Much has been written about House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s (R-VA) primary election loss to David Brat, a rookie candidate who few outside of his Richmond, VA-based district had heard of – until last week. Even fewer saw it coming. Well-regarded journalists who live and breathe politics in Washington admit to being caught flat-footed by the election night results. Cantor even spent Election Day in Washington meeting with lobbyists, clearly blind to his looming defeat.
Safe to say, Cantor’s campaign did not go according to plan.
Some have argued that Cantor lost because of his support for immigration reform. Others have speculated that more insidious reasons came into play. However, more important than any of those explanations are the lessons his unexpected defeat teaches those of us in PR.
Particularly in our business, being caught by surprise with bad news is not a good thing. It forces your organization into a reactive position and can cause serious harm to its reputation. The news cycle gets away from you and it is difficult to recapture the narrative that is being painted about your company.
Below are three key takeaways for PR professionals from Cantor’s defeat:
•Know what people are saying about your company and have objective and accurate methods to understand supporters and opponents. Cantor’s pollster, as reported just four days before the election, predicted his candidate would win by 34 points. He would go on to lose by 11. This 45-point discrepancy makes Mitt Romney’s team of statisticians – the ones who predicted their candidate would narrowly defeat President Obama – blush.
Tracking the number, frequency, and tone of news stories about your company, monitoring the volume and mood of social media activity, and doing polls and focus groups help us understand the public’s temperature so we can see things coming.
•Define your company’s brand or someone else will do it for you in the vacuum you left. Cantor’s opponent was able to co-opt a majority of the electorate that had for years supported the congressman. Having active social media accounts, websites, and blogs, in a two-way conversation format, allows you, rather than your opponents, to drive the conversation. How is your organization portrayed online if you enter its name into a search engine? If the answer is negatively, you need to take active steps to gain ground.
•Never take anything for granted. Cantor won his previous primary by nearly 60 points in 2012. He only had to compete in three primaries during his 14-year career in the House. While the congressman did see Brat as a threat and spent money on advertising to thwart him, he clearly did not appreciate the gravity of the situation.
Each day brings new opportunities and threats to your organization’s reputation. Being prepared for challenges, and not assuming the past is an accurate predictor of the future, helps assure you won’t be caught off guard.
Wake-up calls such as Cantor’s loss remind us that we, as PR pros, need to keep our eye on the ball each day. The stakes we deal with are underscored by his unexpected departure from Congress and fall from one of the highest points of leadership in the US.
Sam Singer is president of Singer Associates in San Francisco. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.