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
Countdown To 2016
We are only half-ways through the first month of the new year, and yet, the Presidential campaigns are stealthily underway. Political operatives shiver in the anticipation of an election that is twenty two months away. We are all gearing up to represent our political candidates, with tactically-placed stories in all the appropriate places. Carefully choreographed television appearances, brilliant radio discussions on the topical issues of the day, well-chosen public sightings. Nothing, no opportunity for publicity will be ignored. Although it’s early days yet, those of us who have traveled this road before, already have the entire twenty two months penciled-in on the giant tear-off wall calendar. We’ll begin with monthly exposures, stepping it up to weekly as the months go by, until our candidate is front and center in the daily media by November 2016. It’s a lot like building with Lego, each story carefully constructed on the back of the one preceding it. It’s more than communications, it’s a form of artistry!
Over the coming months, candidates will begin to ‘declare’. Some have already signaled their intent to do so, by setting up PACs (political action campaigns) and by forming ‘exploratory’ committees. Heady times are ahead for the PR shops, with an elegant abundance of clients to go around. A great deal of air-time and print inches will go towards debating which candidates will make the short list. By the time the shortlist has pulled itself together, we will have all possible information on every potential candidate. The good, and the bad, and the ugly.
Making The Shortlist
It takes a massive amount of publicity to make it to the shortlist. As the old saw goes, you can’t win if nobody knows your name. Name recognition then, is vitally important for any candidate. Making voters aware of your candidate’s agenda, their stance on the burning issues of the day, is the next crucial element in your PR bag. They may know who your candidate is, but if they don’t know what your candidate is, you’ve lost an important opportunity. Social media is a huge assist, a great asset when it comes to publicly promoting your candidate and their issue stances. It’s a great asset, but it’s no longer a unique asset. Every candidate understands the value of social media and every political communicator knows how to leverage it effectively for the candidate’s benefit.
So where’s the fun in all of this? It’s starting to feel mundane. If we all know what we’re doing, and if we all know how to do it successfully, surely it’s just a matter of electing the candidate with the best PR representation? That might just work – it might. If it weren’t for the foibles and frailties of the human animal.
Let’s say your candidate has been on the road for two weeks straight. Hasn’t slept in their own bed since you all boarded the campaign bus together. The candidate is tired, testy, and surrounded by their own employees and volunteers. It’s a little bubble of unreality, really, that’s what the environment has become. The candidate is a demi-God. His/her every wish is magically granted. Then, along comes some upstart reporter or intrepid broadcaster, asking the wrong question about the wrong issue, at the wrong time. You can see it happening in slow motion, like an automobile driving into a concrete wall at high speed, yet you’re powerless to prevent it.
Suddenly, it’s not mundane any longer! You have to bring everything you’ve ever learned, and a whole lot of what you never knew you’d learned to bear, in saving your candidate from him/herself. That is the fun in political public relations – each individual you represent will be different, each candidate will pose their own peculiar challenge. No matter how confident you feel about your candidate, there is no guarantee that you will be able to avoid that awkward, testy, moment. There is no guarantee that you won’t wake up on the morning of the election to find your candidate making appearances you knew nothing about on national television. And that, my friend, is why you do what you do.