Political Lessons Learned From The Primary Season (And How They Apply To Agency Situations)

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Arthur Solomon

It seemed like it would never end. It was a victim of the coronavirus. But unlike the still increasing, devastating, and deadly coronavirus it finally did, when on August 11 Connecticut held the last scheduled Democratic primary of the 2020 presidential campaign, even though it was known months ago that former vice-president Joe Biden would be the Democratic candidate. (Note: The Puerto Rico primary on Sunday, August 9, was suspended in mid-voting because there weren’t’ enough ballots delivered to polling sites. The remainder of the primary was tentatively rescheduled for Sunday, August 16.)*

During the primary season, before it was evident that Biden would be the Democratic candidate, I wrote a column after each TV debate on this web site giving my analysis of the situation, importantly including lessons learned that could be applied to agency non-political accounts. More on those later.

But first politics: The most important lesson learned from the primary season is that it’s time for the caucuses to go the way of the five cent ice cream cone. The caucus, helped by media reporting that exaggerates their importance, proves nothing. They give the winner of a caucus bragging rights for a few weeks, nothing more. They provide the political pundits with story lines that have as much validity as the advice provided from a race track tout, nothing more. 

The caucuses are dominated by the few voters who have time to kill, like the ladies who lunch, or the men who tune in to sports talk radio for countless hours, arguing the merits, or lack of, of the designated hitter role, or, maybe, if Joe DiMaggio was a better center fielder than Mickey Mantle. Not participating in the caucuses are the 99.9% (maybe more?) of voters who cast a ballot in a primary and then get on with their daily life. 

Those who benefit most from the caucuses are not the winners. It is the local economies that cater to the influx of visiting political activists and media reps. The caucuses have been dying a slow death. In 2020, Kansas, Maine and Hawaii ditched their caucuses and switched to a primary voting system. It’s time for the few caucus states remaining to discard this undemocratic method of selecting a candidate and open up the voting with a primary election that makes it easier for everyone to participate.

The great majority of PR people will never be involved with political campaigns, as I was. My first PR job was with a political agency, where I worked on local, statewide, and presidential campaigns. During that time, I learned lessons from political PR pros who threw away the text books used in communications schools. I encourage all PR people to pay attention to the political scene; better still, consider volunteering your services to a campaign. It will provide a Master Class in dealing with the media. 

Here are some of the most important PR lessons from the primaries that can be applied to non-political agency life:

Let’s begin with the most important take-a-away from the primary season that applies to accounts you’re most likely to work on during your career: PR people should not assume that an early success when launching a new program means that the end results will be what you promised a client. In the Iowa caucus, the first Democratic nominating contest of the 2020 primary season, Pete Buttigieg was the winner; Joe Biden finished a poor fourth. Point proven.

Here are other lessons to remember:

Assumption: In the early days of the primary season, many pundits proclaimed Sen. Bernie Sanders as the ultimate winner: Many PR people proclaim a new program a success when the launch of a program gains positive media the next day or for several days later. Both assumptions are wrong. In the Sanders’ situation he was proclaimed the presumptive winner of the presidential nomination by pundits before the primaries commenced. But in April, Sanders discontinued his campaign, partly because of the coronavirus outbreak, but mostly because of his lack of support by voters. Relation to Our Business: It’s not unusual for a new PR program initiative to receive coverage during the first few days after the launch, and then fade away. Lesson: A few early hits do not indicate a successful program. Success or failure will not be known for many months. Advice: Don’t write self-congratulatory memos to the client about the success of a program until results over many months are in. Important to Remember: What an account team might consider a success, a client might not.

Assumption: Because of his popularity with young voters, Sen. Sanders believed that they would overwhelmingly support him in the primaries. They didn’t. Relation to Our Business: Many PR people believe that because they have good relations with journalists, a reporter will do them a favor when needed. The days when reporters would do “favor” stories are largely gone because of technology. Many reporters never go to the office and have to continually update stories. Thus it is more difficult than ever to form a “buddy” relationship with a journalist. Lesson: As Sen. Sanders found out when his Bernie Bros didn’t vote for him, never count on a pal to bail you out by writing a story. Too many eyes are watching. Also, because of layoffs and the discontinuation of pubs there are less print news outlets that clients care about. Advice: The best way to assure media success is to pitch stories that work for the media and the client. Important to Remember: Too often, media friends have told me, because I was a journalist prior to joining the PR business, the majority of releases from PR people are tossed, as are pitches, because they are client-centric, making them useless. And because of that pitches from PR people who continually send “no news” pitches are not even read. 

