February 26, 2020
The Trump Effect and Public Relations During the 2020 Election

Every U.S. Presidential election year, that single story slowly consumes more and more of every news broadcast, especially on the regional and national level, until it reaches a crescendo where every newsroom resource seems focused on the election and nothing else. Once the election and any Presidential transition period passes, things historically begin to normalize. Something different happened with the 2016 election. Election coverage on the national level, and to some extent locally, transitioned to an unprecedented level of ongoing White House news coverage, often in place of other stories. In public relations circles, this slowly became known as the “Trump Effect.”

Politics aside, the Trump Campaign and then Administration consistently managed to rack up more column inches of newspaper coverage and minutes of news broadcasts than previous administrations. For public relations professionals vying for those precious moments of media coverage, the competition was fierce and wrought with new challenges. Would an anchor ask their guest about the latest White House headline without warning? Would the interview get cancelled altogether because of more breaking news out of Washington? Yes and yes. Now as we’re well into the 2020 Presidential election year, it’s worth revisiting some truisms and strategies to help your company’s public relations team compete with the “Trump Effect” this year.

Double Down on Reporter Pitches That Make an Impact

Competing with the election focus proves challenging every four years and we can expect it to be even more so this year. Instead of calling in sick, though, it’s time to double down and make sure your public relations team pitches stories a reporter can’t resist. Maybe that means going super local or changing how you approach telling your company story. Tougher competition means every pitch requires your best effort to break through the noise. Why does your story deserve those precious moments of coverage versus something else? Remember that you’re not only competing with breaking news out of Washington, but also every other attention starved public relations team out there. 

Think of this as an opportunity for true self reflection. Does your company deserve that attention? If so, prove it. If not, get back to work and come back with a story that really does deserve a reporter’s time. Identify what makes your story truly unique. Dig deep and uncover new ways for it to connect, not just with the reporter but also with their audiences. Also, look for and focus on opportunities that do not go head to head with the White House for attention. As you practice and perfect this process, those pitches will become stronger and you’ll see even greater success once the election year falls behind us.

Expect the Unexpected and Media Train Like It Matters… Because It Does

You need to stay quick on your feet during any election year and particularly in one that’s destined to garner record breaking quantities of news coverage. Can your company or organization afford to alienate 50% of your potential customer base by tipping your hat politically one way or the other? If so, own it. If not, plan ahead. 

Especially in live interviews, there’s always the possibility that a host could drop a question about your opinion on such and such development out of Washington. That likelihood gets stronger the higher profile the interview. We’ve prepared individuals for live, remote TV interviews with news networks only to have a producer jump on 90-seconds before the interview to say they might ask about the latest White House development, regardless of whether it has to do with the interview topic or not. At that point, you can say OK or cancel the interview, which is a tough call for everyone involved.

The best solution is media training for whoever is speaking on behalf of the company. Teach your spokesperson to expect the unexpected and ensure they’re prepared to weather any storm, even if it comes during a live interview. Help them articulate the company’s stance politically if it has one or lack thereof if it does not. And instead of encouraging them to say “no comment” or blatantly avoid questions, prepare them to share what value and insight they can offer to the conversation, even if they’re not going to take a side. Remember, the tougher the interview or situation, the greater the opportunity to come out the other side with a stronger and more professional reputation or brand image. 

Get Creative About How You Think of Media

The media landscape is in the midst of profound change that has nothing to do with the election. While traditional newsrooms around the country have tightened their belts and in many cases cut staff, we have also seen new kinds of newsrooms emerging. Sometimes they’re digital first publications built around a website. In other cases they might be entirely based on social media or revolve around a popular podcast or YouTube channel. Niche trade publications or hyper local news sources have exploded as well. Each of these offer new and unique opportunities to pitch stories and build relationships with reporters and their audiences. Your interview may not reach the same size audience as it would have on a local TV station, but at least you’re in the game and depending on how the cards fall, a smaller but very focused audience could do much more for your brand.

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Tell Your Own Story and Make Your Own Headlines

The same digital resources and tools that allow niche publishers to claim their stake in the media landscape offer you the same opportunity in the form of content marketing and/or branded content. If you’re having trouble convincing someone to tell your story simply because of all the competition out there, consider telling it yourself. This isn’t an excuse for lazy storytelling though. The same focus on story and content you use for your media pitches need to drive your own content because you’re still competing for attention, even if it’s easier than ever to publish a story yourself. 

Whether it’s a corporate blog, niche podcast, how-to YouTube Channel or a series of live streaming video content, a small, agile team that knows what they’re doing can make your company’s story come to life without ever pitching the story to a newsroom. Yes, you don’t receive the same third party validation you get from an independent reporter telling your story, but your story is getting told and if you put on your editors hat and take the job seriously, those stories can pay dividends to your brand for years to come.

Get Ready for Election 2020

If like most companies, public relations has a long tail impact on your bottom line and continued growth, you cannot afford to take a year off and let the election pass. Neither, however, can you afford to keep doing things the way you always did before. Times are changing and both the rules and opportunities are different today, regardless of the challenges posed by the “Trump Effect” and Election 2020. The question is, how are you going to rise above the fray and elevate your public relations strategy so your organization can thrive for years to come?

Mitchell Williams Law

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