Strategic Comms Lessons from the GOP Debate

Milwaukee's fiserv forum

Eight Republicans seeking the nomination to run for President of the United States took the debate stage last night (Aug. 23) in Milwaukee, Wis. to make their case to the Republican Party and the American people as to why they deserve the nomination.

The absence of former President Trump (competing separately with an interview with Tucker Carlson) provided the candidates a more valuable opportunity to introduce themselves and make their case for support.

Each candidate surely invested days of preparation to develop their messages and crafted plans for deploying them. Further, Super PACs published detailed strategic memos on what to say, and how to say it. However, as former boxer Mike Tyson famously said, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth”.

It was interesting to watch each of the candidates sparring with one another, waiting for their moment to shine, and at times visibly frustrated as they watched their carefully crafted plans disappear.

Anyone who wishes to persuade an audience could learn from the performance of these candidates and apply some of the strategic communications best practices that were embraced and abandoned throughout the evening.

Flexibility is Key

Literally. North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum participated despite suffering an Achilles injury earlier in the day. In the fast-paced world of politics and communication, leaders must be adaptable and flexible in response to unexpected challenges.

While preparation is crucial, candidates should also be ready to pivot when the situation demands it. The ability to think on one's feet and adjust messaging in real-time can be an asset on the debate stage and in any public-facing role.

Chris Christie’s “chatGPT” exchange with tech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy opened the door for former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley to seize control with her Lady Thatcher quote—she was ready for the opportunity.

Authenticity Matters

In an age where political campaigns are meticulously stage-managed and candidates are coached to stick to pre-approved talking points, authenticity shines through as a rare and invaluable trait.

It's crucial for candidates to be themselves on the debate stage, rather than trying to morph into what they believe the audience wants to see. Voters are adept at detecting insincerity, and the disconnect between a candidate's image and reality can be detrimental.

Being authentic means speaking from the heart, staying true to one's convictions, and building trust incrementally. And getting past the “pre-packaged slogans” that Ramaswamy mentioned.

Address Your Audience's Concerns

While self-introductions are essential, candidates often fall into the trap of talking too much about themselves or their rivals. Christie, in his first remarks, had to defend his record as Governor of New Jersey—15 years ago.

Voters tune in to understand how a candidate's policies and plans will impact their lives and the future of the country—looking forward is always better.

It's a fundamental truth of communication that people are primarily concerned with what's in it for them. To resonate with the audience, candidates should focus on how their proposals will address the concerns of ordinary Americans.

All candidates could have performed better here—but Sen. Tim Scott was the best at talking to the people.

Stay Positive, Even in Critique

Even when discussing pressing issues like the state of the economy, inflation or crime rates, framing the conversation in a positive light is essential.

While candidates may be tempted to lay blame on their opponents or the current administration, it's equally vital to present solutions and a vision for the future. A constant barrage of negativity can leave a poor impression and make candidates appear as mere critics rather than problem-solvers.

Effective communicators aim to associate themselves with positive ideas and a vision for progress. Complaining is easy—leaders provide solutions instead. Christie was nearly booed off the stage during the exchange about Trump—his negativity was met with more of the same from the audience.

Be Cautious When Attacking

Attacks, zingers and jabs may generate laughs, gasps or applause at the moment, but they can backfire in the long run.

Former Vice President Mike Pence seemed to force his outrage at the very people he called “friends” moments before. Leaders should remember that building a positive reputation takes time and effort, while tarnishing it can happen swiftly.

Rather than focusing on undermining opponents, it's often more beneficial to establish a reputation as someone who shares the concerns of the audience. In doing so, others are more likely to come to your defense, and you're less likely to appear defensive yourself. A witty remark might entertain, but it's unlikely to sway voters significantly. Pence’s attempt to attack Ramaswamy as a “rookie” backfired—especially as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis joined the fray.

The recent Republican presidential debate provided valuable insight into the world of political communications that any leader can learn from and adapt to their unique situations and challenges.

Leaders invest considerable effort into crafting their messages and strategies, just like candidates. We all must also face the reality that plans can crumble in the heat of the moment. In debate, crisis or peacetime, communicators must be authentic, speak to the audience's concerns, maintain a positive tone and exercise caution when attacking opponents.

These lessons apply to anyone seeking to persuade an audience effectively. In an era where authenticity and genuine connection with the public are highly valued, mastering these principles can be the key to success in politics, business and life.

Dan Rene is Managing Director of the strategic communications firm kglobal.