Commentary

Obama's Second Act: PR Lessons Learned

I wasn’t expecting to wake up on the morning after Election Day feeling refreshed and ready to face the day. Like many nail-biting Americans, I too had consumed “pundit porridge” and was fully prepared, stiff drink in hand, set for a long night of dimpled chads, hanging chads, pregnant chads, stuck levers, recounts, court battles, and computer voting systems that did not compute.

Does anyone remember The Simpsons spoof when Homer tried to vote in 2008, or his latest battle with the booth? Yet none of that came to pass and surprisingly, a valuable PR lesson emerged.

On Election Eve, Wolf Blitzer of CNN delivered another “major projection” -- that President Obama would win re-election as battleground Ohio went from yellow (unknown data) to Democratic blue on the large touchscreen Electoral College map. In the end, after being behind or tied (depending on which poll you read) with Governor Romney in all eight of the toss-up states, Colorado, Florida, Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, Ohio, Virginia and Wisconsin, Obama swept the board. CNN called Obama’s election at almost the same time in 2008.

But it wasn’t exactly déjà vu.

As many political observers noted -- albeit with greater fanfare after the fact -- President Obama’s 2012 re-election efforts bore little resemblance to his 2008 campaign. It was an entirely different game plan. Gone was much of the soaring rhetoric -- the emotional appeal to “Change we can believe in.” Many felt the campaign was missing something. As in the first presidential debate in October (which I had plenty to say about in an earlier article) had Obama shown up for work?

The answer, we now know, is a resounding yes. In the days since President Obama’s victory speech, David Axelrod, a senior advisor to the president’s re-election campaign, has emerged almost hero-like, the engineer of his boss’s return to the Oval Office. Axelrod, along with the President’s Chicago campaign staff, basically rewrote their 2008 election rule book and went for an entirely different approach, painting Romney as an out-of-touch business elite, while quietly and effectively working “on the ground” to drum up base support and drive home the get out the vote message. The famed Ronald Reagan-asked political question “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” quickly became the political statement “Think how much better off you will be with Obama at the helm four years from now.” Implicit in the craftily reworked question: think how far we’ve already come, and are you ready to turn the clock back now?

Whether you’re the future president of the United States, an executive in a communications company, or a client seeking public relations counsel, candidate Obama’s 180-degree turnaround tactics serve as a vital PR lesson for us all. Just because a particular strategy or communications channel is working at one point in time doesn’t mean it will work for the same client going forward -- or even other clients in related industries. Each client campaign, like a presidential campaign, is radically different from the next. Technology changes (remember, we don’t call out Obama’s BlackBerry anymore) and data, stats -- and yes, colorful infographics too -- update almost as fast as people tweet.

Often I fear that companies fail to appreciate this simple lesson. Like a presidential cabinet filled with “yes men” and “yes women,” they have grown isolated in their own insular and endlessly praising micro universe. If left unchecked, they begin speaking their own jargon-laden language, touting internal developments that wouldn’t fill up a press release and certainly wouldn’t inspire a journalist to open the email pitch.

This may not be the most profound conclusion. But when a profound person like President Obama demonstrates the flexibility and honesty to radically alter his approach, recognizing the shortcomings of the old, that too is a sign of leadership in and of itself. And perhaps it’s the first indication that Americans of both Red and Blue leanings will see a different kind of leader emerge from the White House in this second act.

If presidents can change, so too can PR firms and the companies they serve. And that’s not a CNN “major projection.” It’s a prediction that I fully vote for and endorse. Anyone care to join me?

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