PR Lessons From The Political Trenches

Last week was a big one for politics and public relations. Not only did the race for the Democratic nomination finally end, but the controversy surrounding former White House press secretary Scott McClellan’s tell-all book reached a boiling point, with his scandalous admissions calling into question the communication industry’s credibility.

CBS News legal analyst Scott Cohen was just one critic who responded by publicly lambasting the PR community (to which McClellan belonged at the highest level) for allegedly training its executives to be “slickly untruthful or half-truthful.”
While these fighting words aren’t exactly new to many longtime veterans of the PR industry, they do engender a certain defensiveness from its many members. They also raise pointed questions about the evolving role these communicators play in reputation management. After all, is this subfunction of public relations not the love child of crisis communications, media relations, branding and issues management?

“Just like PR agencies, we work toward reputation management on a day-to-day basis,” says Lisa Black, New York City director of public affairs for New York State Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno, noting that one of her many challenges every day is to “design the Republican brand outside what’s going on [at a national level] with Bush and the war.”

Her experiences in shaping messaging for diverse stakeholders, from reporters to legislators to the voting public, mirror those of all types of PR executives; however, her challenges are very specific to the realms of politics and government.
“Political communications is about how you use information to best affect your constituencies,” Black says. “In our case, our constituencies are our clients.”

Ted Birkhahn, a managing director at Peppercom, reflecting on his past experience as the press secretary for the New York City Department of Buildings, echoes this.
“That role is all about protecting the brand of the person/agency you are representing,” he says. “You typically find yourself on the defensive. It’s more about protecting the brand than about proactively driving home a message.”
Based on their shared experiences in public affairs, both Black and Birkhahn can offer the following best practices.

â–¶ Play with the cards you’re dealt. Black’s role is defined by rapidly developing stories, issues and crises, but the same could be said for most executives, who must now react to stakeholders who spread news online in a 24/7 cycle.
“An issue comes to light, and generally it’s because of a tragedy or a need,” Black says. “We rarely have time to develop a strategy before we release our message.”
When the time comes to respond, Black and her team most often do the following:
•    Draft a news release or talking points.

•    Confer with the legal counsel to make sure all information and statistics are reflected accurately, and that the language is user-friendly for the general public.

•    Internalize these recommendations with staff members and revise messages accordingly.

•    Release it to the public.

â–¶ Expect it to hit the fan. When you are dealing with controversial news or information, there will always be aftershocks. “Sometimes it’s positive and sometimes it’s negative,” Black says. “If the fallout is bad, you move into reputation management very quickly.”
However, understanding that dissidents will always exist is essential; it also plays an integral role in adapting to stakeholder reactions.
“You have to realize that you’re dealing with an extremely skeptical audience,” Birkhahn says, referring specifically to the reporters who cover politics. “They’ve been burned before, so you need to make sure that the messages are 100% accurate, and that you’re not glossing over facts to make your boss look better.”

â–¶ Pull out all the stops. When no news is good news, it’s important to have backup. Black recommends having a Rolodex of people you can call no matter what the situation is.
“We bring in coalitions of advocacy groups and third-party vendors who have a vested stake, and who either oppose or agree with our measure,” she says. “We encourage them to speak out and write to legislators, or to write third-party op-eds and letters to the editor.”

â–¶ Avoid foot-in-mouth disease. Thanks to widespread stakeholder skepticism—and constant conversations abetted by digital communications platforms—the slightest misstep could spell disaster.
“You find yourself on the firing line every day, and all it takes is letting your guard down once and you make or break a career,” Birkhahn says. “You have to be on top of your game every day of the week. If you are distracted or you don’t believe in the messages you are trying to convey, you will likely find yourself saying something you didn’t mean to say.”
And, ultimately, as is always the case with communications, Birkhahn relies on this invaluable tactic: Be part of the solution, even if you’re also part of the problem.
“It’s all about the ability to say, ‘Yes, here’s the problem, here’s the mistake, here’s the issue at hand,’” he says. “But always follow that with, ‘Here’s what we’re doing about it.’”   

Contacts: Lisa Black, [email protected]; Ted Birkhahn, [email protected]; Shabbir Imber Safdar, [email protected]