Podcast: Candidate communication strategies heading into Dec. 6 runoff, with Dr. David Clementson

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With the Dec. 6 Senate runoff election in Georgia soon approaching, the Grady Research Radio podcast brought back Dr. David Clementson, an assistant professor in Public Relations at Grady College and a political communication researcher, to discuss the communication strategies of Sen. Raphael Warnock and his Republican challenger Herschel Walker heading into the election. 

Below is a transcription of the episode, edited lightly for clarity and brevity.

Jackson Schroeder, host of Grady Research Radio, interviews David Clementson for an eposide of the podcast on Nov. 17, 2022.
Jackson Schroeder, host of Grady Research Radio, interviews David Clementson (left) for an episode of the podcast on Nov. 17, 2022. (Photo: Sarah Freeman)

Grady Research Radio: So what does a runoff mean for both of these candidates, Herschel Walker and Raphael Warnock? Are either of them feeling particularly happy about it?

David Clementson: I bet neither of them is feeling particularly happy about having to do it all for another month, with the more fundraising and the more attack ads, interviews and invitations to debate. Either one of them would have rather won on Election Day.

You could go any number of ways speculating about Herschel. On the one hand, the libertarian was also on the ballot for the general election, and he probably siphoned off some of Herschel’s support that could have potentially put him over the majority margin. 

And there’s all kinds of speculation, as now we see that, regardless of who wins this Georgia seat, the Democrats will retain the majority in the U.S. Senate. That could depress turnout among Republicans who would have been motivated to get Herschel that majority for the Republicans in the Senate. 

Or it could benefit Herschel if, let’s say, people had some trepidation about his lack of political experience and were hesitant about wanting him to be a U.S. Senator. Maybe now it’s not as big a deal, if he’s going to be in the minority in the U.S. Senate anyway. 

So, yeah, it’s another another month of election torture for everybody.

Grady Research Radio: In just about every one of Warnock’s comms efforts, from his ads to his public addresses and speeches, he continues to question Herschel Walker’s credibility. I know that you’ve done a lot of studies about factors that impede or bolster a politician’s credibility. So where does Walker currently stand in terms of his perceived credibility, and does that even really matter?

A quote graphic that reads "I find this just brilliant strategically to hammer away at the credibility of your opponent, especially in terms of trying to deflect questions from the media and not wanting to be questioned about stuff in debates, press conferences and media interviews."David Clementson: Yeah, Warnock has been hammering away, laser-focused on lack of credibility of his opponent, which is pretty typical for politicians to try to pull on each other in campaigns. But Warnock has been really good about staying disciplined and on message, chipping away at the perceived trustworthiness of Herschel Walker. 

He’s run ads specifically attacking Herschel for not answering reporters’ questions, running away from reporters, which is, as you said, my key focus in my research. I find this just brilliant strategically to hammer away at the credibility of your opponent, especially in terms of trying to deflect questions from the media and not wanting to be questioned about stuff in debates, press conferences and media interviews.

Herschel seems kind of scattershot with his messaging. A lot of elements are to his benefit as the challenger. He hasn’t been part of the system in which you’ve got inflation, crime, recession and an unpopular Democratic president in the White House. All these factors are just huge to be benefiting the challenger Republican. Yet, we don’t see as much discipline from Herschel in determining the exact issues to hone in on. 

Now, in their debate, as in a lot of debates, you go back and forth with politicians calling each other liars. Really, any given day in the news as they’re attacking each other, they’re accusing each other of being liars, and that is the kind of research that I do — looking at the effects of politicians having their veracity impugned. 

I know, from experiments that I’ve run, that if a journalist accuses a politician of being deceptively evasive, voters believe the journalist, and it doesn’t matter if the journalist’s allegation is accurate or not. People will still believe the journalist. And this is surprising, of course, when you’ve got surveys, polls out there saying that the public doesn’t trust the media.

But when we move away from self-reported polls and surveys to experiments, where people aren’t being prompted to be suspicious of the media, we see that people tend to believe the media.

So, if Herschel is being accused of being evasive and deceptive, even if he’s not, people will still tend to believe the charge, especially if it’s coming from a reporter. They might be slightly more skeptical of obviously the Democratic opponent who’s motivated in the zero-sum game to tear down Herschel. 

It’s a smart strategy of Warnock to present these ads showing, “It’s not just me saying it. Look at what other media are saying.”

Grady Research Radio: I follow the logic that if you say someone is dodging a question people are inclined to believe that. But is that really a big deal? Does it really affect people?

David Clementson: Right. I’ve run some experiments showing just what happens in someone’s cognitive processing when there is an allegation of evasion. 

I’ve run experiments that show that if people think a politician is trying to keep them from thinking about something, that triggers rumination. All this research in cognitive and social psychology describes the detriments of obsessing over something. 

So, if Herschel was asked about his stance on X issue, and he didn’t want you to think about it, he tried to deflect that question, that can very well cause rumination in voters’ minds. It causes them to obsess over it and to want an answer even more. 

So, when Warnock is out there telling people, “Look, a reporter asked Herschel about this ex-girlfriend or this child or abortion and he wouldn’t answer the question,” that triggers rumination, which then plays this key role in depressing the trustworthiness in the candidate.

Grady Research Radio: Speaking a little bit more about how Warnock is accusing Walker of dodging questions, do you believe that has the power to flip any votes or motivate a higher voter turnout? 

David Clementson: I think it can definitely depress turnout, and it can proverbially splash on other things. By accusing Herschel Walker of being deceptive and dishonest, not answering questions, running away from reporters and not wanting to debate, you are not just imputing his integrity, his character, but questioning his trustworthiness entirely, which can then splash on everything else. If you can’t be trusted, then what else matters? Why would you vote for somebody if you can’t trust them, if you can’t take their word for it? 

So, yeah, I can see it having a depressing effect on turnout, demoralizing the base, which is why Herschel would need to be getting out in front of that more, being more forceful in defending against it.

Grady Research Radio: This is semi-speculative, as is a lot of this, but the libertarian candidate received roughly 2 percent of the vote. Do you foresee those 2 percent of voters being motivated to come out to vote in the runoff? 

