From time to time Public Relations Nation posts a guest blog written by a Hofstra student. Danielle Kent is a senior majoring in public relations at the Lawrence Herbert School of Communication at Hofstra University. The observations expressed here belong to the writer:
Donald Trump. The man whose notoriety once stemmed from firing contestants on “The Apprentice” has since been making waves as a political front runner. Reports of an anti-Trump Super PAC within the GOP have many wondering how a man whose party so openly criticizes him has garnered such impressive national support. Trump has beat competitors in most GOP primaries–taking Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio and others out of the race– and has gained voter support across most demographics.
Though liberals tend to knock the GOP for having an unclear stance on issues currently plaguing the U.S., Trump is certainly not ambiguous and Americans love it. Trump is transparent about his intentions to halt immigration by building physical borders and mass deporting illegal aliens. He also intends to overturn Obama’s Affordable Care Act, a once controversial act that has reduced the number of uninsured Americans by millions.
Trump certainly lacks originality; his ideas, though extreme, are not revolutionary. He also lacks a strong conservative backing. His platform is conservative-leaning, but surprisingly moderate. So why do some keep voting for him?
Oddly enough, Trump shares a lot of similarities with his liberal opponent, Bernie Sanders. Less concerned with their goals as politicians, Americans sense authenticity in Trump and Sanders that many politicians lack. Trump may make polarizing statements that offend entire groups of people, but he does so honestly without fear of criticism.
Most Americans are skeptical of the government and in light of the many political scandals that have emerged in years past (Watergate, anyone?), this skepticism is not in vain. Both candidates share a similar “buck stops here” attitude, rejecting traditional political practices. They are loud, vulnerable, and unapologetic. Say what you want about Trump’s political views, but he certainly knows his target. The working class loves a success story and Trump positions himself as such.
Regardless of whether or not Trump gets elected, one thing has become painfully obvious: Americans are fed up with the precedents set by politicians of the past and they want real change. Is Donald Trump their answer?
Since I blogged in December 2012 about the horrific shootings of 20 young children and six women in Newtown, Connecticut, there have been many more mass shootings in the U.S., the latest last week at Umpqua Community College in Oregon, where nine people were cut down by a gunman. As a PR guy, I wondered back then how the National Rifle Association (NRA) would react to the horrific shootings. The NRA, which has successfully beaten down efforts to regulate the sale of guns by supporting pro-gun rights candidates, remained silent for a couple of days after Newtown and later accused politicians and others of “politicizing” the tragedy.
Sadly, history has repeated itself. Search “Umpqua” on the NRA web site today and there’s not a single mention of the shootings. However, Jack Levi, the NRA’s assistant deputy press relations chief, spoke out on Friday. “The NRA strongly advises against Americans discussing gun control at this time,” said Levi, suggesting that “letting emotions take over a highly emotional event” will only lead to “the further eroding of our Second Amendment rights to keep and bear arms.” He accused the Obama administration and the “liberal media” of having “created a sense of urgency” when it’s “not necessary.”
But what Levi said next was truly alarming. “It’s just too premature to look at 45 separate school shootings as an indication of a problem that needs solving.” And he added in his estimation, “a minimum of 30 or 40 more” school shootings would be where he’d set the threshold and even then, “you really might be overreacting.”
Thirty or 40 more, Mr. Levi? Are we and the media ever “overreacting” to these heinous mass murders?
Yet again, the gun control battle lines are drawn and, I suspect, with little end result. On the day of the Umpqua shootings, President Obama sadly stated that such events and the subsequent reaction “have become routine,” adding, “This is something we should politicize. It is relevant to our common life together, to the body politic.” True to form, several GOP presidential candidates and pro-gun groups have rejected the president’s “politicization” of the issue.
Let’s start with full disclosure: I generally support President Obama and the Democratic Party. I usually avoid politics in this blog, but there are a few public relations lessons to be learned from Election Day 2014.
