An informal survey undertaken by PR Week in the run-up to the US Presidential Election revealed an overwhelming belief among PR professionals that Hilary Clinton would win a resounding victory on route back to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
Sitting here on the day after the night before, it’s difficult not to wonder how our colleagues – amongst them some of the leading names in the industry – got it so wrong. Call it wishful thinking, call it complacency, the election of Donald Trump has compelled us to reflect on our own judgement and recognise the growing disconnect between the largely metropolitan-based creative industries and the very consumers many of our campaigns seek to target.
While Trump’s victory, and the manner of it, undoubtedly count as a political shock of seismic proportions, nobody can deny that there weren’t clear warnings. It used to be where America went Europe followed but in this case Europe already seems well ahead of the game. This is America’s Brexit moment and it mirrors so many of the key themes of its forerunner. Populism, isolationism, exclusionary rhetoric. Check, check and check. Ditto the sense of us and them, the winners and losers of 21st century capitalism.
Without delving into the underlying social determinants of the result, we should nonetheless avoid setting this up as a simple division between urban sophisticates and backwater hicks – that’s just too simple a caricature. We cannot however ignore the new social and economic geography presented to us and the unravelling of more than two decades of near political consensus.
The thing about politics is that it’s the best indication we have of individual values, biases and world views, all of the things that marketers and communicators latch onto to create campaigns and shape the messages that will really hit home. When you consider that support for Hilary Clinton and Britain’s continuing membership of the EU were strongest in urban, metropolitan areas, where most creative industries are based, we have to accept that much of our target audience (59m Trump supporters and 17.4m Brexiteers) and even some of our colleagues and clients might just hold a world view radically different from our own.
So what does this mean for us PRs? For a start it means that we have to ask ourselves some difficult questions. Do our campaigns reflect this new reality? Is our creative process inclusive enough to acknowledge the different views of diverse audiences? Are we operating as an echo chamber rather than a loudspeaker?
For B2B and internal communications specialists this might be less of an issue than for consumer focussed colleagues, although it should provide a sharp warning to guard against complacency and the most casual assumptions. While audience segmentation has obviously been in place for some time, there is no denying that the best way to get around a potential disconnect between communicator and consumer is through access to better data.
If we don’t live your life or share your life experiences we sure as hell need to do our best to find out more about it. Expect better access to consumer data, more detailed profiling and social stratification to continue apace as smart companies recognise their own limitations in understanding and connecting with divergent audiences.
It may appear a great irony that better data gathering and analysis stands the best chance of bridging the gap between communications professionals and their often lesser known audiences. Both Brexit and the Trump ascendency are widely regarded as a triumph of gut feeling, raw emotions stemming from powerlessness and alienation, over expert insight, perceived wisdom and well-honed expertise.
Another way to look at the response is to reduce it to a very simple axiom. Talk less, listen more. As I suggested earlier, some of those Trump supporters and Brexiteers might just be family members, friends and colleagues. What better way than speaking to them to get an insight into the views and values that have come to shape our new reality?
Whatever our reaction to last night’s events, whatever we feel politically and emotionally about the result, there is no doubt that professionals in creative industries face a huge challenge in devising campaigns that will really connect with these new audiences.
Calling an election wrong is understandable and feelings of disconnection and alienation may be perfectly natural. On the other hand not learning the lessons of the election, or of failing to rise to the challenge of understanding these opposing voices, is nothing short of complacent. For those smart enough to accept the new reality, its game on America (or Europe for that matter)!