5 Corporate Communications Lessons from the 2012 Campaign
Before the 2012 presidential campaign recedes from memory, its worthwhile to reflect on some of its lessons for in-house counsel working in companies that are subject to public scrutiny:
1. Nothing is Off the Record
At a time when everyone carries a smartphone with a video recorder in their pocket, no statement can be assumed to remain private for long.
President Barack Obama learned this lesson during the 2008 campaign when he was surreptitiously recorded claiming that small-town voters get bitter and cling to guns or religion.
Republican candidate Mitt Romney was reminded of it when he was unknowinglyand now infamouslycaught on video explaining that 47 percent of Americans are dependent upon government and believe that they are victims. Indeed, recent reports of Romney's post-election comments on a conference call with campaign donors have him attributing his loss to governmental "gifts" bestowed upon voters, which indicates that this lesson still may not have sunk in.
2. The Messenger is the Message
If a company or individuals reputation is already under suspicion, it can be difficult to get a fair hearing.
Governor Romneys 47 percent comment was particularly damaging because it amplified a portrayal of him painted by the Obama campaign as an out-of-touch multimillionaire.
Similarly, President Obamas statement last summerIf youve got a business, you didnt build thatseemed to confirm suspicions of his hostility toward business interests, even if it was plucked out of a longer statement that in its entirety might not have conveyed the same message.
These pre-existing conceptions of the candidates, fairly or not, overwhelmed attempts by their campaigns to clarify or contextualize these statements.
3. Sometimes You Need a Different Messenger
To overcome reputational challenges, organizations and individuals sometimes need to call on respected and credible advocates to deliver their message.
For example, in his speech at the Democratic convention, former President Bill Clinton reassured voters that President Obama represented the best hope to lead the nation back to the prosperity enjoyed during the Clinton years.
At the Republican convention, the honest, heartfelt tributes to Governor Romney by those he served while a pastor in his church painted a more sympathetic portrait of the candidate than any of his campaign's previous efforts.
Regrettably for Governor Romney, though, few Americans heard these testimonials, as they were bumped from prime time television coverage in favor of Clint Eastwoods memorably awkward appearance.
While the Clinton example affirms the effectiveness of a charismatic and familiar surrogate, the GOP experience reminds us that authenticity can trump celebrity.
4. Know Your Audience
To successfully communicate, leaders must focus on those messages that resonate with intended audiences.
In the months preceding the election, the president successfully motivated Latinos, young people, women, and socially liberal voters by touting his support for immigration, student loan reform, same-sex marriage, and expanded health care coverage.
Furthermore, President Obamas invocation of his support forand Governor Romneys opposition tothe federal bailout of the automobile industry shored up his support in the industrial Midwest.
The Romney campaign, on the other hand, reprised variants of Ronald Reagan's successful Are you better off than you were four years ago? campaign message to aggressively target economically struggling voters.
Unfortunately for Governor Romney, many of these voters may have been antagonized by his statements during the Republican primary in support of a harder line on immigration, abortion, and government assistance to ailing industries.
Romneys primary positions, which appealed to more conservative Republican primary voters and enabled him to win the battle for his partys nomination, may have cost him the larger war for the presidency.
5. Take it to the People
Companies need to leverage the value of the many alternative methods now available to reach an audience.
While online resources like email and websites have long allowed candidates to directly engage with supporters, newer social media toolsparticularly Facebook and Twitterenable them to leverage their supporters' networks to spread their message and, crucially, raise funds.
Use of these resources, coupled with record spending on television advertisements, allowed both campaigns to communicate their messages independently of the traditional news media filter.
Of course, this list is far from exhaustive and may not be relevant to all business circumstances. However, the quadrennial hybrid of civic exercise, policy debate, and pep rally that is a presidential campaign can prove instructive for anyone seeking to manage public attention.
Attorney Rustin Silverstein is managing director for crisis and legal communications at Hamilton Place Strategies in Washington D.C.