Three PR lessons from the Democratic debates

Aug 15

Written by Mariah Kerns

A presidential election is the perfect time to study the art of spin. While the untrained eye may take the candidates at face value, PR professionals know that behind each candidate is a full-time team working to polish and protect their image. Communications staff help shape the message, but there are times when they have little to no control over delivery. One of the most notable instances of this is on the debate stage. The communications teams spend countless hours preparing the candidates and tightening the message, but the minute the candidate steps up to the podium, the message is theirs and theirs alone. All the staffers can do is hold their breath and hope their boss doesn’t go off book.

Every election has some notable cringe-worthy moments and gaffes, and 2020 has been no exception. While we haven’t yet seen a Republican on the debate stage this year, here are three key lessons communications professionals can glean from the Democratic debates so far.

Prepare for the worst

It’s no secret that many are critical of Kamala Harris’ background as a prosecutor, which made it all the more shocking when Senator Harris seemed to come up blank when Tulsi Gabbard challenged her record on the debate stage. After the debate, rather than addressing the criticism, Harris completely dismissed Gabbard by saying she wouldn’t take criticism from an “apologist,” referring to a controversial meeting of Gabbard’s. This deflection tactic came off as shifty and could have been entirely avoided had Harris and her team prepared for these difficult questions.

“No comment” is not an acceptable answer

When going head to head on a topic with Harris, Joe Biden cut himself off, saying, “Anyway, my time is up. I’m sorry.” It was a jarring moment in a night filled with candidates blatantly ignoring their time limits. Many viewers interpreted this to be Biden effectively saying “no comment.” Contrary to popular belief, “no comment” is usually nota good route to take. If you genuinely can’t speak to something for reasons such as legality concerns, you should share why you cannot give any further information on the subject. Do not use the phrase as a crutch to avoid addressing an issue – more times than not, that strategy backfires.

Practice, practice, practice

After an odd debut in the first debate that had the internet intrigued but not impressed, author Marianne Williamson had a much more coherent performance in the second debate. She garnered significant applause throughout the night, and while she still occasionally made some off-beat statements such as referencing the influence of a “dark psychic force,” she also spoke about some really hard-hitting issues. No matter how one feels about Williamson’s emotion-based platform, it’s obvious that she and her team put in a lot of work between her debate appearances. One common practice for staff is to analyze a recording of the candidate’s performance. Even if you don’t have a full-fledged staff of your own, you can continue approving upon your speaking skills through media training or taping yourself speaking and watching it back.

Valuable PR lessons can be found all around us, especially in today’s 24/7 news cycle. Next time you’re listening to a stump speech or reading about your favorite celebrity, think about the people behind the curtain who are shaping the messaging. Are their strategies effective or could they be improved upon? If you’d like to analyze and improve upon your own strategies, LS2group offers media training, crisis communications, public relations strategy, and more. Learn more at