The Power of Public Relations in Politics and Business with Matthew Krayton, Founder of Publitics
Trigger warning: These show notes and the related audio recording contain material about the September 11 attacks.
In this episode of On Record PR, Gina Rubel goes on record with Matthew Krayton, the founder of Publitics, to discuss how to craft effective political messaging in a polarized environment. Publitics is a public affairs, political PR and strategy consultancy which provides counsel to campaigns, candidates, elected officials, executives, founders, organizations, and brands. Most recently, Matt worked with Biden For President on special projects, including having helped create the viral “We Just Did” hat and collateral for endorsements, including NBA star Ben Simmons. His work on the campaign was recognized with the Campaigns and Elections magazine Stanley F Reed Award.
Matt is an adjunct professor in Centenary University’s business department teaching in their first-of-its-kind social media program. Prior to founding Publitics, Matt worked at Fairleigh Dickinson University’s PublicMind Poll. He later taught freshman seminars for political science students, and Law in the Liberal Arts program as an adjunct instructor.
How did you get into public affairs and political consulting?
That’s a really interesting story. I’ll go back a little bit, which feels like ancient history at this point. I feel like I’m dating myself, but I initially went to undergrad and did my master’s degree in education. My undergrad was history and political science. I wanted to be a history teacher, on the secondary level. I’d always had some interest in politics and was really fascinated by the study of politics. I had a couple of great professors who brought the subject to life, so I thought, “Oh, politics is interesting.” But I was going to be a teacher. I worked my way through school, did the whole student teaching thing, and got certified, but then there was a little thing in 2008 that happened – the financial meltdown, the financial crisis. By the time I had graduated in 2010 with my undergrad, there really weren’t any jobs available, especially for history teachers.
If you were in math and science, there was still some hope, but otherwise, a ton of people had been laid off at that point, and you were competing against people with five to 10 years of experience. I feel like this is a typical millennial career story here, but I’m sitting there going, “Career prospects, not much going on right there on the teaching side.” Plus, I had some apprehension about the amount of paperwork that went along with teaching. Shoutout to all those teachers out there who are dealing with all that stuff. It’s tough work, so I certainly appreciate that. Sitting there looking at the landscape and combining that with some apprehension, I thought, “All right, I’m going to take the first job that I can find. Whatever it is, I’m going to apply to a whole bunch of stuff.”
I ended up applying to the university that I went to, Fairleigh Dickinson University, and ended up in the alumni affairs department. This is kind of a roundabout way of how I got there. As I was doing the alumni affairs work, which consisted of calling through lists of people asking them for money, and then, as you can imagine, people weren’t especially receptive, especially at this time, to giving. “Oh, I have student loans,” and then there was some other choice language directed by people I spoke to. I’m sitting there and thinking to myself, “I don’t love this.” Sure enough, about 10 months later, the position was eliminated entirely. During this time, I was thinking, “I kind of want to do my own thing. I always liked politics.”
In grad school, I had worked at the PublicMind Poll and got my feet wet in public opinion research, which was interesting – understanding what makes the public tick, understanding what influences voter behavior from a quantitative and qualitative perspective. At that point, I said, “Well, why don’t I start my own thing and just see where I end up?” I started Publitics in 2011, and at that point, I had no idea how I was going to find clients. My first step was, “All right, I have to find at least one or two races to work on.” Then I thought to myself, “Well, what are people going to trust me to do? Because I have no experience other than having worked at the PublicMind Poll, they’re not going to bring me on as the principal campaign manager or anything like that on a big race.”
I did two things. I was able to pick up a local town council race, and then there was a race for Congress. What I thought was, “Well, if I pick a sure loser, someone who’s absolutely going to lose, then they’d be more open to hiring someone like me because what is there to lose at that point? They’re not on any of the big targeted race lists.” I thought, “All right, let’s pick a losing campaign, and I’m going to tell them I do digital strategy because I’m young. I’m a millennial.” They’ll look at me, they’ll go, “Oh yeah, you must know how to do social media.” At that point, I had an intuitive sense, like most people who grew up on the cusp of social media; we went from not really having internet in the house to having Facebook our senior year of high school into freshman year of college.
