On The Brink Of Crisis

February 27, 2006
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GRAND RAPIDS —Politicians use public relations consultants to raise money for their campaigns and build relationships with voters and, once elected, to help promote and defend the decisions they make in office.

So what’s it like being involved on the public relations end of a political campaign? For candidates seeking a state level office or seat, the campaign is an around-the-clock endeavor, according to John Helmholdt, of Jones, Gavan & Helmholdt.

“In any intense political campaign, you’re always on the brink of crisis mode and you’re always working ‘the plan,’” he said. “You can be heading 100 miles an hour in one direction and then comes a curve, and you have to completely switch gears. You’ve always got to be on it and prepared to respond.”

He believes the intense and time-consuming nature of political campaigns is the reason so few public relations firms take them on. To his knowledge, only about a dozen firms in Michigan offer full political campaign services.

Since Jones, Gavan & Helmholdt is a West Michigan-based firm, it tends to work more with Republican candidates, Helmholdt noted. But it also takes on a lot of “mainstream leaning” groups that are backing ballot initiatives, such as transit millages. Millages, in fact, are one of the firm’s claims to fame, he said.

Research is the starting point in any campaign, and it includes a full background check on the candidate and identification of his strengths and weaknesses, as well as that of the opposing candidate, he said. The public relations team has to know of any past driving offense, arrest, indiscretion, unpaid tax bill or legal dispute involving the candidate, because those things can become instant fodder for front page news.

“We are now in the era of term limits and the information age, and the merging of those two has created a hyper-political environment where those things are highly politicized and highly sensationalized,” Helmholdt explained.

More and more often, a major political party, as well as labor and chamber groups and organizations such as MoveOn.org, are spending money independently to endorse their candidates. They’re doing research, too, and if they discover a candidate, say, missed a payment on his child support, it can suddenly become headlines, he said.

Term limits also have raised the stakes considerably in running for public office. Helmholdt estimates candidates raise and spend four to six times more today than they did before term limits were established.

The public relations team has to develop a keen understanding of voters in the candidate’s district and identify the issues key to them, he said. Although individuals running for office typically have their own ideas and reasons for running, those ideas have to be articulated and their message has to be defined and distilled into “bite-sized chunks,” Helmholdt explained.

“The long, drawn-out policy statements are good for Web sites, but not for a press release or a candidate debate,” he noted. “That’s why consultants like us get hired. In a lot of cases we do full blown campaign management; we not only define their image, their message and produce their brochures, but we also help them on the ground, making sure their ‘walk lists’ are together and there’s a plan for what doors they’re going to knock on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.”

Marketing Resource Group in Lansing has worked with hundreds of candidates for state and federal offices and has also managed the public relations efforts for non-partisan public policy campaigns for more than 20 years. David Doyle, executive vice president and chief political consultant, said a political candidate who has successfully run for office previously or has been involved in the policy arena comes to the table with a wide variety of issue backgrounds.

“Every campaign is different, every cycle is different, and the issues change, so it’s kind of a nonstop process of updating yourself on the issues,” he said. “Candidates know what they want and they have a philosophy, but they might be familiar with just specific issues, so we’ll help them gather the pros and cons of both sides of an issue so they can develop a position.”

Research into a candidate’s background, the individual’s voting record in a previously elected office, or simply his voting record in school board elections is imperative, Doyle said. Has the candidate been sued or involved in controversial issues or written anything controversial? Those are the things the opposition is looking at, too, he said.

“It’s both easier and a little bit more difficult these days with the Internet,” Doyle observed. “You can type in the name of anybody who has been in public life and get a lot of information about them. But as we all know, not everything on the Internet is always accurate.”

In most cases, a candidate hires a full-time campaign manager separate from the public relations team, he said. He’s currently involved in the public relations end of U.S. Senate candidate Rev. Keith Butler, a Republican from Troy

Most public relations consultants involved in political campaigns are partisan and will only work for candidates of one party, Doyle noted.

“The candidates wouldn’t particularly trust a consultant that worked for both Republicans and Democrats. Most of us have our own philosophy and support candidates that are aligned with it.” Doyle served as chairman of the Michigan Republican Party from 1991 to 1995. “If you’re advising a candidate on particular issues, it certainly is helpful if you are similarly inclined, whether it’s conservative or liberal.”

John Truscott, president of the John Truscott Group, holds the same conviction. Truscott is handling public relations for Republican businessman Dick DeVos’ campaign for governor, and for Republican Congressman Joe Schwarz of Battle Creek, who’s seeking re-election to the U.S. House. Truscott also worked on former Gov. John Engler’s campaign and served more than 10 years as Engler’s press secretary. He said most of his work tends to be political- or legislative-related, but he also does public relations for some local developers.

In his estimation, the biggest difference between public relations work on a political campaign versus a general PR project is the intensity and speed at which everything moves along and changes. A tremendous amount of time and research has to be devoted to a political campaign, he said. In regards to the DeVos campaign, DeVos comes from a business rather than a political background, so a lot more in-depth research is required, said Truscott, who is communications director of the campaign.

“We have staff that just looks at policy and policy implications. They do all the research on the issues and on specific pieces of legislation,” he noted.

As his firm ramps up the DeVos campaign, he expects his team will be working on an almost hourly basis.

“With talk radio, with blogs and so many different ways to communicate, you have to be on top of it hour by hour so that a story or an issue doesn’t get out of control without you being able to manage it.”    

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