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Conference recap: Michael Steele on Election 2012 and communications challenges

October 16, 2012

Michael Steele has been on the road since the Republican National Convention on Aug. 26 covering the campaign trail. The MSNBC analyst and former chairman of the Republican National Committee stopped by the PRSA 2012 International Conference in San Francisco on Tuesday to talk about the upcoming presidential election, just hours before the candidates squared off for their second debate. 

His General Session speech not only focused on key issues like shaping the election and advice for the candidates, but also on lessons for all communicators regarding “the critical idea of messaging and not letting your opponents define you.”

For PR practitioners, the message on paper is different than throwing things up on the TV screen for viewers to take in and assess, he said. “With one-on-one, face-to-face interactions, all those definitions go away. That’s the power of PR — you can redefine a landscape by personal interactions and be perceived as an equal.”

This, he said, is what happened in the Oct. 3 presidential debate, which Mitt Romney was able to display — essentially winning in the first 30 minutes.

“It’s the ultimate PR campaign,” he said, “to say [your beliefs and platforms] in your own words and in person. How you prepare your client or candidate is incredibly important.”

In the previous debate, Steele said, President Obama hung his head down, which signaled a sign of defeat, in addition to other cues such as body language, responses and aggressiveness. “The power of personality and the power of the individual to be his or her own PR machine is unmistakable,” he said.

“When you are trying to re-establish a connection with your brand, you don’t want to overreach,” he said, adding that the presidential candidates need to remember this tonight too.

Steele reminded communicators to “take a moment of personalizing it,” so as not to seem disinterested to clients or voters, which he says Obama needs to do tonight to stay competitive.

“How he frames the argument is going to matter tonight,” he said. “And Mitt Romney has to keep the energy going. How does he connect in a very specific moment with the attention that he has?”

In the vice presidential debate on Oct. 11, Vice President Joe Biden “did what a great PR person would do: He grabbed attention, pushed back on products and on competitor’s products, and made his own brand new and fresh,” he said. “He went out there and he sold the team. He showed himself and bore it all.”

Paul Ryan held his own, had touching moments and pushed back when he needed to, Steele noted. “He had to keep the high ground Romney gained at the presidential debate and not give up any new ground.”

When looking at the effectiveness of messaging, Steele said that there were 73,000 political commercials in the state of Ohio this year, but despite all of the money spent from super PACs, they didn’t moved the vote, or persuade or dissuade. “The money hasn’t had the impact that it had in previous elections,” he said. “Most people have already made up their minds.” — Amy Jacques


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