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Governing a Divided Nation

By Michael Petruzzello, Managing Director, MSLGROUP D.C.

MSLGROUP D.C. has always prided itself on a campaign-style approach to public affairs and advocacy. Our people are campaign people, having worked on dozens of campaigns, from small-town mayor to President of the United States. We deploy strategies that are nimble and opportunistic to get our clients heard in a competitive media environment and a crowded legislative arena. As we look back at one of the most unusual Presidential elections in American history, we are pleased to share some of our insights and offer some advice for our clients on how to apply the lessons of this unprecedented election.

Let’s Be Frank: No One Saw This Coming, Because No One Was Looking in the Right Place

It is a mistake to characterize Trump voters as exclusively working class, or rural, or non-college educated. Trump voters are culturally isolated and feel politically alienated. A September study of Trump voters by Jonathan T. Rothwell of Gallup discovered that those who view Trump favorably disproportionately live in racially and culturally isolated zip codes and neighborhoods.

Image source: Gage Skidmore on Flickr

Image source: Gage Skidmore on Flickr

It appears that Donald Trump won the election by motivating low-propensity white voters in traditionally blue states. These voters rarely voted in previous elections, because their votes were not large enough to effect the outcome, and were cancelled out by votes from major metropolitan centers. Whether these were rural voters in Wisconsin and Michigan, small town voters in Pennsylvania, or exurban voters in Florida, these low-propensity voters shifted the outcome in enough states to decisively rewrite the political map and elect Donald Trump the next President of the United States.

Trump motivated these voters by focusing on issues that had previously been ignored — a political system rigged to benefit elites at the expense of working Americans, trade deals that failed to account for economic dislocation in American manufacturing, and crumbling infrastructure that is incompatible with America’s status as a world power. These issues can form the basis of a new political coalition — provided that Congress is able to address them.

Trump’s appeal was not limited to concerns about economic anxiety. Although Trump received more support from Latinos and African Americans than Romney did in 2012, many pollsters attribute this to growing demography rather than actual support. Trump appealed to anti-immigrant sentiment at a time when net migration from Mexico to the United States is near zero. He appealed to law and order and fears about crime, despite the fact that the violent crime rate is lower than it has been at any time since 1970. A substantial part of Trump’s support came from people who unfortunately equate the growing demographic diversity of the United States with national decline. Trump’s appeals to racial resentment will complicate a large variety of issues — from immigration to voting rights to criminal justice reform.

Advice for Governing a Divided Nation

When we counsel clients, we often remind them that “If you don’t know where you’re going, any train will take you there.” There is no off-the-shelf, one-size-fits-all solution. Furthermore, the needs of a changing electorate require a dynamic, evolving public affairs strategy. Begin the development of your strategy with rigorous research, so that your advocacy campaign is well-informed and well-targeted. Here are some other takeaways from the 2016 presidential election:

Institutional Trust Needs to Be Rebuilt

From Iraq to Katrina to the Great Recession, key institutions have been under enormous strain over the past 15 years. The 2016 election has exposed vulnerabilities in still more institutions. From private servers to Wikileaks, our cybersecurity protections have been exposed as vulnerable. Both major political parties were seriously challenged by outsiders. Bernie Sanders pushed the Democratic Party to the left, while Donald Trump nearly broke the Republican Party in half. America’s media and electoral institutions seemed unprepared to handle the challenge Trump posed to our democracy.

Any institution – corporations, trade associations, NGOs – could find their own legitimacy and competency challenged next. Effectively managing reputation goes far beyond communications. In an always-on media environment, it is critical for organizations to invest time and resources in building reputation and trust. Managing an organization’s reputation requires much more than risk assessment. It requires true engagement of a large and diverse set of stakeholders. It requires listening. Only then can you effectively communicate, create advocates and drive change.

Connect emotionally – early and often and with simple, personable messages

Love him or hate him, Trump inspired emotional reactions from American voters. What’s more, Trump dominated the media cycle despite being outspent in paid media by Clinton by 63 percent. So not only were his messages driving significant reaction from voters, but those messages were everywhere, all the time. Sound bites like “Make America Great Again” and “Crooked Hillary” were shared across traditional and social media, and became rallying cries for his supporters.

Image source: DonkeyHotey on Flickr

Image source: DonkeyHotey on Flickr

Ignoring a Crisis Does Not Make It Go Away

Hillary Clinton never had a satisfactory answer for her use of a private email server. Moreover, no high-profile Clinton staffer was ever fired or disciplined for setting up the email server in the first place. The email scandal, as well as aftershocks from Benghazi and accusations of impropriety within the Clinton Foundation, built up confusion at best and out-and-out resentment at worst among voters. Had Clinton addressed these questions outright, she may have clarified questions so as to convert undecided.

Focus on a Few Big Things and Do Them Well

The voters assume that everyone seeking help from Washington has a hidden agenda — that they are trying to play a rigged game at voters’ expense. To succeed in this environment, public affairs campaigns must prioritize consensus over conflict. It is ineffective to march up to Capitol Hill and point out how YOU have a problem. It will be far more persuasive to show demonstrate how “we the people” have a problem, and a solution. Appeals to the public interest will trump appeals to special interest.

Michael Petruzzello is managing director of the MSLGROUP D.C. office and national director of public affairs for MSLGROUP North America.

About The Author

MSL is a global public relations and integrated communications partner that provides strategic counsel and creative thinking. We champion our clients’ interests through fearless and insightful campaigns that engage multiple perspectives and holistic thinking to build influence and deliver impact.

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