Politics and Communication Strategists

Chapter Introduction

Professional communicators are critical actors in the management of the political process.

What is strategic political communication?

How has professional communication changed the political process?

How do contemporary political campaigns engage with popular culture, use data and manage the participation of ordinary people?

In this chapter we:

  • Chart the rise of professional political communicators.
  • Define strategic political communication.
  • Examine the relationship between journalism and strategic political communication.
  • Explore the changes strategic communication has made to the political process.
  • Analyse Barack Obama’s publicity machinery.

Cases & Activities

Dark Money

Dark money is a term that describes money that flows from powerful interests into the political process but is not open to public scrutiny. This money is often not direct donations to political parties, but rather funnelled through secretive foundations and organisations that invest it in advocating for particular causes.

A core feature of mass democracies is elections within which see spin doctors compete for millions of votes.   For politicians their careers are at stake, and for political parties the outcome of these competitions determine whether they will have power, or not.  Not surprisingly, given what is at stake, persuasive communication campaigns (run by spin doctors) have become a core feature of the political process.  And because these communication campaigns have become enormously expensive, raising huge sums of money becomes central to political success.  This created a fear that large donors (who paid for these communication campaigns) would acquire undue influence over their political benefactors. In places like the USA this led to legislation geared to regulating the funding of political campaigns.  But the emergence of the phenomenon of ‘dark money’ has only served to demonstrate the naivety of believing that regulation can either reign in funders or bring about funding transparency.   Essentially the 2010 US Supreme Court’s ruling on a lobby group, Citizens United, created an opportunity that spin doctors were quick to exploit.  This ruling led to the growth of a whole new industry of nonprofits and limited liability companies who operated independently of political candidates and political parties, but who paid for communication campaigns that would help them win voters. Although this expenditure was supposed to be disclosed, the ‘dark money’ industry has creatively found ways to only disclose support long after the elections are over. The result is that huge amounts of money are made available to run focus groups, develop advertising, run public education campaigns, or reach out to voters.   American conservatives have been especially creative in building a network of groups such as Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce, Centre to Protect Patient Rights, Americans for responsible Leadership, Freedom path, Rightchange.com II and A Better America Now. The result is that hundreds of millions of dollars have been made available (effectively anonymously) for the purchase of election advertisements that praise some candidates and some issues, while criticizing others.  This has impacted on political outcomes at the national, state and local levels.

What the dark money phenomenon shows is that well designed communication campaigns do sway election outcomes.  Political parties and politicians understand this and so they invest considerable energy into finding ways to fund political communication campaigns. 

What are the consequences of ‘dark money’ for the democratic process?

Identify some organisations that attempt to influence the political process. How are they funded? What communication techniques do they use?



ProPublica investigation on dark money and politics.


ProPublica graph on money flows through the Koch brothers political network.



Images of Obama

Collect and examine iconic images of Barack Obama such as Obama watching the assassination of Bin Laden, Obama and Spiderman, Obama and the janitor fist bump, Obama’s Four More Years Twitter announcements, and the Obama ‘not bad’ meme.

You can find links to these images on the Media and Society website.

You might also search for images the official White House photographer Pete Souza has taken of Obama and his Presidency. Souza is widely credited with crafting the visual image of Obama. Obama recognizes that the official photographer not only plays an important historical archiving role, but is central to constructing a credible and appealing visual narrative about the President. The images that the Obama team circulate via social media are a combination of serious ‘Commander in Chief’ images and warm and playful ‘behind the scenes’ moments where the public get to see the ‘real’ Obama. This stream of images craft Obama’s personality, building up a strong resonance with the public that makes it easier for the campaign to attract the attention of voters and get them to listen.

How do these images construct Obama’s identity?

What do the images say about his values and personality?

How do the images make him appear credible, legitimate and powerful?



The Washington Post on Pete Souza.


Obama and the assassination of Bin Laden.


Obama and Spiderman.


Obama and the janitor fist-bump.


Obama ‘4 more years’ announcement.


Obama ‘Not Bad’ meme.



Data and campaigning

Watch Obama’s campaign strategists Larry Grisolano and Andrew Bleeker speak at the 2013 Kenneth Owler Smith Symposium at Annenberg School of Communication

How did Obama’s team use data to manage the campaign’s communication?

How did the use of data relate to Obama’s other communication strategies?

How is data used to change how political campaigns make and manage identities and messages?



Obama campaign directors Larry Grisolano and Andrew Bleeker talk at the 2013 Kenneth Owler Symposium.


Further Readings

Several of the readings below examine the construction of powerful political identities using media and popular culture. Campus (2010) illustrates how Berlusconi and Sarkozy each leverage and manage a mediatized political process. Part of their success is attributed to their capacity to create attention-grabbing and affective personalities. Pease and Brewer (2008) use data from an experiment to determine how news about celebrity endorsements benefit political campaigns. They examine Oprah’s endorsement of Obama’s campaign. Kellner (2009) examines how Obama mastered celebrity spectacle. Nielsen and Vaccari (2013) examine the role social media plays in election campaigns. They find that few politicians generate much direct engagement with citizens. Kreiss and Howard (2010) examine the development of a data infrastructure in political campaigns.

Campus, D. (2010). Mediatization and personalization of politics in Italy and France: The cases of Berlusconi and Sarkozy. The International Journal of Press/Politics, 15(2): 219-235.

Kellner, D. (2009). Barack Obama and Celebrity Spectacle. International Journal of Communication, 3: 715-741.

Kreiss, D. and Howard, P. (2010). New Challenges to Political Privacy: Lessons from the first U.S.  Presidential Race of the Web 2.0 era.

Nielsen, R. and Vaccari, C. (2013). Do People ‘Like’ Politicians on Facebook? Not really. Large-Scale Direct Candidate-to-Voter Online Communication as an Outlier Phenomenon. International Journal of Communication, 7: 2333-2356.

Pease, A., & Brewer, P. R. (2008). The Oprah factor: The effects of a celebrity endorsement in a presidential primary campaign. The International Journal of Press/Politics, 13(4): 386-400.