PR Lessons From The 2012 Campaign

Since the primaries began, I’ve been thinking about the PR strategies we’ve witnessed so far during this election season. On the surface, campaign PR doesn’t offer many similarities to corporate and brand communications. After all, it tends to be more localized, more combative, and, recently, shockingly negative. Yet, campaign 2012, as well as the ones that preceded it, holds learnings for PR pros.

Narrative trumps policy. Many believe Barack Obama was able to win in 2008 because his narrative of hope and change was more compelling than John McCain’s warnings about a dangerous world and the need for experience at the helm. An inspiring story is worth a thousand policy statements. For my money, Herman Cain was the master of narrative (while he lasted), with Rick Santorum trying hard to weave a strong story of his own. Marketing and corporate PR professionals are increasingly harnessing the power of storytelling for our clients. Whether a product, corporation, entertainer, or service, we need to take our audience on a “hero’s journey” through challenges and changes to arrive at a new destination.

Speed counts. No one’s more conscious of this than a political operative. With pundits parsing every word and opposition specialists ready to pounce, a rapid response machine is a critical survival skill. We’ve seen how a small slip, poor turn of phrase, or slow reaction can lose the news cycle for days. (See: Mitt Romney, “I’m not concerned about the very poor.”) Brand PR pros can learn from the typical “war room” setup pioneered by James Carville. When hit with the unexpected, respond early and respond often.

Mobilize allies and advocates. Using friends and third-party allies to evangelize is a classic PR strategy, but campaign pros probably do it better than anyone. The late Michael Deaver set the bar when he created a “message of the day” strategy for the Reagan White House, which literally had every level of representatives saying the same thing. Message consistency is more important than ever in today’s fragmented media environment. Here, Romney holds the advantage, as local governors and representatives have increasingly fallen in line for the candidate.

Keep it simple. Have we forgotten “It’s the economy, stupid?” Or Herman Cain’s “9-9-9” tax proposal? The reality is often complicated, but no one wants to hear it. We see this often in technology PR, where engineers and product specialists can get caught up in the back-end explanation of product superiority. Don’t try to explain the technology, detail the solutions, or list all the features. Just tell me why it’s awesome.

Authenticity counts. Politics is about real people, and no amount of packaging, prettifying, or spin can hide the individual’s true essence. Romney runs into trouble when he tries to act like a regular guy, because he’s simply not. That’s why his best moment may have been the Florida debate, where, helped by a new coach, he forcefully defended his wealth and success. The best positioning nearly always builds on what’s real.

For PR pros, the best is yet to be. The final match-up is bound to offer more communications lessons for all of us.

The Top Ten PR Blunders of 2011

When a serious setback or crisis occurs, not even the most talented PR pro can make it go away. Yet, a poor response invites reputation damage, while proper handling can help mitigate or limit it. Here’s my “Top 10” list, from a communications perspective, of the most badly handled public situations of the year.

10.  Governor Sam Brownback.  Something tells me the governor’s not in Kansas anymore – at least as far as his reputation goes. Brownback looked like a bully and created an unlikely teen hero with his handling of a nasty tweet about him posted by high school senior Emma Sullivan. Brownback’s staff, who tracked down the teen, put pressure on the school principal to extract an apology from Sullivan. When she ultimately refused, it was Brownback who did the apologizing. Meanwhile, the student’s Twitter following soared from 65 to over 14,000. Who’s sorry now?

9.  Delta. The airline hit rough PR weather when U.S. troops returning from Afghanistan were charged onerous fees for extra baggage, with one squadron spending nearly $3,000 out of personal funds. The disgruntled troops took the story of their rude welcome home to YouTube. Delta reacted about a day late to the video, which swiftly went viral, triggering hundreds of complaints on its blog.  It did end up changing its baggage fee policy for members of the armed services but not without reputation damage.

8.  Groupon.  Groupon’s reputation issues come in contrast to its previous image as a media darling. It started 2011 with that ill-conceived Super Bowl ad, followed by a halfhearted apology after it went wrong. It then ran into more PR hot water later as the company prepared for a much anticipated IPO. Founder Andrew Mason made impolitic remarks in an internal memo that was leaked to The Wall Street Journal, raising questions about “quiet period” violations. The Groupon IPO was a success, but its toughest reputation challenge will be to prove its business model actually works.

