10/23/16 • A Historical Look At Political PR

As posted in The Gaston Gazette:

(10/23/16) BELMONT, N.C. –  Up for grabs, the coveted post as 45th President of the United States. The clock quickly ticks away until a new leader is elected following a memorable election cycle, to say the least. But this lengthy presidential season wasn’t the first to throw new political twists and turns into the spotlight. Although our Democratic and Republican front runners and their foes used formidable tactics toward gaining voter nods, they were not the first to elicit attention for their creative or modern public relations strategies. Rather, they follow in the footsteps of many others who implemented game changing approaches in an attempt to gain the nation’s highest seat.

Politics has long intertwined with public relations. This form of communications sets roots deep within history – from ancient Greek rhetoric to political British plays, conquerors and monarchs have routinely utilized PR to establish stories, sagas and scoops on leaders through the ages. In today’s modern U.S. society, the same can be said for those seeking electoral power. So which individuals vying to become Commander in Chief have used public relations tools to capture media and audience awareness? Let’s take a look at some of the more notable examples that altered the campaigning process:

  • TV triumphs. In June 1992, it was the saxophone heard around the world. Former President Bill Clinton was the presumptive Democrat presidential nominee with a planned visit to The Arsenio Hall Show. And rather than take a casual seat and chat with the late-night host about candidacy aspirations and goals, Clinton approached the stage donning sunglasses, a loud tie and his saxophone. He then regaled the audience with “Heartbreak Hotel” and changed the perception of a presidential candidate, simultaneously gaining a more favorable persona in the public eye. Said Sean Braswell in “Bill Clinton’s Great Sax Appeal” from the news site OZY, “The Clinton camp desperately needed to reintroduce the 45-year-old Arkansas governor to a national audience, and showcase his softer, personal side … so Clinton media adviser Mandy Grunwald devised a bold new pop-culture media strategy.”

    Yet even earlier in 1972, Republican Richard Nixon sought to give his image a lighter touch by appearing on the comedy show, Laugh In. With his simple rendition of the signature phrase “Sock it to me,” the “comeback kid” helped the quest to refresh his persona from downer to “New Nixon.”

  • Rocking the vote. For several decades, young voters have remained a challenging demographic to persuade to the polls. From 1964 to 2012, the U.S. Census Bureau reports that 18-to-24-year-olds decreased their voting attendance, from 50.9 percent to 38 percent. Since 1990, the campaign Rock the Vote – an MTV-era movement – has strived to change the momentum in an upward direction. Rock the Vote, ushered in with a PSA from Madonna, merges celebrity and politics to encourage indifferent, indecisive young voters to care about the direction of their country. The nonprofit uses various public relations tactics – including strategic messaging and consistent branding – as well as advertising to motivate and educate a specific audience, increase voter registration and share vital campaign details during pivotal election cycles.
  • Let’s get social. Social media grew to become a ubiquitous tool of communication, particularly in reaching the aforementioned millennial audience. It was only a matter of time before campaigns began to weave sites such as Facebook and Twitter into their campaign public relations strategy. President Obama was the first to utilize these networks successfully during his 2008 fight against Republican nominee John McCain. And by 2012, Obama and his team were pros at tackling this PR method. Obama’s “Ask Me Anything” interview series, conducted via the social media resource Reddit, was touted as a “phenomenon.” Within 24 hours, 5.2 million people had read the Reddit interview. It was the most trafficked post in Reddit’s history.

    In this 2016 campaign, both Presidential candidates are making significant use of all social media platforms as they vie for the coveted role. Donald Trump, in particular, has relied on Twitter especially as a tool for rallying his supporters around his key issues. Hillary Clinton, however, is no slouch using the same strategies, often speaking directly to Trump – and vice versa – in using the real-time technology. Social media platforms continue to allow those campaigning to directly reach constituents, as this 2016 season has significantly demonstrated. For better or worse, this targeting strategy certainly finds audiences.

Each election season has its memorable moments – planned and unplanned. But those tactics carefully devised by public relations teams have helped change campaigns through the years, pushing presidential candidates to the forefront and bringing more voters to the polls. Will social media continue to play a role? Will yet another candidate find his or her audience through one silly outfit and an unknown talent? We shall wait and see what future PR teams have in store.

Lyerly Agency’s President and CEO Elaine Lyerly and Executive Vice President and COO Melia Lyerly share their 35+ years of marketing, advertising, public relations and brand strategy experience with readers each month in a column published by The Gaston Gazette. See this month’s edition at http://bit.ly/2f8S9Ap.