It’s one of the most common scenes in the world of public affairs. A new policy or idea is being touted, so the public official or government agency turns to their not-so-secret weapon . . . some PR stiff in a suit.
How do I know this? Because I was that PR stiff.
In my previous career as a spokesperson for a mayor and a member of Congress, I was trotted out on literally hundreds of occasions to sell policy positions or pump up accomplishments of the office.
Every agency, public office or company has to have the ability to effectively explain decisions and policies to a broader audience. That’s when spokespeople earn their keep and become integral to the ultimate success of a decision (and the decision-maker). Where things can go awry is an over-reliance on these professional communicators. Or more accurately, an underestimation of the impact real people can have on a message outcome.
What do I mean by “real people”? A neighborhood leader, a factory worker in the local plant, a concerned parent—basically, anyone affected by a policy or idea who is not in the office initiating the policy. (Sorry to all my friends in the industry—you’re not “real” for the purposes of this blog. Myself included).
Every solid communications strategy should aim to turn members of a target audience into spokespeople for that product or issue. People talk, and that peer-to-peer interaction is still one of the most effective ways to get a message across.
Also, the media are always looking for the “every-man” (or woman) angle to a story. If you can succeed in winning over key community leaders within your target audience, there’s a much better chance of controlling the public narrative and getting positive news coverage.
Here’s a real world example of how strategy focused on a grassroots audience not only earned media coverage, but directly impacted policy at the highest level:
Early in my career I served as a spokesperson for a city agency charged with community development (one of my many stints as the PR stiff in a suit). Our department, along with the mayor, was pushing a piece of legislation in the state General Assembly that would allow municipalities to more quickly gain control of abandoned properties and assist neighborhoods with the redevelopment of these blighted sites. The legislation sailed through the Senate with near-unanimous consent (something that seems impossible in the current political climate).
The abandoned housing bill was expected to face the same kind of smooth road in the House of Representatives--until the committee chair promptly killed it. Our legislative team learned that the bill was halted because of political score settling. Essentially, two legislators were engaged in a tiff, so they went back and forth, taking turns killing off legislation sponsored by the other. Our bill got caught in the crossfire.
While facing long odds, the housing bill could be brought back up in conference committee, but it would take action by the very same chairman who took aim at the legislation the first time around. One thought was to engage the mayor in a media push to call out the legislators for the lack of professionalism that put this important policy in jeopardy. But we determined the situation was already knee-deep in politics. Any press conference by the mayor could be too easily dismissed as yet another politician engaging in a tit-for-tat.
So we kept it real by calling a neighborhood leader who was passionate about the dangers and blight caused by abandoned houses. We briefed her on the facts of the situation and she quickly agreed to rally support. Within days, neighborhood residents (20-plus strong) held a press conference in front of an abandoned house and demanded the bill be brought back to life. The media showed up in droves, and so did the legislator who killed the original legislation. The following day, the committee chairman opened the local newspaper only to find his picture—looking rather flummoxed—in front of a sign being hoisted by a resident that read “save our neighborhoods.”
As you might guess, this legislator ultimately did the right thing. The abandoned housing bill was revived and ultimately signed into law. That never would have happened without the neighborhood residents serving as the chief spokespeople on that issue.
Sometimes the best thing a communications professional can do is step aside and allow the real people to take ownership of the message.
Agree? Disagree? Give this PR stiff a piece of your mind.
Commenting is not available in this channel entry.