10 Nov 2016

Can our industry learn from the US election?

Richard Merrin – Managing Director at Spreckley

There is an old rule of thumb when it comes to the relationship between the United States and the United Kingdom. What happens over there invariably happens here in Blighty in around six months to a year.

In 2015 the UK held its own General Election in which we saw the party leaders behaving and acting more like Presidential candidates than ever before, a ground war on the streets and the air cover in the form of highly targeted social media campaigns as opposed to the historic poster wars we have come to love and loathe in equal measure. So with the end of an 18-month election cycle at an end, can PR professionals and marketeers alike learn anything from the contest on the other side of the Pond? Well I think we can. The top five take outs for me point not just to a change in political discourse, but will have far-reaching implications for the industry.

Keep it real

There is no doubt that the language used by both candidates in this election would raise eyebrows in Europe. But as we ourselves saw during the recent Referendum more direct, blunt and maybe even coarse language appeared to resonate. Just one evening sat watching Question Time clearly illustrates the point as those commentators or professional politicians that fail to answer a question are howled down. This is therefore about trust. Yes we may blanch at the accusations that were hurled around in the US, but failure to answer is being viewed as inauthentic and even false.

In the business world the issue of trust is central and core to that is being authentic in terms of both your words and actions. Don’t believe me – well check out the PR car crashes that were BP and even the mess with Samsung.

Echo, echo, echo

Did someone just say social media? We have already heard that this was the social media election – just think of the images of Hillary supporters taking selfies with her as opposed to actually looking at her! But if the Brexit vote and now the Presidential vote taught us anything then Twitter and other social media platforms may not be anything more than an echo chamber. Fans of Trump standing in one virtual corner and those of Clinton in another were yelling their frustration and opinion mostly at themselves and their fellow supporters. While this reinforces their already convinced opinion, did it actually reach out and influence the ‘undecided voter’?

And yet I am convinced Twitter is a force for good; enabled the candidates to contact people direct, and enabled citizens to actively engage with them. The lesson for business is clear.

Facts, facts, facts

One thing stands out load and clear from this contest: no matter what was thrown at each of the two candidates – emails, sexually inappropriate behaviour, fraud and so on and on and on – nothing dented the core vote for either. What is that telling us as PR people? I would argue that what we are seeing is a trend in which we view news as a means to validate our opinion. Don’t believe me? What newspaper do you read? Because I bet it reflects your outlook. I may be rare but I read The Guardian if only to remind myself what it feels like to set my teeth on edge.

For the PR pro therefore we face a challenge when confronted with this – trying to convince others head-on that they are wrong only makes them dig their heels in. What we therefore need to do is fill that story vacuum, try and win hearts and minds and gently change perception.

Revisit your security

Oh, someone mention social media again? Well yes. But this time the focus is on the hack. Top tip from this election – get your security sorted, change your passwords regularly, and remember that getting this right now is part of an on-going commitment to crisis comms. After all, prevention is way better than cure.

If all else fails…..

Trump is without a doubt a master of his own publicity. It is clear that his mantra is all publicity is good publicity. Back in July his wife – Melania Trump – made a speech in which one line was taken from a speech made by the First Lady a few years previously. While the lesson for any business leader and company is to ensure that you create your own content, what we saw here was the ultimate in PR put down from Trump: it was his wife’s speech that dominated the airways globally and that was what everyone was talking about!