7.  Burson-Marsteller.  It’s notable when the world’s largest PR firm handles a crisis this poorly. In May, mega-agency Burson-Marsteller was busted by The Daily Beast‘s Dan Lyons after a clumsily executed “whisper campaign” against Google. The campaign was carried out on behalf of a mystery client who turned out to be Facebook. Not only was Burson guilty of a major ethical breach, but its response seemed to blame the client, which made it look both weak and defensive.

6.  AOL and CrunchFund.  TechCrunch Editor Michael Arrington’s plan to start an investment fund immediately raised conflict of interest questions. More troubling was the response from corporate owner AOL. CEO Tim Armstrong excused the move by referring to TechCrunch’s “different standards” of journalism. He was immediately contradicted by Arianna Huffington, who announced Arrington’s departure from AOL, which was then “clarified” by a subsequent announcement that he remained with AOL Ventures. While AOL struggled to get its stories straight, the incident undermined the credibility of senior management and its content standards.

5.  Netflix. The famous Netflix mea culpa is a good example of a public apology that backfired in a rather spectacular way. Instead of letting its admission of “poor communication” regarding a price increase stand, Netflix used the occasion to announce its split into two units – doubling the cost, and the hassle, for customers. It made the classic mistake of focusing on its business rationale rather than the customer interest and was forced to backpedal.  In the end it was Netflix that paid the price in lost business and a depressed stock value.

4.  The U.S. Congress.  One way to read the summer’s debt ceiling gridlock is a case of too great an emphasis on PR – to the detriment of real issues or progress. Both sides of the debate were so focused on their public posture — Tea Partiers hewing to the no-tax-increase line and progressives preoccupied with blaming the GOP — that everyone looked bad and absolutely nothing was done.

3.  Bank of America.  Its move to institute a $5 monthly debit card fee was not only poor judgment but terrible timing. B of A made the announcement just as the Occupy Wall Street movement was gaining steam. The new fee wasn’t tested, pre-announced, or even particularly well explained to customers, who responded with predictable outrage. Although the bank tried to justify the fee by tying it to new regulations, its argument was ineffectual. It ended up retreating a month later in the face of harsh criticism by consumers, bloggers, and even government officials.

2.  Herman Cain.  Political scandals were rife in 2011, but Cain’s meltdown stood out because he showed real mastery of public communication at the outset (remember “9-9-9”?). Yet when the candidate was hit with allegations of sexual harassment, the campaign’s response was amateurish. Politico sat on the initial story for ten days – an eternity in crisis response time – but Cain’s reactions ranged from denial, defensiveness, and hostility to humor and a plea for privacy. Consistency, credibility, and message control deserted the Cain campaign, and the result is history.

1.  Penn State. No shock here. Penn State will end 2011 taking the trophy for most egregiously bad handling of a crisis. Granted, the allegations against Jerry Sandusky would have been damaging no matter what, but it’s even worse when you consider that the Grand Jury investigation started in 2008. The university had plenty of time to prepare its public communication strategy. But when Sandusky was arrested in November, the statement by ex-President Graham Spanier, in which he called the charges “troubling,” was a study in what not to say.  Its focus on closing ranks and defending those in the know helped turn a shocking scandal into a serious breach of responsibility by the top players.

A version of this post was originally published on MENGBlend.

A November To Remember

In addition to the traditional Thanksgiving bounty of food and family, this month has offered its share of embarrassing political viral videos.  This cornucopia of candidate catastrophes demonstrates how powerful and influential social media has become.  Online social sharing is now as common, if not more, than reading the newspaper, and celebrating the successful is not nearly as crucial as mitigating the miserable. What can be learned from this month’s mishaps?

“Rick Perry’s Drunken Speech” video has over 500,000 views on Youtube and shows a loopy Governor giggling and yelping through a campaign stop.  Perry’s communications and press people had to have known that even if a silly speech isn’t televised, it’ll still be all over the Today Show the next morning.  It’s just how today’s media works.  What kind of damage control would have worked best here, if any?

