When a gaffe is more than a gaffe

ImageI’ve written here before about messaging gaffes, whether they come from the principal himself or herself, an authorized surrogate or anyone else. They force you to waste time and resources explaining what happened (or “revising and extending,” in Washington speak), rather than conveying the message you want to convey. They make you look disorganized, weak and untrustworthy.

One type of gaffe is even more damaging – a gaffe that reinforces a preconceived notion many share of you. Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican nominee for President, committed such a gaffe earlier this year. And President Obama, trying to hang on to his job, committed one last week.

Speaking at a White House press conference on the economy, President Obama pointed to the gains – albeit very sluggish gains – in private sector employment since the economy bottomed out. He noted that while the economy itself has a ways to go, that “the private sector is fine.”

In the words of Carl Lewis, “UH OH!”

Let’s put aside for a moment the fact that saying the private sector is fine is a stretch at best, especially given the last two months’ unemployment reports (though it is true that public sector job cuts are responsible for a lot of the still languishing unemployment rate). More important are these realities:

1. Most people perceive the economy to still be bad (and in a lot of ways it is).

2. President Obama is perceived by many to be out of touch and incompetent on the economy.

Perception is very often reality. Because of perception #1, this gaffe reinforced perception #2. The President and his aides had to spend the rest of the weekend walking back his remarks. And you can expect this sound bite to get replayed frequently over the remaining months of the campaign, especially if the economy continues to languish or (even worse) slide backward.

In a lot of ways, this gaffe is worse than the one I mentioned from the Romney camp. While Romney’s gaffe certainly makes him seem unlikeable and ill-equipped to relate to middle class Americans, Romney’s campaign is not based on likeability. Mitt Romney is not George W. Bush or Ronald Reagan, and, fortunately for him, he realized during the primaries that he couldn’t pretend to be so. What Romney emphasizes is competence and the idea that his private sector expertise will translate to getting the economy turned around as President.

Whether or not Romney’s message is true in reality is an entirely different question. But it paints the starkest contrast to an incumbent who inherited a rotten economy and is perceived (again, rightly or wrongly) to have made it worse. Obama’s gaffe, much like John McCain’s similar “the fundamentals of the economy are strong” gaffe during the 2008 campaign, makes him look oblivious to the problem, let alone to be the person who can best solve it.

Romney steps in it with “I like being able to fire people” gaffe

Mitt Romney has by all accounts run a clean and smooth – if unexciting – campaign for the Republican nomination for President. And given the remarkable shortcomings of his opponents – lack of money, lack of campaigning skills, poor personality, etc. – that is all he has needed to do to position himself to win the Republican nomination and make Barack Obama have to fight like hell to keep his job next November.

Until today, that is.

Speaking to  a crowd in Nashua, N.H. on the eve of Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary, Romney, the former Massachusetts governor and CEO of Bain Capital, said “I like being able to fire people who provide services to me.” Watch the whole clip below:

Yes, Romney was speaking strictly as a consumer and the importance of having the freedom to go to someone else if you’re not happy. But he never should have said that specific line for two very important reasons:

1. It makes him seem callous to the plight of the millions of Americans that are unemployed

2. Most importantly, it reinforces the narrative of Romney that he is a real-life Gordon Gekko who can’t relate to middle class Americans and will gladly fire you if it will make him money.

Reason #2 is most damaging because those are the gaffes that stick. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the Chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, called Romney a “job cremator” this past weekend. And as Mr. Media Training‘s Brad Phillips noted today, a gaffe that reinforces a broader idea that people already consider to be true is also going to be considered truthful even if it is taken out of context or isn’t true at all.

There are many examples of this throughout history, both in politics and otherwise. Lyndon Johnson’s “Daisy Ad” during his 1964 campaign reinforced the narrative that his opponent, Barry Goldwater, was a crazy reactionary who would bring about nuclear war with the Soviets (a huge concern during the height of the Cold War). Almost 25 years later, a Political Action Committee that supported George H.W. Bush for President ran the “Willie Horton Ad” to reinforce the notion that Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis was soft on crime, even if the Massachusetts program referenced in the ad was actually passed more than a decade before by Dukakis’ predecessor.

