Traditional perspectives of public relations address image maintenance and relationship management tactics within corporate and non-profit sectors. The field of Political Public Relations (PPR), however, applies PR foundations to aid political candidates, campaigns, parties, governmental organizations, and judicial bodies in leveraging image maintenance and relationship management tactics to achieve strategic political goals, such as election or support for policy initiatives. While the study of PPR may be new, the application of PR tactics to politics is far from new. People like Georgina Cavendish, William Wilberforce, and Alexander Hamilton have all been credited as founding figures in the application of image management to influence public opinion in order to achieve political ends.
This article, however, is not meant to be a history lesson on PPR of old, but to explore its modern application. Indeed, one not need look much further than the bayous of Louisiana and its current gubernatorial race to see PPR strategy at its finest. Incumbent governor John Bel Edwards recently made headlines for “using power of the office to score free media.” Where some might interrupt such coverage as Edwards lucking into earned media, a PR practitioner would see expert use of news management tactics.
In Louisiana all gubernatorial candidates run for the office simultaneously, meaning the field currently includes nine Democrats, Republicans, and third-party candidates. The reality of public opinion places three candidates as likely to win, incumbent Edwards (D), U.S. Representative Ralph Abraham (R), and industrial CEO Eddie Rispone (R). One of the keys to Edwards’ campaign communication strategy has been to use his office as a news absorption tool, i.e. strategically capturing the media’s attention to deny or dilute equal coverage to his opponents. As governor, Edwards holds the highest seat of power in the state and, similar to the White House and the national press, when Edwards speaks the Louisiana news media listen in a way that the governor’s opponents cannot command.
Understanding this, Edwards recently held a press event at the New Orleans Saints’ training facility, primarily involving the governor announcing plans for a $450 million renovation of the Mercedes Benz Superdome and intentions to help the NFL’s only Louisiana franchise extend its lease another 30 years. Edwards concurrently staged a photo op with Saints’ quarterback Drew Brees and head coach Sean Payton, and as a former high school quarterback himself, ran through athletic drills, even competing with Brees.
In a state that largely lives and breathes according to the football calendar, Brees and Payton are arguably the two most significant influencers in the region. In not only positioning himself alongside key influencers as part of his campaign, Edwards also had the fortune of doing so as a function of his job. Beyond its social and cultural value to the state, the New Orleans Saints franchise is predicted to have an economic impact of $1.3 billion in 2019; thus, working to ensure the vitality of the franchise simultaneously reflects positively both candidate Edwards’ service to the state and on Governor Edwards’ job performance. By and large, the photo op was a dual-purpose organic information subsidy by the Edwards campaign that dominated multiple news cycles, all while similar press events by the Abraham and Rispone campaigns went significantly less covered.
Another example of how Edwards’ campaign has attempted to use news management to influence public opinion has been through penning a public letter to President Trump. The letter requests a Major Disaster Declaration, triggering federal funds to aid in dealing with unprecedented flooding by the Mississippi River. This letter not only constitutes a newsworthy act by the governor of the state, showing Edwards fulfilling the duties of the office and conducting the business of the state, but also his ability to work with the Trump Administration. In a deeply conservative state, Edwards’ status as a Democrat puts him at ideological odds with many of influential stakeholders. Through penning the public letter instead of making a private phone call, an act that garnered significant media attention, Edwards used both textbook news and crisis management tactics to achieve a relationship management effect with Republican voters, a key public Edwards needs to reach to be reelected. What’s more, by showing his willingness to work with bi-partisan forces in Washington to fulfill the responsibilities of his office, Edwards further established himself as both the most covered and most qualified candidate to be (re)elected governor.
Such examples illustrate not only how strategic communication can be used for individual news management purposes, but how sustained news management efforts can lead to successfully influencing issue and stakeholder saliency in media coverage, i.e. agenda-building, and public opinion through such media coverage, i.e. agenda-setting. But the case of John Bel Edwards holds more than lessons in theory, it also holds practical lessons ahead of the 2020 presidential race where incumbent Donald Trump will hold a substantially more powerful office than any of his Democratic challengers. Where in 2016 Donald Trump was able to consistently drive news coverage in a crowded field of elite Republican challengers and later against a former U.S. Secretary of State, Senator, and First Lady, in 2020 Donald Trump’s ability use the Office of the President to further drive and dominate news cycle after news cycle may, to the detriment of his eventual Democratic challenger, be limitless.
- The world of electoral politics is equally interested in using news management tactics to cultivate a favorable public image and influence public opinion as are the corporate, non-profit, and public interest sectors of traditional public relations.
- Strategically using John Bel Edwards’ competitive affluence as Louisiana’s sitting governor, the Edwards reelection campaign used the governor’s superior newsworthiness to out-perform the press capabilities of its competitor campaigns.
- The reelection campaign strategically publicized key functions of the Office of the Governor to associate Edwards with leading social influencers in the state and also engage specific publics necessary for reelection.
- Adopting a similar campaign communication strategy ahead of the 2020 presidential election, i.e. leveraging the superior newsworthiness of a powerful political office, the campaign to reelect Donald Trump would have a decisive news management advantage over its eventual Democratic counterpart.
Implications for Public Relations:
- Not all organizations or actors are created equal, and those entities with a highly recognizable public image and competitive social affluence have disproportional news management capabilities than do their competitors.
- Attaining social, economic, or political affluence should not be viewed as the end result of good public relations, but rather as an advantage, or added resource, in setting the narrative and further driving both earned media and brand exposure.