What PR Pros Can Learn From Political Campaigns

By Erik Arvidson


Election day is almost here, and I have to admit that I’m one of many voters suffering from the “negative ad fatigue.” If you live in a state (or a TV market) where there is a race with national implications, you’ve probably been exposed to more than one ad filled with dubious accusations told in a dramatic narrative.

A lot of those negative ads with messages like, “Candidate X wants to end the Medicare guarantee,” and “Candidate Y voted to cut veterans benefits” are appeals to the small sliver of voters who are still undecided and need some kind of emotional motivation to support a candidate.
Putting aside the issue of whether or not negative political ads work – there are reams of research on this for those interested – election season gives us as PR professionals some important reminders and takeaways.
Here are four key learnings from observing some of the campaigns in this election:

  • Don’t repeat negative language when answering a question: I’ve seen this mistake multiple times, in which a candidate is accused of an ethics violation or of poor decision making, and counters with their own ad in which they repeat the accusation before refuting it. Repeating the negative message puts that candidate in defensive mode and keeps the idea in the voters’ minds. As we counsel our clients, answering a reporter’s question using positive words will likely resonate better for their audiences.
  • Be careful when using humor: I like political ads that are lighter, more fun and effectively use humor. They are a nice break from the dour, doom-and-gloom ads funded by the Super PACs. The problem is many candidates can’t do it very effectively. The same idea applies to those of us designing PR campaigns for businesses. You may come up with something that your audience finds really clever, or it could backfire. Tread carefully.
  • Keep the message simple: I’ve seen more than one political ad this election in which the candidate was trying to tell me all about themselves, but I was overwhelmed with too much information. “Candidate X has done a lot for seniors, is a job creator, has fought against the Washington special interests, is a great mom or dad, had a hardscrabble childhood, is in touch with the struggles of the average person”…and on and on. As we advise our clients, trying to connect with multiple diverse constituencies at once can muddy the waters and not help you stand out. The best candidates are those that pick one key message and stick to it.
  • • Communicate the message in a powerful way: It can be hard to distinguish one candidate’s platform from another. Related to the last point, the best candidates develop a strong narrative about themselves that will inform the way they’ll conduct themselves in office. In PR, it can be difficult to get a reporter to believe that your client’s widgets are better than their competitors’ widgets. But developing a compelling story about your company can make them interesting and set them apart.

Don’t forget to vote tomorrow. And in case you can’t get enough of political ads, Time Magazine revisits the top ten campaign ads of all time here.