PR evolutions under the Presidency of Blair, Clinton, George W. Bush and Obama

Here I am, back again on my blog, after a long absence (I admit)!

As promised, I would like to share with you the salient ideas from one of the chapters from The Media and Political Process book by Eric Louw.

By the time I write this third post for my blog, I could have finished the book and I am still enthusiastic about it. I would strongly recommend this inspirational book for any student (undergrads or postgrads) eager to learn more about the complex relationship between journalists and political figures.

Having said that, let’s get down to the nitty-gritty: ‘The Art of Political Public Relations’.

The emblematic Labour leader Tony Blair could be deemed as the last innovator regarding PR-ised politics. Unlike his former counterpart Margaret Thatcher, Blair professionalised British political communication closely following some Americans concepts. Peter Mandelson, Alastair Campbell and Charlie Whelm were the main three men in the front line to manage the Prime Minister’s reputation. Also, I am thinking of Tim Allan, Deputy press secretary to Blair, on the cover page of the last PR Week (February 2015).

Mandelson’s successful strategy consisted in reshaping the face of the party. The challenge here was to move away from ‘the working-class clop-cap image’ (p.90), potentially threatening for the non-working class, towards a more neutral but inclusive image. Labour’s repositioning to a centre-left party resulted from this new communication approach. Not only did Mandelson reshape the party but he also introduced the so-called American concept of ‘political marketing’ (Bartle and Griffiths, 2001). He is the one who reconstructed the image of the party around the red rose symbol and pushed politicians to become telegenic performers. From that time, British politics genuinely became a ‘televisualised, PR-ised affair’, argues Louw.

Famously, Blair’s spin-team was put under a lot of pressure during the heated debates on the Iraq War. On May 2003, BBC’s journalist Gilligan alleged on the radio that the dossier on Iraqi ‘weapons of mass destruction’ had been ‘sexed up’ to advocate military intervention. This led to a succession of scandals, to the suicide of Dr Kelly and the creation of the Hutton Commission Inquiry. Blair’s reputation management turned into a public issue and his political image had then been durably tarnished. Ultimately, Campbell was forced to resign.

All in all, PR activities must always be transparent and credible to be successful. The common view is that communication practitioners are not highly appreciated by journalists. The media will relentlessly pursue busted spin-doctors. What also taught us Blair’s governance is that PR people are the first on the front line, to be scapegoated and criticised for defending a ‘built-up’ image. Nonetheless, I believe it is also vital to acknowledge the role of journalists here, and question their relationship with institutions. Following Gilligan’s revelation, the media created a discourse by blaming Campbell, Blair and Hutton. Actually, they dismissed and deflected attention away from their role in making the ‘weapons of mass destruction’ real.

The use of PR and spin has progressively been normalised and taken for granted, explains Louw. Davis (2002) goes even further comparing Western states to ‘Public Relations democracies’.

Clinton’s aggressive strategy was guided by James Carville. His personal style and his radiant seduction on cameras got on so well with the televised revolution that some compared him to a wizard performer. Inheriting the communication legacy from Nixon and Reagan, Clinton’s  access to Presidency embodied how ‘naturalised’ PR had become.

‘The Manhattan Project’ participated in reshaping his damaged image and the famous ‘War Room’ conducted media coverage analysis to determine Clinton’s responses and strategic plans. Political communication specialists became experts at creating media strategies, setting agendas and managing content. Even though the President granted meetings with the press twice a week, he always ensured concerned topics were previously negotiated with producers and that in-depth researches on likely questions were conducted. Also, Clinton’s PR team perfected themselves in narrowcasting to get their messages across, targeting niche audiences through local media outlets. The Internet was another asset by which the White House directly communicated with the general public thanks to a special email address. What is also noticeable in Clinton’s presidency is the way the opposition was dealt with: negative spin, ‘dirty tricks’, etc. As we all recall, that did not prevent him from being publicly exposed about his sexual indiscretions.

George W. Bush’s PR strategy deployed many current techniques from this time. His communication adviser Karl Rove dramatically reshaped his image and the president performed the script well: far from representing his privileged education and well off roots, he successfully came across as an ordinary middle-class self-made man from a small Texan town. Political PR under Bush’s administration could be characterised by the special granted importance to certain key voter’s issues.

But to me, one of the most memorable successful PR moments for Bush occurred in 2003. His spin-team was expert in choreographing events to sublimate the President. After having landed off on the deck of an aircraft carrier, on the Californian coast, he emerged from the plane, from the co-pilot’s seat, in a green flight suit. The exterior of the plane was marked with ‘George W. Bush Commander-in-Chief’. Above him stood the tower of the deck, displaying a large ‘Mission Accomplished’ sign. The event was well thought out and intelligently staged. Journalists even reported this appearance being as “the mother of all photo opportunities” and “the greatest op of all time” (Bennett, 2007: 45). Rove’s event-based strategy was a success because it enabled him to keep control on the news making agenda.

His campaign slogan still resonates in our minds today: ‘Yes we can’. It is fair to say that Barack Obama turned into a real global political celebrity. His massive PR success was orchestrated by David Axelrod, who had a proven path in getting black mayoral candidates elected. Successively, he managed to get not only white, but also black voters, often callous and disengaged with political life to turn out at polling stations. Obama’s election in 2008 demonstrated a solid understanding of all the previous known techniques. Almost all of them were mobilised to bring the candidate to the top: political marketing techniques, television speeches and debates, flyers, direct mail, newspapers, phone calls, canvass, etc. The Internet was also taken advantage of thanks to the use of platforms such as YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and multiple targeted websites. Obama was marketed as being the candidate of change and tolerance. He was seen as an inclusive figure, a ‘man-of-the-people’, able to gather any race, religions or classes. Akin to Kennedy’s communication strategy (see my former post), Axelrod managed to turn Obama’s difference into a strength and not voting for Obama could be equal to intolerance.

What was relatively new at the time and intelligently led was the way volunteers were mobilised across the country. Obama’s teams were dispatched and set up local campaign offices. Steve Hilderbrand, deputy national campaign, initiated the ‘MyBO volunteer mobilisation campaign’. This consisted of building a network of people able to offer support and services: canvass, districts walking, and even picking up voters and taking them to polling stations. The whole system was boosted by the Internet. The volunteers were able to set up a profile on the MyBO website (like a Facebook profile) to directly download the latest materials from the campaign to create their own local events, such as picnics or neighbourhood clean-ups and fundraisers.  Furthermore, Hilderbrand created ‘Obama camps’ so as to train the volunteers who subscribed on the website to workshops to learn rhetorical and leadership skills. In this way, the phenomenon snowballed and more and more recruits were enrolled. Popular support significantly weighted in the President’s election.

I am hopeful to believe that, having quickly gone through the main evolutions of political PR, the future will foster more and more strategies that include and give opportunities of action to people. Political communication crucially needs to understand the society’s wants and keep in mind that the human factor is at the heart of any PR story.

BARTLE, J. and GRIFFITHS, D., 2001. Political Communication Transformed: From Morrison to Mandelson. Basingstone: Palgrave.

BENNETT, W.L., 2007. News: The Politics of Illusion. New York: Pearson Longman.

DAVIES, A., 2007. The Mediation of Power. London: Routeledge.

LOUW, E., 2010. The Media and Political Process. London: Sage Publication Ltd.

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