It has been years, maybe decades, since one person has consistently dominated the news cycle for such an extended period of time as is the case right now with President Donald Trump. South By Southwest, which is currently underway, used to be about the tech startups…and the music…and the films…and the parties. And in some ways it still is about all of those things, but there is no denying that politics is the pervasive theme running through panels and speeches this year.
SXSW 2017 is a microcosm for the broader media conversation right now, which has major ramifications for PR and marketing professionals seeking to cut through the noise – or become a part of it. No matter if your client is a technology provider, non-profit, government contractor or retailer brand, the Trump-dominated news cycle is sucking everything else into it with Death Star-like ferocity.
Outlets that typically have a broader coverage mandate – such as CNBC, Fortune, and BusinessWeek – have re-oriented around the broad Trump effect and thus narrowing opportunities for coverage outside of this theme. For PR professionals, this poses a challenge: how to maintain a steady drumbeat of press impact for clients when the slice of air time or ink is shrinking, while at the same time navigating the thorniness of commenting on political matters.
Pick your spots
There have been multiple examples the past few months of executives taking a strong public stand – on both sides of the election outcome – with wildly varied results. If an executive is passionate about making a public statement, PR counsel must analyze all the potential outcomes, what is to be gained or lost, and advise on where a positive impact can be achieved.
Everything is a corporate statement
We’ve all see the popular disclaimer: “The views expressed by this author do not reflect the views of…” There is technically a difference between making a personal statement and a corporate statement, but at the end of the day it is not a true separation of church and state. If customers and citizens don’t like an executive’s political statement, some will focus their ire directly on the individual, but others will look to hit where it will hurt the most: the bottom line. Whether it’s boycotts or social media campaigns, executives weighing into political conversations must understand the business risks.
Power – and comfort – in numbers
There can be power in numbers, and when like-minded organizations come together to make a political statement the impact can prove more significant and lasting. At the same time, executives may feel more comfortable as part of a broader industry effort – either leading it or simply as a participant. As part of a group, executives may lose their ability to fully control the message, but they may be more comfortable with a collaborative effort that leaves them less exposed at a personal level.
While the aforementioned tips are useful for clients open to entering the political fray, most clients will have no interest in doing so – which means that agencies must get resourceful and creative. One PR flack recently noted a reporter’s response when pitching a client to him: “I’m up to my eyeballs in Trump, so not right now.” And this was not even a political reporter. So what’s unusual is not that politics is dominating a news cycle, but how long this domination has endured. This is going to require additional research on what reporters are writing on to try and find any possible entrée to media coverage. It’s going to demand more creativity to think beyond what has traditionally worked in the past. It’s going to require more nimbleness to react quickly to breaking news that may offer an opportunity to weigh in.
The bottom line is that PR professionals can’t operate in a vacuum, tone-deaf to current events. Whether its constructing a panel for SXSW or future events that you know will lean towards politically-angled topics, or pitching story angles to reporters that may have an editorial mandate to connect their beat (be it tech, fashion, manufacturing, etc.) to various political policy decisions or changes in the law.