November 21, 2016

Abiding lessons of the US election

THE emergence of Mr. Donald John Trump as the President-elect of the United States, against all odds, has left many people shocked. This piece identifies six abiding lessons that marketing, public relations, advertising and communications practitioners and the  public must learn in planning political marketing campaigns.

#1. Research remains the key to effective political marketing. All aspects of political marketing require research, which determines the underlying issues, message, target audience, media channels and the overall communications strategy. In public relations, the RACE planning model emphasises that research is the first element of any planning process. It is fact-finding, it raises critical questions and unearths hidden answers, it is the road map for effective planning. With this in mind, one may ask, which campaign team handled research better?

Statistics show whites constitute about 78% of the US population. According to Edward Luce in the Financial Times of November 11, 2016, for years a majority of Americans believed the country was on a wrong track and their children would be worse off if situation remains the same. Family values were eroding, pro-abortion and pro-gay movement was gaining ground.

There was growing pessimism about the American good life fuelled by corruption, increasing inequality and ever-widening gaps between the rich and the poor, rising suicide rates, as well as escalating unemployment, which led to racial tendencies and hatred for the elite.

These feelings were mostly preponderant among white Americans without college degrees, who live in small towns and rural areas. Besides, the average life expectancy of white blue collar males (the angriest of the population) had been declining since the start of the century. Creeping terrorism reminded Americans about the nightmare of 11/9 (bombing of the World Trade Centre). While the Clinton team glossed over the troubling issues, the Trump’s made them campaign issues and promised to reverse them thereby capturing a major voting block.

#2. Message is central and critical in the communication process. At all times, let the message be strong, simple and unambiguous. And let it resonate with reality and emotional intelligence of the target audience. Let’s examine the campaign messages of Democratic candidate Hilary Clinton and Republican candidate Donald Trump. Hilary’s was “Stronger Together” while Trump’s was “Let’s make America Great Again.”

Without any equivocation, Trump’s slogan, which was built around the magic word “change” captured the concerns, fears, feelings, desires and aspirations of majority of Americans in the face of depleting social wellbeing, a crumbling economy and infiltration of Islamic insurgency into their country. So, while Hilary Clinton favoured the status quo – a kind of a continuity of the American situation, Trump trumpeted change, which promised making America great again! Psychology is an integral part of public relations and marketing.

#3. The Customer is king! Know your customer. The entire gamut of marketing communications including marketing, public relations, advertising, sales promotions, etc, respects the concept of the prime position of the customer. In public relations, we talk about critical publics; in advertising it is the target audience. In politics, it is the electorate, the voters – people who can vote.

In the US presidential election saga, the Hilary Clinton campaign team didn’t understand who the customers were. The team erroneously believed that the entire world was her market and always played to the gallery to appease the world market. On the other hand, Trump’s team knew its market was Americans and did everything to reach them and appeal to their emotional intelligence.

On Election Day, the world literally voted for Clinton while Americans voted for Trump. Clinton won the popular vote while Trump won the US presidency! It is clear that the Clinton team didn’t do thorough customer engagement, effective stakeholder relations and communication.

#4. Always speak the mind of your Principal. Get his/her approval if in doubt. It is always embarrassing for a spokesperson to be countered or disowned by his/her principal. This was exactly what happened in the Hilary Clinton camp. Immediately results were announced that Trump had won the election, Clinton’s campaign chairman John Podesta went on stage at 2pm to say that the election was not over only for his principal, Candidate Clinton, to call Trump minutes later to concede and congratulate him.

The next day, Clinton was calm and gave a concession speech in which she pledged to work with the President-elect.  You may ask why Mr Podesta didn’t get the consent of Clinton before rushing to make a PR faux pax?  Or did he?

#5. The Media should be impartial, unbiased and professional to be relied upon. A partisan press is dangerous! Marketing communication professionals especially public relations and advertising practitioners depend on the media for a lot of their work. When the media is independent and unbiased, their reports are usually credible and trusted by the public.

In the case of the US election, the mainstream media were openly partisan against Donald Trump. It was like a gang-up against him. They projected all the negatives about Trump. They feasted on the irresponsible, controversial, racial statements of Trump. The media heightened the anti-immigration, anti-Mexicans, anti-Africans, anti-women and anti-media rhetoric of the Trump campaign.

The media played down on the positive things Trump said about fighting terrorism (the biggest fear of most Americans), reducing taxes for individuals and corporations, bringing manufacturing jobs back to America (from China), spending hugely on infrastructure, his pro-life stance and bringing the US economy back to greatness/prosperity to make life better for the average American.

While the Clinton team depended on biased media stunts to reach out to the political and intellectual elite that hardly went out to vote and the outside world that didn’t have voting power, the Trump campaign team deployed the social media especially twitter effectively, and travelled far and wide, meeting and reaching out and connecting with the aspirations of rural Americans, middle class Americans and businessmen who were in the majority.

Even the pre-election polls that gave Clinton wide margins against Trump were all media-inspired and controlled. So the abiding lesson here is that in politics and political communication, don’t be deceived by the political media orchestration. Many people are not deceived by media stunts.

#6. Key into the vision of your Principal even if he appears difficult to manage. Some bosses and clients are indeed very difficult to manage, especially those who speak loosely, who are ill-tempered, who are randy, who break protocols, who engage in frontal attacks. It is more difficult if such persons are hated by the media and therefore remain the butt of media attacks. US President-elect, Donald Trump was one. His campaign manager left him.

Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican nominee described Trump as “extraordinarily dangerous to the heart and character of America.”  Paul Ryan, the Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives refused to appear on stage with his party’s nominee, Mr Trump, describing his comments on women as “sickening.” Leading lights of the George W. Bush administration who are Republicans signed a letter dismissing Trump as “recklessly irresponsible.”

Yet, in many cases, people like Trump are propelled by their strong vision, patriotism and nationalism; and they can fight with every energy and rhetoric weapon within their reach to achieve their objective. Last week, Republican elders, Bush family, Romney and Ryan were among the first to congratulate Mr Trump and offer their best wishes!

In conclusion, let basic concepts and principles noted in the six lessons above guide our professional practice in managing political marketing campaigns.

Mr.Jossy Nkwocha, a management specialist, wrote from Port Harcourt, Rivers State.