Importance of presidential debates is difficult to dispute

As you read this, you are just days away from voting for the next president. You're also less than a month removed from three hotly contested debates between President Barack Obama and his challenger Mitt Romney.

As you read this, you are just days away from voting for the next president. You're also less than a month removed from three hotly contested debates between President Barack Obama and his challenger Mitt Romney.

Before the first face-off, some wondered if these debates still mattered. It's a fair question, as the candidates' every word and action is on full display in today's 24-7 media environment.

Though debate dialogue is often non-specific and hyperbolic, it's still four-and-a-half hours of uninterrupted access to the candidates. And the town hall-style debates, in particular, put them mere feet away from real-life voters. That is a rare opportunity to deeply connect - or disconnect - with vital stakeholders.

As of this writing, the identity of the next commander-in-chief is undecided, but it's fair to say the debates had an impact on the race.

Heading into the first debate on October 3, Obama held a comfortable lead. By October 4, a Reuters/Ipsos poll found Romney, who was widely deemed to have won the debate, had closed the gap from six points to two after it.

Most hailed Obama as the victor in the second debate, but the race for the White House had became just that - a legitimate race. The first debate was a major reason why.

Some valuable communications lessons can be gleaned from all this. Among the most relevant - even the best message can be diminished if the vehicle delivering it fails. A PR team can prepare a CEO, celebrity, or the president for every conceivable eventuality, but a lackluster or awkward performance in those 90 minutes can undermine it all.

Likeability, "looking presidential," or being "cool," are not ideal criteria for selecting the Oval Office's next occupant, but for a good chunk of the electorate, those factors sway votes.

And returning to the premise that social media minimizes debates; to the contrary - it amplifies them. Both candidates' performances remained stories for longer due to online chatter.

Debates are great theater - some say that's all they are - but they remain as transparent a look at the candidates as voters will ever get. If that's not a vital outreach platform, what is?

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