The first GOP presidential debate: Communications counsel for the candidates

Tomorrow’s presidential Republican debate is going to be one for the ages. It’s the first debate of the 2016 political season, the first to feature such a large array of debaters, and the first to see the likes of real estate mogul cum reality TV star Donald Trump.

The first GOP debate is the stuff of a communications professional’s nightmares. You have The Donald looming large over the spectacle. Your guy (I am going with the masculine here as Carly Fiorina will not appear in the big leagues-debate) is competing against nine other experienced politicos. There’s risk of a major gaffe or, perhaps even worse, your candidate goes unnoticed. You need your candidate to distinguish himself from the group – but in a strong, positive, sustaining way that then translates into primary votes! The stakes couldn’t be higher.

As a longstanding public relations gal, I feel for these debate prep teams. In a recent Tweet, Governor Kasich’s communications advisor, John Weaver, summarized it thusly:

If I had to counsel these candidates before an event like this, what would I recommend? Here are a few ideas:

You. Must. Stand. Out. But in a good way! Such advice is obvious but incredibly important. Differentiating oneself can come in a number of varieties: having a presidential bearing and gravitas; parrying back with a smart, well-informed retort; bridging from a ridiculous media question to a topic the candidate knows backwards and forwards; or using this unusual environment to showcase the candidate’s character and personality. The primary objective is to telegraph the very best of your candidate to the folks in the room and those watching across the United States. Unless your candidate is successfully duking it out with Trump (see below), make sure he says something memorable that will appeal to your typical GOP primary voter, especially if your name isn’t Scott Walker or Jeb Bush. You want your candidate to have an extraordinary moment that gets replayed again and again by the major networks. 

If you take a go at Donald Trump, you must land a clear knockout punch. Outkast, the magnificent hip hop duo out of Atlanta, has one of the best pieces of life advice in “Bombs over Baghdad,” a song with great applicability to the upcoming GOP debate. In it, Andre 3000 and Big Boi rap that you only go out guns blazing – metaphorically speaking here – when you’re confident you can hit your mark. Otherwise, it’s better to keep your head down.

GOP candidates preparing for tomorrow’s debate should heed Outkast’s warning. (And question: Wouldn’t the world be a much better place if we all listened to Outkast’s wisdom more?) You want to take a shot at the Donald, the leading candidate who’s the wiliest and least scrupulous of your competitors?  You want to attack a guy who’s survived New York City’s local media, the most savage of any to be found in America, for decades? You want to turn the eye of Sauron your way on live television?

I’d instruct candidates to only poke the Trump bear if they see an obvious and game-changing opportunity – and if you’ve got the comedic chops to pull it off. The only GOP candidates who I envision having the talent to deliver a devastating barb are Governor Christie, Senator Rand Paul, and, maybe, Governor John Kasich. You need to “float like a butterfly, but sting like a bee” to effectively make a dent in the Trump armor. That’s a very hard thing to accomplish.

Trump is a masterful provocateur whose insults land with such punch because, well, there’s some truth contained in his zingers – and comedy combined with some sprinkling of truth can be fatal. Trump says the stuff you know everyone is thinking but is just too polite to actually say. Just ask former Texas Governor Rick Perry. The reason everyone from Jon Stewart to Andy Borowitz have latched onto Rick Perry v. Hipster Glasses for laughs is that it’s a fairly obvious, craven attempt to rebrand. Hence, why Trump’s comments on Perry’s glasses have proven to be successful, rather funny putdowns that the mogul routinely brings up. As the saying goes, it’s funny because it’s true.

Directly taking on Trump is hugely risky. The downsides are obvious. However, the upsides to delivering a perfectly executed and timed Trump-takedown could break you out of the pack, which is the ultimate goal of a presidential debate.

Create a catchy shorthand for what you want to do as POTUS. In most recent memory, no one did this better than Herman Cain with his 9-9-9 Plan. This is a classic example of style triumphing over substance; GOP voters didn’t necessarily love the actual details contained in the proposal, but they loved the spirit and simplicity by which Cain marketed it. While largely seen as a no-go as far as serious policy, there was no denying that Cain’s support among GOP base primary voters increased after he’d effectively pushed the concept at a debate. It was pithy, it was catchy, and Cain, who has an effervescent, enthusiastic personality, marketed the idea to the hilt. Voters respond well to a candidate with easily understandable ideas that he or she clearly believes in.

Smartly disarm those who attack you. This advice is primarily for Donald Trump, Governor Walker, and Governor Bush, who are the most likely to be on the receiving end of personal attacks as they are currently polling strongest. One way to neutralize your rivals is to remain calm and seemingly presidential. Let insults pass over you or treat them as openings to make your own important policy points. Such a passive bearing very well might be the best course of action for Trump. Even though attacking him comes with significant risk, some of the candidates will do so anyhow. Trump should treat such aggressive advances as anything but. Some candidates will try to goad him into a fiery eruption, and he shouldn’t play into such an obvious strategy. Think how disconcerting it would be for the candidates to interact with a placid, unruffled Trump?

Another tack to take might be what I like to term the 8 Mile-approach. I don’t mean to belabor lessons from hip hop, but Eminem took down his rival in a rap battle by laying out the numerous ways he himself wasn’t a superstar. His competitor was left with no ammunition. Politicians in the top tier could blunt insults with self-deprecation and self-awareness. If there’s a joke to made about yourself, better you do it than your enemies.

Be aware that youre on camera the whole time. Again, an obvious one.  This event will have a whole host of cameras in the round focused on the entire debate panel. There will be lots of cut-away and reaction shots throughout – and hot mics all over the place. Even if you aren’t speaking, you should remain engaged in the conversation – or at least appear to be. Don’t look bored. Don’t look at your watch. Don’t sigh. Don’t talk to yourself. Stand tall and have an active posture – at any moment action could turn your way, so you better be ready.

Unnerve your competitors by using his/her own words against them. I will give a hat tip to my father, an attorney, and my husband, who works in politics, for this idea. My dad told me that one of the most effective strategies to get under the opposing counsel’s skin is to learn that lawyer’s verbal tics, stories, analogies (all lawyers have them and use them ad nauseam) and then co-opt them as your own but flip the usage. Say an attorney talks about the lessons learned from his kindly, wise uncle. You take the image of said wise uncle, but make him your uncle and use this imaginary personality to tell your side of the argument. Your opponent will be unnerved that (1) you’ve been paying that much attention to his oral techniques and (2) they can’t then rely on a well-used, folksy story. You apply this technique to your political opponent’s stump speech; in essence, you use another rival’s well-trod speech against them. You co-opt your opponent’s good ideas, but then you attack the ones with which you disagree. In doing so, you throw off your competitor and lessen their command of a well-honed stump speech. And if your debate rival has made a gaffe of late, work that too into how you address the other guy’s policy ideas. Think Ronald Reagan saying, “There you go again!” when President Carter kept relying on the same messages again and again.

To all the candidates, I wish them the best of luck. Tomorrow night will be an historic and possibly one of the most watched debates of all time. But my true sympathies lie with the communications staffers who must prep these candidates. You have my utmost respect – and it is you I will be thinking of most.  

Editor’s note: This post was updated at 5:04 p.m.