Oct 17, 2012

PR & the Presidential Election: Commentary from Michael Steele, MSNBC Political Analyst & Former RNC Chair

Michael Steele giving his keynote at PRSA’s International Conference.

Michael  Steele was the keynote address for the final day of the 2012 PRSA International Convention where he highlighted the top events and issues of the 2012 presidential campaign.  According to Steele, Republican Presidential Candidate Mitt Romney’s campaign was a PR nightmare all summer and has made a great PR and image turnaround rather quickly.  The Obama campaign, on the other hand, used effective message targeting to paint a scary picture of Romney as the “Rich Boogeyman” who appeared to be unapproachable, distant and disconnected with voters.

“This put the Romney team on the defense, which looking back was a very good thing,” said Steele. “ It made the campaign focus and gave Romney the opportunity to undo the professionally crafted messaging on paper and the TV screen.”

“In one debate, Romney redefined the landscape with the perfect PR persona,” Steele continued. “ The public got to see two men, hear their own words, and in fact, do their own PR.  Romney clearly did that by re-defining himself in that moment…. He won the debate in the first 30 minutes.”

A case study for media training

Steele mentioned the body language of the president, such as how looking down during Romney’s responses came across as weak, which in essence was perceived to be an image disaster.  We in PR understand the media training basics of keeping direct eye contact, addressing the speaker, audience, or in this case the opponent, stay on message, and respond clearly and succinctly.  And at the top of the list — always preparing for the unthinkable, which in this case was a strong Romney attack.

Steele addressed the fact that after all is said and done, good PR means effectively playing your role, positioning your narrative with your persona to make a connection with the voters, using appearance, body language, cadence, content, and effective messaging.  In other words, effectively engaging with your target groups.

The VP debate – a contrast

In contrast, Steele noted that the VP debate was unlike any other as it was critical for the Democrats to re-charge and re-energize their brand, which they did.  He noted that both candidates played their positions well.

“Joe Biden did everything right,” said Steele.   “He was engaging, energetic, and pushed back on the issues that needed to be addressed.  He promoted the Democratic team well.  Paul Ryan held his own, was respectful of the VP position, and didn’t push too much.  He was clear, articulate and stayed on point.”

Paid vs earned media, election-style

Steele also discussed how the constant flow and billions spent on campaign ads may be for naught.

“In the state of Ohio,  73,000commercials ran and for all of the money spent  it has barely moved the needle in the polls,” commented Steele. “ Voters have made up their minds very early.”

So what does this all mean in the end?  Have voters really made up their minds?  The first presidential debate created a flurry of upsets and shifts in the polls, with Romney appearing to win a large number of undecided voters, and closing a double digit gap of women voters who previously were in favor of President Obama.  According to Steele and some polls, women, the working class now view Romney not as the “Rich Boogeyman” but as the billionaire who can make things happen.

I guess with how the polls appear to be shifting as a result of these debates, image (at least with our voters) is everything.   Now, let’s sit back and watch the coverage of last night’s contentious debate unfurl.  What did you think of the candidates’ behavior and tactics?

Larene Pare is a new business development manager for PR Newswire.

Our connected society offers the potential for paid and owned media to make the leap into valuable and credible earned media.  We call this “evolved media.”  To learn more about this phenomenon, and how you can harness it for your organization, read our free white paper: Earned Media, Evolved.

A note on comments for this post:  With the election around the corner, and enthusiasm running high, we’re receiving a lot of politically-oriented comments on this post.  However, the post (and this blog) isn’t about partisan politics – our focus here is communications strategy.  As such, commentary that isn’t related to communications won’t be displayed.

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