Assumption: Former New York city Mayor Michael Bloomberg assumed that he could gain the nomination by spending considerably more money than the other presidential hopefuls. Relation to Our Business: Many PR people blame lack of a sufficient budget for their program’s failure. Lesson: Just as spending money on an expensive dog and pony show press conference doesn’t assure media success, neither did Bloomberg’s massive expenditures during the primaries work. Advice: Because of the 24 hour news cycle, and reduced staffs, the days when a press conference was sure to attract a large number of journalists has largely disappeared. They are a waste of money that could better be used to help clients in other ways, like arranging round table discussions with beat reporters who cover the topic. Important to Remember: The size of a budget does not guarantee media success. It’s the content of your pitch that that matters.

Assumption: The larger the budget for a PR campaign, the greater the success of the campaign. Relation to Our Business: Account people always strive for larger budgets. Lesson: Joe Biden had much less money to spend during the primaries and had trouble raising money. (While other candidates had considerably more money to promote their campaigns, no one came close to Sen. Sanders; Bloomberg’s efforts were self-financed.) Advice: If a PR effort falters, never complain to a client that it was because of a limited budget. If a budget was not sufficient, the client should have been notified before the beginning of the campaign and different tactics should have been suggested. Important to Remember: As the Biden’s primary victory showed, the size of a primary budget does not guarantee media success. The same is true with PR initiatives. It’s the newsworthiness of your PR campaign that determines success or failure.

Assumption: Long-planned strategies by candidates before the primary season began and detailed planning by PR agencies for their initiatives will assure successful roll outs of plans. Relation to Our Business: The best planning does not assure the success of a program. Lesson: The coronavirus epidemic disrupted the plans of both primary candidates and PR firms. Advice: Always have a back-up plan. Important to Remember: As Robert Burns wrote in his 1785 poem “To A Mouse,” “The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ MenGang aft agley.”

Assumption: Television debates during the primary season will help little known candidates break through the clutter. Relation to Our Business: Good publicity will not necessarily help a client to stand out. Lesson: The media pundits loved the debates, but the debates had little affect on voters. Advice: Wasting your client’s money by suggesting programs that have little chance of advancing you client’s goals is a malpractice of PR. Never suggest a program you don’t believe in because the clock is running out or because you believe it will be easy to get reporters to cover the story. (Example: Using well-known celebrities who are not adept on delivering client talking points during TV interviews or whose own stories dominate the interviews.)  Important to Remember: The Democratic candidates during the primary season dropped out of the running early, throwing their support to Biden, probably fearful of doing what the Republican presidential candidates did during the 2016 primary – squabbling among themselves instead of rallying behind one candidate until it was too late to prevent Trump from gaining the nomination. Never think you have all the answers to a client’s problem. The best plans are conceived by incorporating other people’s good ideas into programs.  And never act as if you’re the smartest person in the room, even if you are.

Assumption: Responding promptly to reporter’s questions is always a good media strategy. Relation to Our Business: I always believed, and practiced, that rushing an answer before you are prepared to do so should never be done, especially during a PR crisis situation, when the facts are still murky. Lesson: Because of  the Covid-19 situation , which curtails his travel,  the Biden campaign seemingly has added a new twist to not giving in to reporter’s endless questions, which began after the  Super Tuesday primaries, of who he will choice for vice-president. He kept them guessing. As a result, the campaign gained weeks of national publicity, even though Biden stood at home. Advice: If you can’t handle the media pressure, there are many other aspects of public relations that you may be better suited for than dealing with the press. Important to Remember: During a crisis, once the facts are known, disseminate the bad news ASAP. Conversely, try to dribble out good news as long as possible in order to gain consistent favorable media coverage.

There are also two important lessons that PR people should heed from the pandemic pressers of President Trump and Gov. Cuomo, some of which were held during the primary season. 

Assumption: A press conference featuring the CEO of a major corporation will impress the media. Relation to Our Business: Some PR practitioners feel that the CEO of a company in crisis should lead the response to the media. Lesson: The coronvirus epidemic magnified an important lesson that PR people should heed. The higher a speaker is in the corporate structure, the more closely what is said will be checked for accuracy. (Everything President Trump said during his daily pressers was fact checked for accuracy, sometime in real time, and his many misstatements, to phrase it politely, were reported on). Advice: Always fact check every statement by a client before meeting with the press. Important to Remember: The CEO of a company and its size will not deter the media from pointing out inaccurate statements, exaggerations and outright lying. The same goes for PR people no matter which agency you’re employed by or what your title is. Be careful of what you and your clients say when talking to the media. The “gotcha” journalists will point out your fibs on TV and in print. As they should.

Assumption: The loftier a speakers title the greater press coverage a press conference will receive. Relation to Our Business: Some PR people still think that reporters are anxious to interview corporate CEOs and presidents. Lesson: It’s the news revealed at press conference that determines the coverage, not the speakers. Advice: New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s pressers provided a template for PR people on how to prepare clients for an interview. Cuomo would begin each one by announcing new facts. But he quickly transitioned to working in his most important talking points early in the presser, not waiting or hoping that reporters would bring up the subjects. PR people should use the same technique. Important to Remember: Unlike years ago, when editors would eliminate talking points from reporters’ stories, saying they were too commercial, most will permit them, but it’s up to the client to work them in smoothly.