David Clementson: Given that they were inclined to not vote for either Herschel or Warnock, you would think, well if they weren’t motivated in the general election when they were already going to be turning out, why would they turn out a month later in a runoff when Herschel and Warnock are the only ones on that ballot?

But, at the same time, they’re libertarians, who are conservatives — even more extreme than conservative Republicans. You have Herschel wanting limited government and libertarians wanting no government. So they’re going to be siding ideologically with Herschel Walker.

Whether they’re going to be motivated to turn out, I mean, that’s a crucial 2 percent. Even the libertarian said during the campaign that he knew he was being a spoiler. He knew he wasn’t going to win, but he at least wanted to be on the ballot and motivate a runoff.

So Herschel could be focusing on those kinds of folks, hammering his own conservative ideology to keep them motivated. And we see a lot of ads from Warnock reminding his supporters that the race was really close, no one got 50 percent, we’ve got to bring this over the finish line. I haven’t seen those kinds of ads from Herschel.

Grady Research Radio: What do you believe is Walker’s best approach going into the runoff?

David Clementson: Going back to what we were talking about his veracity, his trustworthiness being impugned I think he needs to fight fire with fire and refute these allegations that he’s being deceptive. I think he should also be honing in more on a message.

Now, you could say Warnock doesn’t really have a message either. He’s just attacking the opponent. But, if Herschel wants to do the same thing and fight fire with fire, he should be more laser focused on that. He could be turning around the same kind of accusations against Warnock, because there are certainly clips out there of instances where Warnock would dodge questions in press gaggles and debates also.

Grady Research Radio: Based on your studies, why do you believe that refuting is a good tactic for candidates? 

David Clementson: I’ve run experiments on this very thing. This series of experiments that I’ve run have shown that a politician absolutely has to refute an allegation of deception lodged against him. 

But my experiments show that it’s not just about the verbal communication of refuting, like saying, “No, I did answer that question. You’re falsely accusing me.” You’ve also got to have a believable demeanor at the same time, which really gets us into some deep behavioral scientific research. 

And Warnock, we see, is good about modifying his nonverbal behavioral impressions in the face of charges that are lodged against him. I think Herschel is pretty good too. We saw instances in the debate where Herschel was really good at keeping his demeanor together. 

The words really don’t matter as much as having a believable demeanor. Whether you’re a Democrat or Republican, it will carry more weight in regards to voters believing what you’re saying.

Grady Research Radio: We spoke about this a little bit at the beginning, but what do you anticipate voter turnout looking like for this runoff election? And do you believe the runoff will benefit one candidate over the other?

David Clementson: Well there are a few factors here. One is that if the majority in the U.S. Senate hinged on this election, then people all over the country practically all over the world would be parachuting in. It’d be even more of a circus than it is right now if all of Congress rested on who wins this race. Turnout would have been just off the charts. 

Fortunately for those of us who want some veritable peace in our lives, it’s not that way. So, ironically, the candidates are really having to bolster turnout themselves with the kinds of messaging and events that they’re doing and media outreach. 

Now to your second part of the question — simply because the general election midterm had the libertarian spoiler on the ballot, siphoning off conservative voters, you’ve got to think it would benefit Herschel to get another shot at it without the libertarian on the ballot mudding things. But, yeah, we’ll see. 

Grady Research Radio: Thank you for joining us today. 

David Clementson: Yeah. Thanks for having me. 

New podcast spotlights Grady College’s research and expertise

As podcasts continue to grow as a popular form of media, it is only fitting that the University of Georgia’s Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication would turn to audio storytelling to help highlight its research and expertise.

The new Grady Research Radio podcast, which debuted on Sept. 7, 2022, and is recorded in the podcast studio Studio Not Found, features concise conversations with faculty members at Grady College and shines a light on their research and proficiencies, as well as the College’s labs. 

Four students and two faculty pose for a picture in Utah in front of a grove of trees with a mountain in the background.
Kyser Lough and Ralitsa Vassileva (second from right) took a small group of students to the Journalism Solutions Summit in Utah.

The podcast’s debut episode covered the news of Grady being named one of the nation’s inaugural solutions journalism hubs by the Solutions Journalism Network. It features interviews with Grady faculty and solutions journalism experts Dr. Amanda Bright, Dr. Kyser Lough and Ralitsa Vassileva, who explained what Grady College is currently doing in research, instruction and outreach to advance solutions journalism, what the new designation means, and how students, educators and professionals in the region can get involved.

“There’s so much happening on campus that we never hear about,” said Vassileva. “A podcast that spreads the word across silos could advance solutions journalism beyond what we can achieve on our own. It could spark new ideas for collaboration.”

The solutions journalism episode was soon followed by one on Grady’s Brain, Body and Media (BBAM) Lab, a lab directed by assistant professor of advertising Dr. Glenna Read used to research psychophysiological reactions to different forms of media and messages. In the lab, researchers can attach sensors to subjects to track how they respond to audio and visual stimuli. Many of the studies conducted in the lab monitor participants by using electrodes that measure activity in the heart, movement of facial muscles on the forehead or around the eyes, and electrodermal activity, or sweat glands, on the hands. The lab also uses electroencephalography (EEG) that measures brain wave activity.

Photo of participant having wires put on his head to detect his responses to media and messages in the BBAM Lab.
The BBAM Lab supports research investigating cognitive and emotional processing of audio and visual media. (Photo: Submitted)

Similarly, the podcast’s third episode sheds light on the new Qualitative Research Lab at Grady College, where graduate and undergraduate students can pursue research focusing on qualitative, non-numerical data. It features a conversation with Dr. Karin Assmann, an assistant professor in the Journalism Department at Grady College and the director of the Qualitative Research Lab. In the episode, Dr. Assmann explains what goes on in her lab, speaks about recent studies conducted in the lab, and offers insight into how those interested can get involved.

The fourth and fifth episodes zero in on the 2022 general elections in the state of Georgia. The fourth episode features a conversation with Dr. David Clementson, an assistant professor in Public Relations at Grady College and a political communication researcher, about the state of political debates. The fifth includes a discussion with Joseph Watson, Jr., the Carolyn Caudell Tieger Professor of Public Affairs Communications in the Department of Advertising and Public Relations at Grady College, about political advertisements.

