The Intersection: Nov 2016

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2016 Campaign Changed the Communications Playbook. Or Did It?

Conventional wisdom be damned. We were all sure the presidential campaigns were using the wrong communications playbook, and every step of the way proved that there may be more pages to the playbook still being written.

Every four years, the postmortem period is as exciting for many of us as the campaign itself. How will our playbook for public affairs change based on the campaigns? In 2008, Obama changed how we use social media for public affairs. He did it again in 2012, this time with big data. So, in the noise surrounding the postmortem confusion about a resounding victory that few predicted, what can we learn for the broader communications world? (See “Messaging” below if that sentence confused you, too.)

Data Modeling

When your hammer hits the wall, instead of the nail, you can either blame the tool or figure out what you did wrong. In the immediate aftermath of the campaign, there has been no shortage of articles blaming the data modeling efforts or discussions about how they were just plain wrong. It will likely take months before we hear the real story about what the data did – and did not – show for the Clinton campaign, and how they did or did not use it properly. But even with the limited details we have from the internal campaigns, there are signs of optimism for those looking to data for advocacy.

For example, one of the underlying data stories was the marriage of behavioral data with psychological data. Cambridge Analytica, who was hired by the Trump campaign at the end of the summer, earned some notoriety when Sasha Issenberg called their model “the most audacious new analytical innovation foisted on American politics this year.” They would use that data to develop simple profiles of all Americans that would reflect their personality (neurotic, extroversion, etc.) with their behavioral attributes – and then target a different message for you based on which profile you fell in. Was that a key to Trump’s surprising victory? We’ll have to see, but victory does have a thousand fathers and I’m sure Cambridge Analytica is willing to take a paternity test.

How the news of the data either hitting the nail or careening through the wall will translate to the public affairs world is still to be seen. Regardless, any indication that “data is dead” is greatly exaggerated. The models will continue to be refined, but there is enough evidence that the data worked better for advocacy than predictions – which is what most companies are looking for with their public affairs campaigns.


No one will ever accuse Trump of being a poet: his rhetoric isn’t lofty, and his delivery lacks inspiration. But, while few will remember the key lines from Clinton in a year, it will be difficult to forget: “Make America Great Again!” “Drain the Swamp!” and “Rigged!”

Many corporate public affairs professionals would love nothing more than to write messages that are clear, concise and in “plain English.” The challenge is surviving the corporate review process by subject matter experts, attorneys, brand review and countless others. Can you imagine those lines going through that corporate process? They’d end up with something like: “Acme Brick Company is investing to enable the country to achieve its potential in a global economy, to ensure we stay competitive, and to provide the opportunity for jobs” and “It’s important that we review all possible efforts to reduce corruption in our political process that can achieved in a reasonable time frame.” Okie dokie.

So what’s the solution? Less is still more (write like your copy will appear in a small digital ad or a tweet); once you find a message that resonates, stay on it; it’s OK to write for a lower reading level; and don’t do your lawyer’s job for them (by adding the extra language in anticipation of what they are going to tell you). Their job is to protect the organization; your job is to persuade an audience to action.

Crisis Communications

Every campaign has its fair share of crisis situations to manage. In this case, 2016 was one long crisis situation after another, and there were certainly moments when the traditional crisis communications playbook appeared to be thrown out. Over the last 12 months, I’ve heard from several executives about whether some of these different approaches would make sense in a company’s crisis response.

The reality is that companies don’t have the same hyper-partisan support from customers as candidates have from the voters who support them. And, while it may be more difficult for a National Committee to throw a candidate off the ballot for their response to a crisis situation, corporate boards across America have proven this is not the case for CEOs.

With that said, their approach does reinforce the need for strong stakeholder engagement well in advance of any crisis situation – so companies have advocates ready to go to bat for them on TV, online and in front of regulators.

In Conclusion

There are many other communications lessons I look forward to learning about after this election. The good news is that we have a month or two before the real battles begin in the states and in Congress on a variety of public affairs issues – just enough time to learn from the campaigns, right?

James Baril


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