Hours before and in anticipation of last week’s first presidential debate, the Shorenstein Center for Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government hosted a panel discussion titled “Politics as Theater.” As a KSG alumnus, I watched with great interest. Are there takeaways from this discussion and from the debate relevant to public relations professionals and the clients they serve? Absolutely.
The panelists included Hollywood screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (“The West Wing,” “A Few Good Men” and other works), University of Pennsylvania Professor Kathleen Hall Jamieson (who oversees FactCheck.org), retired U.S. Senator Alan Simpson (R-Wyoming) and NBC White House correspondent Chuck Todd. They batted around issues of manner versus substance and authentic versus manufactured authenticity.
Public relations professionals often assist their clients when it comes time to engage the public or the media much like Mitt Romney and President Obama faced each other and PBS’s Jim Lehrer. The common denominators are a presenter’s intrinsic character measured and balanced against everything else—the issues, the facts and the media covering the event.
All panelists agreed it is important to be well versed with facts and truthful even when facts and truth aren’t in your favor. Acknowledging unfavorable facts is better than fighting them with manufactured facts. “People want truth, not mush,” said Simpson, who co-chaired with Erskine Bowles a national commission attempting to reduce the U.S. debt.
Panelists split on how to react when the facts are told in skewed, complex or unfair ways. A debate moderator, for example, cannot be an instant fact checker and is forced by time and debate rules from asking questions to deconstruct complicated facts. Mainstream media can try to verify facts, as NBC’s Andrea Mitchell did after the debate. But social media can repeat, embellish and add fact bias in unchecked ways. A disinterested third party, such as FactCheck.org, can play a good safeguard role.
Be authentic. Don’t look for a knock-out punch, Sorkin said. Be yourself. When Sorkin was asked if authenticity can be taught, he said there are theatrical tricks, like strategically timed breathing, to portray the appearance of authenticity. But he said speakers should act as if they have just left office and have nothing to lose. Humor can play a part in showing authenticity too. Don’t squelch natural humor out of a presentation, but don’t force humor out of a humorless speaker.
There was also consensus on the style you use against your opposition. Don’t caricature the other person (or cause or organization, as it may be), but show yourself instead. As far as zingers, though, everyone said that the art of zingers has been used for decades in political debate.
“Where’s the beef?” “There you go again.” “Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.” These zingers are conceived, drafted, edited and rehearsed far in advance of any debate and are at the disposal of any candidate if and when the time is right. Are they effective? Yes. Is that the deciding factor in how someone will vote? No.
A one-on-one, moderated debate on national television is quite different than the work of public relations professionals, who focus more on dialogue and conversation. But there are some lessons in formal interaction that can be learned from political debates. After this hour-long session and after watching the debate, I came away with some specific tips. When clients must give presentations at a panel discussion or a situation where there are significant questions and answers, I suggest:
- Be authentic. If you are not, find a spokesperson in the organization who is.
- Respect the other person’s position but concentrate on showing yourself.
- Be prepared with facts. Have your facts available in a fact sheet for the audience. If possible, source your facts to a reputable third party. As stated in a recent blog on the Council of Public Relations Firms website, “truth will always prove most persuasive.”
- Acknowledge the other person’s facts, if accurate. Say that they are worthy of consideration.
- Use humor sparingly and be cautious, particularly if you’re not good at it.
- Do not nod “yes” or “no” while an opponent is talking because the audience could misconstrue your reaction.
A campaign debate, like media and community engagement, is the communication of ideas, facts and intentions. To be most effective, it needs to be substantive but delivered with style that connects with your audience and keeps the focus on the key issues at stake.