Public Relations: Even Presidents Need It

As a communications professional in Washington, D.C., it’s hard to watch the news and not find myself analyzing political events from the perspective of a communicator. Every press conference, every sound bite, or photo has a purpose – and the potential to shape public opinion. This marriage between policy and public relations reminds me that even The White House has to consider its communications strategies when rolling out new orders, policies, and updates.

For instance, at the end of his presidency,  President Obama spoke on 60 Minutes about some of the communications efforts of his administration. Reflecting on his ability to control public perception around some of the policies he championed he admitted, “There were big stretches, while governing, where even though we were doing the right thing, we weren’t able to mobilize public opinion firmly enough behind us.”

He continued, “There were times during my presidency where I lost the PR battle.”

A statement like that begs the question, “What is a PR battle, and what might the President have done differently?”

What is a PR Battle – and How Do You Win It?

When discussing PR battles he faced, one could consider the challenges presented to Mr. Obama when launching the Affordable Care Act, specifically improving public opinion about it. Since its launch, the ACA has hovered below a 50% approval rating. If your company released a product, and for four consecutive years, that product was barely reaching a 50% approval rating, would you be concerned?

For the President, these low approval ratings signalled room for improving public opinion. A moment like this can be considered what many in the Public Relations industry call “a battle.” Though I prefer to think of it as a challenge

So what could he have done differently?

Message Control

Controlling the message or said another way, owning the narrative, is crucial whether you are a brand or a political figure. One of the primary ways the President may have lost the PR battle, in regards to the Affordable Care Act, is the fact that the Act was branded by Obama’s adversaries as “Obamacare” from its introduction. This set a negative narrative for constituents who disapproved of President Obama, creating an immediate public image challenge even before the public knew the contents of the bill.

This PR error also lent itself to brand confusion as some Americans were under the impression “Obamacare” was something different from the Affordable Care Act. This failure in controlling the message made it much more difficult to easily convey information to the public.

What could have been done differently?

Deep into his second term, Obama started making more frequent appearances on entertainment outlets such as Buzzfeed and Between Two Ferns. He used these skits as vehicles to promote the ACA.

From a PR perspective, it was a clear move to improve the public perception of the bill and it was effective in generating buzz with millennials – a key demographic. By tapping into entertainment media, the President was able to reach this audience and generate excitement and an improved public opinion on the ACA.

The problem? It was happening too late.

By anticipating a challenge and working to own the narrative immediately, President Obama could have made these appearances as soon as the ACA was passed, generating awareness of the policy and controlling the message. Instead, The Affordable Care Act was quickly churned through the news media and branded as “Obamacare” before the President’s team could get a grasp on the message they wanted to promote. By the time research had proven the ACA’s effectiveness in insuring Americans – it was too late. The damage was done.

This is only one example of one “PR battle” and over the course of his two-term presidency, there were many PR wins for the President. Although the Obama administration might have “lost the PR battle” at times, we can still reflect how his good humor might have positively impacted his overall public image.

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