PR Tips for the Political Startup



As this issue is focused on small business startups, it is also a good time to realize that we have many new political startups happening all around us in our state.  From a new governor, to a new mayor of Providence, to statewide office holders, local legislators and the host of staff who will become employed in all the new administrative levels of government.

As we think back to those leaving office, what can we learn? What early missteps did they make? How did they put a structured plan together to inform the people they serve? Did they recognize that the media is also an audience to address? Who did well and who began to spiral early on? Who never quite got out of the vortex, and, well, the rest is political history?

What advice might we lend from the PR profession? It is to all of our advantage that the newly elected succeed and thrive and their platforms and initiatives bolster our business climate, create more and better paying jobs, and get Rhode Island back on solid ground with streamlined business processes, taxes and fees; a strong educational system; a better-trained workforce; improved tourism and healthcare; reduced crime; and support systems for those in need.

Here are our tips for PR success:

The Media

They aren’t your friends. But they aren’t your enemies, either. Unless, of course, you choose to ignore them. The media are the watchdog for the people. They will hold up your campaign promises and platforms and see how you are doing. But if you treat them with respect and honesty, and are savvy about their timelines and what they need to do their job, you’ll have an open opportunity to speak to the people, and be treated fairly. Be cautious about playing favorites. In this rapid career path and changing media world, who’s here today may be gone tomorrow.

Bad News

We want to hear about it from you. It’s bound to happen. Something isn’t going to go right.  A promise will be broken. A disaster. A scandal. Who will you get your advice from? Is your inner circle prepared? And where are those from the past who’ve lived through similar times and events? Who has institutional history? Anyone at all? Call upon them. Enlist their help. Historical lessons are significant to your present. Always seek counsel from those outside of that inner circle that can give you an insulated perspective. And remember, they are also looking at their own job security.

Good News

We want to hear that, too! Keep positive and share accomplishment. Share the credit, too. Involve the people who will be most impacted by this success—they will inspire us all.

Social Media

Don’t ignore it. Learn it like a pro. Former Mayor Cory Booker derived much of his positive feelings by the savvy use of Twitter. Oddly enough he credits learning by watching Ashton Kutcher. OK, whose platform do you like? Watch and learn. Have a social media policy for your staff. That doesn’t mean asking them to delete all their social media accounts; it means educating, supervising, and monitoring this important communication vehicle, which is only growing in importance. Be careful about scheduled posts and tweets; they can seem insensitive if they run up against current events. Used correctly, social media can be your best friend. Yes, it can.

Emails & Texts

While not PR per se, email traffic and informal chatting can spell doom and gloom, primarily for people, not policies. Establish a clear policy about what you want and do not want discussed on email, shared, or copied. Texts can be shared, too, so be cautious—again, this is a great tool if used wisely. And loose lips, well, they can sink careers.

Photo Opps

Cut the grand opening ribbons and hug the babies, but use moderation. Don’t hold a press conference if there is nothing to say. Don’t be afraid to hold one to share bad news, either.  A word to the ladies:  it’s OK not to smile all the time. A word to the men:  it’s OK to smile. It’s OK for everyone to pause, to say you don’t know, but you will find out. Watch the jokes and don’t bury the personal side.

Talk Radio

Be smart; learn how to use it. It can be your bully pulpit. Or it will be the people’s. Talk with the people. It will keep you on your toes. Consider a monthly time to come on and take questions. Try it. You may not love it, but that’s OK.  It’ll keep your staff, and you, sharp.  And you may find you’ll have a warmer reception from ‘the people’ than you think.

Spin Doctors

Yes, it’s what we do for a living. And many of us are very good at it, but more of us are bad at it than we’d like to admit. Be careful in relegating speeches and statements to others; put your own spin on it. Your words should sound like you. Be honest, forthright, hopeful, and truthful. PR people get upset when you get in trouble, and we’ll do our best to help, because we really do take it personally. We’ll lose sleep over the littlest wrong sound bite. But this isn’t a training video for a master’s class in public relations. It’s your future. Our future. Own your words.

Small Business

Remember us! When you find a great company doing great things, yes, we all want to know.  But don’t drag them around to every show and tell. There are lots of unsung business heroes out there with a great story to tell, or a need to be answered. Look deeper than those companies and leaders that float to the surface.

Talk, but also listen!

Draft an op-ed to a newspaper. Send a small business feature to RISBJ. Send out a weekly newsletter. Drop by at a business function where you aren’t speaking, but you can spend a half hour at a cocktail reception or networking opportunity just shaking hands. Hold some structured forums. But don’t overlook the informal opportunity to show that you are listening to all the people, the best you can.

Don’t do the unexpected

There are still things we don’t expect you to do. They will be different for each person. Buddy Cianci could ride a police horse down Main Street. Angel Taveras couldn’t—Mayor Elorza probably can’t—but he can jog at Roger Williams Park on Sunday mornings.  Just make the informal, fun stuff reflect the nature of who you are, and of your office. Make it relevant to you.


You will. Dust yourself off. Get back up. America—and Rhode Island—loves the comeback success. Move quickly. Watch the advisors around you. Eyes straight ahead, lessons learned, apologies first. Don’t be afraid to say you were wrong. Then jump back in again. Confucius said, “Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fail.” You can do it. We know you can. It’s why we elected you.

P.S. – Please lose the phrase, “I didn’t know things were this bad…”

Leave a comment

Avatar About the Author: The Rhode Island Small Business Journal is a printed monthly magazine and an online resource for the aspiring and start-up entrepreneur and small business owner.

previous arrow
next arrow