PR Fish Bowl

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November 14, 2017

What PR Can Learn From Off-Year Elections

What’s the difference between a well-executed political campaign and a well-run public relations campaign? As it turns out, not that much. Both require smart strategy and a dedicated team to get the job done. And it’s no secret that some of the sharpest PR minds work in politics.  But national contests, with their grueling timeframe, millions in paid media, and complex primary structure, aren’t really typical. Special and mid-term elections at the local level, like last week’s contests in Virginia and New Jersey offer more relevant lessons for PRs.

PR lessons from local and regional elections

Off-year elections often feature candidates and races that are little known, so it’s up to the local and regional committees to make some noise. There’s much to be learned from these campaigns to use in daily PR efforts.

Get the dirt, but run a “clean campaign.”

Opposition research or “oppo” as it’s known in political circles, isn’t just for elections. Any smart PR person knows that when launching a new product into a crowded category, for example, it’s important to know what differentiates this product from the rest of the field. And, it’s equally important to know the weaknesses of competitive products. How one uses the information often determines its success. Our advice? Without overtly bashing a rival, weave in points of difference and product attributes of your brand. Consider offering negative intelligence on competitors, but only in a way that attributes the information to customers or third-party critics and leaves no fingerprints. Remember, any time you’re on the record talking about a competitor is a win for them.

Communicate early and often.

The best political and PR campaigns begin months in advance and take the entire calendar into consideration. For example, what holidays and seasonal activities could impact campaign initiatives? Will the team have updates to the original news to keep going back to “fence-sitter” reporters and help close on a story?  It’s key to plot weekly or monthly communications outreach on the calendar and make sure the PR team prepared. This means keeping media lists up to date, drafting pitches, follow-up notes and press releases and organizing all other pertinent information so a tight schedule of targeted outreach is maintained. But flexibility is all-important; as with a political campaign, the entire initiative could change depending on the news of the day.

 

Start small and leverage results into something bigger.

Often a brand has an interesting story that just isn’t quite ready for “prime time.” The spokesperson is untested, the product is in beta, or the pitch hasn’t matured. So, just like the candidate running for a local district office, a team has to garner local support before going after bigger fish. In PR this translates to pitching a story to local, regional media and creating a dossier of such hits to leverage into bigger interviews and stories. It’s a tried and true tactic for many media who aren’t comfortable being someone’s first interview but will take on something with a bit of a track record.  We’ve found that building a CEO’s media presence through some well-placed byline articles and other thought leadership pieces then makes them more attractive for a profile down the road.

Plan to communicate in a variety of ways.

Every election brings a flurry of email, calls, snail mail, texts and the inevitable knocks on the door. In our book, nothing beats the personal connection. It helps to know reporters and their preferences for communication. For a very compelling B2B story for the right journalist, a short email pitch will often do the trick. This recent placement on digital shopping vs. brick and mortar was the result of just such an exchange. But for a more involved morning broadcast interview involving a spokesperson, product demo and visuals, we have more success with a creative mailer with lots of color and detail about how a segment would work. We often follow this up with a phone call to home in on what a producer may be looking for. Personal communication is a combination of skill and trial and error. We encourage all PR pros to mix it up and see what works best in various situations.

Study key learnings and incorporate them into future work.

The post-mortems on last week’s election are coming in and campaign teams are learning what worked best and where they could improve. PR teams are the same. At the end of every campaign, it’s critical to parse the results and look for the strategies that clicked. It’s also important to examine what didn’t work and course-correct for the future. We recently staged a successful symposium and fundraiser for a not-for-profit and in planning for year two, we are able to use the freshly gleaned “key learnings” to improve upon this year’s event for something even better next year. And isn’t that the point with any PR initiative or election campaign? Learn from the past and improve for the future.

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