparency today. Public figures have every right to be wary of media and the loss of control that just about any disclosure can bring. And we PR pros have an obligation to do so. We spend our lives trying to frame the narrative. Who among us hasn’t experienced the sickening scenario of a perfectly factual and balanced story overtaken by the ludicrous distraction of a trivial detail, an editor’s omission, or a headline writer’s snappy pun?  It’s maddening, but that’s the media.

But here’s the thing: transparency works both ways. In a world where everyone is media, it’s now easier to be skeptical of a company’s branded content or a piece of corporate native advertising. I’m not saying we should be cynical about Chiara de Blasio’s struggles, which seem perfectly genuine. Yet, if you offer your family as campaign material, they will be fair game, and if you cut out the media, you’re putting your own credibility on the line. The de Blasio team is ahead so far, but if news comes out to contradict or even fill out Chiara’s statements in a way that makes them less authentic or transparent, it will be a downhill reputation slide for the campaign and the family.

All constituents – whether political or otherwise – should scratch the surface of a politician or personality’s content. The scrutiny might not be automatic, but it will grow with the acceleration of direct communications to fans and consumers. If everyone is media, they’re also their own  PR strategist. Even for those who do it for a living, it’s a tricky line to walk.
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