It’s generally agreed that Democrats suffered significant setbacks, losing several governorships, House seats, and the Senate majority. I believe a combination of tactical errors caused their losses, while a consistent strategy propelled the Republicans. The news media also played a significant role in influencing this election’s outcome.
Let’s look at some PR maxims and how they relate:
1) Accentuate the positive — PR people promote the good stuff. But Democrats never took ownership of significant achievements. Under the party’s president and the Senate majority, the country avoided a depression, has lower unemployment and higher stock prices, millions more have health insurance, the environment is better protected, two wars are over, and Bin Laden is dead. The Dems didn’t run on their positives.
2) Be consistent — PR people understand branding. Republican candidates never strayed from their umbrella theme that President Obama is a failure and, therefore, so is anyone from his party. This relentless messaging helped propel GOP candidates to victory.
3) Support your organization’s leadership — PR folks know it’s never constructive to badmouth the boss. Democrats not only gave in to the constant focus on Obama’s lower approval rating, they ran from him and some actually denied ever supporting him.
4) Understand the media’s hunger for contests — Journalists and pundits know that drama is good for ratings. Because they were highly focused on Obama’s approval numbers and Democrats’ efforts to avoid him, the election’s outcome became a self-fulfilling prophecy. There was little discussion about issues, and few policy questions put to the politicians who have blocked Obama’s every move. Instead, a shift to the GOP was framed as a possible solution to the gridlock that was purposely created.
5) Communicate your successes — I say President Obama has been pretty inadequate at highlighting and articulating the good things he’s done. PR people know that lack of information breeds misinformation.
OK, that’s my election analysis as it relates to PR maxims. Your thoughts?
If you want to seek the latest in public relations case studies, you don’t need a text book. Just watch the news.
In an pre-season NFL game last Monday, Johnny Manziel raised a middle finger as he jogged back to the Cleveland huddle near the Washington sideline after throwing an incomplete pass. The gesture was captured by ESPN’s cameras. Penalty! It became an instant public relations issue for the NFL, the Cleveland Browns and Johnny Manziel.
Ferguson, Missouri was the main focus of news coverage in recent weeks. The shooting of unarmed, 18 year-old Michael Brown by a policeman brought about storms of protest and subsequent riots as angry demonstrations and looters poured into the streets. The public relations mistakes made by the governor, the mayor and by the Ferguson Police Department are good case studies in bad PR. The worst offense came when the department released the officer’s name and simultaneously released an unrelated video of Brown allegedly robbing a store. Ouch! This horrible decision only elevated the anger.
Critics protested when President Obama played golf as crises in Missouri and the Middle East mounted. Although Obama has played more rounds of golf than any of his predecessors, he has taken one-third the vacation days of his immediate predecessor. Meanwhile, he had announced the White House reaction to the execution of journalist James Foley just minutes before starting a round. Bogie! More ammunition for the opposition and another PR snafu for the president.
On a happier note, by now you’ve either seen or participated in dumping ice cold water on someone’s head to raise money to fight ALS/Lou Gehrig’s Disease, a publicity campaign that’s been sweeping the nation. Bravo! The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge is a wonderful example of a campaign gone viral for a great cause. It’s easy, fun, and the campaign has already raised $63 million dollars.
PR case studies are always right under our noses. Just read a newspaper, follow Twitter, or turn on the TV, and then sit back and observe. Your thoughts?
I’m not qualified to say whether Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki was at fault for the scandal that has rocked the Veterans Administration. I also don’t know how directly responsible he was for the VA staff’s misdeeds which led to his resignation last week. I do, however, know enough about finger-pointing to understand that Shinseki had to go: politicians, the media, and subsequently the public, demanded it.
We see this pattern of blaming in matters of scandal and failure: something goes wrong and then we usually force the resignation of the person in charge. This mostly seems justified. But it’s sometimes mere window dressing, just a move made to make us believe the problem is being solved.
