March 8, 2012
What the 2012 Race Tells PR Pros About Messaging: The Most Important Messaging Campaign Comes Once Every Four Years — And Companies Can Benefit
By Adele Cehrs, President, Epic PR Group
Super Tuesday has come and gone. The remaining candidates are tallying up their delegates and pushing forward to the next primary states. But as the 2012 primary race reaches its peak, Republican candidates are constantly competing with President Barack Obama for constituent attention and media coverage. With anywhere from 9 to 21 messages in their pocket, candidates seem to lose direction and the ability to effectively communicate their messages to the people that matter – the voters.
Presidential hopeful Mitt Romney's healthcare platform is comprised of five main messages, within which are an additional 2 to 5 micro-messages. In total, Romney can be talking about upwards of 15 different healthcare related messages at a time. This dense, over-messaging has caused Romney to slip in communicating his position.
Bloomberg outlined Romney's fight against himself, starting off with Romney's 2006 passage of a healthcare reform law for the state of Massachusetts. That healthcare law included an individual mandate provision. In 2010, President Obama's healthcare reform also included an individual mandate – which was formulated after consulting with Romney's people. Upon entering the 2012 race, Romney made the statement that he promises to: defund "Obamacare," allow all states to opt out on his first day in office and repeal the law in its entirety.
Fifteen possible healthcare messages. One obvious contradiction.
Too Many Messages Cloud the Waters: Analyze your messages. To be effective and memorable, companies should have no more than 3 to 5 overarching messages about their brand and initiatives. Research shows that you can remember about 3 to 4 items for about 20 seconds before they disappear from memory – unless you repeat them. Candidates who try and communicate more than three messages at a time will probably find that their constituents end up not remember anything at all.
When political candidates communicate their messages, the candidates are faced with another challenge – criticism. The candidates as well as Barack Obama receive constant criticism from the media, from voters and from each other. What results from this kind of pressure is "flip-flopping," accusations of lying, the elevation of issues from their pasts and performance faults or gaffes. We all remember how Newt Gingrich's explained (or didn't explain) his tie to Fannie Mae.
Corporations are subject to the same trap.
Stick to Your Guns: Altering a message or company position to appease a certain audience doesn't work. It creates confusion, is disingenuous and breeds rumors. Stay consistent and clear. If a company position changes, and this is inevitable, acknowledge it and articulate the reason for the change.
On January 19, CNN's John King opened the South Carolina debate asking Newt Gingrich about the open marriage and adultery allegations from Gingrich's ex-wife, Marianne. The question prompted a heated response that criticized one of the most important audiences in a presidential election – the media. While there is debate on the facts behind the question itself, politicians – and corporations – should know ahead of time how to respond to every tough question.
Anticipate the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Just like the candidates do their best to prepare for debates or for random questions from the media, a company should ask themselves the hard questions. Be prepared to address those surprise questions, by responding with your key messages. One such technique is called bridging. Politicians do it so well, we often don't know they're doing it.
Messaging also involves listening to your opposition. In the Iowa debate held on January 7, Mitt Romney tried to make a $10,000 bet with then-competitor Rick Perry. Romney was proving a point, but he failed to recognize that $10,000 is the average income Iowans bring home over the course of three months. With that single comment, Romney made himself a target and opened the door for opponents to label him as an "out-of-touch rich guy." Former candidate Jon Huntsman quickly purchased the domain name for 10kbet.com. The DNC launched a Twitter hashtag #what10kbuys and it was trending within 15 minutes of the end of the debate.
Outsmart Competitors and React Quickly : Understanding your competitors and developing a corresponding opposition strategy is essential to crafting creative and unique PR and marketing initiatives. Developing an "O" strategy is more than just competitive research. It's about understanding key trends, values, and conversations within your industry, and reacting quickly and strategically.
If all that seems overwhelming, it is. Oftentimes, we fail to realize that the dynamic of a presidential race is almost synonymous with a corporations communications efforts and their opposition strategy. As the country follows the 2012 race, everyone from Fortune 500 companies and small business owners can take note of what the candidates do right, and what they do wrong, when it comes to messaging.