February 18, 2016

What Presidential Campaigns Can Teach Us About the Value of Public Relations

Everyone, even experienced public figures, can benefit from a good public relations team. Nowhere is this more evident than in the race to the White House.

For each candidate who can answer any question without breaking a sweat, there is another who can’t get out of their own way when faced with a series of daunting questions during a debate or media interview. It is just as easy to fall apart like Rick Perry or Sarah Palin as it is to gracefully brush aside a question like Bernie Sanders. These moments often define a campaign.

Rick Perry, ex-governor of Texas, infamously claimed during the 2011 Republican campaign that there were three areas of government he would eliminate while serving as president. When asked to list those government entities, he could only recall the departments of commerce and education while painfully shuffling through a series of index cards before giving up. He later admitted the third one was the Environmental Protection Agency. His campaign never recovered.

Bernie Sanders came to a similar crossroads during a February 11th PBS Democratic debate. Moderator Gwen Ifill asked him if he would regret being “the instrument of thwarting history” by opposing Hillary Clinton, who would be the first female president.

“From a historical point of view, somebody with my background, somebody with my views … I think a Sanders victory would be of some historical accomplishment as well,” said the Vermont Senator.

The Sanders team may have anticipated that question and rehearsed it ahead of time. Both his Jewish identity and socialist platform were summed up into a short, simple answer that appeared to take Ifill by surprise and drew loud applause from the crowd in attendance. Had he struggled to answer this question, the consequences could have sunk his rising national profile.

A closer look at Sanders shows that he is consistently able to tie the answer to almost every question he is asked into his core message: the wealthiest Americans should help the least fortunate. What comes across to some as a rant against the one percent, is actually a carefully crafted narrative that seeks to—in the opinion of many—rally the disenfranchised, downtrodden masses left behind during the Great Recession: a message that has become significantly more polished than when he announced his candidacy in a hurried press conference.

At the complete opposite end of the spectrum, we have Sarah Palin. Her rising star fell quickly back to earth when then-CBS journalist Katie Couric asked which newspapers and magazines she reads. The former Alaska governor said she “read most of them.” When further pressed by Couric, Palin stammered and sputtered “all of them that have been in front of me” before rambling on that “Alaska is a microcosm of America.”

Palin clearly seemed in over her head on a national stage, and Couric smelled blood and went in for the kill. However, the risk of putting her in front of a national audience could have been averted if Palin had the right team in place to help her anticipate questions and rehearse answers that reflected positively on her knowledge and experiences.

At the very least, she could have avoided embarrassing herself in a video that has millions of online views and will live on forever.

A good public relations firm provides an invaluable service that goes well beyond finding media opportunities for its clients. Helping clients to create talking points and prepare them for interviews and other public appearances can go a long way towards helping create the narrative around a client—be it a presidential candidate or a financial services professional—a narrative that can make or break a campaign.

By: Ryan Gorman