3 lessons that PR pros can use from 2016 election

By Brianne Kistler

(Editor's note: This article was first published in the June 27 Bulldog Reporter.)

So far, the 2016 race to the Oval Office has been unlike any other. For better or for worse, candidates have battled for media coverage, and more importantly, votes.

Brianne Kistler, assistant account executive at Wordsworth Communications, is co-chair of PRSA's New Pros committee.

Brianne Kistler, assistant account executive at Wordsworth Communications, is co-chair of PRSA's New Pros committee.

Aside from the importance of staying on message and managing reputation, the unique campaign holds many relevant takeaways for PR pros. Because this election cycle has been filled with memorable, even infamous, moments—a certain candidate’s hand size comment during a debate comes to mind!—PR practitioners can learn many valuable lessons that are applicable to our industry. In fact, as a young professional, I’ve been able to draw several important lessons from Election 2016 that will benefit me as I continue to grow in my career. Here are the top three takeaways I’ve observed:

Securing the right endorsements (still) matters

Whether it’s a simple tweet, campaign donation or official announcement, political endorsements have proven significant in this election cycle.

A few months ago, analysis from LexisNexis Newdesk revealed how much endorsements are covered by traditional media and lent insight into which has a stronger impact: nods from government officials, or celebrities. Surprise! Celebrity status matters. George Clooney’s backing of Hillary Clinton and Danny DeVito’s of Bernie Sanders caused greater spikes in media coverage than endorsements from arguably more credible figures, politically speaking. Unless, of course, you’re the POTUS. When Barack Obama declared #ImWithHer in his endorsement of Clinton on June 9, her media coverage spiked considerably.

It has been argued that voters relate more to their favorite celebrities than to politicians, and therefore find these endorsements more compelling. Though it’s difficult to determine which well-known individuals will carry the most weight, one thing is for sure: Endorsements from important figures in the public eye certainly don’t hurt a candidate’s chances of securing media coverage.

While I admit that I don’t have much experience with celebrity endorsements, I have worked with clients who have sought to strategically align their brand with major mainstream media outlets or powerful niche trade pubs. Media coverage itself is still seen as an implicit “endorsement” of a brand’s efforts. And when that endorsement comes from the right media outlet that reaches the right audience, the ripple effect can be far-reaching; a great media placement can impact everything from social media mentions and web traffic, to sales leads and positive community recognition. And when you land that perfect placement in the perfect media outlet for your company’s or client’s brand, well, that’s pretty exciting—even if it’s not George Clooney.

Importance of the pivot

The start of the election race saw a whopping 23 candidates all vying for a presidential nomination, more than any other field in recent history. Quickly, their own voices and platforms got lost in the shuffle as 16 Republican candidates put their agendas on pause to attack Donald Trump, who emerged early on as the frontrunner. Even after Trump was the sole contender left in the race, some Republicans who previously vilified him were quick to embrace him in an effort to unite the party.

From a similar perspective, Clinton and Sanders spent much of the race criticizing each other in an effort to pull ahead. (Poor Martin O’Malley didn’t even register.) As Clinton drew closer to securing the Democratic nomination, her priorities began to shift—instead of attacking her fellow Democrat, her message pivoted to the importance of uniting her political party to dump Trump.

The ability to anticipate change is almost as important as adapting to it. This year’s candidates know that all too well. But it’s a lesson young PR pros can stand to learn, too. When circumstances shift or a last-minute issue arises, PR pros need to be flexible.

I’ve experienced this first-hand more than once. Clients drop last-minute projects in my lap all the time! It was a huge surprise when I started my first agency job and realized that despite our well-crafted, strategic, prioritized PR plans, sometimes, plans change. All. The. Time. And it’s easy to get a flustered when you’re traveling down one path and suddenly have to switch gears. But, if you remain flexible, you’ll be better prepared to attack the (new) task at hand and possibly even take it a step further.

In other words, while preparation is crucial in both the political and PR worlds, you have to be willing to pivot in order to capitalize on opportunities—and create new ones.

Brand personality is key

You don’t need me to tell you how much social media has changed the political game. Just look at the groundswell of social media support for Sanders. More than ever, candidates are straying from tried-and-true (aka, boring) messages in order to showcase their personalities. From Clinton’s ”delete your account” diss to Trump’s now infamous tweet about the mass shooting in Orlando, this election cycle has given candidates the opportunity to show voters their true colors.

Watching the candidates showcase more of their personalities has really impacted the way I think about writing for the clients I represent. Why can’t a business-to-business brand have a little personality on its blog, website or social media channels? Humor, pop cultural references, memes and sometimes, the purely ridiculous resonate with people … and capture their attention. The key is in building relationships with your audiences with the words, tone, voice and visuals that appeal to them. Personality will help you appeal to emotion, create rapport and draw attention to the company or companies you represent. (Within reason, of course. No one wants a repeat ofFour Loko’s failed attempt to memorialize Prince.)

Brianne Kistler is a Cleveland native, a 2015 graduate of Miami University and an assistant account executive at Wordsworth Communications in Cincinnati. You can follow her on Twitter at @brianne_kistler.