The striking contrast in styles between the approach of the two candidates currently seeking the highest office in the United States can be interpreted as a battle between those who believe in the principles of public relations and those who prefer to rely on the politically tried and tested techniques of spin.
Within hours of the announcement that Republican candidate John McCain had chosen Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as his vice presidential running mate, I received an e-mail from a Chicago public relations firm (one with which I was not previously familiar) explaining why McCain’s unexpected choice would “pay off in November.”
The founder and chief executive of the PR firm in question speculated that: “Not only is she at home with the republican [sic] base, but as a professional woman, a wife and a mother of five, she presents a welcome image to the untethered Hilary [sic] Clinton voters…. This pick is PR genius in my opinion.”
Leaving aside the lack of an upper case R in Republican and the fact that the CEO in question, who presents himself as a “political PR expert” apparently doesn’t know how to spell Hillary Clinton’s name, this press release so perfectly encapsulates everything people think is wrong with the public relations business, the reason so many PR professionals—even the good ones—are accused of practicing spin, of elevating style over substance.
At the risk of stating the blindingly obvious, the most important function of a vice presidential nominee is to serve as Vice President should the candidate in question be elected. This public relations agency press release contained not one word explaining why Sarah Palin might make a good Vice President, explaining how her vision of America would resonate with voters, or lauding the solutions she offered to the various problems facing America—from Al Qaeda to the ongoing war in Iraq to the rise of Russia to the economic crisis. (Perhaps because, as of four days later, there is no evidence that she has ever considered any of these issues.)
Instead, the focus was on how her gender would appeal to Clinton supporters still unhappy that she lost the Democratic primary and was not offered the vice presidential spot on the Democratic ticket. In other words, the focus was on whether she would make a good candidate, not a good Vice President, on superficial questions of image rather than on her substantive virtues.
That focus is the public affairs equivalent of marketing a new car to women by telling them that it comes in pink, except it’s even more patronizing, because it ignores Palin’s positions on abortion (against it, even in cases of rape or incest), education (she is a creationist), the environment, and just about every other issue that women voters tell pollsters they care about. The assumption appears to be that women will overlook any concerns they might have over Palin’s beliefs simply because she has two X chromosomes. (There is, needless to say, absolutely no evidence that women voters are this malleable or unprincipled.)
The only good news about this inept piece of would-be opportunism is how well it worked. Three days later, a Google search for the name of the CEO, the name of his firm, and the name of the candidate produced not a single hit.
Though to be fair, the public relations firm behind the press release is not alone in its assumption that politics should trump policy and style should trump substance. The mainstream media coverage of the campaign as a whole is far more focused on the day-by-day fluctuations in the polls than on the profound policy differences between the two candidates (for any serious, informative discussion of policy proposals, it is necessary to spend a good deal of time in the blogosphere. And the McCain campaign is dismissive of the importance of policy;
But it did get me thinking about the striking contrast in styles between the approach of the two candidates currently seeking the highest office in the United States and wondering whether this election can be interpreted as a battle between those who believe in the principles of public relations and those who prefer to rely on the politically tried and tested techniques of spin.
There’s no doubt that the latter approach has dominated the American political landscape over the past 16 years, perhaps to the extent that many sophisticated observers now question whether there is any other path to electoral success. The Clinton administration may not have been the first to employ spin—which has been around at least as long as public relations—but with its enthusiastic embrace of the “permanent campaign” approach (an idea first articulated by an advisor to President Jimmy Carter) it elevated the role of spin—sometimes putting it ahead of the business of governing.
Republican strategist Karl Rove took the techniques of spin even further, both in Bush campaigns (circulating completely false accusations that GOP rival McCain had fathered a black child out of wedlock, enlisting Swift Boat Veterans for Truth to challenge the military record of Democratic challenger John McCain) and in the Bush administration (using the attacks of 9/11 as the platform to launch an attack on the patriotism of Democrats, despite their almost universal support for the President’s response).
And now Rove protégé Steve Schmidt is serving as senior campaign strategist to candidate McCain, and embracing the tactics of his mentor with gusto.
Since the arrival of Schmidt, the McCain campaign’s attacks on Obama have grown increasingly Roveian, focusing on the Democratic nominee’s popularity (or “celebrity,” as late night TV regular McCain would have it) and comparing him with Britney Spears and Paris Hilton, while Obama’s negative advertising has focused almost exclusively on the issues, and in particular on the lack of any serious policy disagreement between McCain and the deeply unpopular Bush administration.
The threat of another hurricane hitting the Louisiana coast presented yet another contrast between the approaches of the two contenders for high office. While the McCain campaign dispatched its candidate to the Gulf Coast in search of photo opportunities and the perception that he was behaving in a “presidential” manner, Obama decided that rather than burden emergency workers with the additional task of accommodating another presidential candidate and his entourage, he would issue an e-mail appeal to supporters to make emergency donations to the Red Cross—a more practical, if less mediagenic response to the crisis.