 “Grady College has many tremendous researchers who work really hard to run studies and collect data answering tough questions and addressing huge phenomena that affect our lives,” said Clementson. “The Grady Research Radio podcast is a great way for professors’ studies to translate to the general public in a fun, conversational and approachable way. I love listening to the podcast and learning more about my own colleagues who are working hard on impactful research.” 

Shira Chess holding up a cake designed to look like her book Ready Player 2.
Shira Chess cutting the cake during a celebration for the release of “Ready Player Two: Women Gamers and Designed Identity” in 2017. (Photo: Sarah Freeman)

The sixth and most recent episode focuses on the field of game studies and features an interview with Dr. Shira Chess, an associate professor in the Department of Entertainment and Media Studies (EMST), a game studies researcher, and the author of books including “Play Like a Feminist” and “Ready Player Two: Women Gamers and Designed Identity.” Dr. Chess discusses her research, why video games may not get the attention they deserve, and what the future may hold for the field. 

Grady Research Radio is hosted and produced by Jackson Schroeder, the public relations specialist at Grady College. It is generally released biweekly, and a complete list of episodes can be found here.

Podcast: The state of political debates, with Dr. David Clementson

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David Clementson in the studio during the recording of the podcast.
David Clementson (left) and Jackson Schroeder (right) recording Grady Research Radio. (Photo: Dayne Young)

Leading up to the 2022 general elections in the state of Georgia, the Grady Research Radio podcast recently had the opportunity to feature Dr. David Clementson, an assistant professor in Public Relations at Grady College and a political communication researcher.  

In this interview, Dr. Clementson answers questions about the state of political debates, whether they have any real influence, why some politicians shy away from debates, the art of dodging questions and more.

Below is a transcription of the episode, edited lightly for clarity and brevity. 

Grady Research Radio: I’m interested in debates and their influence, or lack thereof. Debates have seemed to have lost a little bit of their weight in recent years. Until about mid-September, Herschel Walker and Sen. Rafael Warnock didn’t even have a debate scheduled. Some races throughout the country don’t have debates at all. So my question is, what power do debates currently hold? Can they change minds, particularly in a race like the Warnock and Walker race, with the candidates so different ideologically?

David Clementson: Yes, so, debates are typically the most watched, most attended of any campaign event during a political season. If people are going to pay attention to anything, other than say a TV ad or YouTube ad that they can’t avoid, if they’re going to be exposed to any campaign discourse at all, it’s probably going to be a debate. So, yeah, in the specific context of this U.S. Senate race here in Georgia, the only debate that they’re scheduled to have is likely to be the most watched event of the whole campaign season, the number one thing that voters will be exposed to and would be affected by.

quote graphic that reads "the conventional wisdom with debates is that if you're the incumbent, you're ahead in the polling, and you're out-fundraising your opponent, you want to avoid debates like the plague."Now, to the question of would voters really be affected by the debate, there are a few things. One, the first rule for the debaters tends to be to commit no errors, because we can see, anecdotally, times through history when a candidate might have had everything going for them and then they have some big flub and they’re essentially out of the race. So the first rule is don’t make any mistakes. Don’t make any unforced errors, because the media is going to jump all over it and mock you. And it can be fodder for your opponents’ attack ads. 

Now, secondly, for the candidates themselves, their main goal ought to be crystallizing, mobilizing and incentivizing their own supporters, because that’s really the biggest impact that a debate is going to have. It’s not going to change hearts and minds, most likely. It’s not going to really impact the ability to reach across the aisle and win over unaffiliated voters. Really, who they should be speaking to are their supporters, folks who are already inclined to be voting for them. 

Now that’s really tough advice for a politician because, of course, politicians want everyone to love them. They want everyone on both sides of the aisle to see that they’re the most perfect human being ever. But, really the biggest effect you’re going to have is motivating your own base, your own supporters. 

Now, granted, there could be Republicans and Independents inclined to support Warnock. There could be Democrats and Independents inclined to support Herschel Walker. But, really, their chief goal has to be focusing on people who are already inclined to support them. 

Who is your base of support already? What did they want to hear you say? Research shows that you’re really not going to change hearts and minds. You may not even move the needle whatsoever, barring some unforeseen gaff or scandalous outburst. Really you have to stay laser focused on just crystallizing your own support.

Grady Research Radio: That’s interesting. So it’s mobilizing support. Is there a formula for the types of answers that candidates can give that mobilize all of their supporters? Because, you know, in some instances, one group of people may support you for X and another group of people may support you for Y. So, is there a formula that candidates follow that helps to mobilize voters in debates? 

David Clementson: Yeah. It’s a great question. There’s this theory in our line of work called Equivocation Theory. It goes way back to 1988, and the first paper on it, in the Journal of Language and Social Psychology, was all about using equivocation, equivocal communication, in politics. The penultimate example of it was if you’re asked this no-win question, such as, do you support or oppose gun control. Now, that was their example of a no-win question back in 1988, and we see history repeating, because that’s probably the sort of question that they will be asked — a divisive, no-win question. 

Now, according to Equivocation Theory, this kind of divisive question places the politician in what they call an avoidance-avoidance conflict situation, whereby any direct answer is going to turn off a sizable segment of your voting population. If you say, “Yes I support gun control,” you’ve just kissed away, you know, law-abiding, gun-owning citizens of Georgia who love their firearms. If you say, “I oppose gun control,” then you could be asked about, “What about the latest school shooting” and other sorts of limitations on gun control. So, you just can’t win if you answer a divisive question. 

The way that you maneuver this kind of rhetorical minefield where you’ve got to appeal to 50 percent plus one of the voting electorate and you will be asked divisive questions, which will instantly offend large segments if you answer, is you equivocate. That’s the word for it. Equivocating, as defined in our social scientific and social psychological research, is to give a non-straightforward answer. You’re not going to give a direct answer. You’re not going to lie. You’re going to give an honest answer. But it’s going to skirt specifics. 

