Making an organized effort to influence the decision-making process within a specific group in favor of your client. Seems quite simple, doesn’t it?
But PR in politics is everything but simple. It is based on countless hours of research, strategizing, networking, creating the most appropriate messaging, and putting out fires daily. Every day can be a crisis day in political PR. And you need to be prepared.
In this blog, we’ll go through a couple of strategies that will help you prepare for your next political PR campaign with the help of popular examples from the US elections.
When Does a Political PR Campaign Start?
In PR, your campaign starts the moment you are hired for the job. But in reality, campaigning never stops in a politician’s life. Whether it’s the first time your client is running or not, every moment in their lives should be placed under a magnifying glass. Because there is nothing that an opponent loves more than digging out some dirt from the past.
A good PR professional handling a political campaign should primarily nurture relationships with the media and create press releases and newsworthy content around the campaign. The ultimate goal is to amplify the media coverage and get your client’s message across as many channels as possible. In this process, it’s important to foresee possible pitfalls and have control during a crisis.
As said, we’ve used the forthcoming US midterm elections to explain some common PR practices. First, let’s see what’s at stake.
A glimpse into American midterm elections
Midterm elections (popularly called the Midterms) are general elections in the USA, typically held in the middle of a presidential term. They are commonly known as a “wake-up call” for the party in power (i.e., the sitting president). The reason? The promises from the presidential campaign are still fresh, so it’s easy to compare what has been done to reality. And the reality is very often much different from the promised fluff during the campaign.
During the Midterms, most of the attention is focused on two chambers of the US Congress – the House of Representatives and the Senate. And since members of the House of Representatives are chosen every 2 years, all 435 seats are on the ballot during midterm elections.
Why are they important?
Well, Congress is a legislative body and whoever has control over it has the authority to make laws. A bill becomes a law only with approval from both the Senate and the House of Representatives, so if a political party rules both of these chambers, it’s highly likely they will have their legislation passed. This is especially important when it comes to bills that impact a lot of people, like voting rights, gun control, abortion, etc.
This year all 435 seats of the House of Representatives and a third of the Senate seats are up for grabs. And these Midterms are especially interesting since there are a lot of hot PR topics at the moment not benefiting the predicted Republican win (following the trends). Just to mention a few: Roe vs. Wade was dismissed, which encouraged around 20% of independent female voters to vote Democrat, the FBI is investigating Trump for stealing classified documents, and gas prices have fallen, taking away an important argument from Republican rebukes.
How can PR make or break your political campaign? Let’s take a look.
5 Key PR Steps in a Political Campaign
Understand your audience
The first rule of PR 101 is Know thy audience. The reason is quite logical – only in this way you’ll be able to connect with the target audience and provoke a positive response and action in your favor.
Getting to know the target audience is much like determining your buyer persona. You’d want to find out who they are, where they live, what kind of lifestyle they lead, what drives them, and maybe most importantly – what are their beliefs and concerns. All of this should shape your client’s communication strategy and determine the tone of their public appearances. After all, finding a comprehensive way to state a political mission that solves the issues and supports beliefs is the backbone of any political PR strategy.
Media monitoring can be a valuable asset when researching and composing campaign messaging.
Media monitoring refers to tracking publicly available information on a certain topic in online and offline media. This is where media monitoring tools come in handy.
It is very simple to get unbiased opinions about certain topics, people, trends, and news through media monitoring tools. What is more, you can draw out the exact expressions people use and reuse them when creating communication strategies for the campaign.
What are the two opposing streams of thought in the States?
We have two major political parties in the USA – Republicans and Democrats. Republicans are the right-wing, conservative option, and Democrats are the left-wing and liberal option. Republicans tend to promote traditional values, a low degree of government interference, and greater states’ and local rights. In addition, they are generally “pro-life”, against gun control legislation, and they value a strong national defense system.
Democrats represent liberal values, social responsibility, and a strong government to regulate business and support the citizens. As opposed to the Republicans, Democrats generally support women’s right to free abortion, LGBTQ+ people’s rights, tightening of gun laws, and governmentally funded healthcare.
As mentioned before, knowing your audience will help you focus on the topics that hit the sweet spot and help you get more media attention.
Collect and Organize Valuable Media Contacts
What do all PR professionals have in common?
