When you hear the term PR two of the most common things that likely come to mind for a company are their "story" and "messaging." Why is messaging so important? And not only to companies, but to politicians, nonprofit organizations, or anyone in the public eye -- we all use messaging -- even Presidential candidates.

This year's  primary election cycle provides a great opportunity to analyze the importance of messaging and what can go wrong when it isn't used or isn't used properly.

But first, let's talk about the basics of messaging.

The most common explanation of messaging is to come-up with three key points about your company or business that convey the most important information for an external audience. -- I like to think of messaging as more like a debate with a silent opponent that needs to be won over. That opponent is not a blank slate, they come with their own predispositions to your argument, their own needs, and their own priorities. Your goal is to make the best case possible in order to convince them to buy into your product, service, or idea.

In a debate scenario participants need to make points that are clear, relevant, and easy to understand -- not so different for a company that is trying to convey itself to a prospective buyer. For our purposes, clear means concise and to the point. Relevant stands for putting information into a context that takes the buyer's point of view into account. And easy to understand means no jargon.

Once messaging has been established it is meant to be repeated by anyone in the organization that could engage in external conversations.This is so that you're the one defining how people talk about your organization. If the messaging constantly changes, people are forced to figure out how to talk about your organization on their own, which creates a lot of opportunities for misinformation and false impressions.

Now that we've established the guidelines, let's take a look at how the top three Presidential candidates did:

Hillary Clinton (#ImWithHer)

It might be surprising to learn that messaging has not been Hillary Clinton's strong point. Her two greatest messaging challenges have been a tendency to "answer questions like a lawyer" and being perceived as inconsistent. These two factors have made it hard for the general public to discern what her vision is for the country and where she stands on issues. One has to be a bit of a political and policy fan to have a real understanding of Hillary the candidate.

Because Clinton already has significant name recognition this didn't negatively impact her campaign the way that it would a lesser-known candidate. Much of the public felt they already knew Clinton from being so visible over the years -- something Trump also benefits from. In comparison, an unknown candidate needs to convince people to "buy" into their candidacy. And the only real way to do that is through messaging that clearly articulates a vision and that resonates with voters on things that matter to them.

Bernie Sanders (A Future to Believe In)

In some ways Bernie Sanders has been a shining example of what every PR professional wishes their boss or client would do -- he stayed "on message." Anyone who's been paying attention to the election cycle knows at least on a surface level, what Sanders stands for and the main issues he would tackle if president. If you heard his speeches, attended his rallies, and saw his press interviews -- you consistently heard the same thing.

But Sanders' downside has been not taking into account the predisposition of the silent opponent. And it cost him greatly in the court of public opinion, i.e. his potential buyers. 

As already noted, Clinton benefited from broad familiarity among the voting American public This predisposed many to certain impressions about Clinton including: being the candidate with the most experience, the one likely to get more done with a Republican Congress because of her tenure in government, and that because she is a woman she would do more to improve women's lives. These impressions were repeated on social media, in the media, and even among influencers, with no real rebuttal from Sanders. Notice that none of these points are attacks on Sanders, they were merely pro-Clinton messages (from others, not Clinton herself.)

Sanders could have easily held ground on the "experience" argument, because he's been in government significantly longer -- having held elected office for 32 years to Clinton's 12. In addition, Sanders is on 17 Congressional committees, all of which are involved in functions required to get major things accomplished including the budgeting, labor, health and education, and energy and environment. Sanders has a credible message of his own when it comes to experience, and he could have mounted equally credible countering messages to the other common voter impressions as well. But Sanders didn't take into account the potential predisposition of buyers in the election marketplace, which caused him to miss a huge opportunity to win over voters.

Donald Trump (Make America Great Again)

There's much to analyze about Donald Trump's communications strategy, but remember, for this exercise we're focusing specifically on messaging during the Primary cycle. 

Most people cringe at Trump's public persona and speeches. It's no surprise that normally, Trump would be a PR person's nightmare because of his seeming unpredictability and loose cannon nature that should require 24-hour damage control. It looks like Trump is off-message altogether because of this, doesn't it?

Uh-uh. Remember, Trump's foremost skill is marketing, and as he always does, Trump has been playing to his target audience, i.e. the silent opponent that he's identified as his primary customer. Consider again the three debate principles of messaging: make points that are clear, relevant, and easy to understand. He keeps his messages brief, conveys his positions in plain speak, and lastly -- this is where his genius is -- he takes into account the predisposition of his target audience by choosing messaging that he knows will resonate with them.

While we may not appreciate that strategy in our politics, Trump is a true salesman that companies can learn from when it comes to messaging. -- That is to always find the intersection of your message and objectives, and your target audience's perspective.

What's Next

Recall John Kerry debating George W. Bush in 2004? Anyone watching those debates couldn't help but notice the stark contrast between how understandable and personable Bush came across, while Kerry appeared better prepared for a Harvard debate. In 2016 Trump is akin to Bush and Clinton to Kerry. We will see how the communication strategies of these two change over the election cycle as we move into the General...in fact, they've already started to.

Published on: Jul 21, 2016
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.