Communications professionals know that preparation is essential to the success of any public relations campaign. Extensive planning keeps you from being knocked off balance by an unexpected development or line of questioning, and a thorough knowledge of your subject matter ensures that you can expertly field even the most in-depth inquiries. Still, for all the benefits that being prepared brings, it is not always enough, on its own, to effectively convey the right message.
Consider the US presidential campaign.
Hillary Clinton, a candidate well-known for the depth of her policy expertise, has run a meticulously planned campaign centered around her experience and her readiness for the demands of the presidency. Her team has conducted extensive polling and opposition research, part of a determined effort to account for all possible developments over the course of the race. Prior to each debate, Clinton has left the campaign trail for a weekend of intensive “debate camp” featuring mock debates with a Donald Trump stand-in – an exercise that testifies to her penchant for preparedness.
Trump, on the other hand, has conducted a spontaneous and freewheeling campaign. He has relied on improvised, stream-of-consciousness monologues at his rallies and has shown a knack for inventing cutting one-liners about his opponents. In his debate preparations, he has shunned the intensive studying favored by his opponent, opting instead for more informal conversations with a small team of advisers. Although some of Trump’s handlers have made efforts to get him on-script over the course of the campaign, they’ve generally conceded that their best option is simply to “let Trump be Trump”.
Clinton’s methods, at first glance, appear to present a much better example for those of us in the communications business, and they have, for the most part, proven to be more successful than those of her opponent. The fact that this presidential election has been competitive at all, though, indicates that her approach has not been without its pitfalls. Clinton has struggled for months to combat the impression that she is robotic, aloof, overly scripted, and unable to give voice to the frustrations of the average American voter. For all her preparations, she has frequently appeared out of touch during an election year in which people are craving change.
It is perhaps because Trump differs from her so noticeably in this regard that his candidacy has attracted the level of support it has. Despite his lack of policy expertise, he has become a heroic figure to many working-class Americans due to his straightforward speaking style, his detachment from the political establishment, and his brazen rejection of conventional political wisdom. For voters sick of hearing scripted clichés about the state of America, he has proven to be a cathartic candidate.
The takeaway for the communications field is that, while knowledge and preparedness are still key, their impact is diminished if they aren’t combined with an effective ability to connect with an audience and to question industry norms when appropriate. It often feels safest to pursue a public relations strategy designed to please everyone and to hedge your bets against future unknowns – and it is important to use care and caution when expressing your ideas. It can often be just as important, however, to speak straight, avoid jargon, and keep your message simple and directed towards your key audiences. For all the benefits that preparation brings, a bit of panache is sometimes required as well.