So, you’re going to talk about what you support as far as gun control measures. If you’re speaking as a big fan of the Second Amendment and an NRA member, you might talk about what you would consider common sense gun control measures that keep automatic rifles out of the hands of felons or mentally ill people. 

If you’re trying to talk about your support for gun control, you’ll focus on law-abiding citizens, but you have to equivocate. You have to give non-straightforward answers. I’ve done so much research into this very kind of thing, whether it’s in debates or just general media interviews. Equivocation is a brilliant maneuver for a strategic politician. It’s also referred to as strategic ambiguity.

It’s a brilliant maneuver if you’re good at it, and we’ll see if Herschel Walker is any good at it. This will be his first debate. Although, he has some experience giving interviews in the media.

But, yeah, that’s how you ride that fine line, by equivocating. And then, you magically can persuade diverse, opinionated segments of the electorate to think that what you said really spoke to them. It’s pretty cool. If done right, you’ll have people on polar opposites of a particular issue who think that you said things that, when you look later on the transcript, you didn’t actually say. It’s the power of equivocal communication.

Grady Research Radio: If that is done poorly, though, I do know that journalists, and voters in general, get on candidates for what many people refer to as dodging questions. But is that a smart approach for candidates? Does dodging questions ultimately have any negative impact on them in their debates? 

David Clementson: So this raises a fascinating paradox of political communication, media relations and debates. On the one hand, there’s this overriding axiomatic assumption of political discourse in which we assume politicians dodge questions all the time. Most people think that you can’t get a straight answer out of a straight question with politicians. There’s the joke, you know, how do you tell if a politician is lying? His lips are moving.

A quote graphic that reads, "What this means is, in order to efficiently get through our daily lives, we have to just believe each other. We can’t function if every time we’re told anything by anyone, anytime we’re exposed to any message, we stay in there and fold our arms and scrutinize whether it’s really the truth or not. We would never be able to get by."And, similarly, as far as not just telling bold-faced lies, but being unable to answer direct questions, always deflecting, always dodging, there is that perception. So if you ask people in a survey, you know, “How often do you think politicians dodge questions?” The respondents are going to overwhelmingly say a lot. Meanwhile, this is a paradox because, in experiments I’ve run that take it to the next level of looking at people’s ability to actually detect real world dodging of politicians, voters are really bad at. Voters are really bad at detecting deception from politicians. 

So, on the one hand, if you ask them in a survey, “Are politicians deceptive? Do they dodge questions?” the electorate will say, “Oh, yeah. All the time.” But if you don’t ask them in that kind of way, you just show them a debate or you show them a media interview and then you have them tell you what they thought of it, they’re likely not going to volunteer the opinion that they detected deception. They’re certainly going to be really bad at accurately detecting whether, in fact, the politician was was deceitful in their answers in a debate or a media interview. 

Now, a lot of that goes to what’s called a truth bias or truth default, in which humans, we have this innate tendency in our interactions with each other to assume we’re being told the truth. That’s called Truth Default Theory by Tim Levine at the University of Alabama, Birmingham. 

What this means is, in order to efficiently get through our daily lives, we have to just believe each other. We can’t function if every time we’re told anything by anyone, anytime we’re exposed to any message, we stay in there and fold our arms and scrutinize whether it’s really the truth or not. We would never be able to get by. You couldn’t ever have a second date with someone if you were scrutinizing the veracity of everything. 

So, voters, as I found in my own research, while we might say, “Oh, they’re going to be deceiving constantly, dodging all the questions, and they won’t give any answers in this debate,” in actuality, based on experiments I’ve run, the truth default will be in full effect during this Georgia Senate debate. Voters will be inclined to be receiving incoming information as being truthful. And my research has shown it even goes for partisan scenarios. 

A Democrat watching Herschel Walker, unless they have had their suspicion triggered for some reason, they’re going to be receptive to what Herschel Walker is saying and have to then scrutinize it later for its it’s veracity. The same applies for a Republican watching whatever Warnock is saying in the debate.

The truth default is pervasive. It’s robust. People are going to be defaulting to the truth. And, of course, that’s a weapon that politicians can wield in the debate. The politician can actually exploit voters’ truth default, which enables them to either just make up falsehoods or, more likely, to be able to deflect questions with relative ease.

Grady Research Radio: Great. So the truth default is interesting. We assume that these politicians are telling the truth when we’re watching them in live action. But, a lot of news organizations airing these debates try to fact check in real time, and afterwards as well. A lot of journalists, or just general people, will go in and do their own fact-checking of answers to the questions. So, does inaccuracy in responses damage perception of politicians in voters’ eyes?

David Clementson: Yeah, so there’s a ton of research on the effectiveness of fact checks. There have even been meta-analyzes of whether fact checks work and, if so, how. One of the results in fact check meta-analysis has been that the more politically attuned someone is, the less efficacy fact checks have. So, conversely, if you’re less knowledgeable and involved in politics, a fact check will have more effect on you. 

However, there’s that kind of catch 22 — if you’re uninvolved in politics and you’re not paying attention to politics or keeping up with the news, then are you really going to be exposed to a typical fact check, outside of a contrived artifactual research experiment?

So, fact check research is all over the place. Different findings. Different kinds of variables involved. 

Partisanship is just so strong that a fact-check can even backfire, and a politician can use it to their benefit — that the, you know, “Liberal media has fact checked me, called me a liar pants on fire, and hasn’t even fact checked my opponent a single time.” That kind of thing can actually work to your benefit, as we saw with Donald Trump.

So, the effect of fact checks, yeah, if they’re live during the debate, and people are watching their Twitter feeds instead of watching the debate and seeing what various fact-checking organizations are saying, it can play a role in crystallizing preconceptions. If you entered the debate already supporting one candidate, you’re probably going to then, you know, retweet fact checks that are encouraging to your side and dismiss cognitive dissonance of fact checks that are skewering your side.

Grady Research Radio: Earlier, we were talking about dodging questions. Some candidates throughout the country, and here in Georgia, have attempted to or successfully dodged debates entirely. So, my question is, are debates typically a net positive for candidates in terms of gaining voters, or is there a good reason for candidates to avoid them?

