Public Relations and Politics: The 2016 Presidential Election

Updated: Feb 24, 2019

The current presidential election season marks an exciting time for public relations students. Candidates and their staff are constantly working to garner press and influence the public’s perception, meaning that even public relations students who are not interested in politics can learn from the 2016 U.S. presidential election. The climate surrounding any political race, especially one as highly publicized as this year’s presidential race, is charged with each candidate’s desire to gain a good image, making the upcoming election a perfect chance to study recent trends in public relations.

This year, there is a new medium politicians must conquer on the public relations front— social media. While the internet has existed for many presidential elections, social media is new and on the rise, meaning that its influence is a new factor in each candidate’s campaign. According to Nielsen’s 2014 Digital Consumer Report, people are rapidly adapting to social media. Its prominence increases each year, meaning that the 2016 U.S presidential election is occurring during a time of major growth in social media.

Candidates and their public relations staff have taken an interest in the world of social media in order to gather support, especially since the younger generation is no longer the only generation getting involved online. Hillary Clinton’s appearance on the sketch comedy show Saturday Night Live gained more than 4.3 million views on Facebook, which most likely influenced Donald Trump’s appearance on the show. Trump has over 7 million followers on Twitter and tweets multiple times a day. Hillary Clinton, who has over 5 million followers, is also constantly active on Twitter. Both are currently leading in their respective parties’ primaries.

While Twitter followers do not directly equal votes, it is valuable for public relations students to recognize that social media’s influence does impact a presidential candidate’s image. For example, a study done by the Huffington Post found that 34 percent of millennials said their vote could be affected by something they saw online.

Social media alone cannot make someone vote a certain way, as it is simply a platform for people to share content and express their thoughts. Its influence in the presidential election does not come from its existence, but rather from the conversations people have about candidates on it, such as what they say at rallies, what mistakes they make and what great things they do. While these conversations are no different from the conversations our grandparents had about presidential candidates, social media enables conversation to be carried out amongst exponentially more people at a faster rate than ever before.

This societal shift and growth means that public relations students should pay close attention to the 2016 U.S. presidential election to study how each candidate utilizes social media. Public relations professionals are heavily employed during election season for a reason. Public relations is one of the most important facets of a political campaign. We can all benefit from observing current events, but students looking to excel in public relations can learn strategies and information about the field from watching the candidates and their social media presence in this election.

​-by Emily Hillhouse, PRSSA General Member

Emily Hillhouse is a public relations and English double major and an Italian minor at The University of Alabama. She is currently a member of UA PRSSA and a writer for The Crimson White. Connect with her on LinkedIn or at ehillhouse@crimson.ua.edu.

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