(And a Couple Of Important PR Lessons)
(Author’s Note: This is the fourth in a series of political articles for CommPro.biz that I’ll be writing leading up to Election Day. Some opinions expressed are from current occurrences; others from my first public relations job, with a political firm, where I worked on local, statewide and presidential campaigns. In politics, the hackneyed expression, “history repeats” is true. Much of what I experienced in those long-ago days are happening as you are reading this.)
It was only a matter of time. You knew it would happen. And as certain as President Trump will lie it did: A show biz personality publicly backing a presidential candidate.
While he had previously received print coverage and appeared on other TV programs regarding his politics, the first TV interview of this campaign with a performer that I saw was on December 14, 2019, when I was watching television while peddling away on a stationary bicycle in the gym, in the pre-coronavirus era. It was Ana Cabrera’s CNN interview with “Killer Mike” Render, the rapper, actor and activist, who strongly supported Bernie Sanders.
What amazed me was that it wasn’t the usual: 30 second to a minute sound bites that pass for interviews on TV but an in-depth discussion with a personality who probably isn’t even known by the largest segment of the population that votes – mid age to elderly, and probably couldn’t care what a rapper thinks about politics. (Sanders was already the most popular candidate of young voters who also are most appreciative of rappers. In my opinion, the number of older voters that switched allegiance to Sanders, from Biden, Klobucher, Bloomberg, Warren, et al because of what a rapper says can be counted on the fingers of your hands. But that’s what cable TV considers important: Having enough content to fill its time slots.)
Then on January 13, the New York Times reported the first entertainer to come out in support of Michael Bloomberg. It was Judith Sheindlin, better known to TV audiences as Judge Judy, whose nationally syndicated show is more popular than Oprah.
And why not? Like actors, politicians also read from scripts, known as talking points and stump speeches. Many actors and politicians also share other attributes – rudeness, super egos, exaggeration and the ability to tell a lie while smiling. (As a person who has worked with both, I can attest to that.) Maybe their erratic behavior is because most live in a world in which they have little say. The actors are controlled by playwrights, directors and producers; politicians by their political higher-ups.
But do people really care what entertainers think? In the past their endorsements didn’t help. Because so many other factors go into a voter’s decision we’ll never know if celebrity endorsements mean anything, even if the candidates that they support are elected. One thing we do know, it certainly provides an easy way for entertainers to gain major print and prime time publicity.
Recent history shows that the public likes the entertainers’ shows more than the candidates they support. Great performances by supporters of John Kerry, Al Gore and Hillary Clinton couldn’t propel them to victory.
(“Political surrogates have always played a role in presidential elections, by lending campaigns credibility, enthusiasm and star power. Beyoncé, Jay-Z and Chance the Rapper held a concert in Cleveland for Hillary Clinton in 2016. The actor Jon Voight and the singer Kid Rock campaigned with Mitt Romney in 2012. Oprah Winfrey stumped for Barack Obama in 2007,” reported a January 29 New York Times story.) Of course, as anyone who follows politics knows, there were many other-like endorsers by entertainers.
Often relegated to “off Broadway” status in venues like Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina are actors who endorse Democratic candidates during the primary season, hoping that they and their candidate will take their performances to the stages of a nominating convention, before taking the show on a national tour. Of course, the coronavirus ended that scenario.
Instead, the show biz stars first prime time appearances of the current election occurred during the Democratic virtual convention, when TV stars Eva Longoria, Tracee Ellis Ross, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Kerry Washington had more air time than all speakers except the major ones.
But let’s not forget some of the actors who before the Iowa caucuses endorsed candidates: Danny Glover and Ariana Grande for Sen. Sanders and Cardi B, who interviewed Sanders in a video; Martin Sheen and Ashley Judd for Sen. Warren; Mandy Moore for Mayor Pete and Dave Chappelle for Mr. Yang. Biden won endorsements from two celebrity sports figures, soccer star Megan Rapinoe and Michelle Kwan, the Olympics figure skater.
Also, actors Cynthia Nixon and Kevin Costner braved the snow and cold of New Hampshire – Nixon was there for Sen. Sanders and Costner for Mayor Pete.
And shortly before Super Tuesday, when the former NYC Mayor Bloomberg opened a field office in Massachusetts, Michael Douglas campaigned for him, saying one of the last things his father, Kirk, said before dying was, “Mike can get it done.”
