PRSummit: Lessons For The Boardroom From The Campaign Trail
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Holmes Report

PRSummit: Lessons For The Boardroom From The Campaign Trail

Corporate leaders can learn from political campaigns when it comes to establishing a “master narrative” f and articulating a clear vision and purpose.

Paul Holmes

MIAMI—Corporate leaders can learn from political campaigns when it comes to establishing a “master narrative” for their communications and articulating a clear vision and purpose, according to panelists at the Global Public Relations Summit, speaking on a panel called “From the Ballot Box to the Boardroom,” sponsored by Burson-Marsteller.

Don Baer, global chief executive of Burson-Marsteller and a veteran of the Clinton administration, spotlighted the value of listening, says But also the critical importance of “establishing a narrative” in both a political setting and the corporate realm.

“In the political realm, you need to have a consistent narrative about what your campaign is about, and then use your policy positions as proof points to keep that narrative moving forward, constantly reminding your audience what your narrative is about. That’s an important lesson for corporate communicators.”

Craig Smith, a principal at polling firm Penn Schoen Berland and another veteran of Clinton campaigns, says that message discipline is critical. “To have something committed to long-term memory, you need to hear it seven times,” he says. “To make sure votes hear seven times you have to say it 700 times.”

“I think you also have to make it personally relevant and you have to make it local,” says Christina Pearson, senior director of public relations at Microsoft, where she manages public affairs, and a veteran of the Department of Health & Human Services in the George W. Bush administration. “We try to do everything we can to take the message to where people live, work and play, and make the message relevant to the people we are talking to.”

In addition there are things that CEOs can learn from political leaders, says Baer, in particularly the ability to articulate a vision. They need to be aspirational about that purpose and realistic about it too, and finding that balance is a priority in the political world and the business world. Clearly in the business world, there are different measures—quarterly earnings and the bottom line—but there are also issues of getting their people working in a share direction, and many of the communications requirements are very similar.”

But Smith sees some significant differences between the political and corporate realms, particularly in terms of the relative short time frame

“Everything is compressed. In politics, the time pressures are greater. If someone attacks you in the morning you have to respond by the afternoon. You have to push back against attacks in the corporate world, but you have time to be more thoughtful.”

The time pressures are greater than ever today, however. Pearson says social media have created greater pressure to respond quickly.

“You ignore social media at your peril,” she says. “It’s a constant conversation that you need to engage in. Post-Katrina, those in the public health world had to look at new ways of communicating because lots of people didn’t have internet access, so we looked at things like texting. You have to be looking at new ways to reach people in a crisis.”

Finally, political campaigns have been pioneers in the use of communications research.

“The one thing I think campaigns do better than the corporate world is that they use research,” says Smith. “Campaigns don’t make a move without research and they use it to develop messages. The least interesting question to a campaign is who would you vote for today; what’s useful is figuring out who they need to talk to and what they need to say.

“Often in the corporate PR world, people kind of wing it. They think they have a good idea and they go with that. That’s very risky.”

And again, speed is key. Campaigns do polling overnight and have messages—including advertising—based on those polls the next day.

“Companies have to move equally quickly,” says Baer. “They need research to help drive the narrative I was talking about earlier.”


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