Midterm Election Lessons for the PR Industry, from the Industry

Following the results of the midterm election on Tuesday, politicians on both sides came away with their ideas (good and/or bad) about what’s important to voters and how they should govern moving forward.

One of the lessons highlighted during President Obama’s press conference on Wednesday was the need to better communicate. We asked communicators in the public affairs arena what they thought the big takeaways from the election were for the PR industry. Their thoughts after the jump.

-Stephanie McFarland, immediate past chair of PRSA’s public affairs and government section and PR director at the Indiana Department of Revenue:

“The results demonstrate exactly what PR is all about – an “organization’s” need to listen to its stakeholders, determine direction from stakeholder feedback and move forward in a way that builds mutually-beneficial relationships with those stakeholders.

“When stakeholders don’t get that from an organization, they make change – either through activism, or switching brands, or – as in this case – voting for a change in leadership. I don’t see these midterm results as an indication of what PR can learn from this election, but more of what our policy makers can learn from the practice of true PR.”

-Don Goldberg, partner, Qorvis:

“I think one of the lessons is that video lives forever on the Internet, so every candidate and executive needs to think about avoiding those “YouTube moments” that could come back to haunt them.  Christine O’Donnell in Delaware found herself explaining video clips from a decade back, as did Rand Paul in Kentucky.

“Perhaps most important, as exemplified in both the California and to a lesser extent Maryland gubernatorial races , money does not overcome a bad campaign.  Meg Whitman and Robert Erhlich both had plenty of resources, but neither had a coherent message, and that showed in their huge defeats.”

-Nathan Ballard, MD, Burson-Marsteller;  previously director of communications for San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom:

“When you have a big win, you need to take a victory lap. After the passage of health care reform, President Obama’s communications operation quickly moved on to other topics. The White House should have used the President’s extraordinary gifts as a communicator to spread the word. Instead, the President’s opponents seized the moment and transformed a positive into a negative.”

-John Feehery, president of communications, Quinn Gillespie & Associates:

“Perhaps the biggest lesson is that if you have bad policy, no amount of PR can help you survive a wave election.  The President keeps saying that this election was a result of a failure to communicate.  That is wishful thinking.  With continued high unemployment, staggering debt and a breathtaking expansion of the size and scope of the government, this “shellacking” didn’t happen because of a failure to communicate.  It happened because of a failure to responsibly legislate.”

-Ashley McCown, co-founder and president,  Solomon McCown & Company: The firm worked on a Massachusetts housing campaign, “Vote NO on 2,” which was supported by a coalition of local leaders and organizations.

On Tuesday, voters rejected a proposal that would have repealed a law creating affordable housing for working families and seniors.  The firm has worked on this issue for seven years, and focused on presenting the people living in affordable housing units. They began their work in January and got editorials and other coverage in dozens of local and regional outlets.

“For years, we’ve done targeted public education campaigns to help people understand what this is.

The key goal was to go out and reset the table with every daily newspaper in Massachusetts… Grassroots was also important to get out the vote.  The takeaway was a great communications strategy married with a grassroots campaign.”