PR Lessons from the 2012 Presidential Campaign
January 4, 2013
When footage of Mitt Romney from a May 2012 fundraiser became public in September, one of history’s great negative quotes went into the record books. The secretly taped video showed the presidential candidate saying that 47 percent of the American people think of themselves as “victims.”
True, it’s not up there with Richard Nixon’s “I am not a crook,” but it was damaging nonetheless.
That Nixon remark lives nearly four decades later. My clients from Boston to Borneo still recognize that line.
Soundbites — short, catchy phrases that sum up a thought or position — are memorable. They can persuade an audience or blow up in the face of the speaker. This is as true in business as in politics.
If you doubt this premise, then just remember former BP CEO Tony Hayward’s remark in the midst of the Gulf of Mexico and Deepwater Horizon explosion in 2010: “I’d like to get my life back.” The remark, while perhaps well-intended, was generally interpreted as selfish and callous — confirmation that BP’s leadership did not care about the people whose lives were disrupted or ruined by the accident.
The most positive soundbite of the election season belonged to former President Bill Clinton, who succinctly summed up why, in the view of Democrats, Paul Ryan’s budget plan wouldn’t work: “It’s arithmetic.”
Business communicators can learn a lot from studying the 2012 presidential campaign, even beyond the power of the soundbite. Many of the triumphs and stumbles during this long oratorical cavalcade were from the Communications 101 playbook. Here are some of the prime lessons:
- Know your audience. Successful communication always begins with audience analysis. Consider the makeup of the target audience, their interests and concerns, and what approach will best resonate with them.
Democrats observed the dramatic change in demographics in the country, targeted women and minorities, and won big with both groups. Republicans appealed primarily to the conservative wing, and as a result, could not win enough moderate voters to swing an election.
- Listen. Successful leaders listen to a wide variety of voices, including contrary ones, when making decisions.
GOP leaders paid too much attention to the talking heads on Fox News and, believing that they had a huge groundswell behind them, failed to effectively target key audiences such as women and Hispanics. The result: huge losses in these demographic groups. The Romney camp heard what it wanted to, not what it needed to, and reacted accordingly.
- Take time to prepare. President Obama seemingly took a nonchalant approach to the first debate, and Romney beat him handily. He prepared better for the second and third debates and was more effective.
- Use short sentences and short words. Another reason for the President’s poor performance in the critical first debate on Oct. 3 was that he seemed more like a law professor than a political leader. His comments needed to be simplified, clarified and more to the point.
- Understand how the media work. When Romney made that 47 percent remark before a group of supporters, he clearly didn’t intend it for public consumption. But thanks to the proliferation of smartphones, ordinary citizens function as journalists today. Somebody video recorded the statement, put it up on the Web, and soon it was on mainstream television and other media.
Many business executives, such as Chik-fil-A CEO Dan Cathy, have suffered the same fate in making controversial remarks to like-minded people in comments not intended for the general public. Today’s journalists work with mobile devices, not with camera crews.
- Stay relevant. The Obama team essentially wrote the book on the use of social media through outlets such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. The campaign used these tools to connect with specific sites for groups like Latinos, African-Americans and the LGBT community. Just as John F. Kennedy was the first television president, Obama is the first social media president.
- Manage your reputation. Romney could not escape the perception that his wealth and background made him oblivious to the needs of the middle class. Softening his image and moving toward the political center in the debates helped, but not enough to overcome the negative perception.
Key lessons to remember
- Study the techniques of business and political leaders. Good communication principles are universal.
- Remember that preparation is still key to communication success.
- Listen to a variety of voices. Perspective is essential to making the right executive decisions.
- Watch what you say. Privacy is dead. A person with a smartphone can send a damaging video clip around the world instantly.
- Be sure that your management fully recognizes the power, and the danger, of social media. Too many consider it a toy of the young.
Virgil Scudder is the author of the upcoming book “World Class Communication: How Great CEOs Win with the Public, Shareholders, Employees and the Media.” He is president of Virgil Scudder & Associates, based in New York.