Students gain election knowledge through public relations

By Shanna O’Mara


Dr. Ben Dworkin works to help students view the upcoming presidential election through a public relations lens.
Dr. Ben Dworkin works to help students view the upcoming presidential election through a public relations lens.

From a public relations (PR) standpoint, it’s debatable if anyone is winning either presidential campaign.

The 2016 presidential election has dominated the media for months, with images of Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton losing consciousness during the Sept. 11 ceremony and audio recordings of Republican nominee Donald Trump disrespecting women plastering Facebook walls, Twitter feeds and even reputable news outlets’ websites.

“There was a certain time when the front page of The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Washington Post, above the fold, far right column—that was the most important story of the day, and that drove what the news talked about, and that drove what the conversation was on politics,” Dr. Ben Dworkin, adjunct assistant professor of political science, said. “We had an elite media control what we were going to talk about. What Donald Trump is able to tweet at 3:00 in the morning drives the online version of those newspapers, and it drives what the talking heads on a 24/7 cable universe now talk about.”

The Public Relations Student Society of America presented the event, RU Poli-Ticking, on Oct. 13 and discussed the relationship between public relations and politics.

“You have to reach people through the issues that matter to them,” senior digital media major Khylah Jean said. “As a public relations major, you’re the bridge between the public and the candidate, for instance. You can relay information about issues that matter to voters to the candidate to get them to take some stance on it.”

During the 2012 election between President Barack Obama and his Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, the Internet became an integral tool in rallying support among likely voters. These people were classified into groups with others of similar race, ethnicity, marital and financial status, age and religion.

“They identified all of these characteristics using the business data, the technological data, the Internet to pull all of this stuff,” Dworkin said. “What sites do you visit? We can track this stuff. This is why you get certain messages on your Facebook feed. Because they know what you’ve been checking out, and somehow they did an algorithm.”

According to Dworkin, the technology that was used to suggest products of interest on Amazon or to send coupons to certain stores by mail is the same technology that is used to suggest which houses to visit during campaigning season. A volunteer going door-to-door not only knows the political affiliation of the homeowner, but now knows more specific information, such as which residents support the right to bear arms, same-sex marriage and tax increases for the wealthy, among other issues.

People who know how to appeal to others through platforms such as these are incredibly valuable in the job market.

“[Politics and PR] overlay each other extremely well,” Dworkin said. “Politics needs people with PR skills, and if you’ve got political skills, maybe you’ve worked on a campaign, and you bring it to a PR firm, it is tremendously helpful. These skill sets are needed in both places.”

Dworkin credits the Internet and the opportunities it has created for connecting public relations and politics in such a powerful and dynamic way.

“The commingling has only grown because of the Internet, because of social media,” he said.

This mix is prevalent in everyday life but even more so during a national event such as the presidential campaign.

“This is especially relevant during this election,” Jean said. “[Trump] must have some great PR people behind him who understand what it takes to get the people riled up and get people to support him.”

While Clinton details her policies during speeches and debates, Trump is known to have used social media to voice his opinions.

“The reason [Trump] is a nominee is because he understood the power of social media to drive an agenda,” Dworkin said. “That ability to break through—everybody is looking for that if you’re working in PR. Everybody is asking, ‘How do I get people to talk about what I want them to talk about?’ These are skills in which PR and politics mix.”

However, the repercussions of having that ability to get people talking are not always positive. “Saturday Night Live,” a weekly comedy skit show currently under attack by Trump for helping to allegedly rig the election, has been known for years to poke fun at politics. In 2008, Republican presidential nominee John McCain chose Governor of Alaska Sarah Palin as his running mate, and she immediately became the butt of jokes on the show.

Mocking Palin, comedian Tina Fey slipped into a red blazer, pinned her hair back and spoke of foreign policy with a sense of pride and ignorance: “I can see Russia from my house.”

“That was a joke that just devastated her,” Dworkin said. “Sarah Palin was the hottest product on the market. She was on the cover of every magazine. People were absolutely fascinated. And that one joke did it.”

Dworkin said one-line jokes, powerful photographs and lasting imagery are what people remember and can make or break a campaign.

During an interview on MSNBC on Sept. 8, Libertarian nominee Gary Johnson was asked what he would do, if elected, about Aleppo, the Syrian city at the center of the refugee crisis. He promptly responded with, “And what is Aleppo?” Weeks later, he was asked to name a world leader he admires and failed to come up with a response, despite his running mate answering first and the interviewer pressing with “anybody” then “anywhere. Any continent. Canada, Mexico, Europe over there, Asia, South America, Africa – name a foreign leader that you respect.”

Johnson said he must have been having “an Aleppo moment” and couldn’t think of anyone specific, answering only with “the former president of Mexico” but blaming brain freeze for being unable to remember a name.

“Now it’s a reinforced image, and that’s when you run into trouble,” Dworkin said. “This is why Gary Johnson, who might have gotten 15 percent of the vote, won’t get past five because of these kinds of PR mistakes.”

Dworkin stressed the importance of learning how to deal with crises such as this one from a public relations standpoint.

“It’s all driven by how you communicate, and therefore, people with your skillset are very relevant to people in the political world because someone has to know how we communicate with these folks,” he said. “How do we get people to want the new shoe that we’re promoting, the new iPhone or this issue?”

Students currently learning these skills will prove their value and perhaps one day prevent memorable PR mistakes in the political world such as placing nearly half the country into a “basket of deplorables” or casually defending discussions of sexual assault as “locker room talk.”

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