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

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

Public Relations and Politics have gone hand in hand since Roman times, possibly dating as far back as Ancient Babylon in 1800 BC.  In Ancient Greece and Rome, the art of rhetoric was taught, with emphasis on “persuasive speaking.”

Political Public Relations Then

Andrew Jackson, who served as the seventh President of the United States from 1829 to 1837, famously used a former newspaper editor, Amos Kendall, as a close advisor. Many of the practices put in place by Kendall are still in use today – polls, speech writing, and article reprints.   President Grover Cleveland, a New Jerseyan who was both our 22nd President (1885-1889) and our 24th President, (1893 to 1897), availed himself of the services of another newspaper journalist, George F. Parker, to manage his public image and craft his message.  Parker was one of the first to circulate Cleveland’s speeches in advance, which earned him increased media share and approval ratings.

However, it was not until 1900, when The Publicity Bureau was founded, that Public Relations become a formal occupation.

Political Public Relations Now

Political messaging takes form and takes shape with the aid of a good public relations team.  The role of public relations in politics has changed greatly since the 1990’s, when there was a phenomenal growth in the field. Agencies have consolidated and become more professional, with improved messaging.  This in turn has led to a more sophisticated end product – the ultimate example being our current President, Barack Obama.

Messaging, or creating a consistent story, is essential in the world of politics today, as he and his team showed during both of his election campaigns, in 2008 and again in 2012.  Obama’s public relations team used a wide variety of mechanisms and social media platforms not only to disseminate his messaging, but also to engage with potential voters.

The team identified its target audience – a very basic technique employed in everyday public relations.  They tailored or segmented the message to appeal to a very broad demographic.  Potential voters became stakeholders, who were in turn deployed to get the message out in an ever widening circle.

Opposition Political Public Relations

Mitt Romney, who challenged Barack Obama for the Presidency last year, is also a skilled operative when it comes to excellence in public relations.  He and his team held their ground right up to the end of the 2012 presidential campaign, using every social media tool and platform available to them, to successfully get the candidates message out and shape Romney’s image.  He was doing well, until that memorable occasion where he spoke at a private event without benefit of the protection of his public relations team.  Romney was recorded by a hospitality worker telling his supporters that democrats (47%) would never vote for him.  He continued on to awkwardly describe the 47%.  The tape was a sensation when it was released by Mother Jones. I think we can all agree that video cost him the White House.  On Election Day, while candidate Romney did well in the vote-getting, Obama did better, and held the White House.

What can we learn from this?

From this brief introduction to the role of public relations in politics, we learn that:

  • the structure and protection of a good public relations team is as essential in politics today as it was back in 1900 – and before
  • once a political message has been crafted, it must be honed and polished until it outshines every other political message in the field
  • once a political image has been defined, it must be protected and supported
  • public relations in politics is an ever evolving process, becoming more polished and sophisticated as new media platforms and social messaging tools are created

This, then, is the role of Public Relations in Politics today.  What was it yesterday? What will it be tomorrow?

Stay tuned – there is much more to come!

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