Casting Ballots: What Political Campaigns Can Teach PR Professionals

November 3, 2014


It’s been said that the world’s first PR professionals were politicians. With Election Day this month, the close, heated races that will determine the makeup of the U.S. Senate have political campaigns using time-honored tactics to get ahead.

PR professionals in other specialty areas can learn from these methods to create a positive message of their own.  

Craft a winning campaign

Every politician promises that his or her campaign will take the high road. So why has Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., called Alison Lundergan Grimes, who is opposing him in the upcoming midterm election, “the new face for the status quo”? And why has Grimes announced, “I don’t know whether to call Senator McConnell ‘Senator No Show,’ ‘Senator Gridlock,’ or ‘Senator Shut Down’”? Maybe it’s because studies have shown that negative messages are more influential than positive ones.

As Vincent Covello explains in the “Handbook of Risk and Crisis Communication” (Routledge, 2009), “it takes three or more positive messages to counterbalance a negative message.” In particular, “communications that contain negatives — words such as ‘no,’ ‘not,’ ‘never,’ ‘nothing,’ ‘none,’ and other words with negative connotations — tend to receive closer attention, are remembered longer, and have greater impact than messages with positive words.”

Of course, engaging in political attacks can reflect poorly upon candidates. But even if campaigns stay positive in their official messaging, they almost always findways to criticize their opponents — either off the record and/or through surrogates. Sometimes messages are re-phrased to emphasize the negative — such as mentioning harmful ingredients that a product does not contain, for example — and heighten their impact. The lesson for PR practitioners is that they need to work harder than they may have realized to combat negative attacks.

Set expectations

Why did the Obama campaign call John McCain “the best town-hall performer in the history of politics” in the run-up to the 2008 election? And why did George W. Bush’s campaign call John Kerry “the best debater since Cicero” before the 2004 debates? More important than a candidate’s actual performance on the campaign trail is often whether his or her performance comports with expectations. Campaigns therefore work hard before debates and other major events to build expectations for opposition candidates and lower expectations for their own, so they can then outpace predictions and steal headlines.

With reporters, such expectation-setting is often done in informal, off-the-record or background conversations — a tactic that PR practitioners in other fields can emulate in advance of major announcements and events.

Understand ‘bandwagoning’

President Obama’s campaign manager, David Plouffe, wrote in his book “The Audacity to Win” (Penguin, 2009) that in the 2008 race, “We pounded Obama with the mantra that the first [primary] contests held undue influence. If you stumbled as an insurgent candidate, you were done.”

Political campaigns place huge importance on building momentum with early wins because people tend to climb aboard the bandwagon and support the same candidates others have chosen.

In their book “Nudge” (Penguin, 2009), Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein argue that the reason John Kerry won the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination was “because of a widespread perception that other people were flocking to Kerry” and away from Howard Dean. “It was not because every Democratic voter made an independent judgment on Kerry’s behalf,” but that people believed others were supporting Kerry. This is why campaigns play up the idea that other people already support their candidate — a tactic that can be replicated by public relations practitioners.

In fact, the phenomenon of “bandwagoning,” has been documented to occur in a wide range of settings outside of politics. Simply claiming that a candidate, product or idea has widespread support can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Repeat your messages

Political campaigns constantly repeat their key messages because studies of how people form the opinions they share in polls show that individuals often simply echo an argument they have recently heard. In “The Nature and Origins of Mass Opinion” (Cambridge, 1992), John Zaller explains: “Most people really aren’t sure what their opinions are on most political matters…because there are few occasions…in which they are called upon to formulate and express political opinions. So when confronted by rapid-fire questions in a public opinion survey, they make up attitude reports as best they can as they go along. But because they are hurrying, they are heavily influenced by whatever ideas happen to be at the top of their minds.”

Repeating key messages — inside or outside of politics — can help keep them in the forefront of people’s thoughts when they’re called upon to make decisions.

Tell your story first

In his “History of the Peloponnesian War,” Thucydides wrote, “most people, in fact, will not take trouble in finding out the truth, but are much more inclined to accept the first story they hear.” Modern researchers have proven him right.

For example, “Attitudes toward Presidential Candidates and Political Parties” — a study published in 2001 by Allyson Holbrook and four other researchers — found that the first information people receive about candidates in U.S. presidential elections is disproportionally influential.

Another reason that first impressions matter is because of the so-called “halo effect.” In his bestselling book “Thinking, Fast and Slow” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011) Nobel Prize-winning economist Daniel Kahneman explains: “If you like the president’s politics, you probably like his voice and his appearance as well. This tendency to like (or dislike) everything about a person — including things you have not observed — is known as the halo effect.” And “sequence matters … because the halo effect increases the weight of first impressions, sometimes to the point that subsequent information is mostly wasted.”

This is why political campaigns strive to tell their candidate’s story first — and why PR practitioners in other fields are wise to follow suit.

Kara Alaimo, Ph.D.
Kara Alaimo, Ph.D., is a global PR consultant, assistant professor of public relations at Hofstra University, and a former communicator at the U.N. and in the Obama administration. Her book “Pitch, Tweet, or Engage on the Street: How to Practice Global Public Relations and Strategic Communication” was published by Routledge in August 2016. Follow her on Twitter: @karaalaimo.


Cornelius N. Ole Sikawa says:

Very true I love this. I took a look at the 2014 midterm and saw all what you wrote in this article thanks alot

Nov. 10, 2014

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