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

Lessons from the Obama Administration (and Town Hall Meetings): PR Practitioners Listen Up!

Obama’s presidential campaign has been held up as one of the most successful and galvanizing political races in recent history. It’s clear that the Obama team was innovative in using social media and universal themes (such as “change” and “hope”) to appeal to all voters.

Now that philosophical themes have given way to real-life legislation, the Obama team has new lessons to share with the public relations community — particularly how to translate campaign promises into detailed legislation, mobilized constituents and nitty-gritty details. In the words of Real World (which, coincidentally, is filming in Washington right now), “what happens when people stop being polite and start getting real?”

  1. Depend on loyal supporters in times of crisis — The biggest mistake we’ve seen so far has been the underestimating of the town hall meetings. Democratic leaders and Obama supporters have been slow to respond to the town hall meetings; instead, it appears that only critics of the upcoming health care bill are the only ones that care about health care reform.If our organization is being attacked, we should encourage brand loyalists to defend us. Obama is using the same e-mail list of the supporters he gathered during the campaign to share legislation and action steps for his followers, a great way to translate the momentum he gathered during the campaign to legislative steps toward health care reform.
  2. Social media is a tool — a really, really awesome tool, but still just a tool — Town hall meeting disruptions were mostly organized by tools other than social media because these protesters have been typically less tuned in to Facebook or Twitter. Instead, conservative leaders and organizers used relatively traditional methods of organizing (some Web sites, but a lot of phone trees) to gather crowds.We must remember to use the tools that fit our audience — social media engagement must be goal-oriented. For these protesters, the best way to connect and prepare for town hall meetings was by phone and e-mail (e-mail: the new “snail mail”).


  3. Clarify without repeating — President Obama has been clarifying over the last several weeks that, in fact, there are no parts of any draft of any of the potential health care bills that would “kill Grandma”.  However, “kill Grandma” is the only thing the masses heard – what was said as a tongue-in-cheek comment on misperceptions is now being repeated on protest signs.President Obama would have seen greater success by sticking to messaging points without giving any credence to the idea that “killing Grandma” was even an option.  Instead of saying “We’re not going to kill Grandma,” Obama should have said, “It is none of our business how Grandma wants to enjoy her life — we just want her to be able to talk to her doctor in private without paying for it out of pocket.”


Mike Smith is a Washington insider and beltway native who has deep political connections. He has national campaign and convention experience working for a key Iowa (caucus) newspaper. He also worked for a Gannett newspaper in upstate New York. Smith has a master’s degree in journalism from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. At the Denver convention, he covered tech policy platform issues along with his friend Craig Newmark of Craigslist. Smith also worked as a volunteer on national traveling press and advance for the Obama for President campaign in Iowa, Texas and Virginia. Follow Mike Smith Public Affairs on Twitter at @PRYouReady.

Join Mike for his case study presentation, “Barack Obama: A Case Study in Public Relations and the Citizen’s Campaign,” at the PRSA 2009 International Conference: Delivering Value, November 7–10, in San Diego, CA!

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