Sunday, September 11, 2011

Of mountains and molehills in election campaigns

In my first-year PR classes this week, we've been introducing the whole concept of PR, and specifically, the fundamental importance of understanding your audiences.

As is normal in my classes, we began on Tuesday with a few minutes of "PR in the news," in which we look at a story that's getting attention in the mainstream media and discuss what it might mean for the parties involved.  The topic of the day in my Section 2 class was last week's CBC news story about Manitoba Tory leader Hugh McFadyen's campaign launch event -- and more specifically, the campaign's choice of LMFAO's "Party Rock Anthem" as the song playing for McFadyen's grand entrance.

The CBC story, as you would expect, had clips from Manitobans surprised the Tories would choose a song with such racy lyrics by a band with such a naughty name.

But is this the kind of news that changes the way people vote?

The incident reminded me of another local campaign-time embarrassment, last fall when incumbent Mayor Sam Katz accidentally kicked a young player in a soccer game. People laughed at the Mayor's expense, the video went viral, and then he won the election handily.

Don't lose sight of your audiences

While schadenfreude wins the contest of do-we-or-don't-we-want-to-hear-about-political-embarrassments just about every time, that doesn't mean it's crisis mode for the PR folks. While the candidate and the campaign will be embarrassed, either by some oversight or fluke of bad luck, the communicators have to remember to keep their eyes on the prize.

Are people less likely to vote for a candidate whose policies and integrity they believe in, because of a poorly-chosen campaign song? I haven't done the research, but I'm thinking likely not.

But... the campaign could undermine the candidate's integrity if it doesn't respond appropriately. While most voters are able to recognize that everyone makes mistakes and forgive the occasional innocent blunder, a response that betrays disrespect for those offended, or arrogance, or any other personal or organizational characteristic that's out of line with what the voters would want to see in their leaders, could cost votes.

Don't make mountains out of molehills

The moral of stories like these: when your client goofs up (or when you goof up on your client's behalf), handle it respectfully but without giving it more prominence or weight than it properly deserves. While the media will likely have fun with it, because their audiences love this stuff, that doesn't mean your support will be driven away by it.

If the offence isn't likely to have a significant impact on your audiences' opinions, don't treat it as though it would. Address your error respectfully, and then take the opportunity to talk about the issues that should matter to your audiences.  And a little self-deprecating humour never hurts.

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