I thought, “I know this stuff. I think I can do this.” Anyway, they hired me, and I had the opportunity to try out a whole bunch of different stuff online on Facebook in terms of fundraising and had some actual moderate success in developing a digital program on that race. As I had suspected that particular candidate lost and went down in flames as expected in very tough districts, but I got a lot of great experience. The other campaign, the town council campaign, surprisingly ended up being a winner. It was sort of a shock winner. People looked around and said, “Oh, well, that’s pretty impressive.” From that point forward, I started picking up a lot of different local races and bouncing around to different things. I was able to network with different people. Interestingly enough, this was all during Superstorm Sandy at this point when I was doing these two races.
One of the lucky or big breaks in my career was when I was able to connect with a gentleman in my area who had worked for Senator Frank Lautenberg, who was trying to chase down a mail-in ballot at that point. He said, “Make sure you return your ballot or apply for a ballot at that time.” Anyway, we were going back and forth on Twitter DMs, and then all the power went out during Sandy. There was one bar in town that still had the lights on, so he said, “Hey, do you want to just meet and catch up and talk?” I met up with him. He ended up being a mentor, and everything continued to roll on from there. That is the long version of how I got into politics. It was sort of a roundabout way, but I’ve had the opportunity to learn a lot along the way.
Then in 2014, I brought on my partner Henry, who helps run Publitics with me, and we both met on a race for Congress that year as well. It’s been an interesting ride from there, but I haven’t looked back, and we’ve been lucky to continue to work on exciting and challenging races ever since. Then we parlayed that into working with private sector clients as well.
Gina Rubel: It’s fascinating to me how many people I talk to who are leaders in public relations who have worked in some way in fundraising in their alumni offices. I did those calls in college, and then I was on the board at Drexel on the alumni board. It’s a lot of work. It’s a great place to cut your teeth, to start to learn, to build those networks, and to have those conversations with people. We have that in common. We’re in different generations. You’re a millennial, I’m a Gen X-er. In Superstorm Sandy, I was handling crisis communications for clients all over the east coast. Meanwhile, we were in the same crisis. We lost the side of our building. You mentioned you were using Twitter then.
Are you still active on Twitter now that the landscape has changed?
Not as much. Personally, I am a big lurker on Twitter, so I keep tabs because it’s still relevant to me, but I don’t find a whole lot of value in engaging as much on Twitter personally. That was before all the recent developments with Elon Musk taking over. It didn’t have as much to do with that. For clients, we do use Twitter in certain circumstances, but I think we’re always weighing that versus the overall resources that we have available to focus on different things. That usually ends up being pretty low on the list, unless there are some very specific applications. I’m not a huge Twitter user. There is a very specific audience on Twitter. It’s influencers, insiders, and journalists, and that is valuable in some ways, but just for the effort that you need to put in to be a Twitter personality, we just didn’t invest in that, and I don’t regret it.
How are businesses and politics intersecting and how does it impact strategy for executives and brands, in your opinion?
That is the million, billion-dollar question potentially here. My answer is almost everything is political these days, and things that you think might not be political end up being political. I would say almost anything that is relevant in the cultural moment has the potential to take on a very political, very partisan character. In terms of the intersection, the line is almost becoming indistinguishable between what you would call regular marketing, ESG, and then things that you would consider more political stands, ultimately. That is a very real issue that I think brands and executives are having to contend with, for better or for worse. The second piece of that too is you have consumers who are increasingly expecting executives, leaders, and brands, to weigh in on issues that are relevant to the cultural moment that we’re in.
It’s a tough challenge because I think that the reality is that you’re never going to make everybody happy ever. This is something you learn very quickly on campaigns. It’s not going to happen. It’s a matter of percentages. If you look at a typical close congressional race, in some cases it’s a coin flip, 50/50 basically with a couple of votes here or there, or any race on any level. The point is, can you just get to 51% or just over 50%? That’s the thing that there has to be some sort of comfort with at this point, in this world that’s polarized. It’s also a matter of audiences too. If you think about the different audiences that you’re trying to reach, you have your marketing audience, the people that you’re trying to sell services or goods to, and then you have people that you need to come work for you.
Even if you look at corporate culture and how you communicate to your workforce, that is fundamentally political as well, because in the workforce now, people don’t want to work for a brand or a leader or executive that they don’t find aligns with their values. That’s another area that’s been blurred a little bit too. There’s always been some overlap with your politics and your values, but I think those two things are pretty synonymous now in a lot of people’s minds. Those are the intersections and overlaps, and in some ways, it’s kind of throwing it all into one big blender and then hitting blend and chopping it all up into a big smoothie now at this point. I think that’s where we’re at – everything is political.
