Time to build a war room

The PR industry can learn a lot from the techniques used in political campaigns.

The 2012 US presidential campaign is in full swing. The Republican nominees are slugging it out and the Obama campaign will be trying to recapture the magic of 2008. The digital campaigns will be more sophisticated, integrated and aggressive.

I headed up new media at Conservative HQ for the 2010 general election, then led digital at Downing Street and the Cabinet Office. Having moved into corporate comms, I'm deploying some of the campaign discipline, method and strategies that were most effective in the political arena.

1. The Campaign 'War Room'

This model was immortalised in the eponymous documentary covering the 1992 Clinton campaign. Some key traits include: a news grid planning system, underpinned by a central narrative; early morning meetings to define daily objectives; a clear hierarchical structure that enables rapid decision-making; continual real-time media monitoring with pacy, aggressive intervention where necessary; and end-of-day review sessions, often suffused with the latest numbers.

This high-tempo environment is very effective at managing an array of issues, campaigns, stories and crises simultaneously. It is why opposition parties beat governments to the chase on the news cycle, despite the huge asymmetry of resource. If corporate comms teams used this mentality, they could do much more for less.

2. People Power

Politics has always relied on volunteer activism and the mobilisation of grassroots support. This was 'social media' long before the internet. Many political campaigns have embraced digital seamlessly, as the 'online brand ambassador' concept is a familiar one.

Politics has a volunteer toolkit that can be readily digitised - calling friends, fundraising, emailing contacts, printing and delivering leaflets and organising events, coupled with a defined endpoint. But for many brand and corporate communicators, this is new territory. What can they learn from politics? First, develop specific and measurable tasks supporters can do. Next, create digital tools that enable easy activation of those tasks. Finally, offer meaningful incentives to encourage further action.

3. The rise of 'Big Data'

This is a job ad for the Obama 2012 campaign: 'We are looking for predictive modelling/data mining scientists and analysts. We are a multi-disciplinary team of statisticians, predictive modellers, data-mining experts, mathematicians, software developers, general analysts and organisers all striving for a single goal: re-electing President Obama.'

Political campaigns are using sophisticated real-time data analytics covering voter behaviour, audience targeting, message testing and digital outreach. Compare this with the 'hit and hope' mentality of many campaigns. Too often the focus is some arbitrary number of Twitter followers, Facebook 'likes' or YouTube views. Little heed is given to SEO, CRM or website analytics. These are seen as IT or direct marketing functions, but they are actually corporate comms tools.

Sir Martin Sorrell has remarked that the emerging competitor threat to WPP comes from technology firms making advances on traditional comms budgets via the IT 'back door'.

So the PR industry can lead strategic advances in digital. But it will take new skills, disciplines and methods - often pioneered in politics - to reach full potential.


Do you see a distinction between your personal and professional use of social media?

They tend to blend into one, but if Google+ takes off, that might change. The Circles feature makes the network potentially very compelling.

How would you deal with a Twitter account spoofing one of your clients?

Don't panic and get heavy-handed. Twitter allows spoofs, provided they are not deceptive or misleading. Establish its impact, act proportionately and engage positively - humility and levity go a long way. They are not necessarily bad: the @ElBloombito spoof of Mayor Bloomberg is rather touching.

Rishi Saha is regional director (Australia, Middle East, Africa, South & Central Asia) at Hill & Knowlton.


From PRWeek's Digital thought leader supplement November 2011

Have you registered with us yet?

Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

Already registered?
Sign in