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PR Lessons from the 2012 Presidential Race

Posted At: March 21, 2012 2:30 PM
by Katheryn Rivas, Online University, Contributing Writer

American politics is in the era of the permanent campaign. As soon as one election begins, new candidates and campaign staff gear up for the new cycle. To prove that point, just think about how long you’ve heard from potential Republican presidential nominees. As far back as 2010 we heard rumors of organizing from potential candidates like Newt Gingrich and Herman Cain, back when President Obama had served barely a year as president. Heck, you could argue that Mitt Romney alone has been campaigning for the Republican nomination since before the 2008 contest.

If you’re not much interested in the politicking you can learn from presidential candidates, you should at least take some time to examine the impressive array of PR tactics that they employ on a daily basis. Campaigning is all about image, and candidates have to tout their image and ideals 24/7; they also have to think on their feet when events hinder their image (and they always do). So, what are some PR lessons we can learn from today’s candidates?

Have a clear and appealing message
One of the most consistent charges leveled against Mitt Romney as he makes his case for the presidency is that he lacks a clear message in his campaign. He wants to undo many of President Obama’s policies, but he hasn’t offered much in the way of a new path for America other than it will be the opposite of the current administration. He needs a clear vision and a new American ideology if he wants to start convincing the many Americans on the fence about his candidacy.

If you don’t have a central message around which to focus your campaign, people are going to start to make their own messages for you. In the case of Mitt Romney, detractors attribute his unfocused message to his “flip-flop” attitude, alleging that he holds no strong core beliefs. Others target Romney’s occasional comments that highlight his vast personal wealth, which further alienates him from potential voters. The lesson here is to develop and nurture a strong core message from the beginning, one that you can easily explain and defend.

Stay on point
This is a tip that any PR rep would endorse. If you’re trying to build a public persona for your client around a strong and positive message (see above), your job is to ensure that all conversations between the client and the public relate to that message. Any deviation from your central message can lead to a potential PR nightmare.

Again, consider the array of Republican presidential candidates: many of them enjoyed brief periods of time in the limelight because they stayed on point and played to their strengths. Mitt Romney criticized the dire state of the economy under the current administration, Rick Perry touted his success at building jobs as a governor, Herman Cain boasted his non-governmental credentials, and so forth. When these candidates are thrown off point (usually not by choice), they start to suffer. Cain could never weather his adultery scandal, Perry couldn’t communicate his message well enough, and lately Romney is talking about anything but the economy. It’s rarely easy to do so, but staying on point is the surest way to retain a positive image.

Negativity is toxic for your image
Negative press might garner attention, but it’s rarely the kind you want in the PR world. Certainly negative press in the form of some scandal surrounding your client is bad for their public image, and such a thing can hardly be helped if your client is guilty of the scandal. You can only control so much in that arena.

But you can control the amount of negative press coming from your camp. If we’ve learned anything about the incessant attacks occurring among the Republican presidential candidates, it’s that negativity makes you unpopular in the long run. In the short run, bouts of negative attack ads might help get a few extra votes, but chronic negativity just results in overall voter fatigue. I mean, think about it: what do you think about when you turn on the TV or the radio and hear about the election cycle? Probably nothing good.

What PR lessons has the 2012 presidential race taught you thus far?


  1. Post comment

    I really enjoyed your article because you touched on a great lesson for all PR professionals, and that’s consistency. I think the 2008 presidential election is an example of campaigning at its finest. A huge part of President Obama’s success was his strategy and his ability to campaign well. People signed on to the idea of change. Because he sent a message of hope for a better future (not only through his speeches but through his campaigning materials, e.g., buttons, T-shirts, etc.), he was able to win over a huge part of the population based on a generic idea, rather than on his specific policies. Today, Mitt Romney rides on his image, but he faces criticism for his lack of authenticity. Being authentic is another big PR lesson we can all take away because it distinguishes you from your competition.

    I agree with you that staying on point is vitally important in the PR field. I also think it could be a lesson to all of the Republican candidates. Lately, the candidates are all too focused on social issues, like abortion, and are avoiding the economic state of our country. They criticize Obama for his failure to bring our country out of debt, but do not argue how they plan on bettering the situation. The candidates’ avoiding economic issues will not win them the election. The Republican candidates are epitomizing the term “stepping on your message.” They claim they want to focus on the economy but they divert their audience by letting explosive issues dominate the national debate. Their focus on social issues, like abortion, will only further alienate voters because that is the only message the public will take away from their campaign. For example, I read an article in The New York Times the other week about conservative women who plan on voting for Obama. They said they are registered Republicans but the on-going debate about abortion is oppressing women and infringing upon their rights. While Rick Santorum has been consistent in his message on abortion, he has been consistent in very controversial areas and has therefore earned negative press. I think the major PR lesson I’ve taken away from the presidential race is that consistency is key, but it needs to be strategic.


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