(With Advice That Applies To None Political Accounts)
Arthur Solomon, Public Relations Consultant
In the 2016 presidential election, Donald Trump was victorious not because his message had the broadest public support – he received almost 3-million less votes less than Hillary Clinton – but because of infighting among the various constituencies that make up the bulk of the Democratic Party.
The Bernie Sanders fanatics helped destroy Clinton’s chances by demonizing her throughout the campaign, and she didn’t fight back. The Vermont senator also refused to endorse Clinton for months, even though it was clear that she would be the nominee. But most damaging to her election chances was that African-American voters stayed home rather than vote for a candidate who wasn’t Barack Obama in states that Trump won by the narrowest of margins.
The same defeatist scenarios is currently repeating itself: Even though he has endorsed Joe Biden, Sen. Sanders wants state primaries to continue so he can amass delegates that can push for goals that he supports at the national convention; women advocates are pushing for a woman to be the vice-presidential candidate; black activist politicians are saying that Biden must choose an African-American as his running mate or black voters might again stay home. What’s missing? None of these fractions are saying what they should say: “Biden should select the best qualified person.”
The “I’m going to take my ball and go home” attitudes of these groups if they don’t get what they want are a major problem for Biden. Because the Republicans always gather around their presidential candidate, whether they approve of the person or not. Biden must receive the votes of these disappointed Democrats in order to defeat Trump.
My first job in public relations was with a political agency, where I worked on campaigns ranging from local to statewide to presidential campaigns. I learned important rules there that apply to political and none political accounts: Unity does not always lead to success. But disunity will always lead to failure.
It’s been a while since I strategized campaigns for candidates, and began planning PR efforts for non-political clients. But I know a losing political strategy when I see it. And to date, Biden is on a losing trajectory. The reason, in my opinion? As Hillary Clinton did in 2016, and as many self-anointed PR crisis practitioners in our business do, they are following rules that were written years ago, instead of trashing them and writing new ones that match the situation, as Trump did in 2016.
There are loads of nitty gritty tactics that must be followed during any political campaign. I’m going to ignore those because I’m sure they are being followed. What are missing from the Biden campaign are the “out-of-the-box” approaches that distinguish a candidate from others.
Below are four tactics that I would advise being implemented immediately if I was advising Joe Biden:
- Immediately announce his preference for vice-president.
Why: It would stop the infighting among the different Democratic fractions early in the campaign, providing time for a healing process.
2- He should appoint an advisory committee composed of representatives of all segments of the Democratic Party and publicly announce the members.
Why: It would demonstrate to all the disappointed fractions that their views will be taken seriously.
3 – He should publicly announce that all future Democratic primaries should be held.
Why: It would show that he believes everyone should have the opportunity to express their views, and it would be a welcoming gesture to voters that supported other candidates.
4- This is the most important advice I would give Biden: He must show leadership; which thus far he hasn’t. The fact that he is limited from doing so because of his being confined in his
house shows a lack of out-of-the-box thinking by Biden and his advisors.
Why: In order to be trusted in a time of crisis, a leader must lead during the crisis.
Here’s a simple way that Biden can demonstrate leadership without leaving his home:
He should form different advisory committees, one composed of medical scientists, the other of economists and business people. The medical people should devise a plan of action that can be enacted if a future pandemic develops. The business people should concentrate on the present, proposing their plans for reopening the economy.
The announcement of the “Biden Committees” and their plans would be certain to achieve continuous major media coverage in these days when the media is struggling to find fresh approaches to covering the coronavirus pandemic.
Thus far, Biden’s not-so-secret weapon has been Trump’s inept leadership skills during the coronavirus pandemic. But still support for Trump among Republicans remains high; Democratic constituencies are still divided. Also, the margins between the candidates in some battleground states are this close.
Also, thus far, Biden has forfeited the Democratic leadership to governors, making many people wish that one of them would be the presidential nominee.
If Biden wants to be the leader he must act like the leader, instead of playing follow the leader to other Democratic spokespeople.
Thus far Biden’s main message seems to be, “Barack Obama trusted me.” That might have been enough for him to sweep the African-American vote during the primaries. And it surely will help him do the same during the November election. But African-Americans aren’t the only voters and President Obama is not everyone’s hero
During the early primary days, many new ideas were floated by Biden’s opponents, mainly by Andrew Yang, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. None by Biden then; none by Biden now. And that’s a problem, especially in these sad days of the coronavirus pandemic.
I’m still waiting for the former vice-president to propose ideas that work for 2020 and after. Ideas that can correct the many problems in society. Instead his ideas date back to the days of President’s Clinton and Obama.
Because Biden is running against the worst president in America’s history, an egotistical, narcissist, perpetual lying machine president, the former vice president might win re-election without announcing new approaches to the health and economic problems the country now faces. Better than a Trump re-election? Certainly. Better for America’s future? Only if the Biden administration announces bold, new ideas to correct America’s problems.
And he can’t wait until the Democratic convention to do so.
Many years ago, I coined a phrase about clients with PR crises: “There is no such thing as a one size fits all PR crisis plan. Every crisis deserves original thinking.” (Since then many PR practitioners have used that phrase in their writings, without giving credit to the originator. Not a surprise in our copycat business.)
The same rule about the need for original thinking also applies to political campaign strategy, as does another truth: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” That is probably the most famous line written by George Santayana, the Spanish-American philosopher. Thus far Biden is repeating the Clinton mistake of playing it close to the vest.
There’s also another, more cynical saying, “Never let a crisis go to waste,” that is being played out during this sorry time of the coronavirus. President Trump is using the crisis to push for his political goals; not so Biden.
The former vice president’s campaign is ignoring all of the above truths. By doing so he is helping Trump win re-election.
Bold action with new thinking by the Biden campaign is needed for him to compete with Trump for media coverage. The same is true for PR people who play it safe by refusing to think “out-of-the-box.” One thing is certain: Playing it safe will not separate you from the herd whether you’re a politician or a public relations practitioner.
About the Author: Arthur Solomon, a former journalist, was a senior VP/senior counselor at Burson-Marsteller, and was responsible for restructuring, managing and playing key roles in some of the most significant national and international sports and non-sports programs. He also traveled internationally as a media adviser to high-ranking government officials. He now is a frequent contributor to public relations publications, consults on public relations projects and is on the Seoul Peace Prize nominating committee. He can be reached at arthursolomon4pr (at) juno.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.