Gaining Votes and Gaining Voice: Tips from the Campaign Trail for PR Professionals

By Mike Sherry

Michael Sherry CroppedElection season is in full swing and in local, state, and national races across the country, political races are experimenting with the best ways to promote causes and candidates. As a result, the best public relations strategies are borrowing heavily from the inventive, creative, and think-on-your-feet nature of political campaigns. Like campaign consultants, PR professionals are constantly working to get their client’s message across and accomplish their goals. That’s why campaign tools will always have a role to play in public relations. Here are three ways a sound PR initiative can mimic a political campaign:

Know Your Audience: Campaign professionals are skilled at dividing people into specific audience segments, which enables them to use different tools and messages where they’re most effective. For example, a City Council campaign might target only those voters who have a record of voting in local elections, thereby avoiding the expense of mailing information to households unlikely to turn out on Election Day. Effective PR should do the same thing. Any PR plan that applies a “one size fits all” approach to broadcasting its message is limiting its effectiveness.

Make Use of Events: If a PR consultant and their computer were to vanish, would the message still be heard? If the answer to that question is no, it is time to consider borrowing from the event-focused tradition of electoral politics. Rallies, meet-and-greets, and attention grabbing events are routinely used to drive home a point or capture the attention of a reporter or news crew along the campaign trail.

Instead of simply issuing a press release, consider holding a press conference and taking questions. Use props and visual aids rather than just delivering information in a speech. Political campaigns have a rich tradition of these kind of atmospherics; inventive, colorful imagery can turn a short blurb buried on page 14 into a front-page story and will be noticed and remembered by a far greater number of readers to boot.

Draw Contrasts: Have you ever noticed that political campaigns frequently “go negative” (that is, attack one another), despite the fact that voters say they prefer positive campaigns? There’s a reason for that. Though voters may claim to turn up their noses at negative campaigning, they respond to it, and in some cases it may shape their vote more strongly than any positive messaging. There’s a lesson in there for PR mavens as well. It’s not to be gratuitously nasty or insulting, but there may be a role in a PR campaign for fact-based, fair-minded contrasts between one’s own message and the opposition’s. Good political campaigns are about differences and contrasts. This can be valuable for other types of PR campaigns as well.

If the objective of your PR campaign is to promote your own business or cause at the expense of another, sit down with your PR team to determine if it makes sense to draw a contrast between your messaging and theirs. You should be looking for objective, fact-based instances where your side of the argument is superior to theirs, then figure out how to communicate those cases to readers and viewers in a direct but respectful way. Members of the public aren’t shrinking violets- if your case is persuasive and backed up by neutral fact-checkers, they won’t be turned off by your willingness to go after the opposition. After all, they’ve seen far worse in politics!

Mike Sherry is a director at O’Neill and Associates, specializing in community relations and communications. Email him at msherry@oneillandassoc.com or connect with him on Twitter