Wednesday, January 18

Playing With Fire: Ron Paul And Public Relations

Part of the art of public relations is always appreciating that you are communicating to more than one public at a time. Some candidates participating in the South Carolina debate forgot that on Monday.

Much like mainstream candidates mistakenly did during the 2008 Republican primary, they largely ignored Ron Paul. When they did acknowledge him, it sometimes included backhanded comments designed to label Paul as a little bit kooky. That is a mistake, much bigger than most people realize.

Note: This is not an endorsement of any candidate nor political analysis beyond the often unseen impact of public relations in the field. For companies, it is a worthwhile observation on brand loyalist reaction, especially as it relates to aggressive jabs at the competition and dares people to take sides. 

The Potential For A Ron Paul Public Relations Backlash. 

Although many mainstream campaign strategists (national and state) dismiss and distance themselves from unflappable Paul supporters, many of them need Paul supporters to win, whether it be the primary or general election. They don't like to admit it. But they do.

So when candidates such as Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney, and Rick Santorum attack Ron Paul with characterizations that allude to the idea that Paul is from another planet or perhaps irrational, they are playing with fire. Paul supporters are not like any other base in the bid for president. 

Paul supporters are better organized than any other base (especially on the Internet), regardless of any direct involvement by their candidate. Paul supporters remember every rub, rib, and rude comment aimed at their candidate or their ideas. And Paul supporters are unafraid to make it their mission to make someone lose, even if it means tossing the election to someone who they politically disagree with on every level and even if someone eventually earned a Paul endorsement.

I know. I listened to Paul supporters take delight in damaging campaign signs (among other things) in several state races four years ago. Never mind that the candidates they attacked were ideologically closer to their views than the opponents who won. They were out to teach lessons. Even after accepting apologies, it didn't matter. They are quick to forgive, never forget, and always extract retribution.

In fact, it doesn't even matter that Paul was booed at various points during the debate by the audience, which no doubt fueled a few of the more brazen comments from his rivals. His supporters still took note of how each candidate reacted to and responded to Paul in turn. And that's why Paul won Twitter, even if Gingrich won the debate (according to most analysts). 

Always Pull Publics Toward You; Never Push Them Away. 

There seems to be little doubt that Paul has the ear of the nation when it comes to many domestic policy points. He tends to attract and empower younger voters and, according to a recent poll, older voters.

Analysts can pinpoint any number of specific issues that rally people around Paul (they especially like to draw out his stance on drugs, leanings toward isolationism, and abolishment of income tax), but the overarching message that resonates more than any other is that Paul sees things differently and will not back down from what many say is the hopeless cause to restore a Constitutional government.

This platform raises two questions. Can he really deliver a Constitutional government and are Americans ready for one? The answers are why many people wonder about his electability.

However, even if some of his ideas are so surprisingly foreign to most Americans that mainstream voters cannot even grasp the basic tenets of his platform and Paul cannot always articulate those tenets in a way that makes sense to the mainstream, whoever wins the nomination cannot afford to push Paul supporters away (about 20-25 percent of primary voters). Already, some of those who used to say anyone but Obama are now saying Ron Paul or no one.

The same holds true for companies and organizations. For example, consider what AT&T did when it started targeting heavy data users by penalizing them. They have turned people who used to be AT&T loyalists into people who may choose anyone but AT&T on their next contract.

In both cases, the decisions being made have short-term solutions. But over the long term, both strategies could backfire. Not everyone who is pushed away for short-term gains will come back.
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