All politics is local, and all PR should be, too

You've all heard former Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill's famous line "all politics is local" - and he was right. As a political staffer for President George W. Bush's presidential campaign and later as a grassroots consultant, I saw firsthand how local factors and opinions play heavily into the political process.

You've all heard former Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill's famous line “all politics is local” – and he was right. As a political staffer for President George W. Bush's presidential campaign and later as a grassroots consultant, I saw firsthand how local factors and opinions play heavily into the political process.

But, in my experience, it's much more than politics that is shaped by local dynamics. As the 2012 campaigns reach their full momentum with national conventions and general election season upon us, I find myself drawing more and more parallels between campaigns and broader based public relations strategies. In fact, national political campaigns have always served as the testing ground for the latest in cutting-edge communication tools and techniques – Obama with social media, Bush with micro-targeting.

The truth is, at the heart of every public relations strategy, we are all “campaigning” for something: a brand, a product, an idea, or an outcome. As we go about developing strategies for our companies, organizations, and clients, I've outlined three lessons from the campaign trail that all PR professionals should keep in mind.

Treat your consumers and stakeholders like constituents
Every politician knows that his or her constituents are their ultimate audience. Constituents have the power to elect – or replace – every elected official come Election Day. But for brands and products, the implications are even greater. Our consumers and stakeholders have to choose to vote for us each and every day; not once every two or four years.

So, as politicians make constituent services a priority, be diligent about communicating with and serving your customers. Never miss an opportunity to personally interact with the people who make your company or organization a success. Talk with them frequently, but listen even more often. A healthy and ongoing dialogue with your customers is one of the most important characteristics of a good communications strategy.

Plug into the community
When a candidate rolls through town, he or she is likely to make a stop at the local diner and perhaps visit a factory that is the economic lifeblood of the community. Whether it's through the local Chamber of Commerce, the mayor, the VFW post, or the PTA, candidates plug into the forums where community members gather, learn, share, and grow.

Public relations professionals could learn a lot from this technique, but I challenge you to take it a step further. Don't just plug in – turn on and engage. Become a lasting fixture in the community and an active participant in the things your consumers hold most dear. This allows brands and companies to share their story through organizations that lend credibility with built-in audiences and demonstrate their investment in and commitment to the community.   

Local media matters
When developing a broad public relations strategy, don't focus solely on the national media outlets. Remember that local media matters. If you venture into small towns like Logan, IA, where I'm from, you don't find a lot of subscribers to The Washington Post or New York Times. Rather, people get their news from the local media outlets that report on what matters to the community.

Political strategists get this. Throughout their campaigns, President Barack Obama and Gov. Mitt Romney continuously make local media outreach a priority; and research shows this strategy is well founded. According to a poll by the Los Angeles Times, people look to and trust local media more than national outlets. It's a powerful way to reach consumers in a medium they already turn to and in which they place their trust. 

What's more, campaigns have seen tremendous success with localizing national messages. Candidates always pepper local speeches with facts and figures about how federal policy will impact middle-class families in the city or state they happen to be visiting. It makes messages relatable and personal. So, when engaging a regional newspaper or local TV station, don't just share news about your brand; paint a clear picture of why it should matter to that community. 

All politics is local – and all communications should be, too. As PR professionals, there is a valuable lesson to be learned from campaigns. When communications programs live and breathe in local communities, those same communities will help cultivate and grow the success of a brand.

Dave DenHerder is US CEO at Burson-Marsteller.

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