What Do We Do Now? The Candidate

The 1972 movie “The Candidate” follows the traditional fish out of water story: An ill-prepared candidate runs for office on a whim, insisting on maintaining his own identity while a long-time political consultant seeks to shape his image to be palatable to the media, establishment politicians, and eventually, the voting public. This column’s title is drawn from a pivotal scene between the California State Senate Candidate Bill McKay (portrayed by Robert Redford) and political election specialist Marvin Lucas (portrayed by the late Peter Boyle). Bill poses this loaded question to Marvin as a group of reporters vie for his attention.

The depiction of this political election specialist provides valuable insights about consultant-client interactions. Following are four lessons public relations professionals can learn from the film:

1) Acknowledge the chain of command.

Marvin Lucas holds immense power in the world of California politics. His connections provide the candidate access to the political arena. When Marvin begins making decisions without consulting the candidate, conflicts are the natural outcome. Public relations professionals must acknowledge the central role of the client in the chain of command. The level of expertise that a client, company, or brand has in a given industry should not determine the quality of counsel that public relations professionals provide.

2) Keep client requests at forefront.

Far too often in “The Candidate”, Marvin ignores the requests of the candidate. These requests involve community relations, media appearances, and endorsements. Even when Marvin states his intention to respect Bill’s wishes, he uses covert means to ensure that he—not the candidate—has the final word. Marvin only adjusts his interactions  after polls indicate a different tact is necessary. Environmental scanning is a critical means of tracking public opinion, but it should not supersede reasonable client demands.

3) Maintain a consistent message platform.

Marvin offers sporadic media training to the candidate, alternately supporting and undermining Bill’s policy suggestions. Marvin nearly succeeds in shaping both the content and the style of the candidate’s messages—much to the chagrin of the media. Public relations professionals should counsel their clients to maintain consistent messaging. They risk their credibility and that of their client’s if their messages are unpredictable.

4) Foster an authentic client image.

The film presents a wide gulf between the public perception and personal reality of the candidate. Thanks in large part to Marvin’s machinations, would-be voters never see the unpolished interactions the candidate has with community residents, nor do they learn about Bill’s estranged relationship with his politician father. An inauthentic client image was not sustainable during the 1970’s, and it is surely not sustainable in the 24-hour news cycle of today.

***

At first glance, “What do we do now” seems a natural enough question. After all, Marvin Lucas manages nearly every stage of Bill McKay’s campaign. A closer reading reveals that public relations professionals learn more from this character what to avoid than what to uphold. This film is a worthwhile reminder to all public relations professionals. We must consider the consequences of our actions for the multiple publics we serve.

—Cheryl Ann Lambert, Ph.D.

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