All of them probably own a large contact list of media contacts. One may argue – when it comes to PR in politics, you can never have too many. This is why an integral part of every PR professional is working towards an even greater outreach ability. You can collect contact details manually or with the help of a media database like Vuelio. When creating your personal database, add as much information as possible on the contacts (like geographical data, focus, media outlets, etc). This will make it easier for you to target the right people when it comes to sending out your press releases during the campaign. Also, it is important to target media outlets that your target audience consumes. You can expect that the media outlets that share views closer to your opponents won’t maybe draw the same picture about your client as you’d like to.
For example, when talking about Donald Trump, there is a considerable difference in how CNN reports about him, a predominantly liberal media outlet, and FOX, a more conservative one.
Prepare a Crisis Communication Strategy
When it comes to PR in politics, the first step in creating a crisis communication strategy is always to try and foresee what type of crisis can hit you. In politics, there’s a potential crisis lurking every day. It’s all about reputation management – and when the stakes are as high as winning the election, you can imagine that all your opponents will be working really hard to dig out some dirty laundry from the past.
This is precisely what happened to Herschel Walker, a Conservative candidate from Georgia currently running for the Senate. He has made a name by promoting a hardline anti-abortion stance and underlying that he doesn’t believe in exceptions for rape, incest, or anything else. Recently he got caught up in a scandal – the proof came out that he paid for his ex-girlfriend’s abortion back in 2009. This caused a massive backlash of negative comments and a true challenge for his PR team.
So far, his communication strategy revolves around denying that any of this had happened and claiming that it was the Democrats trying to harm his reputation. Is this a good way to go? The elections will definitely show soon.
In general, when preparing a crisis communication strategy in political PR, it’s important to:
- Focus on the positives, not just negatives or problems
- Take control over the narrative and keep your messaging on track
- Connect with your audience in a variety of positive ways
- Steer the conversation in the direction that it answers questions and quiets the outrage
- Make sure to cover all communication channels (media outlets, social media platforms, etc.)
Work on creating an impressive public appearance
PR in politics involves a lot of public speaking and press conferences. In these situations, one thing always saves the day – great preparation. You can never be ready for all possible questions, but just as with crisis communication – you can foresee a lot of the topics your candidate will have to tackle in their speeches and prepare a strategy. There are several tactics in political PR when we talk about public speaking:
A spin is a common PR tactic in politics that involves presenting particular facts in a way that supports the candidate’s position. Spinning is often used to discredit an opponent or to downplay a mistake.
A rather recent political spin performed by Joe Biden provoked a lot of controversies. Faced with an increase in inflation and higher prices, Biden and the White House have tried to pivot the messaging – and warned that the economy was about to slow down and that it was, in fact, a good thing.
This message isn’t completely wrong. But it’s not all of the truth either.
A platform, in this sense, is a set of beliefs that a candidate has and the goals they want to achieve. This platform is actually the starting point for all campaign messaging and the baseline of the PR communication strategy. It is often repeated at campaign events so voters can hear the same message on the same platform.
To go back to Joe Biden – his main message throughout the whole campaign was based on communicating the message of unity. But with Midterms coming and the trends not going in his party’s favor, he decided to make a twist – and openly attack MAGA (Make America Great Again) Republicans beginning of September. This ruffled quite a lot of feathers on both sides and signified a different strategy that is yet to show results.
Use media monitoring tools to track important political matters, news, and your competitors
When we talk about PR in politics, it’s crucial to get the right information on time. A delay in reacting to a negative statement, a scandal, or a matter of common interest may signify the end of a political career. This is why media monitoring tools present a valuable asset in any PR agency working on a political campaign.
These tools can notify you in real-time when something of your interest is mentioned. They track the outreach of your campaigns and speeches, your press releases, and the general sentiment that the audience has towards your candidate or party. In addition, you can filter the data by language, source, and influence score, giving you additional information you can use to better understand the influence of your efforts.
PR in Politics – Influencing Public Opinion
Regardless of the industry, creating the right PR strategy is crucial to get your message in front of the right people. However, when it comes to PR in politics, it’s even more important since you need to influence public opinion. PR in politics requires a comprehensive communication strategy, a complete understanding of your target audience, and the ability to navigate crises with ease.
All of these will help you present your client in the best possible light. And this is your ultimate goal as a PR professional.