David Clementson: So the conventional wisdom with debates is that if you’re the incumbent, you’re ahead in the polling, and you’re out-fundraising your opponent, you want to avoid debates like the plague.

So, interestingly, Raphael Warnock, at this moment, checks off all those three boxes, right? He’s the incumbent. He’s running for reelection. He’s way out-fundraising his opponent, and he has a slight lead in the polls. So, the conventional wisdom would be that, in this kind of scenario, Warnock would not want to have any debates and would be avoiding them like the plague. 

Meanwhile, the candidate who has phenomenal name recognition and heroic status in the state but isn’t leading in the latest polls, is being outmatched in fundraising, and is the challenger, you’d think that he’d be wanting a hundred debates. He’d be calling on the incumbent, you know, to debate him every day and twice on Sunday. However, that’s flipped in this scenario. 

It’s on a case-by-case kind of basis. In the Arizona governor’s race, you have one candidate not wanting to debate so much. In the Pennsylvania U.S. Senate race, you have one candidate not wanting to debate so much and Dr. Oz wanting to have more debates. Meanwhile, here in Georgia, we’ve got Warnock wanting a bunch of debates, and meanwhile, Herschel Walker showed up to zero debates. I don’t think he even showed up to any town halls or candidate forums with other opponents during the Republican primary. So, he hasn’t been vetted so much. He hasn’t gotten the reps.

And so the conventional wisdom is, you want to avoid being in the debate if you have a lot more to lose and very little to gain. Meanwhile, for whatever reason, that’s flipped in this situation.

Grady Research Radio: There are other instances throughout the country where politicians have outwardly stated that they don’t want to debate their opponents because they are too different ideologically, or they are conspiracy theorists. They just think it would be impossible to reason with their opponent. So, my question is, if we are separating ideologically and we’re getting further and further apart, do you think that will contribute to a potential downfall of debates in the future, or do you see us continuing to use debates as a tool? 

David Clementson: Interesting. I hope that our love for debates doesn’t dissipate. But, yeah, I can see that. In the last presidential election, Biden and Trump only had two debates. Typically, they have three debates, and the vice president typically has one debate.

Here, in this general election for a nationally watched U.S. Senate race, they are only going to be having one debate.

Although, debates, in the grand scheme of things, in the history of political campaigns, they are a relatively new phenomenon.

There were the big, you know, 1960 debates with Kennedy and Nixon, and then there weren’t debates again for another like 15 years or something. I don’t remember exactly.

But, in recent memory, of course, we expect there to be debates, and it says something about our desire for good representative democracy. We want to see politicians up there having to answer questions spontaneously, off the cuff, straight from the heart, without other filters and handlers around them. And there’s something undemocratic about only giving scripted talking points in other settings instead of putting yourself up there for 45 minutes or 90 minutes for a debate. 

So, it certainly is a winning issue, in terms of an informed electorate, for politicians to consent to debates and to participate in debates.

You know, but Herschel Walker managed to win the Republican nomination easily against, I don’t know, four or five Republican primary opponents without having any debate whatsoever. He was hammered for that by his opponents and by the media, and he still obviously won the nomination nonetheless. He and his handlers did a cost benefit analysis and decided, you know, it’s not worth the potential upside to put yourself up there for a risky primary debate.

But this is Herschel Walker. He’s quite possibly the most famous person in Georgia. Just because something works for Herschel Walker in Georgia, certainly we can’t extend that to apply to other politicians.

And, yeah, with the polarization, as you mentioned in your question, the electorate is so polarized. We’re exposed to totally different viewpoints, depending on what we’re reading and what we’re watching. Partisan divisions are just so strong, with the two sides just hating each other’s guts and practically living in different worlds.

Maybe a time in the not too distant future could come where it’s just a waste of time to even have a debate because they’re talking over each other and they’re quoting statistics that the other side didn’t even know about because they were never exposed to that form of political discourse. 

Grady Research Radio: I wanted to go back to something you mentioned earlier and tie it into a different portion of this conversation. I, personally, am way more interested and more likely to tune in to primary debates, because that’s how I can separate candidates and actually make an informed decision about who in my party I would like to vote for. So, do candidates take a different approach to the primary debates than they would to the general election debates?

David Clementson: Yeah, so primary debates are more influential than general election debates. A primary debate really can have an effect on the electability and viability of a candidate, more so than a general election debate.

In the primary, the segment of the electorate that you’ve got to appeal to is far slimmer than in the general election, so candidates will tend to be more, I don’t know, inflammatory in throwing their red meat rhetoric to the base, right? Because they’ve got to set themselves apart from a bunch of other politicians who hold similar, if not identical, stances. 

Like in the primary debates that just took place here in Georgia, you had several races in which the opponents had nearly identical voting records. If you went through their voting records and looked at, you know, what they’d supported and opposed in the Senate or the House here in Atlanta, they were identical. So, they have to set themselves apart on other stuff. 

So, strategically, they’re going to be trying to come off as more impassioned or even more inflammatory, more divisive, throwing more red meat rhetoric to their base to set themselves apart. 

Then let’s say they win the nomination. They immediately pivot to trying to appeal to a broader swath of the electorate, right? They’re going to moderate their stances to appeal to a more centrist segment. So, yes, strategically, they’re going to pivot to the general to try to appeal to more people. 

Grady Research Radio: Great. Well, thank you for your time today. 

David Clementson: My pleasure. Thank you.

Clementson teaches professors how to help PR students get internships and jobs

AEJMC panel discussion focuses on ethics in the profession

David Clementson, assistant professor of public relations at Grady College, was an invited speaker at a panel teaching other public relations professors how to help their students get good jobs in the industry.

The Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC) Public Relations division hosted the symposium Feb. 25, entitled “Great Ideas for Teaching.”

About 180 public relations professors from across the U.S. attended.

Clementson outlined a series of nine detailed and creative class assignments as part of a project which equips PR students for entering the market for internships and jobs.

“Our goal in the classroom should be to confidently and comfortably ease students into the professional world of public relations,” Clementson said. “This can include a holistic approach to preparing students with the proper toolkit and expectations while also alleviating their emotional concerns as the process can induce anxiety.”