Gina Rubel: It’s fascinating how everything becomes politicized. I know you do this with your clients, and we certainly do – every message is evaluated from various points of view. This is an interesting dilemma I see. We work predominantly with law firms and their clients. One of the challenges I find is that law firms have to be diverse, not just from the standard DEI definition, but also politically. One lawyer may be representing an oil entity, while another lawyer may be representing a sustainable investment fund. There’s a lot of challenges with figuring out how to share those messages. Most importantly, you need to make sure that there are people who have both points of view who could look at a message and say, “How is this going to be picked apart? How is it going to be politicized and how is it going to affect our client?” Do you handle things in a similar way when you’re crafting messages in campaigns?
Matthew Krayton: Yes, definitely. A lot of the messaging piece of the puzzle, you like to walk into that with as much data as possible. Now that’s not a panacea, and it’s not a silver bullet that’s going to figure out your campaign blueprint or strategy completely or automatically, but it is something that points you in the right direction. Then you try to fit that with the overall ability of the candidate to deliver that message. Not every candidate can deliver every message, or deliver every message in a certain way. That’s the same thing with executive leaders or leaders in law firms. Not every person is capable of delivering messages in a humorous way or a tough way. Everyone has their own personality. Candidates come intrinsically with their own values and their own reasons for wanting to run to begin with.
That’s where you start with the messaging, and there are only so many degrees of separation you can get from that core area. It’s not always this cynical “What do we have to say to win no matter what? What is the thing that we have to say that’s going to get us over the finish line?” You do start genuinely at a place where these candidates have deeply held beliefs about certain things, and then you craft a message around that. How you frame it is a totally different ballgame. You can say the same thing in 20 different ways, and it can mean 20 different things to 20 different people. That’s the key then – figuring out where we can go with that message, the core value, and then framing it.
Then you do try to figure out, “Who do we actually need to talk to here?” The thing that you have to become comfortable with is the fact that you’re not going to make everybody happy. In electoral politics, a lot of times it is a math issue. How many votes do you need? What percentage of the electorate do you need? Is it a five-way race? Because if it’s a five-way race, you don’t need even need to make 50% of people happy, you just need to get to 30% for a convincing victory. Whereas if it’s a different thing, you need to figure out what sorts of issues or what sort of framing is going to appeal to the broadest number of people.
Then also, it depends on the partisan makeup of any given district. There are a lot of factors that go into developing those messages, but again, it starts from that place of these deeply held values of this candidate and the life experiences, thoughts, and policy prescriptives they bring to the table. Then how do we package that in a way that may or may not resonate with voters?
What trends are you seeing in the campaign space and how do they impact your business or the audiences?
The biggest trend is the overall polarization of the electorate. Ultimately when you’re running these campaigns, especially in general elections where it’s one Democrat versus Republican, you are speaking to an increasingly small share of the electorate that is actually persuadable, and then the rest of it is sort of a turnout game. How do you activate your base to come out and actually vote? I would say the polarization is a huge thing where it’s becoming increasingly hard to break through to people who do not intrinsically share your beliefs, or they have another letter – they have the R next to their name or the D next to their name. It’s becoming increasingly hard to crack through in that way. There are really three big trends. That’s number one. That’s the overarching thing that is driving our politics today.
The second thing is more of a practical issue. It’s a fragmented media landscape. You used to be able to go on the nightly news or some of the Sunday shows and reach a good chunk of the electorate, and you could move opinion that way if you had a compelling message. Now, people’s attention is divided in so many different places. You have cable news, broadcast news, morning shows, all of the social media platforms, and all of the streaming services. In terms of choices for where people can invest their attention in a given day, there are limitless options for that. In some cases it’s in two or three places all at once. You’re sitting there watching Netflix, and you also have your phone open and you’re scrolling through Instagram or your TikTok feed while the show is going on your TV, and then maybe you’re doing something else as well.
