Sunday, January 12, 2014

The Seven Deadly Sins of Campaign and Political Public Relations

or ... Why is it We Never Have Time To Do It Right ... 

But We Always Have Time To Do It Over ...?

Ned Barnett

In the promotion of your candidate or campaign through Earned Media - better known as public relations, publicity or PR - there are a number of “fatal” mistakes you can make that will kill or distort your coverage.
Of these, there are the “Seven Deadly Sins of Campaign and Political Public Relations” that will ruin your chances of success, and probably lead to bad press. So do as I say, not as I’ve done …

1. "No Comment"

The worst thing you, your candidate or your campaign can say to a reporter is “No Comment” – that has become a tacit admission of guilt. And while the reporter may not know what you’re guilty of, this is like a red flag in front of a bull … he or she will take this as a personal challenge to find out what you’re hiding (and we’re all hiding something).

Practice saying something like this:

“I’ll have to research that question and get back to you – is next Tuesday soon enough?”

Don't just say you'll get back to them - give them a date/time-certain. That builds credibility and trust - but don't blow that deadline, or you're guilty as charged.  Or give them some other answer that promises a future answer, but isn't a "no comment."

In short, give a “real” answer that doesn’t answer the question, but makes it clear that you are not dodging or dissembling. One important caveat: You must pick an answer that is honest – they will check up, and nothing (not even “No Comment”) is worse than self-aware lying to a reporter. They will crucify you, your candidate, your campaign – and by their professional standards, they are both right and honor-bound to do so.

2. Spin Control

Even professional political spinmeisters are having an increasingly hard time persuading the press that what they think they heard (or read, or saw) isn’t what was really said (or printed or acted out). If your candidate's or Campaign Manager's or chief donor's wife likes to go skinny-dipping in public fountains at 3 a.m., you are not going to spin your way out of the embarrassment – especially if the reporter has witnessed this. Better to have her admitted to Betty Ford, then explain she’s had a rough time recently, but is being helped. That really is better than try to pretend what they “saw” isn’t what was really there.

Once, this approach was so brazen it actually worked, but from over-use, it has become a serious negative.   For instance, in the '50s, Georgia governor Gene Talmadge, father of the late Georgia Senator "Hummun" Talmadge, was caught taking beef cattle from prison farms for his own ranch.  When confronted by the media, he invited them all to a barbecue, where they helped him eat the evidence.  But those days are long gone.

3. Disinformation

This is a favorite government tactic – often manifest by “leaking” information about a political or bureaucratic opponent that isn’t exactly true (or it may be completely false, though if so, it will be impossible to prove it's false). As with spin control, this technique has become increasingly discredited – and a righteously wrathful media actively seeks out and punishes the disinformants (whom they deem no more worthy of fair treatment than politicians caught with their hands in the public till).

One common (but largely unrecognized) way of putting forth disinformation is to talk about your competitors. You cannot be objective (who could) – and the more bitter the rivalry, the more your honest emotional outrage will color anything you say … however, unless it’s scrupulously honest and easily proven, reporters will assume (generally correctly) that it’s disinformation. They’ll lose respect for you while assuming the competitor is the “good guy …”

Bottom line - if you're bound and determined that you're going to leak something about an opponent, make sure that it's honest - and also make sure that it doesn't come back to bite you.  Better not to do it, but that's like telling a college kid that it's better to study than to go to a kegger.  Good luck.

4. "Baffle them with BS"

This is sadly familiar in sports and in politics, governance and campaigns. When information about a law or regulation or issue is technical or hard for a layman to follow, it is easy to use jargon or inside-the-beltway techno-babble to confuse the reporter. This is also done to try to make the techno-babbler appear larger-than-life and far more knowledgeable than he likely is. This is a poor strategy with a huge potential for boomeranging - just ask Al Gore. The full quote is “If you can’t dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with B.S.” – and in PR, that’s an inside joke, but it's also a measure of contempt for those who cannot present brilliance and who have to resort to confusion.

