Looking for PR Magic? Pull Some Political Strategies Out of Your Hat

With the election season heating up, the public will be able to observe political communicators cannily plying their trade—some changing strategies on a dime, others thinking outside the box—to get their candidate the highest possible profile and ultimately the highest number of votes.

Communicators within the political realm often take risks during a campaign, but they also deploy tried-and-true political strategies and tactics; moves that PR pros in non-political settings—particularly for grassroots campaigns—should carry in their back pockets.

Michael Cowden, PR and communications coordinator at the Washington, D.C.-based American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) does just that. On Aug. 17 Cowden launched a public awareness campaign for the landscape architecture profession—which is generally misunderstood, overlooked and often confused with other professions, he says.

With limited resources, the ASLA tapped the power of its nearly 16,000 members, as well as over 30,000 landscape architects across the country. How did they do it?

By mobilizing volunteers for a nationwide grassroots awareness campaign for the landscape architect profession—something Cowden did just after graduating from college in 2008 during Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. Cowden eventually would open two Obama campaign offices during that time—in Michigan and Colorado.

Strategy No. 1: Empower People

Keeping in mind the Obama campaign mantra of “respect, empower and include,” for the ASLA “The Understory” initiative, Cowden empowered and involved volunteers with the following tactics:

• Held an “architect summit,” where he explained the goals of the campaign—important because often volunteers don’t know the reasons behind an effort, and are supportive when they do know them.

• Produced a campaign launch video that not only highlighted the goals of the campaign, but was most successful in conveying what the ASLA was asking volunteers to do, “much like a street canvassing instructional piece that a political campaign would use,” says Cowden.

• Created an interactive campaign map that allowed volunteers to easily contact organizers to plan and mobilize geographically. “This showed volunteers that it was a national campaign, and chapters got competitive with each other with their events due to the map,” says Cowden. ( Ed. Note: See Cheat Sheet for links to both the launch video and map.)

• Organized ASLA chapters into a political campaign-type hierarchy. Larger chapters were divided into sections, with state directors, field managers and the like.

Strategy 2: Solidify the Base

At the outset, your initiative may attract a small group of people that could go either way with support.

“You need some momentum to get the campaign jump-started,” says APCO Worldwide senior VP Layle Nelson, who specializes in grassroots campaigns for clients. Which means, give your activists something to do. “This starts to grow your movement,” she says. How do you go about that? With the following tactics:

• Recruitment Power: If a supporter believes in a cause, have them convince five friends to join up, says Nelson.

• Social Support: “Social media has a great feedback loop for people to report their efforts,” says Nelson. “Supporters get a sense of community and start to feed off of one another.” Cowden also believes in the solidifying power of social media. “We keep them involved and motivated through Facebook,” he says. In addition, through a Web site and social media efforts, Cowden says the initiative has attracted a sizable audience outside of the organization’s 16,000 members.

• Call Out Issue Champions: Recognize supporters’ efforts via social media posts and e-newsletters.

“All of these actions make the campaign into something tangible that people can rally around,” says Nelson.

Strategy No. 3: Think Like Carville—Or Rove

For Richard Dukas, president and CEO of Dukas Public Relations, a New York City-based agency that specializes in financial services clients, politics is closely linked with agency work.

“I always tell clients and prospects that we run their campaigns just like political campaigns, says Dukas. “We just don’t stop after the first Tuesday in November.”

So what political-like traits does Dukas require of his staff? Tenacity, for starters. “We react to breaking news and proactively train clients to provide smart, informed commentary on events that shape the economy and investor sentiments,” says Dukas.

Along with tenacity, Dukas cites a political war-room mentality. When the stock market goes down—or up—500 points, the agency must set strategies quickly for placing financial clients front and center with the media.

With those media appearances comes intense media training—something politicians are used to. “We use what we think is the best of what politicians do—strip out negative messages,” says Dukas.

On that end, Dukas stresses intense preparation, quoting Henry Kissinger, who once said of media interviews: “I hope their questions will be as good as my answers.”

Dukas believes that for any PR pro, it’s no longer OK to just read The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. “You must be tuned into what is going on in Washington, by reading Politico and The Hill,” he says.

In other words, staying politically connected is not just for politicians anymore.


Michael Cowden, mcowden@asla.org; Layle Nelson, lnelson@apcoworldwide.com; Richard Dukas, richard@dukaspr.com.