There’s been no shortage of such resignations in this year. Kathleen Sibelius left her position as health secretary after the botched launch of Obamacare. After millions of Target customers’ credit and debit card information were compromised, Gregg Steinhafel stepped down as CEO. Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich, who made a contribution in 2008 to support a measure to ban gay marriage, resigned after being scorned on Twitter by his own employees and thousands of others. Now, the union representing Malaysia Airlines employees wants the resignation of Chief Executive Ahmad Jauhari Yahya as he grapples with the disappearance of Flight 370.
Clearly, Flight 370’s fate could not have been prevented by Mr. Yahya, nor can he locate the still-missing plane. But it’s such misguided thinking which brings owners to fire a manager or coach when their team is losing (watch out, Terry Collins!), even though it’s really not their fault. This can be a lame public relations technique and a poor fix for bad situations.
The Veterans Administration won’t be cured because General Shisenski is no longer running it. Its internal culture must be changed for it to become fully functional and fair.
But on second thought, isn’t it the CEO’s job to set the tone and the culture of an organization? Hmmm. Maybe I’m wrong about calling this lame PR and misguided thinking. Your thoughts?
Part of me is happy that Edward Snowden decided to talk about the activities of the National Security Agency (NSA) last week. And part of me wants him thrown in jail for compromising our national security.
I think I feel the same as many Americans. Our most primal emotion–fear–has convinced us to allow our government to take unprecedented measures to find people who are potential threats to our security. At the same time, we have become increasingly wary of the amount of privacy we’ve surrendered to social media and our online activities, and this concern has grown deeper knowing our data is being watched by the Feds. Those of us who have read George Orwell’s 1984 and other similarly prophetic works know that the specter of government intrusion is frightening. After all, do we really want the screens we watch to be looking back at us?
But they already do and have been for years, most notably as we all began to use the Internet. We understand that our surfing and buying habits have become tremendous resources for those wishing to influence our attitudes and sell us stuff, yet we still get creeped out when we see ads pop up that make us wonder, “How did ‘they’ know I wanted to buy one of those?” The level of creepiness only rises when we start worrying how the government might be analyzing and then using the same bits and bytes that become our digital profiles.
So, the reason I’m partially happy about Snowden and the NSA is that an open debate on this issue is really important. The NSA’s and President Obama’s public relations challenge is to determine how transparent they should and can be regarding the government’s activities. Initially, the president needs to step up and find the words to calm our concerns. Then we have to have a serious national conversation about how our data is being used. We need a good, long debate on how we can create a compromise between our protecting our lives and protecting our privacy. Your thoughts?
Score one for Obama’s PR team.
Alongside the national debate on gun control is a public relations war being waged on both sides. I’ve written that while the National Rifle Association’s messaging appeals to its base, the organization risks losing support among the less radical gun rights supporters. Proponents of new gun control laws have used parents of the Sandy Hook Elementary School victims in their efforts, as did President Obama. For the first time in his presidency, he turned over his weekly address to Francine Wheeler, whose 6-year-old son, Ben, was one of the 20 children killed in Newtown, Connecticut last December.
According to the Washington Post, “Wheeler’s remarks are a heart-wrenching capstone to a week of intense lobbying in Washington by parents of children slaughtered at Sandy Hook… After Obama issued a forceful call for swift action during a campaign-style rally in Connecticut on Monday, he brought about a dozen Sandy Hook parents with him to Washington aboard Air Force One. The parents spent the week meeting personally with senators to lobby them to support stricter gun laws…”
We know how essential the right spokesperson can be when endeavoring to influence opinion. For example, BP CEO Tony (“I’d like my life back“) Heyward handled things poorly during the Gulf oil spill crisis, and questions of “good spokesmanship” were raised when CEO Greg Creed defended Taco Bell’s recipe in 2011. But no matter which side of the gun issue you’re on, I don’t think you can find a more powerful spokesperson than the mother of a murdered child.