Don’t go there.

5. Playing (media) Favorites

This may seem harmless, right? One reporter’s been good to you. One has been stern-but-fair (or maybe not quite so fair). You’d rather feed a good story to the nice guy/gal, right? Short-term, that’s a good idea. But long-term (and long-term can be pretty short in this day of instant communications), it is a campaign or candidate suicide pact. Despite playing favorites, you're probably not going to be able to really curry favor with your favorite reporter. However, you can bet your pension and your wife's inheritance that you will earn the disfavor and disrespect – and in many cases, the active enmity – of the reporters you snub.
One of the first lessons in PR school, one that especially applies in politics and political campaigning is this: “Never pick a fight with anyone who buys ink by the barrel.” Reporters and editors ALWAYS get the last word. So respect them all (at least outwardly) and play no favorites.

OK, some campaign PR people can do this and seem to get away with it – they do it by juggling, and they succeed (sometimes) because a professional who really knows the rules can sometimes break or bend them. Others do it because their candidate is so "big" that the media really wants to earn a few favors.  Some pros can get away with this - at least in the short term – by knowing the risks and rewards, and by playing the game with skill and finesse. This is another game you don’t want to play at home, or in your campaign. Play it straight with reporters, and more often than not, they’ll play straight with you.

If they don’t, write a letter to the editor (really – it often works).

6. Demanding Coverage

This is one of the worst failings of amateurs, and of self-important candidates who have more power in their mind than they do in reality. They somehow think, perhaps by the divine right of kings (and candidates) that they actually do deserve favorable coverage because:

• Their parents raised such wonderful children

• It's their turn – hey, the other candidate was covered last month, and fair’s fair, right?

• Their story is devastatingly important (or, it’s vital to help launch their campaign, or turn a corner, or steal a march on an opponent, etc.)

• The big boss (the candidate's spouse) is demanding it

There are other excuses – pick yours. Then understand this. While reporters and editors need stories and news, they almost never need yours, no matter how important you think your candidate or campaign might be. They have what is called “editorial judgment” – which means that absent libel and slander, they can write and publish (or ignore) just about anything they want – and they do not have to answer to anybody.

If you must know why your story didn’t run, you can ask – if you do it right. Here’s what I do.

“Sir (or ma’am), apparently I did something wrong – I thought it was a good story, but clearly it wasn’t good enough. If you have a minute, I’d appreciate it if you could tell me what I could have done different or better to make this worth your time and interest.” In this case, the fault is yours (probably true – it is with PR professionals, so why not with candidates or campaign professionals … good as we are, we can miss some big point or subtle nuance). But it’s better not to ask – some editors get real defensive. And if you “demand,” kiss your future positive press coverage, and maybe even your campaign, goodbye.

7. "I was only following orders ..." (doing what you are told, rather than what is right)

This only works if you're not the candidate yourself - unless you can persuade someone that you were following your Campaign Manager's edict.  If you are doing your campaign's or candidate’s PR and are answering to someone else, you may find that the candidate or the Campaign Manager is asking or expecting you to do things that your gut instincts say avoid, and these brief lessons tell you to steer clear of. Do not be tempted to follow bad advice - or worse, bad orders - just because it comes from the top. However, if you do as your told (and it blows up in your face with the reporters or editors), take the heat with integrity. Don’t blame others (or cop out with “I was only following orders …”) – its amazing how little damage comes from admitting you were wrong – and moving on. Almost all reporters and editors respect that, if only because it’s so rare.


OK, so you’ve seen the Seven Deadly Sins – and you know what your candidate or campaign should avoid. You’ve seen how to choose between targeted and broadside distribution of releases, as well as how to prepare and distribute a pitch. Now, let’s go out there and get us some good, solid campaign Earned Media PR, OK?

The reporters are waiting for you … Good Luck!

And if you need help with campaign Earned Media relations, PR, speechwriting, strategy, or ghost-writing/speechwriting - give me a holler - or 702-561-1167

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