PR lessons from the campaign trail

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PR lessons from the campaign trail

By Matt Cochran | Posted: September 6, 2012
The presidential election is the ultimate public relations campaign, but it provides the unique benefit of a reckoning at the end.

On Nov. 7, 2012, we will know who will reside at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. for the following four years. For that reason, it may be the quintessential laboratory for understanding how public perceptions change.

I grant you that everything is exaggerated in a political campaign—it plays out over a much shorter period of time—but that is how laboratories work. In hyperbole, we may find a modicum of truth.

The 2012 election is in full swing, so now is a good time for skeptical business executives to tune in if they want to understand how good or bad PR moves affect public perception.

External events that you cannot control are a threat.

In all the chaos of political ads, speeches, bus tours, and press conferences, there will be a moment or two that historians will point to years from now as crucial junctures.

Watch the polls. President Obama and Mitt Romney are currently neck-and-neck, but when those numbers begin to change, pay attention to the pundits and their analysis. It is possible one event could change the race, and it may be something that neither campaign is anticipating. Consider 2008 when the economy tanked and McCain temporarily suspended his campaign. Most politicos cite that as the moment he began to lose.

Takeaway: Determine now what you can do to minimize their potential impact.

Are you losing to a better opponent or beating yourself?

Did one candidate win the race or did the other lose it? In 2004, John Kerry went windsurfing, but the incumbent President George W. Bush sailed on to victory.

Though there were certainly other factors—including Bush’s general likability among many voters—the photo of Kerry windsurfing off Nantucket proved to be an iconic image from the campaign. The snapshot illustrated Kerry’s inability to connect with voters, driving home an argument that his opponents had made for months.

Takeaway: When managing a PR crisis, the smallest details matter. An off-the-cuff remark can change public opinion overnight. (Think of former BP chief executive Tony Hayward saying, “I just want my life back.”)

Responding with force when attacked is good, but overreaction signals fear.

Pay attention to the daily campaign volleys as accusations are dispatched and answered by the candidates. An overzealous defense can be viewed as a sign of desperation.

For example, Romney lined up interviews with every major network news station after the Obama campaign launched a blistering attack on his tenure at Bain Capital. Some called it desperate.

Takeaway: Consider the tone and setting of your response. Flashy press conferences or angry interviews can overpower otherwise effective messaging.

The fact that public relations campaigns are complicated and results are difficult to measure does not mean they cannot be won through sound strategy and effective execution. Presidential campaigns prove that the public has a long memory and public relations missteps, strung together, eventually come to define a candidate.

Company reputations aren’t much different. It may be hard to point to a moment when everything changes, but there is usually a defining mistake that illustrates a deep suspicion that the public was already beginning to believe. That’s the turning point. If you’re lucky, you’ll get to see one in the next two months.

Matt Cochran is an account supervisor at Cookerly Public Relations. Follow Matt on Twitter@MattCochran. A version of this story first appeared on the Cookerly blog