PR Lessons from the NYC Mayoral Race

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When Bill de Blasio won the New York Democratic primary for mayor with a large enough margin to avoid a run-off, the pundits weighed in on what was an impressive victory for someone who had been running a distant fourth not too long ago.

Some pinned de Blasio’s win on a well-timed ad featuring his charismatic, Afro-coiffed son, which went viral. Others suggested de Blasio benefited from “Bloomberg fatigue” felt by New Yorkers weary of their three-term mayor. Yet others credited the candidate’s “tale of two cities” message, which contrasted the gains of the wealthy with the struggles of everyone else. All of these factors likely contributed to his success, but it’s the way they were all cohesively linked that probably turned the race, and his campaign provides a solid example of an integrated approach to communications.

Like politicians, professionals often need to effectively communicate with a number of target audiences. They also need to establish a cohesive brand that effectively distinguishes them from their competitors. The tension between these two goals often leads to disjointed messages. The de Blasio campaign illustrates how it’s possible to stay true to your brand even as you win over various disparate audiences.

Brand Integrity

Key to de Blasio’s success was that he clearly understood the strength of his brand. While other candidates proposed minor change, he ran a much more aggressive campaign. Mayor Bloomberg was a popular leader who could point to a number of successes, but de Blasio chose to run against the mayor’s record. As the city’s public advocate, who served as a foil to Mayor Bloomberg, de Blasio recognized it would be disingenuous to attempt a more conciliatory message.

When professionals are looking to break into a new area, there is a temptation to view their existing brand as a hindrance rather than a help. But understanding the strength of one’s brand can lead to creative ways to expand that brand.

For example, cyber security is a top concern for in-house counsel these days, and many law firms have created capabilities to address these concerns. But this is a relatively new area, and few firms are branded as cyber security experts. However, many firms do have strong identities in specific industries, such as energy and health care. By creating thought leadership on how cyber security affects businesses in these vertical sectors, firms can leverage their existing brand strength to position themselves as experts in a hot new area.

Hot Topics & Target Audiences

De Blasio succeeded in part because of his ability to create audience-focused messaging. He thought about how his audience would perceive his message—and spoke to their needs and their concerns.

The video that featured de Blasio’s biracial son, Dante, squarely addressed the “stop and frisk” police policy that is of particular concern to minority communities. De Blasio, who is white, won the minority vote in part because he convinced voters he was more committed to ending “stop and frisk” than his competitors.

Similarly, he addressed economic insecurity in terms that mattered most to another key constituency—working class voters. A big factor in his victory was his support of paid sick leave, according to a report of recent poll. The poll indicated voters were more likely to support policies to help working families than policies designed to fuel growth of businesses.

Knowing the pain points of one’s audience is crucial to crafting a message that resonates. In the professional services arena, this means going beyond explaining a change in the law, for example, to address how that change is likely to affect the client (or prospective client), and making recommendations as to how they should adjust their business practices. Making the effort to empathize and connect with an audience can be the difference between getting a phone call, or not, from a reader.

Marshaling Resources

De Blasio also pulled off his come-from-behind primary win because he was smart about how he spent his resources. He cut corners on other parts of his campaign (such as office space, furniture) to save his funds for television ads. His frugality paid off and he was able to fund the TV ad that is credited with changing the course of his campaign.

Similarly, professional services firms are most effective at getting their message out when they are strategic about their resources. For example, focused media outreach on a firm’s practice strengths can effectively reinforce the firm’s brand in those areas.

Creating a cohesive communications strategy requires some thought and effort, but can pay big dividends. Sending mixed messages to market leads to muddied communications, and worse, the perception that the speaker is opportunist and disingenuous. A politician who delivers a different message to every audience may end up with no support. A professional who churns out a series of unrelated articles and speeches risks being known for nothing in particular. Strong brands are created through communications strategies tailored to meet the needs of various constituencies while maintaining a consistent theme.

Marketing communications in the professional services arena isn’t exactly like running a political campaign—but some days, it sure feels like it is.

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