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
When it comes to politics, is there any difference between public relations messaging and branding? I don’t believe so. Much is being said these days about the implosion of the Republican Party brand – many believe that the electorate sees little or no difference between the GOP conservatives and the Tea Party ultra-conservatives. If that belief continues to take root and grow, the 2014 political landscape will be a very interesting one for all of us observers and commentators. Tomorrow’s candidates will need to be clearly identifiable, preferably with a one-word campaign slogan (think FORWARD). They need to offer new ideas and a positive vision for the future to the electorate.
WAR ON WOMEN
An almost text-book example of messaging, the negative versus the positive, comes from the recent gubernatorial elections. Two races, one in Virginia and one in New Jersey, caught the interest of the nation and have been hot topics of discussion across all media platforms. The Republican Party was branded in the early stages of the Virginia campaign as a party waging a “War on Women.” It is vital to note that this branding was foisted on them by their opposition, the Democratic Party. I can’t stress it enough, brand yourself or someone else will do it for you. Make your message or someone else will make it for you.
NEW, NOW, NEXT
At the conclusion of the first race, Terry McAuliffe (D) eked out a narrow win over Ken Cuccinelli (R), the former Virginia Attorney General. Almost as soon as the votes had been counted, Peter Shumlin, Vermont Governor and chairman of the Democratic Governors Association was putting his party’s spin on the outcome, terming it “a rebuke to the GOP”. He went on to call the victory a foreshadowing of the midterm governor’s races coming up next year. While neither candidate actually came up with anything new for the electorate, the McAuliffe public relations team managed to surround him in a glow of positive branding. Better known as a Clinton fund-raiser, he gained that new, now, next appeal.
In contrast to Shumlin’s spin, there was silence from Bobby Jindal, Louisiana Governor and chairman of the Republican Governors Association. Silence, that is, until the Cuccinelli camp complained to Matt Lewis, columnist at the conservative Daily Caller website, that Bobby Jindal and his team “totally blew it.” The RGA rebuttal was that they had “a close working relationship with the Cuccinelli campaign and were surprised by the criticism.” They said that the RGA wanted to start running negative ads very early on in the race, but the Cuccinelli campaign was fearful of being the first to attack. Again, brand yourself or someone else will do it for you. Make your message or someone else will make it for you. Be the first if that’s what it’s going to take.
From these two examples, we see that messaging and spin are critical. A social media strategy allied to a digital campaign is essential for success in today’s political environment. A weak Democratic candidate with a superior understanding of public relations and messaging won. The former State Attorney General, with no social media presence to speak of, no digital footprint, and a less than stellar public relations/messaging effort, lost. Indeed, Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Texas) and Chairman of the House Rules Committee, called on the GOP to do everything it can to win back the senate by focusing on messaging. He believes that everything the party does should be messaged with an eye to winning big in 2014. Only time will tell if anyone listens to his sage advice.
Very similar to the Virginia race, the gubernatorial election in New Jersey was a contest between a weak Democratic candidate in Barbara Buono, and the controversial incumbent, Chris Christie. His campaign was lively, forceful and loud. The governor came with baggage, having warred with the teachers’ unions and made unpopular decisions on property taxes and state pensions. His public relations team did an outstanding job of melding Christie’s outspoken personality to the carefully crafted image of an aggressive, unrepentant reformer. Christie was and remains his own brand and his own message.
THE BLAME GAME
Barbara Buono’s (D-NJ) public relations campaign was clearly not as successful as Christie’s. Although the candidate had a presence across several social media platforms, there was a glaring mismanagement of messaging from the beginning. With two weeks to go in the race, Buono started to pull her message together. It was too late. Again, the golden rule of branding and messaging – brand yourself or someone else will do it for you. Make your message or someone else will make it for you. In an honest concession speech she blamed her own party:
“The Democratic political bosses some elected some not made a deal with this governor despite him representing almost everything they’re against,” she said. “They didn’t do it for the state. They did it to help themselves politically and financially. But we did it our way and I’m proud of that.”
The Democratic Party bosses in New Jersey may share in the blame for Buono’s election trouncing, but the candidate’s own team needs to revisit their public relations strategy, messaging and branding plan.
Contrasting the two separate elections in Virginia and in New Jersey, where one conservative lost in a purple state and one conservative won in a blue state, the GOP has attempted to downplay the Christie win, saying that his personality contributed to the landslide win, just as Cuccinelli’s reportedly dour social conservatism helped lead to his loss. If it were only that simple! Personality matters, yes, but effective branding and messaging are critical to the mix. In this case, I believe it was that Christie’s team has remained on-point not only during his gubernatorial re-election campaign, but throughout his career. It was hardly an accident that Christie refused to campaign with Cuccinelli. Sometimes, public relations people need to keep candidates away from each other. Looking down the New Jersey turnpike towards Virginia, Christie’s team must have seen Cuccinelli as “off-brand” – conservative, but too much so.
Christie understood the importance of refining his brand and sticking to it. In the end, what is it with him? Personality or messaging? Maybe a little of both.
Margaret Mulvihill is Director of Communications at Lawson Mulvihill in Washington, DC. Follow her on Twitter: @lawsonmulvihill