Singer: Effective comms strategies rise from DC dysfunction

Despite public hostility toward their job performance, an examination of each party's PR tactics offers some valuable lessons.

Each month seems to bring a new low in the approval ratings for both President Obama and Congress. Only 13% of Americans approve of the latter’s performance, while 41% support the president’s. These sentiments are continually reinforced by the countless news stories that have been written about the dysfunction in Washington.

Despite public hostility toward their job performance, the GOP has positioned itself to quite possibly take the Senate from the Democrats and pick up seats in the House this November. On the other side of the aisle, Democrats are managing to raise more money than Republicans, even though many have been reduced to disassociating themselves on the campaign trail from their president.

An examination of each party’s PR tactics, which are helping them to succeed on some fronts in spite of strong headwinds, offers some valuable lessons. 

Democrats have become enormously successful with online fundraising. Their well-crafted email blasts have brought in $41 million so far this year, likely a record amount. (If you are getting the missives, as I do, you know they are aggressive). That is money they can spend to compete in close races this fall. A recent Politico story reveals many of the tactics that have compelled countless ordinary citizens to donate an average of just $20. Democrats have the fundraising edge on both the House and Senate sides, even though Republican voters hold the enthusiasm advantage.

The lesson here is that today’s technology allows us to inexpensively and very effectively send targeted messages to key groups. Email blasts are affordable communication vehicles that help build relationships with consumers (read: voters), usually along with a larger digital strategy. Democrats have the process of writing compelling and relevant content down to a science: If possible, conduct a public opinion poll before sending out your email blasts in order to gain important insight into what your audience is passionate about and what motivates it to act.

While the content of a message is obviously crucial, delivering it to the right audience is equally vital. Watch one of President Obama’s town-hall-style media events. If you look carefully, you’ll notice the people seated or standing behind him, within camera shot, reflect key constituencies in the Democratic Party’s base – women and culturally diverse groups who still strongly support him much more than the overall electorate. Connecting with and motivating those specific groups to turn out to vote is a smart strategy. Market research allows PR pros to learn who their most influential audiences are and how to best direct finite communications resources so that your campaign will reach them.

On the other side, the GOP seeks to benefit this November from a favorable electoral map, as Senate Democrats are up for re-election or retiring in red states. Beyond that, however, Republicans are effectively going on the offensive in blue state Senate races in Michigan and Iowa, among others. That’s right – GOP candidates are convincing voters to send more Republicans to the institution that Republicans largely run that has a 13% approval rating.

Successful candidate recruitment largely explains this paradox. Republicans are running strong female candidates for Senate (both have held office, one statewide, and the other is a veteran) who appeal to a broad swath of voters. Their victory this November is by no means a foregone conclusion, but the GOP appears to have selected individuals who connect with their audiences. The lesson here is that picking an appropriate spokesperson to get in front of the camera can really help even when the environment is hostile.

Thematic headlines that drive the news are not always reflective of the reality on the ground. "Congress reaches historic approval rating low" or "Obama now less popular than Bush" are certainly catchy, but don’t necessarily translate into practical implications. Democratic and Republican candidates – and their strategists – are finding ways to succeed in spite of the larger political environment. It’s worth taking note of how they’re doing it.

Sam Singer is president of Singer Associates in San Francisco. He can be reached at singer@singersf.com.

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