Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The 2012 Election and the Emergence of "Identity PR"

The analysis among political scientists continues in the wake of the election of 2012, and it’s not just centered on the presidential race.  Many congressional seats and senatorial positions were won and lost according to the same dynamics that decided the presidential race.

Because the political sphere is a highly charged atmosphere where the media, issues, messaging and breaking events all come to play to create a final narrative, it also serves as a good laboratory for public relations.  It is with this in mind that one observation that is starting to emerge in the analysis is that “identity politics” won the day.  This could have a significant impact on the practice of public relations, leading to a higher emphasis on “identity PR.”

Before getting into the PR trend, some background is necessary, and to keep it simple, I will focus on the presidential race.

In 2012, the two candidates spent billions on advertising.  The polls at the outset of the campaign showed which states were “red,” which ones were “blue,” and which ones were considered “battleground” or “swing.”  The swing states were assumed to be persuadable through the traditional means – TV advertising, mostly on local stations; well-orchestrated and aggressive scheduling of “stump speeches;”  and of course, “the ground game” of using your campaign staffers in localized markets to turn out the vote.  The states that received most of this attention were Florida, Virginia, Colorado, Ohio, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Nevada and Iowa.

By the end of the campaign, only North Carolina and Indiana changed from their pre-campaign leanings in the polls which means that in the end, there were only two, true swing states.

What it also means is that when the campaigns focused primarily on geography – the swing states – they wasted massive amounts of time, money and resources.  The candidates hardly if ever visited the remainder of the country.  Their primary focus was on these states.

The first lesson here, then, is that by targeting localized and regionalized markets generally, the candidates missed the mark.

The politicos have credited other factors for determining the outcome and closeness of the campaign.  They cited the presidential debates, the economic recession, high levels of unemployment, and voter fears of change, or losing certain government programs.  The polls indicated consistently that foreign policy was not a major factor in voters’ criteria this time around.

The race was not a landslide for the incumbent, but it wasn’t close enough to give the Republicans enough comfort to assume that their current campaign strategies will work in the future.

Clearly, the Democrats made gains in the Senate and won the White House because they got more votes from their base than the Republicans did.  Over three million fewer Republicans voted in this election than did in 2008.  Mitt Romney received 1.8 million fewer votes than Republican John McCain did in 2008.  In fact, the Republican turnout in this election was lower than in 2004 when George Bush defeated John Kerry.  Experts are saying that to best understand the outcome the key not to focus on why voters who voted made the choices they did, but rather to find out why some went to the polls and some stayed home.

But here’s what’s clear for us.  When the campaigns garnered support, they did so not along geographic borders but on demographic ones.  In this election, it mattered less on the state in which you lived and more on which demographic group to which you belong.

Post-election research revealed the president received his votes from: 93 percent of African Americans; 70 percent of Hispanic Americans; 60 percent of men and women under the age of 30; and 62 percent of all unmarried voters.

Romney’s base consisted of white men and women who are married, particularly those over the age of 30.  It is not yet clear where the senior citizen block came down.  On social and economic issues, it is believed that the 65-and over demographic would have leaned Romney, but the big question-mark was whether that campaign’s plans for reforming Medicare had a significant impact on the actual vote among seniors.

Each of these demographics viewed the election, and their votes, through the prism of their own self-interest, what they had to personally gain or lose with each candidate.  While this is not a new concept, their self-interest was as much defined by the campaigns as themselves. 

Two examples: The Romney campaign spoke consistently to the self-interest of small business owners and middle class families.  The Obama campaign spoke consistently to the self-interest of younger, single women.  In the process both campaigns didn’t stop short of trying to prove they could meet voter needs, but they went further to essentially tell those targeted voters what they should need, want and expect as members of a particular social interest group.

What are Identity Politics?

The basis of identity politics is to center on the self-interest of the targeted audience as it identifies itself in a social interest group context.  Do I define myself by my age, by my religion, by my marital status?  Or, do I define myself by my current economic class – blue collar, white collar, professional, etc.?

Identity politics emerged in its current form in the 1960s when smaller sub-sets of voters increasingly defined themselves along the lines of sexual orientation; gender; race or ethnicity; or religious affiliation.  Since then, the number of groups that might fall under the “identity politics” realm has exploded.  Just about every activist and lobbying organization represents a group that can be targeted with the identity political appeal.  By 2012, the electorate appears to have evolved to the point that the vast majority of voters have fallen into some category.

What this Means for PR

For those of us in PR, this means that when we work for companies or organizations, we have to be even more mindful of the identity groups within our own targeted audiences.  Consumer PR has always been rather sophisticated demographically. I think we’ll find that more frequently, all PR programs will be more mindful of demographics and social identities within such audiences as customers, vendors, employees or investors.

Let’s say we have an employee communications project encompassing five regional hubs across the country.  Instead of making assumptions that all employees in the rank and file will react the same way to the same news, it’s more likely that a group of employees from Texas will react differently than their peers in California on the basis of how they identify themselves when they are away from work.

This is slightly exaggerated to illustrate, but over the years, you might have met an old friend on the street and asked her, “So what do you do?”  Back then, she might have said, “I’m a banker and I live in Springfield with my husband, two kids and a dog.”

Today, that exchange could go differently.   You may ask again, “So what do you do?”  And under this new era of identifying ourselves as who we are outside of work, she could respond, “I’m a marathoner, and I like to travel to races with my family in our hybrid. We all run and like to volunteer at the local food bank on Sundays after church.”

While the people involved may be doing the same things they’ve always done, what’s changing is how they identify themselves and more readily use that identity to make choices.  In the example above, exercise is not just exercise, a car is not just a car, family life isn’t just family life.  It’s a statement.

And all of this is amplified on social media, where social interests are showcased by the millions each day, along with the sharing of opinions on everything from the latest news to a new decorating idea.

Like its political cousin, identity PR will have to take into account the self-interests of targeted audiences beyond the business at hand.  Here are some examples:

·         Announcement of natural gas drilling project in West Virginia will likely be seen by that region as a positive economic development in that jobs are being created, while in parts of New York it will play out as a threat to the environment.
·         The mere act by the CEO of a consumer goods company of accepting an invitation to speak at an evangelical Christian college could be characterized by special interests on Twitter as an endorsement of all of that college’s positions on social issues.
·         And if the same CEO announced the hiring of a celebrity spokesperson to do a few commercials for the company, and that celebrity happens to be in a same-sex marriage, the CEO could come under fire from others on allegations of supporting same-sex marriage.

We have entered a new era of identity PR, one that will only get more supercharged as social media becomes more prevalent than it already has become.  Looking ahead, it will be more the norm for PR programs to break audiences down according to more narrow and sometimes fragmented demographics.  And it will be more routine to anticipate possible issues management and crisis situations that could result from disparate groups reacting differently to the same developments.

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