According to Kevin Drum, who writes and blogs for the progressive magazine Mother Jones: “Steve Schmidt seems solely interested in winning the daily news cycle; his staff spends its time gleefully churning out juvenile attack videos, while McCain himself has retreated into robotic incantations of simpleminded talking points.”
“You’d think that we’d be having a serious debate,” Obama lamented, in response to the McCain approach. “But all we’ve been hearing about is Paris Hilton and Britney Spears…. Is that really what this election is about? Is that what is worthy of the American people?”
To longtime observers of the American political scene, that question might sound dangerously naïve. The winning campaigns of the past 16 years have all used the same tactics and techniques, launching attacks that are at best intellectually dishonest and at worst complete fabrications.
Take for example, the claims by McCain ads and Republican surrogates that Obama "voted to cut off funding for our troops." There is a level on which the claim is true: Obama voted against a war supplemental spending bill, at a time when most Americans supported that position as the only way to signal to the Bush administration that it was time to end the war. But if the claim is true for Obama, it is also true for McCain, who voted against a supplemental spending bill that included funding for the troops along with a withdrawal timeline. In other words, if it’s true that Obama voted against funding the troops, it’s also true that McCain did the same. Obama could run ads making the same claim the McCain camp and they would be just as intellectually honest—or dishonest, as the case may be.
Instead, the Obama campaign issued the following response: "There are honest differences between Senator Obama's position on Iraq and Senator McCain's, but there's no question that both support our troops. Under the RNC's definition, John McCain would have also chosen politics over our military when he urged George Bush to veto funding for the troops, and we know that's not the case. This is the sort of distasteful and misleading attack from the Rove playbook that the American people are tired of, that does nothing to give our troops the equipment they need, and distracts from the honest debate we should be having about how we can keep the country secure."
In any other communications environment—the corporate world, for example—we would all applaud that response for its honesty and integrity; the merchants of spin are counting on the fact that in the political realm honesty and integrity are liabilities, not assets.
Spin also means focusing on personality rather than policy. And since the press corps appears to be universally infatuated by McCain’s “maverick” personality and his undeniably compelling personal history, there is every expectation that the approach can be successful again.
The McCain campaign is all about McCain—his experience as a prisoner of war is apparently the answer to every question, from whether his seven or eight houses might render him detached from the economic pains or ordinary Americans to his opposition to universal healthcare—or, of course, Obama. It’s all about personality. The Obama campaign, by contrast, places a relentless—almost tedious—emphasis on the issues, and on explaining the candidate’s approach to those issues. A visit to Obama’s website reveals an almost crushing amount of policy detail, compared to the rather brief, vague positions summarized—often in a line or two—at the McCain site.
But the contrast between the two campaigns runs deeper than just content. It’s also reflected in the way the two candidates and their campaigns relate to the electorate. Matthew Yglesias, who blogs for the liberal Think Progress website, says: “The Obama team is constantly frustrating progressive bloggers and news junkies by being extremely cavalier about the news cycle. They don’t seem especially interesting in pouncing on gaffes or in responding to accusations, and they’re not especially quick on the draw or generous with talking points. Instead, they have a very inner-directed approach that’s all about building and cultivating the Obama brand to their own specifications and on their own schedule. The McCain campaign’s not like that at all. They’re obsessed with winning the news cycle and they’re good at it. But they’re much less interested in the McCain brand.
I think that’s about right. Obama’s approach is a public relations—or branding, or reputation management— approach. It’s not as explicitly transactional as most political campaigns. It’s not focused exclusively on persuading people to pull a lever or touch a computer screen or scribble an X next to the candidate’s name; it’s also about engaging and energizing and mobilizing voters and directing their energy (as well as their financial resources) to political and community causes that matter to them—and will continue to matter to them regardless of who wins the election in November.
Obviously, the contrast is not quite as black and white as I am making it sound with these examples. I’m sure the Obama campaign will descend into the territory of spin during the election, just as I am sure there will be examples of McCain reaching out to build deeper, more enduring relationships with the electorate. (And it may be that Obama is pursuing the public relations approach out of necessity rather than innate goodness; it’s hard to imagine that the American media would allow a Democratic candidate to get away with the same level of dishonesty that is accepted from Republicans.).
But so far, this has been a battle between two very distinct approaches toward branding, relationship building and communication. The ultimate result—still very much up in the air—will tell us something about which approach is more effective in the political realm.
Whether it will provide any lessons about effectiveness in the corporate realm in which most of us labor most of the time is arguable. The rules of politics and the rules of corporate reputation management remain quite different, for the simple reason that politics is a zero-sum game and business is not. Politicians can spin like crazy in an attempt to destroy the reputation of their opponents, even if such behavior is repellent to many voters. All they have to do is erode more of their opponent’s support. If businesses use the same dishonest, destructive techniques, everyone loses.
Which is why spin, despite its prevalence in politics in America and beyond, remains a fundamentally flawed way of communicating on behalf of corporate clients.