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New Role for Public Relations Pros: Best Practices from the Obama Media Trail

The role of the public relations professional is changing — not only are the faces of media changing, with social media and other “new” technology, but the industries we represent can change even as we advocate on their behalf. The challenge to maneuver, reposition and speak on the fly has never been as evident as during the Obama campaign last year, where every minute new developments changed campaign strategies.

The role of the public relations professional is changing — not only are the faces of media changing, with social media and other “new” technology, but the industries we represent can change even as we advocate on their behalf. The challenge to maneuver, reposition and speak on the fly has never been as evident as during the Obama campaign last year, where every minute new developments changed campaign strategies. As advocates of a presidential candidate, our roles as public affairs professionals were constantly changing to effectively appeal to the latest town and the latest news.

Public relations and political campaigning are similar endeavors — they require the same persistence, relationship-driven successes and the ability to transform crises into media opportunities. However, campaign press relations and public relations differ in that the press and advance practitioner on the stump move in real-time against changing parameters, competitive candidate claims or attack ads, while the public relations exec can leverage messages or products/services that seem relatively stationary.

Public relations professionals create personal and long-term connections with the trade press popular press, and have a rolodex of connections in the blogosphere. In campaign press relations, only the traveling press that move with the candidate are available for an ongoing relationship. The national political writers and commentators are important, but in the Obama campaign it was all about local or statewide media in what seemed like a blur of caucus or primary states. You don’t ever go home again — or at least President Obama did not head back to Iowa until closer to the election.

Simultaneously, reporters, voters and potential volunteers — none of them will remember a brand as well as a person’s face. We try to make it our candidate’s face.  The political candidate must be more personable, memorable and endearing than the campaign staff. Accordingly, the campaign staff should not attempt to create relationships between themselves and the potential campaign supporter. Instead, they should facilitate a relationship between the voter and the candidate — the new connection between the campaign worker and the supporter is a common desire for the candidate to succeed.

For Example:
Public Relations — Client A has hired Mike Smith for press coverage. Mike calls Reporter A, someone he has known for several years, and chats on the phone about the latest news from the organizations they both belong to and their mutual love of the same brand of ice cream. Mike then introduces his client after reinforcing his existing relationship with Reporter A.

Campaign Press Relations — Candidate B has hired Mike Smith to win the governor’s campaign. Mike cold-calls Pastor B, who lives in a town Mike has never seen, and chats with him about how Candidate B cares about his church and his community. He works with Pastor B to hold a fundraiser with a group of other faith-based communities. Pastor B has a closer relationship to Candidate B and is more likely to support his cause. Mike’s role is simply to facilitate that closeness.

Co-authored by Ashley Haughton and Mike Smith.

Ashley Houghton is an Account Supervisor at Mike Smith Public Affairs.  Follow her on twitter at @PRYouReady.

Mike Smith is a Washington insider and beltway native who has deep political connections. He has national campaign and convention experience working for a key Iowa (caucus) newspaper. He also worked for a Gannett newspaper in upstate New York. Smith has a master’s degree in journalism from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. At the Denver convention, he covered tech policy platform issues along with his friend Craig Newmark of Craigslist. Smith also worked as a volunteer on national traveling press and advance for the Obama for President campaign in Iowa, Texas and Virginia.

Join Mike for his case study presentation, “Barack Obama: A Case Study in Public Relations and the Citizen’s Campaign,” at the PRSA 2009 International Conference: Delivering Value, November 7 – 10, in San Diego, CA!

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