A new element to performers endorsing presidential candidates was necessitated because of the coronavirus pandemic – virtual fund raisers. Some virtual Biden fund-raisers have featured show biz head liners. One event featured Billy Porter, Melissa Etheridge, Kristin Chenoweth, and tennis great Billie Jean King. Another one had Ken Burns as a host. Perhaps the most unique one was on September 13, when “The Princess Bride” cast, led by director Rob Reiner, reunited for a virtual script reading and fundraiser for the Wisconsin Democratic Party. Jimmy Buffett, David Crosby, Sheryl Crow, Joe Walsh and Rufus Wainwright also headlined a virtual fund raiser for Biden, as did Barbra Streisand, Jennifer Hudson, Jay Leno, Andra Day and John Legend.
Vice presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris attracted a bevy of well-known show biz folk to the Democratic campaign. They include Mindy Kaling, Reese Witherspoon, Sterling K. Brown, Kate Hudson, Sarah Paulson and Jon Cryer.
On September 21, the 51,000-plus members Actor’s Equity Association, for only the second time in its more than 100 year history, gave support to a presidential candidate by endorsing Biden. Among the reasons given were Trump’s proposals to eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts and that “Vice President Biden understands that the arts are a critical driver of healthy and strong local economies in cities and towns across the country.”
President Trump also has supporters in the arts community. Some are Clint Eastwood, Kid Rock, Stacey Dash, Roseanne Barr, Jon Voight, Stephen Baldwin, Kristy Alley, Scott Baio, Dennis and Randy Quaid, James Wood, Mary Hart, Rick Harrison and Elisabeth Hasselbeck.
But the overwhelming number of marquee names support Biden, including George Clooney, Robert De Nero Robert Redford, Madonna, James Taylor, Ben Affleck, Dustin Hoffman, Neil Young, Cher, Mark Hamill, Jon Stewart, Larry David, Jason Alexander, Marc Cuban, Howard Stern, Tom Hanks, Rita Wilson, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Eva Longoria, Leonardo Di Caprio, Justin Timberlake Mariska Hargitay and Drew Carey.
Of course actors, like everyone else, have the right to express their opinions. But does their celebrity status mean their opinions are more valid than anyone else’s? Not in my opinion.
History Lesson: Entertainers endorsing politicians date back to 1920, when Al Jolson and Mary Pickford supported Warren Harding at the behest of an ad agency. Occasionally, other entertainers came out in support of candidates after that. But if you’re tired of listening to actors explain why they support a candidate, blame television and Ronald Reagan, a journeyman actor, who vaulted from being spokesman for the 1950‘s TV General Electric Theater, to becoming G.E.’s corporate spokesperson to the presidency in 1981. What separated Reagan from the current actor-activists was that instead of just talking he decided to put his beliefs’ into action, and the Hollywood-political connection was cemented. For good or for bad? You decide.
The Democratic presidential primaries concluded on August 11, with Connecticut voters declaring their preferences, even though Joe Biden had the nomination locked up for months. Once the former veep was uncatchable, many actors supporting other candidates went the way of the No-Nothing Party.
But voters who like to read about show biz personalities supporting presidential candidates should not despair. As the 2020 election draws closer, expect additional big name entertainers to campaign for candidates they support. (You can bet on it.)
By all means tune in if virtual concerts are televised. You probably will have to suffer through boring speeches and commercials but the entertainment might be free, unlike the expensive ticket prices at their paid pre-coronavirus performances which were out of reach of so
many people. (A page one story in the December 27, 2019, Wall Street Journal reported that “Concert-Ticket Prices Rose 55% in a Decade.”) Enjoy the performances, because you might not like the election night results. (Show biz folks named in this article are not the only entertainers who have endorsed candidates. And if you consider sports part of the entertainment business, which I do, there are dozens of other entertainment endorsers. But beware of endorsements by retired or current football players. Hard hits to the head might not have them thinking coherently.)
The ineffectiveness of show business luminaries campaigning for candidates should provide a valuable lesson to be remembered by people in our business: Using a highly-recognized individual as a publicity spokesperson for a brand does not guarantee meaningful publicity (i.e. stories containing client talking points) will be included in media coverage. But it sure will help the celebrity’s bank account.
And to all the young people in our business and those wannabes, consider volunteering for a political campaign. If you do so, you will learn more about the realistic PR world of dealing with media and different publics than you ever got from your expensive communications’ schools tuitions.
Every facet of public relations is used during a campaign, some good, and some ugly. But the lessons learned will be many. Teething on politics will also prepare young PR people to be skeptical, about promises made to them by agency supervisors. My advice to them is that they should always keep in mind Niccolò Machiavelli’s quote from “The Prince.” – “The promise given was a necessity of the past: the word broken is a necessity of the present,” and that might be the lesson that will benefit you the most. That quote might have been written with agency brass and politicians in mind.
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 and artsolomon4pr (at) optimum.net.