NEWS ANALYSIS: Personalities are high on US presidential agenda - In the absence of any major issues, this US presidential election was fought on the question of reputation, reports PR Week's Washington correspondent Steve Lilienthal

As PR Week goes to press, the US elections have reached a cliffhanging semi-conclusion with the Florida recount too close to call. But whoever wins, the presidential election result arrives at an unusual time in US politics when the lack of any serious issues meant the campaign more than ever before boiled down to a personality contest.

As PR Week goes to press, the US elections have reached a cliffhanging semi-conclusion with the Florida recount too close to call. But whoever wins, the presidential election result arrives at an unusual time in US politics when the lack of any serious issues meant the campaign more than ever before boiled down to a personality contest.

According to veteran political consultant Joseph Napolitan, the most important word in this year's election was 'likeability' of the candidates.

The NOP Solutions/PR Week survey, which found that 60 per cent of UK respondents felt US politicians to be more reputation-conscious than their UK counterparts, is backed up by political observers Stateside.

'There's no overriding issue like the prospect of war or a horrible economy that could define the presidential election,' confirms Republican pollster Whit Ayres.

In such an environment, the voters are not interested in reading the complex position papers issued by the campaigns. Many in the news media tend to ignore issues in their coverage in favour of polls and popularity.

Gore's press secretary Chris Lehane says: 'During the first debate Gore focused on the substance. But the media covered the theatrics and colour and avoided the substance.'

'Presidential campaigns are PR campaigns at heart,' says former John McCain campaign press secretary Howard Opinsky. 'Everyone apart from accounting is involved in PR to get their message across,' he says.

In practical terms, it is a multi-disciplinary business. Strategists flesh out the candidate's thinking in key issues. Opinion research helps determine what issues the candidate needs to address and where the campaign's efforts should be concentrated. An itinerary is then assembled in order for the candidate to deliver the message, keeping in mind the need for backdrops that are visually appealing on the television news.

The press secretary makes sure the news media is presented with the campaign's message. And television ads help reinforce that message. There is also a large-scale opposition research unit, so the campaign's communications office can offer quick responses to their opponent's statements.

There are good reasons for image taking priority over policy detail in the US. 'A parliamentary system is so different,' says Sal Russo, a consultant with Fleishman-Hillard and the California Republicans, because the choice in the UK is 'which party', rather than 'what candidate' should govern.

Unlike in the UK, the American system allows candidates to purchase television and radio advertising time. And the campaigns are so much longer because the American system allows citizens to pick the nominee in party primaries rather than just party members.

Advertising in a presidential campaign helps to present that message.

But as GOP consultant Ed Blakely notes: 'The presidential race is unlike any other political race. It's more driven by press and PR than by advertising.'

Take the debates. Both campaigns made great efforts to spin the confrontations as they unfolded. In the Bush operation, about 30 surrogates such as state governors received special pre-and post-debate briefings in a special room where they also watched the debate. They then appeared on satellite hook-ups that beamed the spin to television news programmes in key battleground states.

Of course, the surrogates were also available to spin to the hundreds of press in attendance. The Bush team held debate parties in states to help provide the media outlets with feedback from local elected and party officials.

Both campaigns also sent e-mails in the midst of the debate to the press. Nels Olson, a member of the Bush campaign's debate team, says: 'In the age of the internet it's important not only (to have the message delivered) in the hall but also on the web.'

Late-night talk shows have also become an important source of information about the campaign for almost one in ten Americans, according to a study conducted by the Pew Research Center for The People and The Press earlier this year.

Late-night shows offered the candidates a chance to show they were not thin-skinned. Bush strategist Ed Gillespie says people like a president with a sense of humour. Just getting jokes into the political dialogue can pay off.

'Al Gore has put a lot more thought and emphasis on the substance than the style,' says his national spokesman Doug Hattaway.

Shandwick Public Affairs executive vice-president Mike Collins, formerly press secretary to the Republican National Committee, says his committee made sure the writers on late-night shows were faxed releases taking humorous jibes at Al Gore.

While image appears to be so crucial, Pew research shows most Americans citing issues as the reason for supporting their candidate.

But the research also showed 'personal qualities ... are the predominant reason for not supporting a candidate'.

Both the Gore and Bush campaigns attempted to fuse issues into their image. Both candidates made visits to schools to create the 'image' that they are concerned about education when they may not have given that much thought to the policy detail.

Collins thinks the way to fight humorous attacks is to respond with humour. So, this election was effectively a battle between two men trying to be wiseguys like Letterman and Leno playing a gig at the White House, rather than being wise leaders of a powerful nation.

Now the election has drawn to a close, the President's team must turn those position papers, forgotten in the contest, into policies to create a strong image for the new US President.



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