Clementson also proposes incorporating an ethically-minded focus into the curriculum. The overriding aim, according to Clementson, is to empower students to rise above the potential competition by demonstrating to prospective employers that the applicant is prepared for ethical quandaries that inevitably arise in the competitive and challenging public relations industry.

“Clementson’s classroom project smartly combines an emphasis on getting good jobs and internships, with ethical best practices,” said Pamela Brubaker of Brigham Young University, chair of the AEJMC Public Relations Division’s Teaching Committee.

Stephanie Mahin of the University of North Carolina, Kenan-Flagler Business School, also a leader of the Public Relations Division’s Teaching committee, added: “I hope other professors will consider employing ideas like Clementson’s project into their curriculum, as we try to do what we can to make teaching a little easier amidst all the pressures on us and the exceedingly competitive realm of PR where ethically-minded professionalism is needed now more than ever.”

“It is an impressive series of strategies to calm the nerves and prepare the professionalism of public relations students entering the workforce,” said Nneka Logan of Virginia Tech, who moderated the panel.

Joseph Stabb, APR, of the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, a leader in the AEJMC Public Relations Division who helped organize the panel, added: “Through our ‘Great Ideas for Teaching,’ we strive to help public relations educators employ the best teaching in their classrooms. Today’s panel put the spotlight on innovative ways we can embolden students getting the most out of their diploma with good jobs upon graduation.”

Clementson was one of three presenters from across the U.S. who were invited to present their teaching strategies at the event, which was held virtually via Zoom on Feb. 25. The symposium was hosted by Amanda Weed of Kennesaw State University and Stabb, and was moderated by Logan.

AEJMC’s PR Division is the largest organization of public relations educators in the world. The division has more than 400 members from institutions of higher learning in the United States and about two dozen countries around the world.

Words matter most when responding to a crisis

When responding to crisis situations, what is said matters more than nonverbal cues, according to new research by the University of Georgia Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication.

The study, “(In)Sincere Demeanor and (In)Sincere Language in Crisis Communication,” evaluated the perceived sincerity of messages during a crisis, examining company spokespersons’ use of language and non-verbal cues.

“Just because someone looks calm, doesn’t mean they are honest, and if someone is fidgeting and doesn’t make eye contact, it doesn’t mean they are not telling the truth.” —David Clementson

“This research showed that words trump behavior,” said David Clementson, co-author of the research and assistant professor of public relations at Grady College. “Deceptive demeanor has its limit when we get to serious scandals. The general public will lock into verbal sincerity and will not be as easily led astray by nonverbal impressions.”

The research evaluated responses from more than 800 people who were randomly assigned to watch one of four videos, all involving a reporter and a company spokesperson responding to a racial scandal. The videos included the following scenarios:

  • The spokesperson delivers the message using normal best practices of crisis communication while appearing calm and confident.
  • The spokesperson delivers the message using normal best practices, but appears uncooperative, is fidgeting and avoiding eye contact.
  • The spokesperson delivers an unclear, evasive and dodgy message while appearing calm and confident.
  • The spokesperson delivers an unclear message and appears uncooperative, is fidgeting and avoiding eye contact.

The researchers asked the respondents to comment on the video they watched agreeing or disagreeing on whether the message was favorably accepted, if there would be negative word-of-mouth comments about the company after the message was delivered and whether the company was to blame for the crisis based on the corporate response.

Clementson said the best approach for company spokepersons when responding to a crisis is to appear sincere in outward demeanor and also in clear and relevant language. They should have content in the message that acknowledges the problem, apologizes for the damage caused and explains the action being taken to avoid the situation in the future.

Many times, however, legal counsel or others involved coach spokespersons against taking responsibility and avoid answering questions with a lot of detail.

“Sincerity as a demeanor cue is almost always misleading,” Clementson said. “Just because someone looks calm doesn’t mean they are honest, and if someone is fidgeting and doesn’t make eye contact, it doesn’t mean they are not telling the truth.”

Prior to the research, Clementson expected the results to show that if the spokesperson appeared sincere, the company could get away with dodging questions and not apologizing. However, based on the findings, words and not the nonverbal cues were the most important factor.

Clementson said that sincerity in crisis situations is a key to the long-range success of companies, and the same concepts can be applied to politicians and celebrities, as well.

The research was published in the Journal of Language and Social Psychology and was co-authored by Tyler Page of the Department of Communication at the University of Connecticut.

Clementson research receives Top Paper honors from International Association of Language and Social Psychology

David Clementson, public relations assistant professor, won the Top Paper award from the International Association of Language and Social Psychology for his research on the detection of political deception.

The award spotlights research published in the “Journal of Language and Social Psychology.” Clementson’s honors regard his work as the best paper published in the journal from 2018-20.

The paper, titled “Truth Bias and Partisan Bias in Political Deception Detection,” examined how audience perceptions are impacted by political party affiliation. Clementson worked in politics and on campaigns for many years, but personally detested partisanship. After years of research on political deception, he incorporated the element of partisanship that turned him off as a practitioner.

Clementson’s notice of his top paper honors.

“I finally felt the need to insert party identification onto the screen for viewers, and sure enough the addition of that ‘R’ or ‘D’ affected voters’ perceptions of a politician’s veracity above and beyond the content of what the politician was actually saying in a news interview,” Clementson said.

In the experiment for the research, 618 U.S. voters watched a news interview in which a politician was labeled as a Democrat or Republican. The politician either answered questions honestly or used deception to evade comment. The audience was then asked to identify if responses were honest or if the speaker evaded questions.

Results showed that voters’ ability to identify deceptive language changes when the viewer is presented with the political party affiliation. Clementson says his primary advice for audiences is to consume political interviews and media coverage with discernment.

“I would encourage people to take a breath and exert a moment to appraise the actual content of what people in positions of political power are saying rather than simply taking what you are told at face value without some healthy skepticism,” he said.

The selection for the Top Paper award included a two-step process by six committee members from the International Association of Language and Social Psychology.

One of the committee’s reviewers praised Clementson’s findings by saying: “This study presents a heuristic extension of theory into a tightly conceived methodological form that advances our understanding of political deception and its mechanics.”

