After being roundly defeated in last year's elections, the Republican National Committee (RNC) is set to use 2009 as a rebuilding year. It started out strong with the election of its first black chairman, Michael Steele. But that appointment has become a distraction from the work at hand as the new chairman made a series of missteps, including squaring off with conservative untouchables Rush Limbaugh and abortion.
Like any organization in transition – political or not – the RNC is suffering an identity crisis and is in need of a strong, strategic communications plan that will set it back on track. It also needs to make it clear to its various members and factions – and the competition – that it is ready and able to lead, as is its mandate.
“The RNC is spending so much time on damage control, perhaps the underlying message they're trying to present isn't receiving the exposure they'd like,” says David Freddoso, political reporter for the National Review Online.
A communications platform that emphasizes core party issues, rather than seeming gimmicks like Steele's promise of an “off-the-hook” PR campaign steeped in “urban-suburban hip-hop settings” will help it reconnect with supporters.
“It's important not to get caught up in the day-to-day battle with the media, which has been the Republicans' problem for the last two election cycles,” says Ben Porritt, former national spokesman for the 2008 McCain presidential campaign and current partner and senior strategist at Outside Eyes. Instead, it should be reaching out to its core base and emphasizing cornerstones of the party, he adds.
The party will benefit from finding a common thread and weaving it through communications that it can present to local affiliates, which will help recapture its leadership mantle and move it beyond day-to-day battles and onto a long-term strategy. A positive message will resonate best these days, say communications pros.
“They need a positive, alternative story line to unite the party, like [Newt Gingrich's]* ‘Contract with America,' that [party members] can always come back to,” says Alex Slater, MD at the Glover Park Group. “The RNC doesn't have its infrastructure together. They took the game the Democrats invented, with their constant news cycles and war rooms, and made it a million times more effective with George [W.] Bush. Now, there's no evidence.”
Matthew Salmon, a former US Republican Congressman for Arizona who recently joined Policy Impact Communications as EVP, says the RNC should help facilitate coordinated strategies to be carried out on the local level via grassroots events at schools, struggling businesses, and other venues.
“We need to publicize and make [party members] available both through the good and bad, but get them out there,” he adds. And it will ultimately be up to Steele, as the de facto head of the GOP, to tout that message of hope and solution building.
Bill McIntyre, EVP at Grassroots Enterprise, also notes the need for local outreach.
“They already do this, but they can do more of it,” he says. “They must find the connection between a special election in one state and why folks in other states should care... building coalitions beyond the usual.”
That might include more outreach to expand their cultural base to groups like Asian Americans, as well as a renewed effort to broaden digital communications, McIntyre adds.
As the organization works through its transition, the efficacy of its communications strategy will largely be judged in the results of the 2010 elections and beyond. The RNC, which declined to comment for this article, recently appointed a new communications director, Trevor Francis. It's likely its PR strategy will begin to take shape in the coming month as Steele and his newly appointed staff settle in.
However the plan is developed, Porritt says it is likely to be “highly geared toward post-Bush, post-McCain Republicans” to represent the new face of the party.
*CORRECTION: In a previous version of this article, PRWeek incorrectly reported that Alex Slater attributed the “Contract with America” to President Barack Obama. We regret the error.