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Communications Lessons from the 2016 Presidential Election


By Bob Varettoni

More than 1 million people attended IABC-New Jersey’s recent panel discussion at Fairleigh Dickinson University’s Madison, NJ, campus.

OK, that’s really an alternative fact.

Still, it was challenging to try to steer clear of politics and focus on communications lessons. Luckily for the energized and engaged audience of more than two dozen, moderator and former IABC-NJ board member Rich Ecke of Berry Ecke Associates handled things like… a consummate politician.

He, along with panelists Dan CassinoBen Dworkin and Pat Politano resisted any urge to “re-litigate” the election results, and in the context of the “takeaways for communicators,” several themes emerged.


“Who wants to be inauthentic?” Dworkin, who teaches political science at Rowan University, asked rhetorically. The new reality, he explained, is that the way to create authenticity has changed. The old rule of authenticity, Dworkin said, was that you apologize for a mistake and move on; the new rule is to not apologize and stick to your guns.

The old rule: media endorses your authenticity. The new rule: the media is a foil.

Cassino, who teaches political science at FDU, added that “authenticity is now in the eye of the beholder” and is “something we build for ourselves.” What does inauthenticity sound like? That’s easy: when one political candidate sounds just like all other political candidates. Just like when one company uses the same PR approach as every other competitor in its industry.

Dworkin also cited an unchanged rule when it comes to authenticity in business communications: “In business, if you have a lousy product, it doesn’t matter if you’re authentic.”

Simple Messages.

Politano, a political media consultant and strategist, said that the effectiveness of a simple message is still the greatest takeaway from the past election season. And while a political campaign has an end date, and an election is a fixed moment in time, business communicators need to have a sustainable message. “Big messages still matter,” Politano said. “Only the method of delivery has changed.”

Social Media.

“Reporters live on Twitter,” Cassino observed. Candidate Trump’s tweets drove and dominated coverage, which in turn drove public opinion. Dworkin called it “The Twitter Election,” and Politano said that the increasingly fewer number of journalists, “chained to desks in newsrooms,” were increasingly relying on Twitter as a news source.

Cassino noted that the Associated Press, for example, now has only one part-time reporter covering New Jersey, and that the “hollowing out” of the media ranks has put reporters “in a bubble.”

Still, Politano noted, Twitter is simply a tool to the message, and clarity, simplicity and directness are hallmarks of effective messaging that cut through clutter, especially in a business environment. And especially, if messages can be stated in less than 140 characters.

New Rules.

Dworkin returned to the theme of old vs. new rules. The old rule was “message discipline.” The new rule, he said, is that the effectiveness of clear, simple messaging depends on the situation, and that this election season proved the value of keeping competitors off-balance and NOT having message discipline, especially in highly competitive business environments.

One audience member commented that a lack of message discipline seemed counter-intuitive in business communications. Dworkin responded that Trump kept his competition off-balance and unable to counterpunch effectively. Also, the timeliness of the attacks fueled the news value of the attacks.

Politano said, “Trump’s uniqueness enabled him to use this tactic. He’s been doing this for years. It’s his brand.” Cassino added that a changing message can be effective in business if it’s used to acknowledge problems, for example, because it demonstrates listening. ”The mere act of telling customers or employees that ‘I understand this is a problem’” can be a highly effective communications strategy for business leaders, he said.

Attracting Attention.

“You can’t replicate or copy Donald Trump,” Politano reiterated, “but you can take away lessons from his campaign… about how the media works now… about the effectiveness of acknowledging problems.” And about how to attract attention.

Business communicators, Cassino said, should know that “if you want to hide something, put it in a rote press release or standard memo. When you put out a ‘press release’ that doesn’t look like a press release, it will attract scrutiny. When people see something novel, they pay more attention.” Attention is neutral, and can turn positive or negative, but attention itself is hard to come by in today’s society.

Dworkin said, “When we talk to each other, we talk the same. Politicians all sound the same. Trump didn’t, at a point in time when people were looking for something different.”

The Politics of Change.

“Change” can be a compelling theme – for both politicians and professional communicators.

Politano offered a valuable insight about the inevitability of constant change. If there’s one thing a career in politics has taught him, he said, it’s that “everyone will say they want change, when the one thing that scares them the most is change.”

Politics aside, for IABC members who help business leaders communicate to employees, that too is an important lesson to keep top of mind. 

Bob Varettoni is IABC-NJ’s vice president for Finance.

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8 Things to Include in a Branding RFP By Lou Leonardis, Partner and Branding Creative Director at Trillion

Searching for a company to create or redesign your organization’s brand can be daunting. A good first step for finding the right resource is to generate a request for proposal, or RFP.

A carefully crafted RFP will create interest in your project, while clearly expressing your problems and goals. On the other hand, an RFP that is not well prepared could be disregarded and ignored by reputable creative teams. 

