Chris Harihar February 25, 2020 | 12:34:30

6 PR Lessons From Bloomberg’s Awful Debate Performance

One of the top news stories last week was the debut of billionaire and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg in the ninth Democratic presidential debate. Following a $130 million ad blitz, it was Bloomberg’s first time qualifying for a debate since he announced his candidacy late last year.

To say the rust was evident would be an understatement. Per CNBC, “Bloomberg’s performance in his first Democratic presidential debate was so bad that it may be the ‘beginning of the end’ for his already late-starting campaign.” According to The New York Times, “Bloomberg’s debate performance on Wednesday proved so lackluster that both supporters and rivals counted themselves taken aback, leaving his campaign more rattled than at any point.”

I also had harsh words for Bloomberg. Watching him implode on stage, I couldn’t help but think of what we in public relations try to do for our clients. With that in mind, here are six PR lessons from Bloomberg’s debate performance that are applicable to any brand or business.

First impressions matter

Whether you’re on stage at a conference or being interviewed by a journalist, in PR, first impressions matter. For any opportunity, you generally get one bite at the apple. If you fail to deliver, you might not be invited back, or in PR terms, maybe your interview doesn’t convert to a story.

Bloomberg, by all accounts, made a bad first impression to millions of viewers. He fumbled basic questions and seemed totally dispassionate. According to Morning Consult, immediately after the debate, the share of voters who said Bloomberg was their first choice for the Democratic nomination fell three percentage points. Meanwhile, his net favorability dropped by 20 points.

Tell your story

In PR, your story is everything. One of the best examples of storytelling is by footwear company TOMS. TOMS was created after the founder visited Argentina and saw children growing up without shoes. He started TOMS to help, matching every pair of purchased shoes with a new pair for kids in need. TOMS’s narrative has all the tenets of a great story. It’s simple, clear and powerful.

One of Bloomberg’s biggest failures of the debate was his lack of a clear and resonant story around his candidacy. He has billed himself as a proud moderate, positioning his candidacy against left-leaning competitors like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. But, outside of his opening statement, that message wasn’t communicated or reinforced.

Earned media beats paid

Bloomberg has dramatically increased his visibility in Super Tuesday states with a $400 million advertising blitz, but that will only get him so far. Media coverage — often driven through a top PR firm — is often better than paid advertising, or at least, advertising alone isn’t enough. Keep in mind that 41 percent of consumers say they just don’t trust advertising, with three-fourths trying to avoid it altogether. Paid placements don’t have the credibility of a trusted news publication, for example, that covers a product or service. The latter is “earned.” It’s not paid for.

Bloomberg’s campaign is learning that the hard way. Despite the fact that he has aggressively outspent the rest of the field on ads, his debate performance, and the endless, negative media coverage around it, will ultimately be what shapes the overall perception of the Bloomberg candidacy.

Be prepared

In PR, preparation is critical. Preparing for an interview, for example, means reading recent articles by that journalist and understanding the tone and tenor of their coverage. This helps you evaluate the direction they might take and anticipate potential (tough) questions.

Reports indicate that Bloomberg’s staff prepared him for the debate. But he bungled obvious questions about stop-and-frisk and sexual harassment that everyone knew was coming. This could speak to the quality of his routine, whether or not he was receiving candid feedback, or the time commitment he made to preparation.


From media interviews to panel discussions, delivering on a PR opportunity requires one fundamental thing — speaking. If you don’t speak up or offer your perspective proactively, you won’t stand out and will likely be minimized.

Despite a barrage of attacks against him, Bloomberg actually spoke the least of the six debaters, with just 13:02 minutes of speaking time. Of course, debate participants are at the mercy of the moderators, but here, too, experience helps. In failing to own a bigger piece of the overall discussion, Bloomberg missed opportunities on his first outing.

Humility helps

From a PR perspective, when a brand makes a mistake, humbly acknowledging it is the best way to move on. KFC’s 2018 FCK ad campaign following a chicken shortage is a good example of that, with the company using humility and humor to rebuild confidence among customers.

To Bloomberg’s credit, he seems to understand this.  “So how was your night last night?” the former NYC Mayor joked the next morning at a campaign stop in Utah. Rather than sticking his head in the sand and pretending the performance never happened, Bloomberg is admitting defeat and attempting to move on. That’s the right move.

These are my top PR takeaways from Bloomberg’s debate performance. What did I miss? Let me know in the comments or on Twitter at @chrisharihar.

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