Sending the Right Message: The Relationship Between Public Relations and Political Campaign Strategies

Political public relations form the perception of a candidate and could ultimately help decide the outcome of an election.

In many ways, public relations is a natural extension of politics. The way the general public perceives political candidates goes a long way toward how they will vote. But controlling public perception is easier said than done. That’s why political campaigns have extensive personnel dedicated to ensuring a candidate appears in the best light possible, whether in the media or at public events. Because all political campaign strategies contain a strong public relations component, politics is an ideal place to apply PR skills.

A Brief History of Public Relations and Politics

The earliest form of public relations in politics consisted of ancient leaders creating monuments promoting their reign or spreading rumors and lies about an enemy. But when mass communication arrived, politicians running for office truly had an opportunity to influence others for the first time.

Politics in Early Newspapers

Throughout the period before and after the American Revolution, leaders used newspapers to support or disparage various ideas. Pamphlets like Common Sense by Thomas Paine were distributed to spread anti-British sentiment. After the Revolutionary War, supporters of the Constitution published The Federalist Papers in several newspapers to garner public support.

While these activities and others like them are considered early forms of public relations, they were often spontaneous and decentralized. Politicians often publicized events in newspapers, inviting the media and the public. These events were never part of a campaign strategy, but they sought to inform voters.

PR as Propaganda

While it took time for politicians to utilize public relations effectively in campaigns, it didn’t take long for them to create propaganda — defined as political communication that is biased and misleading in nature. As political machines began to break up and the modern primary election system was established, candidates used propaganda to dissuade citizens from supporting their opponent. The use of propaganda on a larger scale really emerged with radio and TV. The most well-known of early propaganda “attack ads” was released in support of President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964, insinuating that a vote against him could result in nuclear war. Often called “the Daisy ad,” it is considered the grandfather of modern political propaganda.

Common Political PR Practices

Public relations and politics remain closely knit in today’s campaigns, with candidates hiring extensive PR staffs or working with PR agencies. Here are a few of the common practices that almost all political campaigns use.

Spinning

There’s almost always information to spin in political public relations. Spin can involve the presentation of particular facts that support a candidate’s position and discredit an opponent’s opinion. It can involve downplaying a mistake or making an apology or denial. Spinning often includes misdirection or diversion in an attempt to keep the reputation of a candidate intact.

While spinning may sound dirty, it’s commonplace in political campaign strategies. Many political debates feature a “spin room” where campaign leaders try to use the media to spin the outcome in their favor. Campaign officials often appear on news outlets and conduct interviews intent on spinning.

Platform Messaging

All candidates have a platform, or a set of beliefs and goals they have for the office they’re pursuing. The platform serves as the base for all messaging. Candidates often put out policy papers or give speeches related to their platform. A strong platform of core tenets and beliefs helps PR professionals spread the word.

A universally used form of platform messaging is the “stump speech.” This standard speech is developed for candidates to hit on their basic beliefs and reasons why they are running. This speech is repeated often at campaign events with slight variation, allowing more and more voters to hear the same message based on the same platform.

Media Relations and Engagement

For any political candidate, media exposure is critical in a lot of ways. It allows a politician to reach a large audience, especially one that can be targeted to improve standing. Public relations professionals are often charged with organizing media engagements and ensuring that their candidate’s public profile stays strong.

This is especially helpful when a campaign is trying to target a particular subset of voters. If a candidate is struggling among younger voters, an interview with an outlet particularly popular among youth might be an idea. If a candidate is attempting to court a particular geographic area, appearing on a regional television or radio show can be beneficial.

Due to the influence it has with voters, public relations is among the leading political campaign strategies.

Political PR in 2016 and the Future

With the presidential election just around the corner, the candidates are using a variety of PR techniques to their advantage. Many of the tactics didn’t exist a decade or two ago, and they offer a look at what the future might be like for politics and PR.

Super PACs

Super PACs are a newer iteration of a political action committee. In contrast to a traditional PAC, super PACs can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money to campaign independently for candidates running for federal office. The money can come from corporations and labor unions. Legally, super PACs must stay unaffiliated with campaigns, but they spend millions of dollars to support campaigns.

Digital Public Relations

Social media and the Internet have added a new layer to public relations and political campaigns. Candidates need a social media strategy to keep them in the minds of voters. For example, Hillary Clinton’s campaign has been creating easy-to-share social media posts to describe her student loan policies. Candidates are paying more attention to bloggers as a part of their media engagement strategy. Social media and the digital space will continue to be of critical importance to the PR strategies for campaigns.

Understanding Public Relations and Politics

At Point Park University, we’re equipping students to be skilled PR professionals. Our fully online Bachelor of Arts in Public Relations and Advertising prepares graduates for careers that require strategic communication skills. The convenience of the online classroom allows students to experience the benefits of a quality education while balancing work and personal commitments.

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