The intense public interest in the presidential primaries and election has accelerated a key change in the way candidates - and companies - need to communicate.
The 24-hour news cycle, ability for individuals to be heard on the Internet, and blurred line between information and entertainment have already raised the stakes. But now, the message of the moment is judged without mercy against the context of what has been said and done. More than frequency, authenticity, and empathy, effective communications must be built on credible context.
When Hillary Clinton said she would end the war in Iraq, her commitment was undercut by prior actions, such as her votes on the original Iraq war resolution and the labeling of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard as "terrorists." The market-tested message of ending the war, delivered consistently, might have been the truth, but voters came to hear it as non-credible and inconsistent.
These forces came into play to the benefit of John McCain. At a meeting in the Rose Garden with President Bush, McCain's visible discomfort reinforced his credible context as a maverick. In contrast, voters found the "conversions" of his competitors far less credible.
Manage these risks and the results are powerful. Barack Obama took those lessons and made them his own. He began by being adamant about ending the war. Before even entering the US Senate, he had publicly opposed the Iraq war resolution. Voters saw this as credible context for his position; when he opposed the Iran vote, it added to his support - even though he skipped the actual vote.
He applied it to crises as well. Whether the threat is real, sublime, or ridiculous, he sought to step beyond calculation to speak to the heart of the matter. In doing so, he strengthened his credible context and defined this new era in communications.
For companies and their agencies, this new era requires a new approach. Messaging needs to be more consistent; it is better to run counter to the current news agenda than to change too often to meet it. Story lines can't be drawn from thin, raw material. Missteps cannot be seen as matters of policy, but as personal failings.
Today, a company might want to project a "green" image, but if its facilities' recycling and CFL bulb programs don't add up in the face of its sourcing and manufacturing processes, that company might be accused of "greenwashing."
Even though credible context cannot be established retroactively, it can be uncovered. PR can adapt to the new demands by adopting the methods of reporters and editors.
Use research to ground stories properly, develop sources at every level to enhance credibility, and hold regular editorial budget meetings where stories can compete to be told. This will help reveal the credible context and serve to promote products, services, or positions.
Acknowledging and moving to meet the changed communications environment will help companies avoid being undone by history.
John Berard is a senior consultant to Zeno Group and CEO at Rabio Corporation. He blogs at talk.rabio.com.