Barack Obama's solid victory as the next president of the US will likely be remembered as a landmark event in time. Yet in addition to its historical significance, the win will likely make a lasting impact on the communications sector.
On the days leading up to the election, PRWeek solicited predictions from PR pros on who would become the next president and what in their communications strategy would propel him to victory. They overwhelmingly pointed to an Obama victory. The campaign's savvy social media tactics, its focused messaging, and even its impressive fundraising efforts contributed to his electoral edge. And the tactics developed in that campaign will become the new norm, communicators say.
Jason Booms, president and CEO of Booms Research & Consulting, says Obama's win reflects a broader trend toward more interactive communications rather than conventional top-down messaging.
“[John] McCain understood an older form of communications that was hierarchical and corporate,” Booms says. “The new way of doing things is much more about relationship-building…I think Obama just captured that better.”
Obama's campaign was widely lauded for having a keen understanding of new media, the epicenter of the conversation-driven media. According to data compiled by the Wall Street Journal, Obama had nearly double the number of unique visitors to his Web site compared with McCain. It also showed that Obama's Facebook network topped more than 2 million while McCain was just shy of 600,000. The story was similar on their YouTube channels.
“Here's a case when the Democrats were way ahead of the Republicans in how to get their message across on the Internet and build dialogue,” Booms notes. “And it's not just the young that use the Internet, it's older voters, too.”
Another winning strategy for Obama was the consistency of his “change” slogan and the widely recognized symbol that he used in his primary fight through his electoral victory.
Jeff Mascott, MD at the Adfero Group and an adjunct PR/communications professor at Georgetown University, says, “What's interesting is [Obama] was the first candidate to come up with a visual brand for his campaign in the same way you would for a corporate brand.”
The image resonated so strongly with voters because Obama's campaign remained focused on the themes it evoked -- hope and change. And the camp stayed on message with these points even when confronted with challenges, he adds.
The campaign used the same consistency with Obama himself, remarks Derek LaVallee, VP public affairs at Waggener Edstrom.
“He never over-steered,” says LaVallee. “We saw John McCain do that a lot. He saw one thing against him then completely overacted and that became the message. Obama didn't really react to anything other than with the race issue [which was raised] during the primaries.”
His coolness might have also opened an opportunity for people to read deeper into his actions, LaVallee adds.
“I think just his personality gave him a couple points with the independent swing voters who would think, ‘maybe… he's thinking what I am thinking,'” he says.
Additionally, the McCain campaign's rhetoric of socialism and Marxism might have made their candidate seem out of touch, points out John Hlinko, president and CEO, Grassroots Enterprise.
“That's the kind of rhetoric you would have expected to hear 30, 40, or 50 years ago,” Hlinko says.
Obama, of course, also benefited from circumstances beyond both candidates' control like the economy. Yet even amid such uncertainty, Americans usually gravitate to the more optimistic message, which Obama captivated, adds LaVallee.
“Americans are optimists,” he says. “Hope always trumps fear.”