The Role of Public Relations in Politics is a monthly column written by WWPR member Margaret Mulvihill, examining the role of PR in politics.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of Washington Women in Public Relations


pub·lic re·la·tions


  1. the professional maintenance of a favorable public image by a company or other organization or a famous person.
  2. the state of the relationship between the public and a company or other organization or a famous person.

What is public relations today? It’s still media management, by and large, although I like the explanation that “it’s the state of the relationship between the public and a company or other organization or a famous person”.  There’s just so much more involved today than there was eight years ago, when Barack Obama was elected President. The 24-hour news cycle has definitely had an effect, as has the increased and increasing usage of social media platforms by the candidates themselves.

The current presidential race has thrown traditional political public relations into high relief. As each candidate faces obstacles and crises, the strength and power of their campaign’s PR has and continues to be tested. Each and every candidate faces issues worthy of traditional PR intervention. That only Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, and Bernie Sanders are still in the running tells us much about how that’s all working out.

Donald Trump, of course, has relied heavily on himself and on his own staff – notably his children – this election cycle, rather than on outside PR firms. Many of his PR crises have been, and continue to be, self-inflicted, with Twitter being his weapon of choice. The missile makes a direct hit on his intended target, in some cases causing lasting reputational damage, and the candidates relying on traditional PR struggle to react. Do you fight back immediately, or do you hold yourself to a higher standard and refuse to get involved?

Trump uses his own Twitter account, his own voice, to reach out to his base. He uses it as an attack launch-pad, firing verbal missiles at his competition. In these interesting times of the 24-hour news cycle, he has shown, and continues to show, that the American people are sick and tired of parroted soundbites from campaign spokespeople. Trump strikes in the middle of the night, when most of his competition and their traditional PR people are sleeping. The PR world awakes to mayhem, already a few critical steps behind in rebutting whatever negative message Trump has put out about them while they slept. By speaking directly to his base and to the media, his supporters and his media coverage have expanded hugely.

Hillary Clinton is the poster-child of the traditional PR media management, and faces a different scenario when it comes to media management. Many of her crises have been imposed upon her by serving Republican Senators and Congress people. Her campaign was targeted from the outset by special-interest groups, with Trey Goudy battering her on Benghazi, and other candidates targeting her husband’s NAFTA and romantic liaisons. 

She has been remarkably flat-footed in fighting back, not seeming to understand that the goal-posts have moved. From a PR point of view, it will be very interesting to watch her campaign adapt after the Democratic convention – if she is the party nominee.  As Trump is the presumptive nominee for the Republican Party, her campaign needs to do a lot of catch-up to stay relevant in the general election. He is the master of the personal sound-bite.

While one could argue that traditional PR still has its place in traditional business settings, I would dispute its effectiveness in modern-day politics. It just doesn’t work for the 24-hour news cycle. However, for political campaigns and other dynamic organizations, we need the full spectrum of media management, digital outreach, and in-person appearances.

Margaret Mulvihill is Director of Communications at Lawson Mulvihill Media Inc., in Washington, DC. Follow her on Twitter: