PR evolutions under the Presidency of Blair, Clinton, George W. Bush and Obama

Here I am, back again on my blog, after a long absence (I admit)!

As promised, I would like to share with you the salient ideas from one of the chapters from The Media and Political Process book by Eric Louw.

By the time I write this third post for my blog, I could have finished the book and I am still enthusiastic about it. I would strongly recommend this inspirational book for any student (undergrads or postgrads) eager to learn more about the complex relationship between journalists and political figures.

Having said that, let’s get down to the nitty-gritty: ‘The Art of Political Public Relations’.

The emblematic Labour leader Tony Blair could be deemed as the last innovator regarding PR-ised politics. Unlike his former counterpart Margaret Thatcher, Blair professionalised British political communication closely following some Americans concepts. Peter Mandelson, Alastair Campbell and Charlie Whelm were the main three men in the front line to manage the Prime Minister’s reputation. Also, I am thinking of Tim Allan, Deputy press secretary to Blair, on the cover page of the last PR Week (February 2015).

Mandelson’s successful strategy consisted in reshaping the face of the party. The challenge here was to move away from ‘the working-class clop-cap image’ (p.90), potentially threatening for the non-working class, towards a more neutral but inclusive image. Labour’s repositioning to a centre-left party resulted from this new communication approach. Not only did Mandelson reshape the party but he also introduced the so-called American concept of ‘political marketing’ (Bartle and Griffiths, 2001). He is the one who reconstructed the image of the party around the red rose symbol and pushed politicians to become telegenic performers. From that time, British politics genuinely became a ‘televisualised, PR-ised affair’, argues Louw.

Famously, Blair’s spin-team was put under a lot of pressure during the heated debates on the Iraq War. On May 2003, BBC’s journalist Gilligan alleged on the radio that the dossier on Iraqi ‘weapons of mass destruction’ had been ‘sexed up’ to advocate military intervention. This led to a succession of scandals, to the suicide of Dr Kelly and the creation of the Hutton Commission Inquiry. Blair’s reputation management turned into a public issue and his political image had then been durably tarnished. Ultimately, Campbell was forced to resign.

All in all, PR activities must always be transparent and credible to be successful. The common view is that communication practitioners are not highly appreciated by journalists. The media will relentlessly pursue busted spin-doctors. What also taught us Blair’s governance is that PR people are the first on the front line, to be scapegoated and criticised for defending a ‘built-up’ image. Nonetheless, I believe it is also vital to acknowledge the role of journalists here, and question their relationship with institutions. Following Gilligan’s revelation, the media created a discourse by blaming Campbell, Blair and Hutton. Actually, they dismissed and deflected attention away from their role in making the ‘weapons of mass destruction’ real.

The use of PR and spin has progressively been normalised and taken for granted, explains Louw. Davis (2002) goes even further comparing Western states to ‘Public Relations democracies’.

Clinton’s aggressive strategy was guided by James Carville. His personal style and his radiant seduction on cameras got on so well with the televised revolution that some compared him to a wizard performer. Inheriting the communication legacy from Nixon and Reagan, Clinton’s  access to Presidency embodied how ‘naturalised’ PR had become.

‘The Manhattan Project’ participated in reshaping his damaged image and the famous ‘War Room’ conducted media coverage analysis to determine Clinton’s responses and strategic plans. Political communication specialists became experts at creating media strategies, setting agendas and managing content. Even though the President granted meetings with the press twice a week, he always ensured concerned topics were previously negotiated with producers and that in-depth researches on likely questions were conducted. Also, Clinton’s PR team perfected themselves in narrowcasting to get their messages across, targeting niche audiences through local media outlets. The Internet was another asset by which the White House directly communicated with the general public thanks to a special email address. What is also noticeable in Clinton’s presidency is the way the opposition was dealt with: negative spin, ‘dirty tricks’, etc. As we all recall, that did not prevent him from being publicly exposed about his sexual indiscretions.

George W. Bush’s PR strategy deployed many current techniques from this time. His communication adviser Karl Rove dramatically reshaped his image and the president performed the script well: far from representing his privileged education and well off roots, he successfully came across as an ordinary middle-class self-made man from a small Texan town. Political PR under Bush’s administration could be characterised by the special granted importance to certain key voter’s issues.

But to me, one of the most memorable successful PR moments for Bush occurred in 2003. His spin-team was expert in choreographing events to sublimate the President. After having landed off on the deck of an aircraft carrier, on the Californian coast, he emerged from the plane, from the co-pilot’s seat, in a green flight suit. The exterior of the plane was marked with ‘George W. Bush Commander-in-Chief’. Above him stood the tower of the deck, displaying a large ‘Mission Accomplished’ sign. The event was well thought out and intelligently staged. Journalists even reported this appearance being as “the mother of all photo opportunities” and “the greatest op of all time” (Bennett, 2007: 45). Rove’s event-based strategy was a success because it enabled him to keep control on the news making agenda.

His campaign slogan still resonates in our minds today: ‘Yes we can’. It is fair to say that Barack Obama turned into a real global political celebrity. His massive PR success was orchestrated by David Axelrod, who had a proven path in getting black mayoral candidates elected. Successively, he managed to get not only white, but also black voters, often callous and disengaged with political life to turn out at polling stations. Obama’s election in 2008 demonstrated a solid understanding of all the previous known techniques. Almost all of them were mobilised to bring the candidate to the top: political marketing techniques, television speeches and debates, flyers, direct mail, newspapers, phone calls, canvass, etc. The Internet was also taken advantage of thanks to the use of platforms such as YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and multiple targeted websites. Obama was marketed as being the candidate of change and tolerance. He was seen as an inclusive figure, a ‘man-of-the-people’, able to gather any race, religions or classes. Akin to Kennedy’s communication strategy (see my former post), Axelrod managed to turn Obama’s difference into a strength and not voting for Obama could be equal to intolerance.

What was relatively new at the time and intelligently led was the way volunteers were mobilised across the country. Obama’s teams were dispatched and set up local campaign offices. Steve Hilderbrand, deputy national campaign, initiated the ‘MyBO volunteer mobilisation campaign’. This consisted of building a network of people able to offer support and services: canvass, districts walking, and even picking up voters and taking them to polling stations. The whole system was boosted by the Internet. The volunteers were able to set up a profile on the MyBO website (like a Facebook profile) to directly download the latest materials from the campaign to create their own local events, such as picnics or neighbourhood clean-ups and fundraisers.  Furthermore, Hilderbrand created ‘Obama camps’ so as to train the volunteers who subscribed on the website to workshops to learn rhetorical and leadership skills. In this way, the phenomenon snowballed and more and more recruits were enrolled. Popular support significantly weighted in the President’s election.

I am hopeful to believe that, having quickly gone through the main evolutions of political PR, the future will foster more and more strategies that include and give opportunities of action to people. Political communication crucially needs to understand the society’s wants and keep in mind that the human factor is at the heart of any PR story.

BARTLE, J. and GRIFFITHS, D., 2001. Political Communication Transformed: From Morrison to Mandelson. Basingstone: Palgrave.

BENNETT, W.L., 2007. News: The Politics of Illusion. New York: Pearson Longman.

DAVIES, A., 2007. The Mediation of Power. London: Routeledge.

LOUW, E., 2010. The Media and Political Process. London: Sage Publication Ltd.

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PR evolutions under the Presidency of Eisenhower, Nixon, Kennedy, Reagan and Thatcher

I received a new book bought on Amazon few days ago, ‘The Media and Political Process‘. I am currently half way through but I wanted to dedicate this post to it as I am particularly enthusiastic about what I have read so far.

The book, by Eric Louw, was recommended as one of the core texts for the Political Communication and Public Affairs module. The book goes through a wide range of topics, from the more obvious ones (e.g. ‘Politics: Image Versus Substance’, ‘Spin-Doctoring: The Art of Political Public Relations’ or  ‘Selling Politicians and Creating Celebrity’), to chapters dealing with subjects that I have not yet encountered (e.g. ‘Selling War/Selling Peace’, ‘The Media and Terrorism’ or ‘The Media and Foreign Relations’).

I cannot sum up the whole book but I will focus on a chapter containing vivid examples that I particularly enjoyed: The Art of Political Public Relations.

What fascinated me was the way that a public relations team can create political celebrities and bring them to the top. Although PR is an American-born discipline, it has widely spread throughout the world, absorbing and adapting to new environments. Ultimately, political communication practitioners actively participated in professionalising and bringing new facets to the discipline.

Louw explains that the arrival of television significantly reshaped the way politicians were perceived by the general public. The pioneers in exploring this new media were Eisenhower and Nixon, for the 1952 and 1956 presidential campaigns. Soundbites, visual grabs and striking slogans started being sent to journalists. Also, the counterparts understood that one of the salient features of a successful televisualised campaign was simplicity. When appearing on screen, it is important to get concision and clarly correct in order to maintin credibility. On the contrary, getting into an in depth argument can lead to failure.

Kennedy’s presidential campaign brought a new dimension to televisualised politics. Religion was a real challenge for the communication team at the time as a young Catholic man was a candidate in a Protestant country, traditionally attached to experienced presidents. Successfully, they managed to turn this issue into a positive by spinning religion into intolerance. In other words, not voting for Kennedy was linked to intolerance. Another important element was his telegenic appearance during the so-called Kennedy-Nixon debate (1960). Ironically, as one of the pioneers of televisualised communication, Nixon did not appear at his best: he did not have make-up, was sweating, wearing too-large a shirt with a wrong colour suit, and he slumped. Conversely, his young challenger was beautifully staged, “relaxed, robust and confident” (Maltese, 1994: 16). Nixon learnt a lesson for his upcoming years, as did other politicians. This debate has remained a milestone in the history of political communication.

Eventually, Nixon gained power and created the first White House Office of Communication in 1969. In a period of trouble with riots, student demonstrations, massive protestations against the Vietnam war and after the assassination of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, the institutionalisation of the presidential image was more necessary than ever. In this way, new PR techniques appeared, such as:

–          The lobbying of columnists and editorial journalists with the national and local media;
–          The ‘man in the arena’ concept (staged questions from ‘ordinary people’ answered on TV);
–          Speaking tours with preparation of chosen speakers to interact with targeted representatives from the public;
–          The stage of hollywoodian actors to embody the President on screen;
–          The offensive strategy: members of the Congress and Senators were provided with information regarding the opposition’s weaknesses.

The arrival of Ronald Reagan brought about continuity in the way that political communicators were working (targeting the local media, speaking tours and grassroots organisations so as to get their messages across), but also novelty with the Rose Garden Strategy. This method consisted of developing online technologies and new opportunities, encompassing the Internet, satellites for ‘live’ television feeds and even a Republican Television Network.

Across the Atlantic, Thatcher kept a close eye on her neighbour’s activity and introduced the American concept of political marketing into the British political landscape. Even though she deeply admired Reagan and his PR successes, she proved herself capable of creating her own style. Unlike Reagan, she refused to have a PR expect present at policy meetings and did not consent to have a similar device to the Political Agenda Control System (technology able to track public opinions responses to Presidential actions) (Scammel, 1995: 271-2). Her governance introduced:

–          Opinion polling and market research. However, Thatcher always refused using market research to dictate her policy;
–          Strong political advertising;
–          Empowered news management;
–          Marketing-focused Party conventions with slogans, lighting, video screens, flags, music, etc.;
–          The television autoprompt;
–          Photo opportunities

Overall, Blair’s accession to power in 1997 will be a turnover in British PR with strong Americanisation. In the following post, I will close this chapter by going back to Blair’s strategy, whilst also reviewing Clinton, George W. Bush and Obama’s political communication.

LOUW, E., 2010. The Media and Political Process. London: Sage Publication Ltd

MALTESE, J. A., 1994. Spin Control: The White House Office of Communication and the Management of Presidential News (2nd Ed.) Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press.

SCAMMEL, M., 1995. Designer Politics: How Elections Are Won. London: Macmillan.

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An introduction to political communication

Today was an exciting day. Not only was it the beginning of the second semester, but also my first class in a highly-regarded discipline: political communication. We had the chance to be lectured by Dr Nicola Furrie.

Political communication is almost ubiquitous. Politics, communication, philosophy, sociology, media studies, economics, journalism or cultural studies are all relevant points of view to approach this domain of public relations. Smart political communication requires having a solid historical and cultural background, but also an awareness of current debates and issues that the general public cares about.

Is political marketing killing politics?

The media discourse described by Foucault has led to apathy from the general public. Even though citizen journalism is more and more important, the elites seem to have disconnected with their electorate. “We are trapped in a spiral of political alienation, regrets George Monbiot from The Guardian. Politics isn’t working for us, so we leave it to the politicians”.

With years, the British political life has changed. Parties stopped fervently pitching ideologies to the masses. Instead, politics have focused on adapting to people. “To survive in this new electoral market, where voters act like consumers, parties are acting like businesses, explains Jennifer Lees-Marshment (2001, p.1). Parties use modern technology and marketing techniques to understand what voters want”.

So, it is legitimate to wonder why the electorate is more and more disengaged (83.9% in 1950, 77.7% in 1992, 61.3% in 2005), whilst political leaders seek for speaking on behalf of a community, a city, a nation.

I believe there is a genuine will from citizens, in the UK and elsewhere, to be active in political life. This is all about getting a tailored message across effectively. As an example, the Scottish referendum turned out to be a success with 85% turnout. More recently, 4 million French people gathered to demonstrate in a march against terrorism. Populations from Middle East and North Africa also started an ‘Arab Spring’ (2010-2011) with the hope to instil democracy and more freedom.

4 golden keys

“Credibility is key to persuasion and in politics top attributes include trustworthiness, competence, expertise and likeability” argues Karen Sanders (2009), professor of Journalism. Credibility is a combination of objective and subjective elements, whereas trustworthiness is mostly based on credibility. Expertise is evaluated according to the extensive knowledge of a situation and the ability to implement solutions. Past-records are also good indicators for the public to determine a level of expertise. Successful political leaders all possess strong charisma and dynamism. Jogging like Nicolas Sarkozy, playing basketball like Barack Obama or swimming, riding, fighting and hunting like Vladimir Putin are some of best examples of energy and vigour on display. Ultimately, likeability is a salient feature for successful political communication. For Iyengar (2005:4), describing the United-States, “For the 25 percent of the electorate that lacks a partisan identity, voting is really about ‘likeability quotients’ rather than issue positions”. As I see it, likeability is this little thing that will brighten up and sublimate the rest, the icing on the cake.

Political information is accessible more than ever before: live news, opportunities to attend public meetings, to write to your MP, to organise petitions to the Scottish Parliament… Opportunities are multiple and ready to be seized. Political communication is a real challenge for practitioners, but I am hopeful for its future.

IYENGAR, S., 2005. Speaking of values: The framing of American politics. The Forum, Stanford University, 3:3.

LEES-MARSHMENT, J., 2001. Political marketing and British political parties: The party’s just begun. Manchester University Press.

SANDERS, K., 2009. Communicating politics in the twenty-first century. Palgrave Macmillan.

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