All Press Is Not Good Press, and Words Still Matter

Earlier this month, Politico ran a story that asked, “Do ideas still matter in the year of Trump and Clinton?”

The author may as well have also asked a few follow-up questions. Does the way we present ourselves still matter? Do words still matter? Or, is it true that, as Donald Trump himself has tweeted, “all press is good press”?

Those of us who have been in PR and marketing communications for even a minimal amount of time can answer those questions pretty succinctly. Yes. Yes. And no.

You can be forgiven for losing sight of those facts in today’s political climate. Nothing that anyone says seems to matter anymore, so long as it helps dominate a news cycle.

From a PR perspective, that’s a problem. The ways that the presidential candidates have approached their campaigns fly in the face of conventional communications wisdom and is upending everything that we’ve been taught as PR professionals.

I think we need to take cover from all that noise and not forget that traditional – heck, moral – communications strategies still have a place in today’s world. With that, here are three things that I’ve learned throughout the years that I think are still worth practicing.

Be transparent and honest

When is the last time you saw a communications manager being portrayed as an upstanding and honest person in a TV show or movie? You might have to go all the way back to C.J. Cregg in The West Wing. Usually, PR and marketing folks are portrayed as spin masters who will say and do whatever it takes to get positive press for their clients, even if that means bending the truth.

This in itself is, of course, very far from the truth. Good PR managers work hard to make sure they communicate facts correctly. They want to make sure their reporter contacts – and, by extension, the public – receive the correct facts. Aside from the fact that there’s no upside in not doing that, PR managers are, on the whole, regular and upstanding individuals.

This goes beyond communications professionals, of course. It’s hard to believe that this even has to be written, but here it is: everyone should be honest with the public. Aside from the fact that it’s just morally the correct thing to do, lies spread like wildfire in today’s connected and social media-driven age – why would anyone even want to take the chance with something like that? Why risk the sales fallout and damage to your reputation? The former might end up being a blip in time, but the latter can take years to repair. It’s just not worth it.

Respect your competition

It’s OK to take a few shots at the competition, but there’s a right and wrong approach to this strategy. It’s advisable to draw distinctions between your company and the competition to show why your products are the better alternative. It’s inadvisable to completely disparage the competition in petty and demeaning ways.

There are several reasons for this. First, today’s competition might be tomorrow’s ally (I’m looking at you, Bernie Sanders). Second, it looks like you’re hiding something; a flaw in your own product line or corporate strategy, or some other deficiency. Third, it’s just rude.

Yes, I realize this is nothing new to this election. But all of the candidates seem to have taken this one to the nth degree in 2016.

Stay on message

Stick to your message points. Do not get baited. Do not go off-script. Do not go creating unnecessary problems for yourself or your brand.

But what if going off-message is part of your appeal? Look, I know that many customers and reporters like colorful spokespeople. That’s fine. But that’s also different than going off-message.

Let’s get away from politics for a minute. Take a look at John Legere, the CEO of T-Mobile. He says what he wants. He does things outside of the norm. He’s a maverick. But that actually is the T-Mobile message. The company does things differently, and it’s reflected in its CEO. Legere may say some things that many in his industry think are crazy, but that’s the message that the company wants to deliver.

Proven strategies might be boring, but they can still win

This insane election cycle has been a bad lesson for all of us in the communications field. It’s telling us that it’s OK to do things that we know are not OK to do simply because everyone, including the media, appears to be eating it up.

But don’t be fooled into thinking that everything we know to be true can suddenly be thrown away. Marketers who want to protect their brands must still continue to use the appropriate words to deliver their messages. Those messages should be succinct, on point, and elevate brands in the eyes of customers without blatantly tearing down competitors.

I realize that might be the most boring message of all possible messages in a world that’s gravitating toward the sensational — but I also think it’s an important message to remember. And so tonight, as we get ready for the first presidential debate of the 2016 general election, let’s take a moment to remember that sometimes the old rules still do apply.