What We Can Learn From Past Presidents and Their PR Teams

With slogans, logos, t-shirts, and speeches to stadium-sized crowds, presidential campaigns are sometimes more like a lesson in marketing than one in politics. Of course policies play a role when it actually comes time to go to the polls, but who doesn’t remember Bill Clinton’s charisma, JFK’s style, Obama’s ‘Hope’ slogan, or Reagan’s dramatic flair?

There have been several U.S. presidents who - simply put - had a flair for marketing. While we at Indicate Media aren’t in the business of playing politics, we do think it’s interesting to take a look at how politicians have used marketing tactics to win the most powerful position in these United States of America.

Here are three presidents who (along with their teams) may have had a career in PR if, you know, the whole POTUS thing didn’t work out for them:

John F. Kennedy: The youngest president ever elected to the office of the Presidency, JFK’s youth, charm, and innovative campaign strategies propelled him ahead of Richard Nixon. Did you know televised Presidential debates were JFK’s idea? He invited Nixon to participate in the first televised debate on September 26, 1960. JFK uniquely understood the power of the moving image. His team spent days analyzing the lighting, choosing which suit would best cut down on the camera glare (turns out it was blue), and had him practice over and over again speaking directly to the camera.

What seems so common today certainly wasn’t back then and these little tactics added up. Prior to the debate, Kennedy's young age was thought to be a negative, but by the morning after the debate, many doubt's about Kennedy’s age and abilities were erased. The 1960 election was the first time television became a source of information for voters.  

JFK also used television to promote a ‘new era’ of innovation and technology. He used images to embrace social issues like civil rights, and while supporting social influencers like Martin Luther King Jr. could have hurt his candidacy, it ending up gaining him endorsements and pushed social issues into a campaign that was previously dominated by economics and foreign affairs.

By playing on his strength’s and personal appeal through TV images, and by using the platform to focus the country on social issues, JFK was able to completely re-frame the campaign, and he become the 35th President of the United States.

Ronald Reagan: Building off the media legacy set by JFK, this former actor built a charmed relationship with the news media, and turned television into his personal platform. President Reagan mastered the ability to get his message across in an influential way, and used plenty of visuals to do it earning him the nickname “The Great Communicator”.

He also had a love for dramatic flair and stirring the emotions of people. For example, check out one of Reagan’s most famous campaign ads titled,  “The Bear,” showing a grizzly bear wandering through the woods and concluding, “isn’t it smart to be a strong as the bear?”

President Reagan also understood the importance of using timing and location to his advantage. While standing at the Brandenburg Gate between East and West Berlin, Reagan urged Gorbachev to “tear down this wall,” in one of his most famous, controversial, and strategic speeches. Reagan's staff members debated keeping that line in the speech, but the President, understanding the power of the moment, was determined to keep it in and showed that sometimes calculated risks in communication is necessary.

Barack Obama: Most of us still remember the slogan of “Hope” and “Change” heard round the country in 2008.  But, even more important than these words is the way these words were promoted. President Obama understood there was a new kind of medium in town and embraced social media right from the start. For example, he announced that Biden would be his pick for Vice President on Twitter before alerting mainstream media, brought in ‘citizen journalists’ to create consistent (and partisan) content to build online momentum, and had a massive and extremely effective email campaign that secured hundreds of millions of dollars in online donations.

The terms 'Hope' and ‘Change’ were so present throughout the entire 2008 campaign that it was almost impossible not to know what the Obama campaign stood for. However at the same time, many historians have stated that you would have been hard-pressed to find someone who could distill into 'single words' the themes his competitors were running on. Ad Age paid attention to this and it’s why Obama beat out Nike, Apple, and other huge brands to win Advertising Age’s Marketer of the Year in 2008.  

So as you can see, there's a lot we can learn from presidential history. The power of the image, the power of the moment, the power of leveraging grassroots strategies, are all lessons startups to established brands can utilize when engaging with their audiences.

For additional inspiration, or to learn how to take your ideas to the next level, contact Indicate Media today.