It is important to consider that the process of responding to an RFP is time consuming for branding companies; they will need to determine whether it is worth the effort to respond.

Some considerations include:

  • Whether they feel they have a good chance of winning,
  • If the project requirements clearly reflect their capabilities, portfolio and organizational set-up, and
  • The availability of a contact person to discuss the project with them.

The following tips define a proposal format that will reflect your organization's professionalism, provide the best information for your possible resopndents and make it easier to compare their responses when you receive them.  

1) Provide Your Company Background

Providing a high-level overview of your company and its history is important to help the branding companies understand more about your business. Include information about your “perceived” mission, vision and value proposition statements. I say “perceived” because you may need these defined or redefined by your branding company; they might not exist or may no longer be relevant. Either way, try to be as descriptive as possible in saying who you are, what you do, who you help, and how you help.

2) Define Your Problem or Challenge

Sometimes a brand can have internal or external issues — or both. Clearly define the challenges and issues your company is having. An example could be inconsistent messaging from business unit to business unit, or the fact that your brand is perceived as dated or irrelevant in the current marketplace. Explain the immediate problems as well as potential long-term problems that you foresee. Frequently, the branding and rebranding process reveals unknown issues that will need to be solved by the branding team.

3) Define the Scope of the Project

Clearly list specific deliverables or tasks you require, such as:

  • Conducting research (such as interviews, focus groups, surveys)
  • Auditing existing brand and marketing materials
  • Defining user personas
  • Creating an online brand guideline
  • Designing specific marketing collateral

You will want to identify the volume of content, number of applications, quantity of interviews or any other specifics the branding company should consider. Another option is to ask the branding company to define the scope as they see it as part of the RFP.

If you are unclear about the project scope, or need help defining it, specify your expectations by requesting a discovery phase with minimum requirements noted, such as the number of meetings or research that will be shared. Then list what you expect to learn from the discovery phase.

4) Define Your Ideal Candidate

Stating that you want to work with a team that is based within a specific geographic location or is of a certain size is helpful. You may want to require that all team members be employees of the branding company and not consultants or freelancers. You can also list your preferences for experience.

5) Define Your Selection Criteria

Defining how and when you will select finalists and determine the eventual winner of the bid is critical. Are you most interested in a branding studio’s portfolio? Relevant work samples? Or is price the most important deciding factor? Defining the key factors will help ensure that your expectations are met. To be fair to the branding companies responding, stay committed to your dates and keep them informed of any delays.

Additionally, I recommend requiring relevant samples of branding projects the branding company has completed. This basic request will show you the caliber of work of each of your respondents, as well as provide an opportunity to hear and see their process, as well as their success stories.

6) List Your RFP Process and Timeline

In order to compare branding proposals more effectively, it’s important to define how you want their proposals submitted to you, including due dates. Is email accepted? Does the file format need to be a PDF? Do you have file size limitations? Do you have a maximum number of pages? You may also require a specific outline format in addition to any naming conventions that are to follow.

It goes without saying that there will be questions. You should have specific protocols for incoming questions and the deadline for receiving them. In order to prevent you from answering the same questions over and over, it is a good idea to include a web link where applicant questions and your answers can be posted. Your website or Google Docs are great places for this.

7) Discuss Your Branding or Rebranding Budget

If you are able to clearly define the scope of the project, deliverables, timeline and requirements, you may be in a good place to define budgetary range. This range can help prevent wide pricing variations.

8) Pose Questions for the Branding Company to Answer

Presenting questions you may ask of your prospective branding company partner will help you gain insights into their thinking and culture and how it can relate back to your business. How the questions are answered can be helpful in the selection process.

The following are questions you should have your branding agency answer, in addition to having them provide a company overview and their accreditations:

  • What is your branding/rebranding process?
  • Why do you think you are the best branding company for the project?
  • Tell us about your leadership and creative team members.
  • What makes you different from your competitors?
  • Which of your team members will be doing the work?

THese tips help you avoid making RFP Mistakes

Omitting key information can lead to dramatically different proposals with tremendously wide variety of cost, resources and timeline. It could waste a lot of time for you and for the branding companies responding to your RFP. Including the right elements will help generate branding proposals that are similar enough for you to be comparing apples to apples.

About the author: Lou Leonardis is Partner and Branding Creative Director at Trillion, a creative studio that specializes in graphic design and web design with a focus on branding. He is a lifelong resident of New Jersey and brings nearly 20 years of design know-how to Trillion. His branding and graphic design work is published internationally and has been recognized with many awards and honors. Lou’s design education was at duCret School of Art as well as School of Visual Arts. You can find Lou and Trillion on Facebook and Twitter @trillioncreates.

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