Lessons From the Campaign Trail

The only thing that will bring more excitement than the election before Nov. 2 is if the Boston Red Sox miraculously fall apart and lose the last four games of the World Series. Stranger things have happened — just ask the New York Yankees. Nonetheless, with the election on tap for next Tuesday, I thought it would be a good time to take a look at the PR winners and losers of what we Americans like to call the democratic process.

As always, the point of this exercise is to glean some lessons from what we see around us everyday. From President George W. Bush and Senator John Kerry to Halliburton and Howard Dean, this latest exercise in democracy has provided a treasure trove of PR wins and losses.

Bush’s Biggest PR Mistake: Failure is not something any political leader should admit, but acknowledging mistakes is a must in a democratic society. The President’s unwillingness to admit to mistakes, and more importantly, to hold his lieutenants accountable, will potentially cost him the votes of some of those all-important “undecideds.” A leader – be it a President of the United States, or the President of Acme Widgets, Inc. – must project a strong and comforting image. Acknowledging mistakes and taking responsibility is an important part of projecting this image.

Kerry’s Biggest PR Mistake: Don’t go there, oh brother, don’t mention the lesbian daughter. By bringing up Vice President Dick Cheney’s lesbian daughter during the final debate, Kerry missed out on any positive PR he would have gotten by winning the debate (of course, it’s debatable whether he won or not). Instead of sticking with important issues, and getting in solid, well-rehearsed sound bites, Kerry basically got personal. While he was trying to make a point, and praise the Cheney family at the same time, the Republicans latched onto the comment, and the media ignored most of the debate and concentrated on the one issue. Kerry effectively destroyed ninety minutes of good PR with one stupid comment, which serves as a reminder to us to keep your message short and on target.

Bush’s Best PR Maneuver: It took awhile, but the candidates have finally figured out that giving the same speech at appearance after appearance in the age of 24/7 media doesn’t make much sense. In recent days, Bush has hammered Kerry using scare tactics by essentially telling voters that we’re in deep trouble on the national security front if Kerry is elected. (Vice President Dick Cheney pretty much said we’d be attacked if Kerry is elected.) Do scare tactics work? Yes – that’s why seatbelt campaigns and anti-drunk driving campaigns have been successful. It’s the best weapon in politics, and one that can be used by businesses – just take a look at ads and PR campaigns used by technology security firms.

Kerry’s Best PR Maneuver: Sometimes the best PR is the PR we never really notice. By silently waiting in the wings for his opponents to implode, Kerry stole the Democratic nomination from a field of higher-profile names. He stayed on message, kept his cool, and played his hand close to his vest. Splashy PR campaigns and innovative marketing don’t always equal succeed because sometimes the competitor’s product is just better. Kerry just waited for everyone to run out of ideas to attract supporters, and then he went in and galvanized the Democratic base.

Worst PR Mistake by A Candidate’s Family Member: For all she’s done for charities and the less fortunate, Teresa Heinz Kerry may unfortunately be remembered for telling a reporter to “shove it” and saying Laura Bush never held a real job. Not only did Heinz Kerry alienate some in the media, she didn’t do much to help her husband win any votes from teachers (Mrs. Bush, it’s well known, was a teacher). Laura Bush, on the other hand, has basically kept her mouth shut, providing us with ample proof that PR people and the CEO are usually the only people who should deal with the media.

Biggest PR Loser of the Election: The media does a great job of disseminating campaign junk, and they do an even better job of creating junk of their own. From CBS’s fake documents to Sinclair Broadcasting’s news program fiasco, the media has built up enough bad will to last until the 2008 election, and beyond. And publishers wonder why newspaper readership continues to plummet? When your business is based on the concept of impartiality, and you do everything in your power to be otherwise, you’ve basically thrown all your brand-building out the window.

Biggest PR Winner of the Election: Howard Dean may have mobilized bloggers, but people from all across the political spectrum got into the game and moved blogging from a hobby to, well, a hobby that can have an impact on people’s lives. The power of instantaneous, global communication was evident this election year, and it was pretty much due to word-of-mouth marketing. It’s not surprising that blogging’s rise has coincided with the rebirth of successful dot-com companies. Though it’s not been mentioned, the Internet and everyone who does business on it may be the biggest beneficiaries of this year’s election.

The Election’s Teflon Award Goes To: For all the conspiracy theories we hear about Halliburton, no one outside of the Democratic Party seems to care. Halliburton’s stock has risen almost 50% over the past year, and the company has shaken off one allegation after the other. Investors and Wall Street actually do pay attention to non-economic forces, but they’ve apparently seen no reason to be concerned with all the bad media Halliburton has gotten. Sometimes just shutting up and executing on your business plan is enough to make people forget the rumors and innuendo (and in some cases, the facts).

Worst PR For a Technology: If blogs made out like bandits as a result of this election, electronic voting is on the flipside of the coin. After the Florida debacle in 2000, a lot of people said electronic voting was not only the wave of the future, but absolutely necessary. Unfortunately, there have been electronic voting problems, and one company in the sector, Diebold, finds itself accused of defrauding the State of California. Like the fervor that drove dot-com stocks high, and the resulting disappointment that saw those stocks crash, the untested technology and unfulfilled promise of electronic voting has dealt the concept a serious blow. Simply put, you don’t bring a product to market unless it’s ready for primetime.

Worst PR Move: Howard Dean’s “scream” in Iowa. Dean went from the covers of “Time” and “Newsweek” to the electoral bench quicker than a pop singer shuffling off the stage after her band “played the wrong song.” Dean’s exuberance during his consolation speech after the Iowa Caucus forever doomed him and left many with an image of beaten, crazed man. His lesson to all of us is to remember that when we’re in public, on television no less, we’re representing our company and our product. In this case, Dean being the product, his scream signaled a serious price cut.

Worst Flip-Flop: For someone who had his scenes deleted from “The First Wives Club,” Jon Stewart has certainly made a name for himself. For the better part of the past two or three years, Stewart has been riding high on the PR hog, racking up features and profiles in the media like he’s going out of style. But Stewart’s recent appearance on CNN’s “Crossfire” hasn’t made him many friends in the media, which has shown a fawning willingness to kowtow to the “fake” news show host. The ratings for Stewart’s show were once being used to showcase his rising popularity, but now they’re being used to showcase his relative obscurity. (Case in point: while I’m well aware of the show, I have no clue what time it’s on, or where Comedy Central is on my cable; but the Cartoon Network is Channel 22, in case you wanted to know.) Stewart’s lambasting of “Crossfire” was unintentionally funny, well-meaning, and a stupid PR move. I’m just surprised that no one has bothered to point out that Stewart essentially called people who watch the show, and others like it, stupid – not exactly the best way to build a broader audience. He would have been better-served by coming off less creepy and bitter and more intelligent, not as someone who is superior. Preaching doesn’t normally equate to good PR outside of a house of worship.

Biggest Loser of the Election: Hi, does anyone remember me? You know, the American citizen and voter? Swift boats, National Guard service, first ladies, meaningless debates, etc., the list goes on and on. Raise your hand if you actually know what anyone’s real plan for health care, social security, Iraq, North Korea and taxes is. The media didn’t work in the people’s best interest, and the candidates pandered to the media.

This article, written by Ben Silverman, originally appeared in PR Fuel (http://www.ereleases.com/prfuel), a free weekly newsletter from eReleases (http://www.ereleases.com), the online leader in affordable press release distribution. To subscribe to PR Fuel, visit: http://www.ereleases.com/prfuel/subscribe/.