What We’ve Learned: Important Lessons From Election 2008 (So Far)

February 19, 2008

Copyright © 2008 PRSA. All rights reserved.

By Ed Cafasso

The following article appears in the winter 2008 issue of The Strategist. Editor’s note: John Gorman, who is quoted in the article, died on Feb. 10. He was 57.

Presidential campaigns are fascinating and often frustrating to watch for corporate and institutional communications strategists. The hugely emotional and intensely subjective nature of the effort to select the next leader of the world’s most powerful free nation is an exciting and, frankly, frightening alternative to the linear and rationally driven programs that we carefully craft within the bright lines of our spreadsheets and PowerPoint presentations.

“There’s a tendency for corporations to try to emulate interesting things in campaigns in their own communications and marketing. That’s a really bad mistake,” says John Gorman, founder and chief executive of Opinion Dynamics Corporation, the political polling agency for Fox News and a leading market and opinion research firm. “Corporations are immortal. They live forever, at least until a bankruptcy or takeover. Campaigns and candidates do not think medium term or even long term. They will do what they have to do. They either win in November or, more than likely, they’re never coming that way again,” Gorman adds.

Despite this difference, and because of it, important lessons about budgeting, issues management, media relations, messaging, research, staffing and timing become clear at this point in the primary season. Here are insights from the 2008 election that reinforce critical tactical elements of successful strategy.

It’s about trust: The need to consistently and credibly convey mission, vision and values is the most striking similarity between political and corporate communications. Nothing a candidate (or an enterprise) says or does will matter if the public does not trust him or her to understand and act on their concerns and desires.

Primary campaigns play out in two dimensions: narrowcasting and broadband. The narrowcasting dimension combines both stakeholder-specific (like trying to capture evangelicals, young people or labor unions) and state-specific programs (the cost of home heating oil is more important in New Hampshire than in Florida, for example).

But the larger and more important broadband dimension hinges on the intersection of mass-audience concerns with a candidates’ personal style and convictions. This season, public impatience and frustration with bureaucratic bumbling, tone-deaf leadership and generalized gridlock has placed a premium on candidates who can communicate the right mix of competence and change.

“More and more, candidates have really become three-dimensional figures,” says Peter Fenn, chief of the Fenn Communications Group and instructor of a course in campaign advertising at George Washington University. “Voting for president is the most personal vote anyone casts. People think they have to know their president inside and out. It’s the People magazine age. Everybody wants to know everything about everyone.”

Calendar-driven communications: The campaign has been in fourth gear for more than a year. More than two-thirds of the states have held primaries. Three-quarters of delegates have been allotted. There have been a record number of debates and record amounts of money raised. And, there are still nearly nine months to go. The early intensity has worked to activate voters, Fenn notes.

“If you look at 2003 versus 2007, the polls show that twice as many voters, in terms of percentage, are actively engaged,” Fenn says. “About a third of voters in 2003 said they were very interested or somewhat interested in what was going on. That figure was at more than two-thirds by the end of 2007.”

On the negative side, the consolidation of most state primaries within a six-week span created an unforgiving communications environment, according to Gorman.
“It increases the importance of having a lot of money or name recognition early. Conversely, underdogs with little money have little chance to make their case,” Gorman says. “I don’t think Bill Clinton or Jimmy Carter would have survived this schedule. It’s ridiculous.”

Media kingmakers and coups:  Presidential politics is the ultimate example of the media’s power as a third-party influencer.

The media happily partner in cultivating longshots — witness the “Seabiscuit” glow that Democrat Barack Obama and Republican Mitt Romney enjoyed during 2007. But media mavens also help script hubris for early favorites, as Hillary Clinton experienced following her early ordination as the Democrats’ “inevitable” nominee.

“It triggers buyer’s remorse when the media crowns someone,” says Gorman. Adds Fenn: “The press does this every cycle: Build up and tear down.”

To be fair, the early start to the campaign has forced the media to fill space in the 24-hour news cycle in 2007 with stories of questionable worth or appeal.

Channels? We’ve got channels: Corporate communicators who struggle to align their marketing mix in six-month or yearlong portions should not envy their presidential peers.

States such as Iowa and New Hampshire demand retail politics at the grassroots level. New York, California, Texas and Florida require massive broadcast advertising spends. If a campaign does not have an archive of positive, negative and inoculation ads, it must be prepared to create and air them in 24 hours or less within the most dynamic communications environment imaginable.

“Last year featured a heavy earned media environment,” says Fenn. “Mike Huckabee, for example, made all that early headway on free press.”

Meanwhile, the Internet’s value in politics has mirrored its value in noncommodity business environments — as a transactional tool to raise money (Republican Ron Paul reprised Howard Dean’s 2004 role), as an archival tool for information, and as an organizational tool for meetings and message delivery.

Debate questions posed via YouTube certainly generate novel hype, but online communications has still not attained anything approaching game-changing status in presidential politics.

Account planning: Publicly traded companies settle on their communications plan months before the start of a fiscal year. But campaign communicators may be asked to create three vastly different plans in just a few weeks this spring, especially with a six-month gap between the end of most primaries and the party’s conventions around Labor Day.

The condensed primary schedule led many pundits to assume that the two parties would settle on nominees by Saint Patrick’s Day, if not Valentine’s Day. But, as you’re reading this, there’s a very good chance that two or three candidates from each party are still viable, despite the fact that most delegates have been chosen.

A candidate with the nomination in hand in the spring needs to simultaneously inoculate themselves from attack; position their opponent or opponents in the other party; and maintain energy and suspense around their run, including their choice of running mate.

But a multiple candidate scramble with no clear-cut nominee would upend the early primary theory. Each remaining candidate will be intensely scrutinized and profiled, while the media enters high alert for potential dealmaking in which one or more second-tier hopefuls seek to leverage their delegates with front-runners.

In that case, late-primary states, such as Pennsylvania on April 22, North Carolina on May 6 or South Dakota on June 3, could put a candidate over the top or further muddy the picture.

“As we saw in 2007, the next phase of the campaign will start earlier and last longer,” says Fenn. “By the time the conventions come along, the electorate is just going to be deluged with this stuff. It could be a real mess.”

Ed Cafasso is managing director of the MS&L Boston office and a member of the executive committee of PRSA’s Corporate Section.



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