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PR Lessons From The 2010 Election

No matter how you feel about the results of the 2010 midterms, it’s been an interesting election season. Start with a stagnant economy, add a soured electorate, pour on the tea party activists, and it’s a bitter brew, at least for incumbents. The election also offers lessons for communicators. Here’s what marketing and PR pros can take from 2010.

Be authentic. Pollster Andy Kohut of The Pew Research Center says the voter polls point to one thing –  disillusionment. I’d say it goes even deeper, into mistrust. The emerging tea party candidates might not be my cup of…whatever, but they spoke and behaved not like typical politicians, but like real people – mad as hell, and determined to do something about it. Truth can work wonders in a marketing campaign as well. Just ask Domino’s.

Be exciting. A fresh, engaging story breaks through the noise. The shiniest new brands in politics – relative newcomers like Nikki Haley and Marco Rubio won big this season. I think that’s because a disillusioned electorate, like a jaded consumer, is quick to change the channel if they’re not engaged.

But not too exciting. Extremism gets you noticed (Sharron Angle) but it doesn’t win the middle. Likewise, Carl Paladino’s erratic behavior was ultimately too scary for New York voters, and O’Donnell was haunted by her kooky, 16-year-old TV sound bites. In troubled times, competence and stability inspire trust.

Narrative counts. Yes, all pols like to talk about their humble roots, impoverished childhoods, and sainted mothers, but Rubio’s praise of his immigrant father and self-identification as the “son of exiles” was so eloquent it melted even cynical hearts. We love a good, emotional narrative, whether about a senator, a business, or a brand.

Connect with the customer. Former C-suite dwellers Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina went down in flames. WWF cofounder Linda MacMahon landed hard, despite a roaring start. Some call sexism, but I think it’s bad branding and poor communications. These ladies came across as cold, out-of-touch, and even patronizing. And it doesn’t help that mistrust of business is at an all-time high.

Be transparent. Let’s face it, privacy is a thing of the past. Whitman should have come clean earlier about her undocumented housekeeper. O’Donnell might have anticipated her comic skeletons would come out of the closet. Maybe they did prepare, but like a big brand caught in a crisis situation, they didn’t seem to have a plan.

Don’t take your fans for granted. Most pundits agree that the Democratic challenge was to turn out the core constituencies that helped put Obama over the top in 2008 – primarily young voters and minority groups. Winning their support is like gaining the trust of a fickle or skeptical consumer. You have to earn it, every day.

Stay on message. This is where both the GOP and the tea party, with its razor focus on jobs and spending, really resonated. (Never mind that no one has articulated exactly how those jobs will be created.) In actually fulfilling his campaign promises of passing healthcare and financial reform, the President may have fallen short here.

Listen. One reason the business candidates failed is because they acted like CEOs. Candidates can’t do command and control. Politics is about the customer, and marketing communications in the digital age is the same way. It’s critical to have a relevant message, and to convey it well, but if you don’t listen, you lose.

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Comments

  1. Evan B

    Great points! One additional, relevant lesson from this election is that FIRST IMPRESSIONS COUNT! Harry Reid, despite being unpopular, was able to overcome a disastrous economic situation in his state to overcome Sharron Angle not just because of her extremism but also because he attacked her before she was ready to defend herself, and as a newcomer, the impression created by those attack ads stuck to her and she was never able to recover.

  2. Dorothy Crenshaw

    Yes. But, honestly, she did nothing to erase that impression. In fact, she seemed to thrive on it. Anyone else – even marginally less extreme – would have beaten Reid IMO.That’s where the tea party influence on the GOP is debatable. But the tea partiers did one thing very well: they attracted media and Web coverage!

  3. Jeannette Paladino

    Besides the points you make about the implosions of Meg Whitman, Carly Fiorina and Linda MacMahon, I believe they were also viewed as the “haves” by the “have nots.” They just didn’t seem like regular people. All the talk about the $100+ million that Whitman spent and the brouhaha about her fired maid, only added to her image as an elitist. You could say the same about Fiorina and MacMahon, who also were no pikers in the money department.

  4. Dorothy Crenshaw

    Thanks, Jeannette. Yes, there’s a long history of people who tried and failed to “buy” an election, esp. in California (remember Huffington?) And it seems this year the haves were more vulnerable than ever, given the job economy. But, for the life of me I can’t understand why lower-income voters so often vote against their own interests when it comes to things like tax breaks for the wealthy, and other bread-and-butter Democratic issues. But, don’t let me get off on politics…..

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