PR Lessons From the Presidential Campaigns

The 2016 U.S. presidential race is starting to take shape. Several candidates officially have tossed their hats into the ring, including Republicans Marco Rubio, Rand Paul and Ted Cruz and Democrat Hillary Clinton. Yet, amid the hoopla, the most talked-about item, so far, may be that Clinton’s campaign van is named after Scooby Doo.

Is this the media just being shallow? Or, could it be that the candidates didn’t have anything substantial to say? Perhaps it’s both. Regardless, a presidential campaign essentially is a pitch to the American public. So far the messages haven’t stuck.

That should heighten PR pros’ interest in the coming campaign. Over the weeks and months ahead they likely will be keeping a close eye on candidates’ communications plans, how candidates and their PR teams develop messaging strategies and deploy all the media channels at their disposal.


Jim Papa, executive VP of Global Strategy Group, had three recommendations on how to connect your ‘candidate’ with the respective audience:

You’re not just a job title. Senator, Governor, Secretary, CEO—these are all job titles. “Often, you have your audiences’ attention because of your title. In other words, they will hear you out,” he said. “To earn their respect, however, provide your audience with something about who you are that’s not an official credential. Knowing that leaders tackle problems as both executives and parents, for example, equalizes relationships with the audience, expands commonality and earns you credit for having important perspective.”

Address the skeptics’ strongest argument. “Never” adopt the opponents’ messaging frame, but never let their top criticism go unchallenged

Love your job…and look like you love it. When times are tough for a candidate or a corporate executive, the atmosphere can become morose. “Too much stress and too little sleep make anyone less compelling,” he said. “It’s important, however, for organizational leaders to communicate emotional strength through their words, actions, and physical posture.”

Chris Wailes, VP of national Media Relations at Pierpont Communications, said he expected social channels to play a huge role in how candidates are perceived.

“Unlike in the past, [the candidates] always will need to be ‘on.’ Social media channels will be continually expanding and used in new ways...I’d keep my eye on Snapchat and Instagram, not to mention one-to-one targeting and audience segmentation,” he said.

Wailes added that the age of “mass blasting” the public is gone. “The name of the game is, with frighteningly accurate efficiency, establishing one-to-one connections that deliver credibility, trust, engagement and distinction.”


Partisanship and policy aside, the campaign trail offers key PR lessons. Whether it’s a presidential hopeful hitting the campaign trail or a new CEO meeting with stakeholders, making a strong first impression is crucial. And perception may trump reality.

“It’s more about what voters are hearing than what the candidate is saying,” said Lanny Davis, principal at the law firm Lanny J. Davis & Associates and executive VP at LEVICK. “It’s about truth and authenticity. You can’t say something because that’s what you think people want to hear. It’s no different in product marketing or candidate marketing.”

Davis was special counsel to President Bill Clinton from 1996 through 1998; he said he is in not affiliated with Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign. He stressed that the candidates soon will need to distinguish their messages from competitors’ pitches.

Davis pointed to former Florida Governor Jeb Bush—who is expected to jump into the presidential race—recently coming out in favor of immigration reform, which doesn’t jibe with many of his fellow Republicans.

“He wanted to speak his mind even though [immigration reform] doesn’t click with his base,” Davis said.

Sarah Hamilton
Sarah Hamilton

3 Tips for Promoting Your Candidate

Your candidate has decided to run. Now it’s your job to help tell his/her story and promote the brand. But where do you start? Here are 3 tips.

What’s their story? Everyone has a story. Whether you are running for President of the United States or your local school board, you have to find ways to effectively tell your story and why you are running for office. Too often, candidates try to cover too many issues and lose track of the big picture in the process. Try not to get sucked into that and, instead, pick three issues that are important to your candidate and the race at hand and highlight those. This serves two purposes: It gives you a clear message that you can stick with and come back to time and again, and people will know what you stand for and what you will do when elected.

Pounding the pavement. Never underestimate the importance of a good ground game. A good website, social media profiles and media appearances are great and effective tools for reaching your audience, but none of them are as important as hitting the streets, knocking on doors and meeting people face to face. A person is more inclined to vote for you if they have actually met you and heard directly from you why you are running for office. Don’t keep your candidate in a box, let them talk to people, let them listen to people, and most importantly, let them be themselves. Voters can see right through someone trying to be something or someone they are not.

Social media. Right or wrong, many people get their “news” and form their opinions via social media. Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and other such platforms are ubiquitous and increasingly important in building a candidate’s profile. What does your candidate like to do? With whom do they associate? What is their profile picture? What do they say about themselves in 140 characters or less? All of these are important when building your candidate’s social media profile. And, at the same time, what have they done in their social media past? Always make sure you do a thorough scrub of their social media profiles before they announce. Candidacies have been derailed before they even started thanks to old pictures and opinions on Facebook and Twitter.

Sarah Hamilton, managing director at ASGK Public Strategies, wrote this article. Hamilton worked on the national advance team for Hillary Clinton’s 2008 campaign for president. Hamilton can be reached at

This article originally appeared in the April 27, 2015 issue of PR News. Read more subscriber-only content by becoming a PR News subscriber today.



Lanny Davis,; Jim Papa,; Chris Wailes,