In conclusion, I found all of the Democratic primary debates boring. It’s time for a new debate format in which only hard news boots on the ground political reporters, who really know what they are talking about, ask the questions, instead of the high profile studio cable stars, who only ask top of the shelve questions, whose answers viewers already knew from tuning in political news shows or reading the morning newspapers. Especially evident during the made for TV show debates was the lack of journalistic ability of questioners not being able to change their prepared questions or ask follow-ups depending on the candidates rehearsed answers. 

In comparison, the 2016 Republican debates were much more interesting because you never knew what would come out of Donald Trump’s insulting mouth. But after nearly four years of his administration we now know: A totalitarian-admiring, divisive egotistical, racist “how can it help me and the heck with everyone else” president who is incapable of leading the country during a crisis. (I’ll take boring any day.)

Finally, my advice about listening to the pundits on TV during any election: If you are really interested in the political ups and downs ignore 99.9% of what is said on the cables.

Here’s why:

  • Cable reporters often parrot “inside” polling information from a candidate’s campaign. Question: Do you really think bad news about a candidate would be divulged? Not a chance. (As someone who has worked on political campaigns, including at the presidential level, I can attest to that.)
  • Much reporting by the cables begins with the lead-in, “Our sources tell us.” See above bullet for my answer.
  • Pundits often say, “So and so is leading, but here’s why it might not hold up.” Question: How do they know? They’ve been wrong so many times in the past. Check their track records. Ask Al Gore and Hillary Clinton or all the GOP presidential candidates during the 2016 primary season.
  • Political pundits are paid by the networks to give an opinion, even if it’s not based on information they’ve investigated. (Being correct and opining on something new is not a requirement That’s why all the expert pundits who declared Hillary Clinton the winner in 2016, until the votes came in, are still on the job.) Their opinions are formed from the same information you can get by reading a newspaper like the New York Times, Wall Street Journal or other respected journals.

Soon the presidential debates will begin with their ridiculous format of having the candidates answer questions in a few seconds, instead of giving them sufficient time to fully state their positions. 

Even worse, after each debate TV pundits will criticize the demeanor, if not the replies, of the candidates and wonder if they “can recover from their poor performance.” (Question: Who elected the TV pundits to decide which candidate was better? Answer: They elected themselves. ) But the main reason these presidential debates, as were the ones held during the primaries, are ridiculous is because too many people think the way a candidate can answer a question is the determining factor on how he will govern as president. And TV is to blame for that preposterous assumption.

There’s a simple way that the cable networks can improve their election night coverage: Do away with the multi-tiered panels of pundits, where each one has a different opinion, and just report the votes tallies as they are known. (But I have a better chance of becoming president than the cables doing that.)

Candidate’s remarks should be fact checked for accuracy as they make them. Period. Exclamation Point.

In this election, voters will have a living history on how the candidates will govern if elected because both Trump and Biden’s records are known. Voters should decide for themselves and not be swayed by the comments of TV pundits or the candidates’ surrogates. 

But if you prefer comic-relief, tune in the cable channels, especially the programs hosted by Hannity, Carlson, Ingraham and the other fabulists on Fox News, all of whom must have majored in creative commentary at Trump University.

*(Based on my experience working on all levels of political campaigns, including presidential ones, if I was advising Joe Biden, I would have suggested that he delay his announcing his vice presidential selection until the day before, or on the day of the Democratic Convention, when the suspended Puerto Rico primary will probably have been concluded. Doing so would show respect for the Puerto Rico citizens in the U.S., whose votes could make the difference in states like Florida, which an estimated 1,128,000 Puerto Ricans call home. I also would advise Biden to not make the Hillary Clinton mistake and neglect “sure thing” states, or run on a “stronger together” campaign, as Clinton did.  Each day, Biden, his veep and surrogates should concentrate mostly on the inept handling of the coronavirus by Trump, especially emphasizing how the president has disregarded the advice of medical scientists throughout the pandemic, how doing so has affected all facets of life and is now urging schools to reopen, essentially using children as guinea pigs and campaign fodder. That’s probably the one issue that Americans of different political beliefs can agree with. All other issues are secondary. )

Now that Biden has selected Sen. Kamala Harris as his vice-presidential running mate, you can bet the house, condo, co-op or farm that for the next week or so the TV pundits will be discussing winners and losers among the other contenders. Here’s my opinion: Among the losers were all the other female Black hopefuls. But the biggest loser of all is a male who was pleading for voters to support him during the primaries – Sen. Cory Booker, because if the Biden-Harris ticket wins, Sen. Harris will be the Democratic presidential candidate in 2024, and the possibility of her choosing a Black veep is as likely as me growing younger, not older, every tick of the clock.


The Unspoken PR Tenet: Bad News Is Good News for Our Business By Arthur SolomonAbout 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 artsolomon4pr@optimum.net.

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