The Texas governor needed a rebound after the “drunken” video debacle, and his handlers rightly assumed a national debate would be a great platform to change the Rick Perry storyline.  It’s simple:  know the talking points, stay on topic, and get the appropriate message across.  Mr. Perry failed miserably at the debate on November 9th with his now infamous “Oops” moment.  How much message training is really enough?

Next up:  Herman Cain. When asked if he agreed with President Obama’s handling of Libya, he seemed comically confused.  Thanks to the power of social media, the non-televised interview has been everywhere (Jon Stewart even professed his love for Mr. Cain over it).   Was the “lack of sleep” excuse a credible one? Who thinks up these things?

While you mull over these incidents, a few lessons from the modern media world:
     The cameras are always rolling. (even an iPhone in the audience)
     With message training, one size does NOT fit all. Some folks will always need extra prep and notes.
     “Snark is the new black (to quote The Good Wife)  No matter how innocuous the gaffe, it will be twisted and tweaked     for maximum (negative) media appeal.

Share your observations and lessons here.

Herman Cain’s PR Problem

Until recently, Herman Cain had shown himself to be a pretty savvy communicator. The plainspoken ex-pizza prez showed he understands the value of a simple idea, well packaged and often repeated, with his “9-9-9” tax proposal. (No one understood it, he couldn’t really explain it, but everyone knew about it. Can you say that about any other candidate’s tax plan?)

Even Cain’s campaign ad – which looked like a 1970s commercial for the tobacco industry – racked up over a million views on YouTube, and another million on the Cain website, in part because it was so unorthodox. Quirky? Yes. Off-putting? Maybe. But the spot was pretty smokin’ on the Web; it blew away the competition and dominated the news cycle for a couple of days without costing a dime.

But Cain’s latest PR crisis is more serious, and this time, snappy sound bites won’t be enough. A report of sexual harassment allegations against Cain when he served as head of the National Restaurant Association during the 90s left the candidate and his campaign looking flat-footed, defensive, and decidedly indecisive. These things can’t always be managed by the handbook, but there were some glaring rules that were broken or ignored.

Vetting and preparation. Politico sat on the harassment story for a good ten days while waiting for the Cain campaign to respond. That’s an eternity in crisis response time, and it makes Cain’s charges of media bias look lame. Any candidate for public office knows that they must be aware of all potential skeletons and have a plan to deal with their inevitable disclosure. Better yet, have a plan to disclose them yourself. (Remember Obama’s casual mention of his occasional cocaine use as a student in his biography? Masterful.)

Candor. Cain’s flip-flops when confronted with the harassment allegations were inexcusable given the timeframe, and weak even under the best of circumstances. When asked about the story, he denied the accusation, and also denied that any settlement had been made – a nonsense answer given the easy verifiability of the settlement in question. Cain might have had a false sense of confidence because the complainant signed a confidentiality agreement with the NRA, but he and his people had to know it would come out. And chalking up his response to semantics (“agreement” versus “settlement”) made him look like he was hiding something.

Consistency. Cain’s first response was a weaselly sounding denial, followed by hostility. Then, he backpedaled, pleading faulty memory. Following that, he became conciliatory and even jocular before again attacking the press for bias. He’s tried so many responses and behaviors that he’s got Condoleezza Rice warning him not to play “the race card.” In crisis PR, consistency, coupled with message control and transparency, is usually the best course.

Counterattack. It’s common for candidates to chalk up stories like this one to political opposition research, and it’s usually true. Of course the harassment story was leaked by an opponent. But good PR practice (and common sense) dictates you need to respond truthfully to the accusation first, then hit back. The way Cain responded made him look defensive and deceptive.

Activation of allies. Four days after the story’s publication, some close Cain friends and advocates have been quoted about his character, maintaining that the Herman they know would never engage in inappropriate behavior. This has been too little, and maybe even too late. And his most important ally, his wife of 43 years, had yet to be heard from. Her chance will come Friday when she’s interviewed on Fox News by Greta Van Sustern. Stay tuned.