Clementson notes that the Journal of Language and Social Psychology is one of the most highly regarded publications in his field for its emphasis on political deception theorizing. For example, political equivocation theory and truth-default theory (which is the star of Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book) first appeared in this journal.

“It is a tremendous thrill and extremely humbling to receive an honor internationally for doing what you love,” Clementson said.

Clementson joined the Grady College faculty in 2019 and specializes in public relations and political communication.

Political Logos: Power, Persuasion and Pitfalls

‘Tis the season of political messages. They are on every street corner and what seems like every minute of television commercial airtime.

Most political messages also include a political logo: a visual representation of the values, promises and energy the candidate will deliver if elected.

We asked some experts at Grady College what makes an impactful logo and the importance of a memorable logo in political contests. To narrow down the field, we discussed the two logos of the presidential candidates this year—the incumbent, President Donald Trump, and the challenger, Senator Joe Biden.

Those participating in the discussion were:

David Clementson, assistant professor of public relations. Before teaching, Clementson ran several successful political campaigns for Democrats and Republicans. He specializes in political communication research.

Kim Landrum, senior lecturer, advertising and public relations. Landrum teaches courses in graphic communication, messaging strategy and campaigns.

Kristen Smith, senior lecturer, advertising and public relations. Smith teaches courses in introductory and advanced graphic communication and public relations communication.

Joseph Watson, Jr., Carolyn Caudell Tieger Professor of Public Affairs Communication. Watson has more than 20 years of experience in public affairs, campaigns and communications, including serving as a legislative director and counsel for a former U.S. senator. Watson teaches courses about public affairs communications focused on public policy and politics.

John Weatherford, senior lecturer, New Media Institute. Weatherford teaches courses in digital product design and user experience.

Following are the general themes that were discussed.

Graphic Strength

President Trump’s campaign logo in 2016 was criticized and eventually abandoned.

From a purely visual perspective, the two presidential logos are quite different. The Biden/Harris logo is straightforward and focused, giving almost equal weight to both names. My eye gravitates to the E which is styled like the stripes on the flag. The letters are kerned, or equally spaced, so the overall look is balanced. The Trump/Pence logo lacks the same visual punch due, in part, to the number of elements with two names, a tagline, the election year, star detailing and a stroke. Where does the eye go first? Placed together, the elements don’t have the same finesse as the Biden/Harris logo and the design lacks a visual focus point. The campaign logo for 2016 had significantly more flair with its integrated T&P but it did lack visual clarity and perhaps that is why it was abandoned. Neither logo is particularly inspired but if I had to pick a winner, the Biden/Harris logo is visually stronger. — Kim Landrum

The Trump/Pence logo for 2020 is fine, but it feels a little homemade. There is nothing daring or original in it. I would advise against putting a red box around the words and then adding some stars at the top because it seems rote. But the stranger thing, from a design perspective, is the vast amount of tracking—space between the letters in both men’s names. “Pence” especially looks like something you’d see in an eye exam. There is a message about importance being sent in the size of their names, too. Both names have five letters, but Trump dominates Pence in the logo. By comparison, the type in the Biden/Harris logo is justified—both words are in equal measure on the left and right and even though “Harris” has to be smaller than “Biden” because it has more letters, the names feel like a solid unit and give the impression of an equal team. There is nothing particularly clever or daring about the Biden/Harris logo, either, but that may be part of the point. It looks professional and stable, and the implication is that their ticket will be too. — Kristen Smith

I have always been struck by the absence of a flag or patriotic motif, aside from four small stars at the top in the Trump-Pence logo, but it is important to remember that the current Trump-Pence logo was adopted after an initial design was widely criticized and abandoned by the campaign. The typeface for both is solid as is the use of the red, white, and blue color palette, but the flag motif for the “e” in Biden makes it much more effective in my estimation. Aesthetically, the Trump-Pence logo is just not as attractive. — Joseph Watson, Jr.

The Message is King

Several campaigns, both Democratic and Republcan, have used “Make America Great Again, before Trump adopted it.

From having run successful political campaigns for Democrats and Republicans, I can tell you that I have never put any thought into the color scheme or shapes or font type or any other graphical elements of a candidate’s logo. The only thing that matters, which I learned long ago from one of Dick Morris’s books,  is that there must be a message, not just the name and the office and the party. Voters need a reason to vote for you. So, in addition to—and more important than—the candidate’s name should be a slogan or mantra or motto. A succinct message is more effective. For example, Clinton/Gore materials said, “It’s time for a change.” Obama had “Change we can believe in” and “Yes, we can.” Trump took the motto to new heights with the prominent messaging of “Make America great again,” which was also used by Reagan in 1980, Bill Clinton in 1992, and Hillary Clinton in 2008. A logo is worthless without a message giving voters a reason to vote for you. — David Clementson

Comparing the logos isn’t totally fair because the Biden/Harris logo doesn’t have their slogan, “Battle for the soul of the nation” on it. Actually, is that their slogan? It’s at the top of their website. It brings up associations for me with the Battle of Hogwarts—maybe people have other battles that come to mind but the phrase is heavy with struggle and myth and even morality. The Trump/Pence slogan, “Keep America Great” is hard sell this year no matter who you support for president. — Kristen Smith

The Logo Doesn’t­­ Really Matter

Based on the most rigorous and extensive evidence across the social sciences that has been conducted testing on voters’ reactions to electoral campaign stimuli, we can predict undoubtedly that Democrats like the Biden logo and dislike the Trump logo, and Republicans like the Trump logo and dislike the Biden logo. If the color schemes and styles and fonts were altered, their vote choices wouldn’t change. Voters’ likes and dislikes are driven by partisanship and inconsistent attitudes, beliefs, and opinions follow. — David Clementson

Hillary Clinton’s initial logo in 2016 was criticized for its poor color choice and being too blocky.

Logos in and of themselves really do not impact electoral outcomes. But bad logos that do not reflect a campaign’s brand and serve its objectives and messaging are often indicative of a campaign that is not well executed. Ultimately, you want to select a logo that does no harm to a campaign and does not generate negative coverage or become a story itself as was the case with logos for the Jeb! 2016 campaign, the initial Trump-Pence 2016 logo and the Hillary 2016 logos. Boring is better than a logo that draws negative attention or has to be withdrawn. — Joseph Watson, Jr.

