McCain Scores Point in PR Wars

Unveiling of VP Pick Designed to Dim Post-DNC Buzz

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- The biggest news the day after the Democratic National Convention wasn't Barack Obama's electrifying speech or the fact that it drew a bigger TV audience than the opening ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics. By midday today, Mr. Obama's face had been replaced on the home page of nearly every major news outlet by a seemingly unknown bespectacled woman from Alaska waving her hand while John McCain grinned in the background.
Sarah Palin
Sarah Palin Credit: AP

And Mr. McCain had reason to smile. He managed to bump Mr. Obama and the buzz surrounding his speech to the back pages by shocking everyone with his choice of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate. That feat many would have deemed impossible only 12 hours earlier.

A twist
In a campaign that hasn't been filled with too many surprises, other than Mr. McCain not knowing how many houses he owns, the Republican pulled off a significant plot twist today, sucking some of the energy out of the Obama juggernaut in the process.

Nick Ragone, senior VP-director of client development and author of three books on presidential history, said Mr. Obama's speech was brilliant and was ready to serve as a turning point in the election because "it was the first time he really took McCain head on." But that changed with Mr. McCain's announcement.

"Obama's speech had a shorter shelf life than Fred Thompson's candidacy," Mr. Ragone said. "The only thing that could have taken that speech off the front pages for the next 48 hours was a totally unpredictable pick. John McCain gave them a totally unpredictable pick. And now that speech is already old news."

Obama camp still sees success
Obama campaign manager David Plouffe and Dan Pfeiffer, Mr. Obama's communications director, reached today at an event in Denver, said that with back-to-back conventions, they didn't expect much of a "convention bump" anyway. And the McCain camp had made it clear it was going to announce its VP candidate on Friday specifically to counter what was likely to be a successful Democratic convention. Mr. Pfeiffer said he remained focused on his own candidate's efforts, noting, "We could not be more pleased that 38 million people watched last night."

Mr. Ragone said the key to the announcement was a clever "leak that there's going to be a leak" strategy from McCain's supporters. Reportedly, the McCain camp began whispering in the ears of reporters that there was going to be a leak about Mr. McCain's selection either right before or after Mr. Obama's speech. That leak never came, but it had the pundits guessing and waiting for most of the night.

'Genius'
"Then this morning they leaked it in dribs and drabs about who it wasn't going to be," said Mr. Ragone. "It truly was genius; it was a double-leak strategy that really took a lot of the energy out of Obama's speech. And then, to kick it off they went with Gov. Palin, which just blew it out of the water. You have to hand it to the McCain people, they played this brilliantly."

Other PR pros weren't as impressed. Fred Cook, president-CEO of Golin Harris, said the timing of the announcement was smart and allowed Mr. McCain to interrupt the news cycle. But he doesn't believe it stole any of Mr. Obama's thunder. "In fact, McCain's choice may have even made Obama look better by comparison," Mr. Cook said via e-mail. "His event was monumental in scope and significance, while McCain's announcement seemed small by comparison. More like a spring shower than thunder."

Andy Cooper, principal of CooperKatz & Co., gives Mr. McCain credit for building the anticipation and shocking everyone with his choice, but said his choice of timing was poor. "By waiting until Friday," Mr. Cooper said in an e-mail, "the McCain camp basically let the Obama news cycle play out—hardly an ambush technique."

Then, of course there are doubts about whether choosing Gov. Palin -- a relative newcomer to politics -- might have actually put Mr. McCain, who has been flogging his greater experience, on more even footing with Mr. Obama.

'Negative spotlight'
"His pick is being panned almost universally, so if he tried to steal the spotlight, what he was able to grab was a negative one," said Michael Kempner, CEO of MWW Group, who attended the convention and identifies himself on his Facebook page as an Obama supporter. "And while I don't speak for the Obama campaign, I would bet they'd be happy to allow Sen. McCain to have this type of negative press any day he wants."

It's irrefutable that while Mr. McCain might have grabbed the headlines, Mr. Obama drew a vast audience -- some 38.4 million. According to Nielsen, which tracked live and same-day viewership of 10 networks between 10 p.m. and 11 p.m. EDT, the audience for Mr. Obama's acceptance speech handily trumped that for any of the speeches during the 10 p.m. to 11 p.m. hour during collective coverage of any of the previous evenings. Moreover, it comfortably trumped the 2004 Democratic convention final 10 p.m. hour in 2004 (across six networks), when 24.4 million people tuned in live to watch, Nielsen said.

Contributing: Brian Steinberg, Ken Wheaton and Ira Teinowitz
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