ComPRehension

Professional development and training blog of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA)
December 2, 2009

Lessons Learned From the Obama Campaign


Now that I am back in Washington D.C. after the PRSA 2009 International Conference, I finally find myself sitting down to reflect on a couple of the sessions I attended. This is mostly because I wanted to be able to do so thoughtfully, and not rush through my posts.

The first of these was “President Obama and the Citizens’ Campaign: Lessons Learned,” which was conducted by Mike Smith of Mike Smith Public Affairs. Leave it to a PRSA conference all the way across the country to be the place where Mike and I finally met “in real life (IRL),” even though we both live and work in the D.C. area. Ain’t that somethin’? (By way of disclosure, you should know that Mike’s firm was a sponsor of #shonalitweetup, which was a ton of fun that weekend.)

Since Mike graciously agreed to have his presentation, President Obama and the Citizen’s Campaign, reproduced here, I won’t bore you with a blow-by-blow description. I will tell you that his presentation was standing room only, at least until the latter half of his session. When it came time for the workshop part of his program, he broke us up into four groups to discuss an assigned topic, and report back to the entire room. There was a beeline for the door when he announced this; I kid you not. C’mon, PR peeps, where’s your sense of adventure?!

What was Interesting? Well. . .

  • It was interesting learning about Mike’s experience as a citizen journalist during the Obama campaign. There were some great examples about building communities and letting them run (which is a concept that, in my opinion, nonprofits know how to do particularly well).
  • Actresses, no matter how well trained they are on messaging, can sometimes let blatant honesty shine through. Mike gave the example of an interview he conducted with Anne Hathaway where she admitted she doesn’t know anything about Service Employees International Union (SEIU).
  • One of the most interesting parts of the program was when we were put in breakout groups (I’ll get to that later).

What Public Relations Practitioners Should Take Away:

  • It’s about you… but it’s not about you. Focus on brand champions — the bloggers/influencers with the biggest networks that can make an immense difference to your campaigns. Leverage how you network and you can create a movement.
  • Understand the media cycle (yes, “MSM” is still important), and realize that when you want to reach a local audience, local news crews and pools — the media locals are consuming — are always going to get preference.
  • The old model of messaging was “top down.” Not anymore. Now, to be successful, you have to engage your community.

Breakout Groups:
As I mentioned earlier, Mike divided us into four groups. Each group went into a huddle to discuss a topic, and then reported back to the larger group. In a nutshell, these topics were:

  • How do you turn your agency around so that it’s more nimble? Your agency can be nimble at any size as long as you’re bringing all aspects from the company to the table and everyone is represented. Doing this will break down silos, which will make you and your agency more nimble and efficient.
  • If you’re doing an interview for CNN, who are you? Remember that it’s not just about you, so find local news hooks and media angles.
  • How do you respond to attacks (or public relations Jiu Jitsu)? There’s real potential to use social media in crisis situations. Start with an audit across your different audiences; because once you understand how they use social media, you can make a case to use it. Learn from others’ case studies, and build your “battle plan.” Remember to incorporate social media tactics into your overall crisis plan.
  • To tweet or not to tweet? (This was the group I was a part of.) There was much discussion on if and/or when to use “surrogates. While I didn’t necessarily agree with some of the others on “using surrogates when necessary,” I do agree that you need to have transparency at all times. Don’t think that you need to have your CEO tweet if she or he isn’t comfortable with it; as long as there is representation from your organization and it’s transparent, that’s fine.

I think the key point Mike tried to drive home was this: we live in a world that’s changing very rapidly, and the 2008 election showed how the adoption and smart use of new technologies energized a completely new audience. Those of us who are still resisting the adoption of these technologies might find ourselves on par with the dinosaurs. On the other hand, much of what Obama’s campaign did was grounded in Saul Alinsky’s principles of community organizing and the populist movement. So perhaps it would be wise to revisit our history books once in a while.

Marry history with new communication tools, and while you might not be the next president of the United States, you’ll probably pull off a darned good PR campaign.

Shonali Burke, ABC, principal, Shonali Burke Consulting , is an award-winning public relations consultant. She blogs at Waxing UnLyrical, under the watchful eyes of Chuck, Suzy Q. and Lola, her three rescue dogs. Shonali can most often be found on Twitter.

For coverage of the PRSA 2009 International Conference: Delivering Value, visit our Conference blog or follow the conversation on Twitter at hashtag #prsa09.

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