These logos are both perfectly fine and uninteresting as pieces of design. I care about good design as much as nearly anyone, and yet I couldn’t possibly care less about these logos. I find it hard to believe that a single vote will be influenced one way or the other by either logo. — John Weatherford

Hidden Messages

The fact that the Trump name in the Trump-Pence logo leaves no doubt that this is not a partnership between president and vice-president whereas the closeness in font size between Biden and Harris and the use of the same color in the Biden-Harris logo conveys more parity between the two with the flag motif re-enforcing that Biden is the top of the ticket. — Joseph Watson, Jr.

More Graphics Background (Bonus)

The typeface designer for Decimal, the type used in the Biden/Harris logo, is Jonathan Hoefler along with his team. Hoefler was inspired by vintage watches when he created this typeface. The Obama campaigns used typefaces by Hoefler & Co., also. The Biden/Harris campaign will not stray from whatever style guides have been determined by their design team because that’s what style guides are for—to maintain consistency. By the way, if you haven’t seen the Netflix show Abstract that features him, you should check it out! — Kristen Smith

Clementson awarded grant from Broom Center for theory-driven industry research

Grady College researcher, David Clementson, was competitively awarded a research grant from the Glen M. Broom Center for Professional Development in Public Relations.

Clementson, an assistant professor of public relations, will conduct an experiment to test the effectiveness of narrative appeals used by PR spokespeople.

Some of his recent research has included the effect of comments associated with political interviews published in “Political Psychology” and perceived trustworthiness of politicians based on questions from journalists, published in the “Journal of Communication.”

This is the first time that the Broom Center, named for the academic known as the professor of the profession for having written the most widely used textbook in the field, funded faculty research at the national level.

“The work that Dr. Clementson is doing is vital to everyday practitioners,” said Kaye Sweetser, APR+M, Fellow PRSA who serves as the director of the Broom Center. “Dr. Clementson’s research will help the industry while adding to theory in our field. These two elements were so important to the namesake of our center, and we immediately saw that spirit of Glen Broom in the scholarship making the decision to support it easy.”

The experiment is intended to “assess the effects of public relations spokespeople employing varying degrees of narrative appeals in their media relations messaging,”Clementson said. “My research findings will improve the practice of public relations by exploring whether crisis spokespeople should employ narrative messaging or ‘just the facts’ when relating information to the public amidst scandals.”

Clementson noted that his research would not have been possible without the support from the Broom Center.

“I hope that my research will further the strong legacy of Glen Broom as I advance theory, explicate concepts for public relations and advance the practical applications of crisis communication and strategy through my empirical scholarship,” he added.

Clementson earned his doctorate in communication in 2017 from Ohio State University, and is an alumnus of University of Miami and James Madison University.  He has more than a dozen scholarly journal articles, which focus on political public relations and issues of speaker credibility. He is currently on the leadership board for the Public Relations division for the National Communication Association.

The Broom Center, established at San Diego State University in 2012, seeks to invest in the people of public relations who push the status quo. Clementson’s scholarly work helps practitioners identify best practices, and adds to the body of knowledge in the industry.

“When we support rising star scholars like Dr. Clementson, we support the future of our industry. An investment in him pays back the field in orders of magnitude,” Sweetser said.

Grady researcher studies the effect of comments associated with political interviews

As Americans prepare for another presidential election in 2020, a researcher at Grady College has found that comments left on social media posts about political interviews can, indeed, influence opinions.

“Comment sections are extremely powerful,” said David Clementson, an assistant professor of public relations at UGA’s Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication and the study’s author. “This research found that people will echo the sentiments expressed by anonymous strangers and will share opinions and attitudes about politicians and journalists in accordance with comments expressed by strangers.”

Clementson researched the impact of social media comments posted after watching a staged video of a news interview with a non-partisan political figure and a journalist. The goal of the research was to determine the impact of comments made by strangers on those who viewed the interview.

The study, “How Web Comments Affect Perceptions of Political Interviews and Journalistic Control,” is the first experiment of its kind examining the impact of social media comments in relation to a political interview.

“The study shows that this is a frontier of extreme influence that isn’t getting as much attention as fake news and fake Tweets,” Clementson said.

“If your goal is to influence opinions, it’s a lot more time efficient, and perhaps more impactful, to post a comment than create a website or fake social media account.”

Clementson’s research asked the subjects to view the same mock interview on YouTube, then divided the subjects into three groups: 1. A control group that had no comments beneath the interview; 2. A group that viewed comments accusing the politician of being deceptive or dodging questions; and 3. A group that viewed comments accusing the journalist of being deceptive and biased.

The survey was run twice: once with participants 18- to 60-years-old, and once with adult college students.

The research groups were then asked to post their own comments, which were evaluated for the study.

The survey found that the group of 18- to 60-year-olds were so influenced by the comments that they echoed the comments themselves.

The college student group was not as influenced by the comments – the comments that they typed themselves did not echo the ones they read – but in their responses to survey items they did echo the attitudes of the comment sections that they were exposed to.

The survey also evaluated the extent to which the subjects agreed that the journalist was biased or that the politician was intrinsically deceptive with answers.

The group that viewed comments indicating that the journalist was making the interview tough on the politician, echoed previous comments. However, the journalist was still seen as more trustworthy than the politician.

On the other hand, those who viewed comments implicating the politician for dodging questions, were even more critical of the politician than the first group.

“Media outlets can rest assured that when a comment section impugns the credibility of their journalist, their journalist will probably still have more credibility than the politician, even when the comments defend the politician. The politician stands to lose more from comment sections,” Clementson said.

Comments add a lot to the experience of reading web articles, and make it easier to process confusing political news, Clementson continued. Studies show that in general, comment sections are widely read, even if many people don’t post their own views.

“Viewers and readers may not know what to believe, but comments can help fill in the gaps,” Clementson said.

The research was published in the 2019 edition of Political Psychology.