Communications Lessons from the 2012 Campaign

 By Frank Ovaitt, President and CEO, Institute for Public Relations

Mike Fernandez, Corporate Vice President, Cargill, and Co-Chair of the Institute for Public Relations, would argue that corporate communicators have long learned from the pioneering efforts of political communicators.  He points to examples such as the Federalist Papers (perhaps America’s first successful public relations campaign), hot new technologies (from radio to social media), third-party surrogates and micro-targeting. 

Thus the theme of the Institute for Public Relations’ Annual Distinguished Lecture a few weeks ago:  “Communications Lessons of the 2012 Campaign.”  After 51 years, this was our first team lecture.  It featured Microsoft’s Mark Penn, formerly President Clinton’s White House pollster and a key adviser in his 1996 reelection; and Fox News’ Dana Perino, formerly Deputy Press Secretary to George W. Bush. 

We probably don’t need to revisit here the widely viewed (and often painful) episodes that the speakers used to illustrate their comments.  (If you need your memory jogged, check out the videos of the event.)  But, coming from very different perspectives, what insights did Penn and Perino draw from the campaign? 

First, that politics – and perhaps all communications – are becoming as combative as cable TV.  

“This was not a campaign about big ideas, it was a campaign about choices,” said Penn.  “That made it mirror the kind of communications combat we see on TV.”  The broader lesson for all of us:  When deliberately pitting two sides against each other becomes the norm, issues that beg for cooperation and compromise require all the more work.

No speech is off the record (what was Romney thinking?), but being judged a “no show” can be just as deadly (what was Obama thinking?). 

If you’re finding it hard to convince your CEO that a speech in a high-school auditorium could be her most noteworthy appearance of the year – or that body language can communicate how much she doesn’t want to be there – the 2012 campaign certainly offered some teachable moments.  “When I checked my Twitter feed I thought, holy cow, Obama didn’t show up (for the first debate).  In the first 10 minutes, that’s how it was defined,’” said Perino.  Any leader might think it’s unfair to be judged arrogant and “not present” for something as small as looking down at his notes.  But if every lesson has a price, this one is on the President.

Timing is (still) everything. 

At neither convention was the candidate the main event.  Clint Eastwood’s appearance at the GOP convention was offered as an example.  “Two days too late,” declared Perino, while acknowledging that Romney voters loved it.  The lesson: Know your audience (in this case, convention delegates), know when they want to have fun, and give them that at the right time. 

Finally, in a world of changing demographics, if you think your principles are still relevant, you certainly need to reconsider how to frame your arguments.  

“Look at the demographics of the country,” said Penn.  “In 1992, the Latino vote was 2 percent, and now it has hit 10 percent.  Every party is going to have to take that into account if they want to win.”  Added Perino, “You’ll hear some conservatives say, ‘Well, (Latinos) should be conservative because they’re like me, pro-life.’  Not necessarily so.  What conservatives have had a hard time doing – and I put myself in this category – is not being able to connect the dots to show that a smaller government is best for you and your future, and allows for that social mobility that we strive for in America.“ 

To see more of the evening, visit the Institute for Public Relations, .


About the Author: FRANK OVAITT, APR, is President and CEO of the Institute for Public Relations (IPR), an independent research foundation dedicated to the science beneath the art of public relations. He returned to lead IPR in 2011, having held the same position from 2004 to 2009. Frank was Executive Vice President, Makovsky + Company from 2010 to 2011. Previously, he was Managing Director of Crossover International Inc.,Vice President-Corporate Affairs for MCI, and Public Relations Vice President-International for AT&T. Frank holds a Bachelor of Journalism degree from the University of Missouri and an MBA from New York University. He has taught applied public relations research at The George Washington University Graduate School of Political Management and chaired the IPRA Campaign for Media Transparency.