That’s making it increasingly hard to reach people and to deliver a message, because the way that the message is delivered on each of these platforms is much different. A thing that’s going to work on TikTok and resonate with the audience there is going to be a totally different situation than what you would see someone do in an interview on one of the Sunday shows, like Meet The Press. Those are some really tough challenges – figuring out where to allocate your media dollars, and where can you get the biggest bang for your buck. I think that that’s a huge issue just from a practical, tactical standpoint. Then the third thing is this disinformation problem that we have. Things that are demonstrably false are continuing to metastasize and cause problems in our political arena.
This is true for private sector clients too. One false or errant tweet could wipe out millions of dollars of market cap in two seconds based on some nonsense that some random person posts on Twitter, for example. I saw a couple of those. I think that’s a huge issue too. The problem with disinformation isn’t that you can just go straight at someone who believes something that’s demonstrably false and say, “No, you’re wrong.” Think about any argument that you’ve ever had in your personal life. You’re having this argument, and you can’t just look at that person and say, “You’re wrong.” That elicits the exact opposite reaction. They’ll say, “Oh yeah, I’m wrong? Okay, well this is over, this conversation is over. I am entrenching myself in my position on whatever it is, and I don’t want to hear you anymore.”
That’s a hard thing to deal with because the mediums that we have available to us to reach people are not great places to have those broader, more in-depth conversations on difficult issues. That’s a huge issue going forward. One example is our work during the pandemic. This isn’t political, but like I said, almost everything is political and becomes political adjacent. We did a lot of public health communications around vaccinations during the height of the COVID pandemic, and the biggest issue is disinformation that would pop up on social media, because once people started to internalize all of the conspiracies and other things, it becomes very difficult in a 30-second or 15-second Instagram ad, for example, or a piece of direct mail or a television commercial to disabuse someone of that notion that they’ve developed as a result of “doing the research.”
That’s a huge issue. Then again, you push back in that way and say, “You’re wrong,” they’re just going to entrench themselves because there’s this trigger in the brain where people think, “Well, if you’re pushing back this hard on me and you’re saying ‘You’re wrong,’ then I must be onto something here. The people behind the curtain are trying to control the whole situation.” It’s a fascinating problem. The way that I think we started to break through is we started to consider the different audiences that we were talking to during the COVID pandemic. This is relevant or analogous to the electorate generally. You have people who were very excited to get the vaccine. You could not get them the vaccine fast enough.
You didn’t have to do any real communications to them other than saying, “Here’s where you get it,” and they’ll show up and they’re happy about it. I was one of those people. I was sitting around waiting for it and was very grateful ultimately when I was able to get that. You see the suffering that went on during the pandemic, and it’s hard to reflect on and conceptualize that something of that magnitude happened. Collectively as a society, I don’t think we processed exactly what we saw during those early days of the pandemic. It was almost dystopian; you have these hospitals where you see people dying, and then the one person that makes it through, they have “Here Comes the Sun” playing in the hallway they’re clapping them out, and the nurses and the doctors are just trying to get through their day as best they can. It is a crazy situation that we went through.
Gina Rubel: It’s interesting you say all that. Were you cognizant, personally, of what was going down when the World Trade Center was bombed?
Matthew Krayton: Yes, I remember exactly where I was. I was in eighth grade, which is young.
Gina Rubel: You were old enough to remember?
Matthew Krayton: Very clearly. I was sitting in Spanish class. I think everyone around that age and older has this memory emblazoned in their brain, but the teacher’s face went ghost white, and you could tell that there was something wrong. This pall kind of came over the room and I don’t think they were supposed to tell us, but I’m not sure she knew what to do, so she just said it.
Gina Rubel: You don’t know what to do. The reason why I asked that question, which seems so out of left field, is because I remember the end of Vietnam. I vaguely remember how jubilant my family was. I remember 9/11 like it happened yesterday. I had an 18-month-old child. I remember those first days of the pandemic because of the fear. We do crisis work, so we’re closing down clients’ offices overseas. I have family in Italy, and they’re posting videos of people singing out the windows, and friends in New York are having these conversations like we are today and listening to the ambulance after ambulance. The reason why I bring that up is from a messaging perspective, are those things that we want to keep in the mind of the voter to remove this political divide?
In the world of politics, do we want to keep the political divide? Why are we so polarized, and why can’t we get back to those days when the universe showed up, and people said, “We are American. We have to take care of each other.” Not to by any means say that was completely positive, because the fallout of that was that many people in Arab nations and Arabs in the US were discriminated against. But that idea of banding together and taking care of one another – are we ever getting back there?