If you’re alarmed that these people are being used, don’t be. They have become willing representatives of the 100,000 Americans murdered or injured each year by guns. Gun control proponents are very smart to appropriately use their most powerful public relations weapon–in this case, the Sandy Hook parents–if they’re going to have any chance of seeing changes in the nation’s gun laws.
The right representative is essential when working to shape opinions. Francine Wheeler was, indeed, an emotional spokesperson–and the right one for this cause. Your thoughts?
So said “a senior member” of the Romney campaign’s digital team, according to last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine article, “The Late Adopters.” The feature story by Robert Draper focused on the Republican Party’s image crisis and its snail-paced march toward the digital age. Throughout the campaign, young Republican consultants pitched software and technology, only to be ignored:
“Team Romney managed to connect with 12 million Facebook friends, triple that of Obama’s operation in 2008; but Obama in 2012 accrued 33 million friends and deployed them as online ambassadors who in turn contacted their Facebook friends, thereby demonstrably increasing the campaign’s get-out-the-vote efforts in a way that dwarfed the Republicans’. While Romney’s much-hyped get-out-the-vote digital tool, Orca, famously crashed on Election Day, Obama’s digital team unveiled Narwhal, a state-of-the-art data platform that gave every member of the campaign instant access to continuously updated information on voters, volunteer availability and phone-bank activity. And despite spending hundreds of millions of dollars, the Romney television-ad-making apparatus proved to be no match for the Obama operation, which enlisted Rentrak…through which it accrued an entirely new layer of information about each and every consumer, giving the campaign the ability to customize cable TV ads.”
Like it or not, politicians, retailers, the service industry, nonprofits–organizations and we, as individuals–can’t postpone the paradigm shift the world is experiencing. Some figures show that two-thirds of the planet’s population now use smart phones, and shopping, learning, reading, playing, and meeting online rises significantly every day. Public relations practitioners have deeply felt changes in our profession; we’ve had to become tech savvy very quickly, and many still struggle to keep up with ever-changing platforms and tools.
“There’s an old guard in Republican politics…mostly made up of television and direct-mail consultants,” said GOP digital consultant Zac Moffet in the article. It may seem obvious, but the party–and just about everyone else on earth–has to put down the pencils and get on Reddit and Instagram and whatever is new, or be stuck in 1999. But can they? Can we? Your thoughts?
“If there had been a TV in every living room 60 years ago, this country does not elect a man in a wheelchair.” So said Martin Sheen’s character in the film “The American President” (1995). Having just seen Bill Murray as Franklin Delano Roosevelt in “Hyde Park on the Hudson”, I gained an enhanced appreciation for the privacy a president was given by members of the media in those times. A paralyzed polio victim, FDR went to great lengths to ensure that he wouldn’t be photographed in his wheelchair; in fact, only two known pictures exist. But as shown in “Hyde Park”, reporters were quite aware of the president’s disability–and they also knew of his extramarital affairs–but they respected his privacy without question.
That respect continued for the next couple of decades. From JFK’s love life to Rock Hudson’s and Liberace’s homosexuality, the press usually kept quiet about the private “challenges” of the rich and powerful. But privacy has since been stood on its head and shaken to the core.
The NRA gained questionable publicity this week when it brought President Obama’s daughters into the school safety debate. The White House viewed the NRA’s ad as a terrible intrusion into the president’s private family life. But such privacy rarely seems to matter to anyone anymore. Can you imagine an America without a Monica Lewinsky or an Elliot Spitzer or an Andrew Weiner? And what of the poor Kardashians and our countless reality shows? If reporters backed off on sharing others’ private lives, where would the scandals come from? The crime sheets of a Lance Armstrong or a Lindsay Lohan? There’s meaty stuff there, but hardly enough to fill dozens of channels with their ongoing coverage of bad behavior. Media is a ravenous consumer of time which needs constant feeding. Factor in the head-spinning changes wrought by the Internet and social media, and real privacy is truly a thing of the past.
The slow death of privacy is an issue this blog will explore quite a bit more in 2013 and I look forward to your suggestions. Your thoughts?