PR Lessons from a Recovering Political Junkie

When I tell people I used to work in political PR, they normally respond with a “that must’ve been exciting” or “wow, never a dull day on that front.”  They’re right.  Political PR is exciting.  It’s thrilling to be at the forefront of major national issues.  Which is why their next question tends to be, “well then, why did you leave?”

I have a number of answers to this question, but for the purpose of this blog post, I’ll stick with just one.  In politics, the tactic, the strategy and the goal is PR.  Everything politicos do is geared towards shaping media narratives that foster an environment for legislative change.

While the political world is vastly different from B2B tech, I picked up a few lessons along the way that I think could be helpful for any PR pro:

Staying on Top of the Media Narrative

In DC, the news cycle moves faster than you can say “beltway politics.”  Every hour there’s a new headline dominating the airwaves, a new hashtag trending on Twitter and a new party “winning” the media narrative.  And between evening news and Sunday talk shows, it never really stops—there’s always a new announcement to respond to and a new spokesperson trying to tear down whatever storyline you worked so carefully to build.

While I certainly don’t miss losing sleep while monitoring late night debates or waiting for election results to roll in, I picked up some valuable insights about the importance of staying alert and on top of the news as–and in some cases, before–it breaks.

Identifying your top reporters and knowing where they’re the most active is a key component of this.  In DC, that was Twitter.  In other industries, it’s a mix of Twitter, LinkedIn and following sites like TechMeme that compile all that latest trending headlines in the tech space.

In addition to following the right reporters in the right places, you’ve got to follow your competitors too.  On political campaigns, there’s an entire team dedicated to tracking the opposition.  A similar mindset should be carried over to the B2B tech world as well.  Keeping your thumb on what your competitors are saying and where they’re saying it will give you excellent insight into their strengths and weakness, which can help inform future pitches and bolster competitive differentiators.

Getting Creative

In addition to being fast-paced, the media market in DC is hyper-frenzied and over-saturated.  Breaking in to the news cycle has become increasingly difficult, especially in the midst of presidential election cycles.

As a result, I often had to work with my clients to find new ways to “get creative.”  I’m proud to say I’ve helped clients’ stage civil disobedience arrests; deliver hundreds of cantaloupes to Members of Congress (following these comments from Rep. Steve King); and assemble a farm worker produced Thanksgiving feast right in front of the White House.

While I can’t see myself replicating these types of tactics for clients in the B2B tech space, I learned a number of valuable insights about how and when to attract reporter attention amidst crowded news cycles.

The traditional embargoed press release is certainly a solid, tried and true tactic for announcing news.  But finding a thoughtful way to step outside the box to launch a new product or deliver a message can be a great way to gin up attention from reporters that might not otherwise cover.

It doesn’t necessarily have to be a dramatic stunt or a major action.  This can often be conducted in a pitch itself where we can find ways to offer contrarian perspectives to existing media narratives or reveal uncovered storylines (reporters love being the first to “break” a story that’s been percolating under the radar).

The bottom line is this: being an effective PR pro requires creative thinking.

Putting the Rapid in “Rapid Response”

Time is of the essence in DC.

When major news broke that was relevant to my clients, I was under the gun to put together a response statement and do it fast.  In some cases, if we weren’t out with a statement within minutes, we might as well not put something out at all—reporters’ inboxes were filled and the chances of them finding my client’s press release were slim to none.

Injecting a response statement into the news cycle as news is breaking is the central component of a successful rapid response program.

At SHIFT, we work with clients to prepare rapid response messaging at the outset of our engagement.  We identify the top issue streams of importance and craft corresponding talking points around them.  We then keep these statements readily available to tweak, edit and repurpose as breaking news hits.  That way we’re not simply responding to news days or even hours later, we’re responding in real time, folding our clients’ narratives directly into these storylines.

What We Can Takeaway from DC

While the substance is different, the fundamentals that I relied upon in DC are every bit as relevant in San Francisco.  Having the ability to be scrappy, nimble and creative is really what separates the wheat from the chaff in PR.

DC certainly has its many faults—a dysfunctional government chief among them—but there’s much to be said about the world of political communications and how it can inform PR efforts for any business.

Katy Green
Senior Account Manager


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