McKinnon uses sensitivity to spark infamous flip-flop

Using campaigns that appealed to voters' hearts, Mark McKinnon helped George W. Bush clinch the presidency. As Beth Herskovits reports, he now applies those successful strategies to corporate clients

Using campaigns that appealed to voters' hearts, Mark McKinnon helped George W. Bush clinch the presidency. As Beth Herskovits reports, he now applies those successful strategies to corporate clients

If the 2004 presidential election had a soundtrack, the chorus would include Sen. John Kerry's famous flip-flop, "I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it."

For the Bush camp, the line was a gem, and it was also no accident, says the president's chief media advisor, Mark McKinnon. "We kind of baited him; we set out a trap," he says.

Before Kerry was set to speak in West Virginia, the President's campaign team ran commercials questioning his opponent's vote against a bill that would appropriate $87 billion for troops in Iraq.

A reporter then grilled Kerry about his vote, and the White House hopeful responded with the infamous gaffe.

"That was probably the campaign's most iconic moment - what we called the gift that kept on giving," recalls McKinnon. "We cut [another] ad immediately with new audio and video. We knew we were creating controversy."

McKinnon directed the advertising efforts for Bush's election campaigns in 2000 and 2004, but his background is in the PR world. And he notes that the media strategies behind both campaigns owed their success to the recognition that ads must also generate buzz.

"We understood coverage and PR are much more important than the ads," he says. "The free media coverage is a lot more impactful. When we cut an ad, we thought a lot about the [news value]."

McKinnon, for instance, moderated focus groups to determine which messages would appeal to voters, says political consultant David Axelrod, a partner at AKP Message and Media, which has advised candidates such as Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL).

"He's got a tremendous intellectual curiosity and sensitivity to people and how they react to issues," Axelrod says. "Mark is a guy who listens first and speaks second. In our business, that makes him an admirable aberration."

McKinnon notes that neither election was an assured victory for the President, but although there were different obstacles in each campaign, the underlying themes about Bush's resoluteness and integrity were the same.

"In 2000, the country wanted to stay the course," notes Paul Begala, a CNN commentator and political advisor to Democratic candidates such as former President Bill Clinton. "There was peace and prosperity."

Four years later, that security was turned upside-down as the country waged two unpopular wars abroad. But once again Bush emerged victorious.

"How did they do that? By focusing on values, strengths, and character," Begala says. "[Bush and McKinnon are] people of terrific focus. They understand that people make these decisions with their hearts and not their heads."

The campaign never veered off its core strategy of constantly looking for ways to contrast the two candidates.

"We basically said this election is about character and conviction," says McKinnon. "The kind of voters we got were people who said... we know where [Bush] stands and where he's going."

"He knows how to drive a message and keep a campaign on-message," says Axelrod about McKinnon. "The Bush campaign was really a strategic triumph, a textbook campaign in my view."

The message of character resonated for McKinnon on a personal level, too.

Before he orchestrated the media strategy that handed Bush eight years in office, McKinnon had almost given up on political consulting. He notes that he joined the 2000 effort rather reluctantly.

"I was rather frustrated with politics," he admits. "I think that Washington is a pretty poisonous place [run by a] a permanent class of politicians."

But Bush, who was governor of Texas at the time, had a different perspective on politics. Although Bush and McKinnon identified with different political parties, they found common ground during their runs together - from the personal (their daughters were close in age) to the ideological (on issues such as immigration and education).

"He'd gotten my attention... because he was talking about a positive role for government," McKinnon says. "I grew to a place where I've looked at the candidate more than a party."

In the end, McKinnon agreed to run the media strategy for the campaign out of his friendship and loyalty to Bush.

Axelrod notes that McKinnon recognizes that "most Americans aren't ideologues."

"He understands that when you talk about PR, you talk about people," adds Axelrod. "They overcame consternation about Bush's policies... by turning [the election] into a test of character."

McKinnon's journey into politics was circuitous. As a teenager, he ran away to Nashville, TN, to become a country singer. "I had hoped to be Bob Dylan," he recalls.

In Nashville, he lived and wrote music with singer/songwriter Kris Kristofferson, but ultimately realized that being a professional musician was not in his future. He enrolled in the University of Texas' journalism program, where he became editor of The Daily Texan.

One of McKinnon's first PR jobs was as press secretary for Lloyd Doggett's failed Senate bid. "One of the things about politics is that you can fail upward," McKinnon says. Indeed, from there he went on to become press secretary for former Texas Gov. Mark White.

Today, McKinnon is focused on applying political strategies to corporate clients such as Dell, KPMG, and Fannie Mae. He joined Public Strategies, where he is currently vice chairman, in 1990, attracted to founder Jack Martin's pioneering vision of public affairs.

"We believe that [a company] could no longer conduct its business behind closed doors," McKinnon says.

Like political campaigns, corporations, he adds, must have a "broad view of constituencies" and "blitz-like tenacity and focus" on business outcomes. "In the world of [politics], it's win-lose," McKinnon says. "When you've got to have 51% on Election Day, it drives an incredible focus on bottom-line results."

He is certainly looking ahead to 2008; McKinnon is in talks with Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) about a second presidential bid and says that he'd also aid the campaigns of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice or Gov. Jeb Bush (R-FL).


Mark McKinnon

1990-present
Partner/vice chairman, Public Strategies

1997-present
President, Maverick Media

2002-present
Vice chairman, Lance Armstrong Foundation

1989
Partner, Rindy & McKinnon

1987-1989
Associate, Sawyer-Miller Group

1983-1987
Various press secretary roles.
Lloyd Doggett for Senate (1983-1984);
Gov. Mark White, Texas (1986);
Buddy Roemer for governor of LA (1987)

1980-1981
Editor - Daily Texan (1980), Utmost (1981)

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