January 29, 2016
Political campaigns have long been R&D labs for corporate public relations people.
Tactics that seemed to work on the campaign trail swiftly made their way into day-to-day PR practice.
Teddy Roosevelt invented the practice of issuing bad news on a Friday afternoon, Dick Nixon gave master classes in opposition research, Jack Kennedy turned news conferences into televised pseudo-events, Bill Clinton taught the value of rapid response, George W. Bush (under the tutelage of Karl Rove) harnessed the power of micro-targeting, and Barack Obama rode to the White House largely on the power of social media.
But as important as these developments were, they are tactics not strategies.
For strategic discoveries, PR people should pay close attention to what's happening in the GOP primary contest.
Donald Trump's once unlikely position at the top of the polls is due to a single factor -- affinity. Trump says out loud (sometimes very loud) what many voters have been quietly thinking, even when it's unpopular (or as he puts it "politically incorrect"). He loudly shares voters' cares.
As a result, his supporters really like him -- maybe not enough to let it slide if he shot someone on 5th Avenue, as he recently suggested -- but enough to stick by him through all the derision and disbelief thrown his way by professional pundits and the party establishment.
This was all knowable. In the 2012 election, exit polls showed Mitt Romney winning on policy issues, from leadership skills to values. But he lost the election because Obama trumped him 81 percent to 18 percent on the crucial issue of “cares about people like me.”
The pundits and professional politicians may have forgotten that lesson, but the voters haven't. In the early days of the primary season, back in June 2015, one poll showed three quarters of both Republicans (77%) and Democrats (75%) said it was "highly important" that a candidate "cares about people like me." Eight out of 10 (83%) Trump supporters considered it even more important.
Turns out they were right, evn though they were a lonely bunch back then -- representing only 9% of voters. Bush, Carson, and Rubio beat Trump in that same poll, with 16%, 14%, and 11% support respectively. In fact, more Republicans (40%) thought unfavorably about Trump than any other Republican candidate. Even Socialist Democrat Bernie Sanders did better; only 38% of Republicans were unfavorable towards him.
But Trump -- a bona fide member of the 1% -- channeled the fears, resentments, and anger of the least well-off 80%. And in language the guy on the next barstool might use.
As a result, the 9% who supported Trump back in June of last year have quadrupled to 36% nationally.
An important social development is behind those numbers. While we used to speak of "trust gaps" in generational terms, it is now the product of other socioeconomic factors. The better-educated, higher-income "elite" have higher levels of trust than ever before. Most of the rest of us aren't inclined to trust anybody.
"In more than 60 percent of countries surveyed for the Edelman Trust Barometer, the trust levels of the mass population are below 50 percent," Richard Edelman reports. "By contrast, trust levels of the elite population are at the highest levels, with double-digit jumps in the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Italy and Mexico."
There is a huge gap between how elite and mass publics feel about all institutions, particularly businesses.
"Inequality of trust has important consequences," Edelman writes. "The most obvious is growing receptivity to politicians who prey on fear instead of offering solutions. Examples include assertions that refugees are a major security threat and that unemployment can be addressed by stopping foreign trade. Trust inequality seems to be a major pillar in the campaigns of Donald Trump in the U.S. and Marine Le Pen in France."
All of which reflects three strategic lessons:
- Affinity matters. Trump is leading because a large segment of Republican voters identify with him and his message. Even though he isn't the typical back-slapping pol, voters like him -- sometimes for the very things that make him so unlikable to others.
- Meaning matters. "Making America Great Again" isn't much of a slogan. But it perfectly captures the public mood. Combined with Trump's high affinity and assumed competency (based on what the general public knows of his claimed business success), it's enough to engender an unusually high level of trust.
- Public trust matters. What's happening in the GOP primary is also happening to a lesser extent on the Democratic side between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. But more worrisome, it's happening across the economy. The stagnation in middle class wages, along with well-publicized corporate scandals and greed, are creating a toxic environment for business.
Donald Trump's candidacy could implode any day. But until it does, public relations practitioners should learn from its example. These are lessons we can't afford to leave in the lab.