Communications meets politics, on a one-way street

Crossed wires: In 2020, there are no more professional communications without politics, according to media maestro David Chauvin.
By DAVID CHAUVIN //

I’m of a certain age – OK, fine, I’m old, old enough to remember George, the ill-fated and short-lived political magazine created by John F. Kennedy Jr., may he rest in peace.

That magazine – which debuted in 1995 with a then-controversial cover image of iconic 1990s supermodel Cindy Crawford dressed like George Washington – aimed to marry the popular, celebrity and political cultures into one publication. Rolling Stone meets The Economist, with a dash of “Entertainment Tonight.”

The magazine notoriously underperformed. In 2001, six years after its debut and two after the tragic death of its founder, George folded.

Among the great many tragedies that have befallen the Kennedy family, the failure of a glossy magazine qualifies as relatively minor, but it’s heartbreaking nonetheless. Kennedy Jr.’s dream project would be absolutely perfect for today’s world; George dared to ask if there was an intersection between pop culture and politics, and today, in 2020, there’s no difference.

In in past years (and during past presidential campaigns), it was easier to compartmentalize, segment your audiences into groups and deliver tailored messages to each. That is now impossible.

David Chauvin: Don’t avoid politics — own them.

Politics, particularly social-identity politics, have spilled into every facet of American culture and conversation. Not only that, but political party affiliation, once just a facet of a person’s overall self-image, has become a dominant part of an individual’s – or a brand’s – identity.

How do communications professionals operate in this reality? How do you not seem hopelessly out of touch trying to market your ostensibly apolitical story to a politics-thirsty audience? By recognizing that nothing is apolitical anymore, and acting accordingly.

Your promotional campaign for a town’s COVID-19 PPE dispersal program? It’s political. A school district social media push? Political. The unveiling of a new coastal-development project? Super political.

The answer isn’t to explicitly talk about politics in everything you do. It’s to not ignore the underlying politics at play, to address them.

If the conversation surrounding your development project includes loud whispers about affordable housing, address them! Have your clients speak directly to these issues – don’t skirt from them. Most importantly, determine where you and your client stand on a very political issue and take a stand.

This political dialogue is happening whether you address it or not. Why not become an active, important voice in the conversation?

The next few weeks (perhaps months) will be an extremely difficult time for communications professionals to make their stories and their clients heard. The presidential election won’t just be the top story for the foreseeable future, it will the only story that matters for a vast portion of Americans. Even the COVID-19 pandemic, which has monopolized media coverage in a way that no other single event in my lifetime ever has, will be pushed to the bottom of newsfeeds as developments in the most polarizing and consequential presidential election in generations unfold.

Given the shifting zeitgeist, it behooves all of us in the communications industry to lean into and embrace the politics behind our stories. In 2020, taking a stand – even a political one – is not only unavoidable, it’s a basic necessity.

Eight years ago, it may have been best practice for a brand to remain neutral in the wake of social or political unrest, but after the monumental events of 2020, doing so could do irreparable harm. Not taking a stand, not identifying the politics at play, speaks just as loudly – and influencers, marketers and brands must be quick to adapt to the growing expectations of their audiences.

David Chauvin is executive vice president of ZE Creative Communications.