From Campaigns to Crises: Winning PR Strategies for Political Communications from the Experts
Published on March 24, 2023, at 12:49 p.m.
by Ginger Morrow
Public service, among other things, is one long public relations campaign. There is possibly no other field where public opinion matters more and where missteps are more obvious, so, naturally, public relations professionals have a seat at the table of any politician who cares about the next cycle’s outcomes.
Below, three experts in the field of political communications — a scholar and two veterans of Capitol Hill — share their advice for formulating political messages on the campaign trail and in the field office.
Understand public opinion
Cynthia Peacock, an associate professor in the College of Communication and Information Sciences at The University of Alabama, studies public opinion. She said the first key to communicating with potential voters and constituents is to understand how they develop opinions.
“Forming a political opinion is a process that starts from birth, and political socialization plays a big role in that,” she said. Peacock explained that political socialization — or “the process by which people acquire their political attitudes, beliefs, opinions, and behaviors” — is initiated by family, friends, teachers and other demographic factors of the environments in which people grow up.
She added that adolescence is the last period in which a person might be expected to experience major ideological change. After that, political opinion tends to strengthen toward one party.
“This is important to understand because it means a candidate can’t just say [one] thing that changes you forever,” Peacock said.
Though a person’s political leanings are deeply ingrained from childhood, as she noted, political messaging can still have a powerful impact, especially in the case of a primary election.
Peacock said that in past studies that she and her students conducted, she noticed that voters on ideological extremes were more likely to support candidates who were focused on talking about political goals. More moderate voters, though, were attracted to candidates with specific appealing personal qualities, possibly those that were emphasized through the candidate’s branding strategies.
For example, in the case of the 2020 election, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren supporters were more interested in the candidates’ political proposals. Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar and Joe Biden supporters favored their toned-down, relatable images. The bike-riding hometown mayor, the hot-dish-serving Minnesotan mom and the likable righthand man to the most personable president in recent history represented different flavors of largely the same political platform, Peacock said.
National Endowment for the Arts Public Affairs Specialist and former Press Secretary for the House Rules Committee Mary Lieb said it’s important to put it all in perspective. “This tweet, this Facebook post, this flyer, this graphic, it’s probably not going to change anyone’s life,” Lieb explained. “But bringing all of these elements together and curating your force of information and all these different tactics and strategies can make a difference.”
Know your publics
Peacock said that the basis of every successful political campaign is an understanding of the core voters.
“You have to secure the base first, and so you want to go to the things that are really important to the core bloc who tend to show up [to vote],” she said. She said political messaging should tap into the foremost interests of a candidate or politician’s typical voter. These interests vary largely based on party affiliation.
Jonathan Graffeo is the managing director of the Penta Group, a corporate PR firm. He previously worked as a legislative aide to former Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby and served as the communications director for the Senate Banking Committee during the 2008 Great Recession.
Graffeo said it’s easy for political communications professionals to forget that their publics aren’t politicos — they usually don’t consume the same media, have the same amount of expertise or care about politics quite as much.
“With political issues, it’s easy to get caught in the weeds and not remember that the people you’re trying to persuade are very busy with their own lives,” he said. “It’s really about talking in plain and practical terms about how the issues that you’re talking about affect their lives.”
Candidates should also understand how their publics get information.
“As technology shifts, so do culture and our expectations of how we should be communicated with by a candidate,” said Peacock.
Authenticity is everything
The one element the experts agree every campaign and candidate needs is authenticity.
Speaking as a potential voter, Peacock said, “I want you to just be who you are at every place and not switching out these personalities and positions,” especially when it’s only for political expediency and not a true change of heart.
“People can sense inauthenticity right off the bat,” Graffeo concurred. “It automatically undercuts the credibility of what you’re saying.”
Lieb has experience working on local campaigns in small towns with characteristics that may be hard to capture from an outside perspective. She said some of her best experiences working in campaign communications have been when her team let a candidate express their individuality to the fullest.
“I still think about it … everything was so wrong,” she said, from a professional communications standpoint, “but they still won!”
Graffeo said that understanding your client is critical to communicating on their behalf authentically. “That will help you kind of get a broad perspective on how they would communicate in a bunch of situations,” he said. “Capture their voice.”
He noted it can take time to know someone well enough to anticipate their reactions in unforeseen circumstances, but it is absolutely worth the investment.
Cut through the crises
Regarding tackling a political communications crisis, Graffeo said with every catastrophe comes the chance to step up and lead.
“Crises have always interested me because they provide such an inflection point in the story of a person, political party, country or corporation,” he said. “People want to see that leaders in a crisis are not making it about themselves. … They want to see someone who is clear-eyed in those moments and not acting erratically.”
Political crisis communication is an opportunity to calm and console the public while reputation-bolstering and showing voters why they chose the candidate.
When a crisis happens, Peacock said, the most important approach is to own the message.
“You want to be the first one out, and the loudest. … When you don’t do that, it leaves it to someone else to tell the story for you,” she explained.
Evaluate your work
Every public relations professional knows the value of thorough evaluation throughout a campaign. The same is true in political communications work.
Other than winning an election, Peacock said one hallmark of a successful campaign for office is new voter engagement.
“Are you getting voters that haven’t voted before? Are you getting people excited? Do you have more young people volunteering to work on a campaign?” Peacock emphasized. “Success is building excitement, momentum, and having people who have either never voted before vote or never worked on a campaign actually go out and knock on doors.”
Lieb said that a comprehensive, thought-out campaign or political message will have goals other than securing a seat for a candidate, like raising awareness, making impressions, starting a conversation and learning from mistakes. Depending on the medium, a goal can be evaluated on many metrics.
Face-to-face interaction with constituents was the most effective way to understand the success of messages when he worked for Sen. Shelby, Graffeo said.
“You can look at comments on social media, but that’s just a data point,” he explained. “Conversations with the people you represent won’t ever be replaced. … The most important thing is to consider [data points, conversation, polling and election outcomes] as all just a piece and see trends — see the bigger picture.”
Political communications is a niche PR field that entails unique responsibilities, but with careful research, strategic planning and targeted evaluation, your client can trust that their constituents are properly apprised of the issues that matter most.