Matthew Krayton: I think we can, but it’s going to be a tough road to get back there. We’re already seeing it. We’re already witnessing how difficult it is to get back to a place where we have a collective mission as a country. I think there are some key differences though, between the reaction to 9/11 and COVID. During 9/11, you couldn’t find a single leader, elected or otherwise, who would ever say that 9/11 was a good thing or that it wasn’t that big a deal. There was no one out there saying, “It happened, but we should get rid of all the scanners at the airport and maybe we should reduce the number of TSA agents and let people bring on planes whatever you want to bring on, because that’s freedom. That’s what we want – freedom in this country. Yes, this happened, but it’s got nothing to do with it. I did my research and I think that we should be able to carry whatever we want on planes.”
You didn’t hear any elected leader saying that, and I think that’s a good thing. That’s a good thing because clearly something did need to change there. In COVID, that was not the case. I think the difference between them is with 9/11, it was very easy to rationalize what was happening there. It was very concrete for people. Some bad people did a bad thing to us. They killed a whole bunch of people, knocked the Twin Towers over, and killed more people in Pennsylvania and the Pentagon. COVID was a little bit harder because there were a lot of question marks. Once you get into science, science is an extraordinarily hard thing to communicate because science isn’t just a thing that is, it’s a process. That’s the problem that we have. We see it with other clients too in other spaces as well. Anytime that you have to communicate some type of science, you have to communicate the process of the science.
I don’t think people appreciate how little we knew collectively. We were listening to a lot of experts and sitting in a room with public health officials, and I don’t think anyone appreciates how little they had to write the playbook from scratch with this. They didn’t know how to treat it. They didn’t know exactly where it came from. There are still some questions about that, but that’s kind of immaterial. It’s like they just didn’t know how to deal with it. The science is always going to evolve, but human beings are very uncomfortable with that idea. Uncertainty is uncomfortable. You would rather have a negative answer, something that’s just a hard no, than sit in the discomfort of uncertainty, and that makes it hard to communicate. I think that that was part of the issue too. Then when you have that discomfort and you have that vacuum, people can jump into it very easily.
How is generative AI impacting communications on campaigns?
I think we’re going to see this big time in this upcoming cycle. There have been a couple of examples of pretty rudimentary use of it. There’s this novelty of, “Okay, we created this ad with AI.” I think the RNC released an ad after the president announced his reelection campaign, and they developed this dystopian ad from generative AI. I think that’s the very basic scratching-the-surface first salvo in generative AI. I am less concerned about where campaigns take AI from a communications perspective, because I do think there are eventually going to be practical applications and useful applications of AI, where you can really supplement what people are already doing.
You can amplify the expertise that people bring to it and develop multiple different versions of things to test. I think that’s very helpful. There’s a lot of testing that goes on – how many email opens do we have for this donation solicitation? I think generative AI is going to be very helpful in those places. The thing that I’m most concerned about though isn’t how the campaigns in good faith are going to use generative AI. It’s getting good enough where you truly have to be concerned about reputational risks from bad actors using generative AI. I’ll just give you an example. You can clone anyone’s voice now. I don’t want to give anyone tips here, but you can take my voice from this podcast and clone it pretty reliably.
Interestingly enough, though, my voice doesn’t quite reproduce. I don’t know what it is about me, but with other people who do have more distinctive voices, they do reproduce to the point where it’s not perfect. If you took a minute to listen, you’d say, “Wait, this doesn’t sound quite right.” We don’t take a minute to really listen. We make these judgments in milliseconds. You could fabricate a politician saying basically anything you want, throw it out on the internet, and that will create a whole news cycle’s worth of headaches for that politician.
Gina Rubel: I wonder if they’re not already doing that with the phone calls that you get that are prerecorded from your local politician to go out and vote. I got maybe five of them before the May election, and I just hang up because I know who I’m going to vote for, I’m an educated voter, but I do not trust that it’s actually their voice anymore.
Matthew Krayton: I think that that definitely could be an application and probably one of the most innocuous applications of the technology you could imagine. Then imagine taking that and having them say whatever.
Gina Rubel: Oh, and we’ve seen it already. I think generative AI is going to have a huge impact on all industries. It is already having that impact. Lucky for the millennials out there who have grown up with tech. I worry about some of the older generations, but we have a lot of great opportunity to harness these as well in a way for good.
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