Wednesday, October 29, 2008

A Ringing Endorsement – Or Is It?

With the news cycle so tightly fixed on the economic crisis and upcoming presidential election, our job as PR professionals has become even more challenging. Attempting to tie our clients to the above two stories (or whatever the dominant news stories of the day may be) can tire our already saturated media contacts, and undermine our client’s credentials – everyone isn’t an economist or presidential historian, though there seem never to have as many experts on what is happening in our world right now.

No matter. Time flies, and soon the media’s lens will be focused on other stories. But before the election passes, let’s look at political endorsements and what they can mean.

Celebrity endorsements - some being PR-generated attempts at garnering publicity, we’d bet - may seem common, but are a newish phenomenon. Historian and author Steve Ross (not our client – we’re just fans) has traced the connection between stars and candidates to the presidential election of 1920, when actor Al Jolson organized Broadway stars in support of Republican candidate Warren Harding, who became the president in a landslide victory. By 1932, the relationship between Hollywood and Washington, D.C. became more intense; Ross, whose forthcoming book, “Hollywood Left and Right: How Movie Stars Shaped American Politics,” looks at the connection through the years. In an interview with MSNBC, Ross said, “By [the 1930s], a majority of celebrities were getting involved politically. For people like Melvin Douglas and Gene Kelly, it wasn’t just about the box office anymore; it was about coming out as responsible citizens. Republicans and Democrats realized this was much better than just endorsements,” said Ross. “Letters from committee chairmen show that they would expect 1,000 people at a rally, but when they had a Humphrey Bogart or a Lauren Bacall speak, 10,000 people would show up. They would come for the celebrity — but end up hearing the candidate as well.”

Charlton Heston actively campaigned for Richard Nixon in 1972 as a member of the group Democrats for Nixon. He continued to endorse Republican candidates with Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. “[Heston] was a key figure in getting Bush elected in 2000,” Ross told MSNBC. “He helped the Republicans get swing states like West Virginia by mobilizing [National Rifle Association] members.”
Polls don’t reflect much of an influence of celebs on politics nowadays – perhaps because people being polled wouldn’t want to admit that rapper Ludacris, or actress/activist Hayden Panitierre has affected their choices. Ross told MSNBC, “The media asks the wrong question. ‘Do celebrity endorsements influence who you vote for?’ Political insiders know that’s a stupid question. The question should be, ‘Do celebrity endorsements make you pay more attention?’"

Some celeb endorsements may seem wholly ineffective - for example, the uber-campy non-partisan Rock The Vote campaign with pop stars including Madonna - others are extremely powerful. One word – and the show most - scratch that - ALL of our clients want to be featured on: Oprah.

Though the results can’t be wholly measured until after November 4th, some analysts have attempted to measure the celebrity effect on political campaigns. MSNBC reported that two economists from the University of Maryland, Craig Garthwaite and Timothy Moore, attempted to quantify the weight of Oprah Winfrey's endorsement on the Obama campaign. After analyzing sales of Oprah's Book Club selections and subscriptions to Winfrey's magazine, O, they estimated she captured about 1 million additional votes for Obama in the primary election.

Splashback from celebrity endorsements happens; political candidates and PR professionals have to be very careful to whom (or what) they become linked to in the media. And, if they feel the words or actions of a celeb may alienate their base, they must respond. “Businesses are very selective of celebrities they hire and the same is true of politicians,” Wood said. “You are the brand, and you are the company you keep, so you have to be very careful about who your friends are.

The McCain campaign took a stab at discrediting Obama this July by using celebrity association as a deterrent; images of Obama and Paris Hilton were shown side by side, playing off the Illinois senator’s popularity among his devoted supporters.
These hard-learned lessons can help us to grow as PR professionals; those meaningful endorsements and glowing excerpts we love to print on second editions are hard-to-get, and more enduring than a photo opportunity for an enthusiastic candidate. Just keep in mind that each endorsement you garner says something about you and your book to a potential reader-- make sure you target appropriately.

Get Out The Vote!

Of course, we at P&P can’t wait to vote – many of us in the office were able to vote early (not often, as the saying goes).
But for our readers who have not yet voted and want to double-check the location of their polling place, check out the cool new maps application from Google. It worked for us! We hope it works for you.

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