You are what people perceive you to be, and people take far better to messages that reinforce what they already believe to be true than to ones that tell them that what they believe to be true is wrong. And while any gaffe is damaging, a gaffe that reinforces people’s negative impressions of you is particularly damaging and hard to shake.

How much will this hurt Romney? In the primary, likely not much. The New Hampshire primary is Tuesday and the South Carolina primary is the week after. Romney still holds commanding polling leads in both states and if he wins both, the GOP race is essentially over. The other candidates won’t be able to get the money and other support needed to overcome Romney’s momentum, and they’ll quickly coalesce around the nominee.

But expect this gaffe to be repeated plenty of times by Obama’s campaign, the DNC and whatever PACs get behind Obama during the general election campaign. It is hard to make one gaffe stick for 10 months, but this one could do so, especially since the economy is THE issue of the 2012 campaign. Voters may not be happy with Obama’s job performance (I am among them), but if they don’t consider the challenger to be a better alternative, they’ll re-elect the incumbent.

Beating an incumbent – even one as vulnerable as Obama – is very difficult. Gaffes like today won’t help Romney any.

This year’s communication turkeys

Turkey is the food commonly associated with Thanksgiving. It’s also sometimes used colloquially to describe foolishness or ineptitude. And with that holiday (my favorite one of the year!) coming tomorrow, it’s an appropriate time to look at this year’s biggest turkeys in communication and public relations:

Penn State University: I don’t think there is any doubt that they are this year’s biggest turkey, the way British Petroleum was last year for its handling of the Deepwater Horizon accident. The alleged crimes committed by former Penn State Assistant Football Coach Jerry Sandusky are abominable, horrible and sickening. But university officials, including the school’s iconic football Head Coach, Joe Paterno, made this situation far worse by creating the perception that they cared more about winning games and preserving the Penn State brand than doing right by the alleged victims. If you believe the grand jury report in the case, these crimes were taking place as far back as 1998, and Sandusky was caught in the act by a graduate assistant in 2002, yet no one from the school went to the police, Sandusky was allowed to remain associated with the program and the victims – innocent children – continued to be cast aside until the indictment was finally handed down this month and it had to go public. And even then Paterno and others at the school only admitted to the vaguest responsibility. Then you have Paterno’s press release that said the school’s Boards of Trustees “shouldn’t waste one more minute discussing him,” the protests on campus that followed Paterno’s firing and everything else.

Herman Cain: I discussed this in a previous post. But his poor handling of the sexual harassment accusations against him, particularly how he changed his story multiple times, violated multiple cardinal rules of crisis communication practice. His campaign, which at one point had vaulted him into the lead in the polls in the Republican Primary race for President, was starting to slide before the allegations. But these allegations and his poor handling of them may have finished him off. Politicians have survived much worse than sexual harassment charges, so if Mr. Cain had simply handled the crisis properly, this would have been far less of a mess.

 

Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-NY): Former Rep. Weiner’s story is sadly similar to Cain’s. The Congressman from New York City was caught texting pictures of his…um…male anatomy to a woman who wasn’t his wife. Rather than just admit the misdeed completely immediately and apologize (again, politicians have survived far worse), Weiner at first denied the story, then only grudgingly admitted to facts as they were reported by others. He lost control of the story and came across as a liar in addition to a fiend. He was eventually pressured into resigning, ending what could have been a promising political career (he had been speculated as a possible candidate for Mayor of New York City).

Jim Tressel: In the span of a few months, Jim Tressel went from one of the greatest football coaches in Ohio State history and someone on the fast track to the College Football Hall of Fame to resigning in disgrace. And all because he knew of NCAA violations in his program and didn’t tell the truth to his superiors and NCAA investigators. It wasn’t until Sports Illustrated came out with a report detailing a slew of NCAA violations that Tressel finally came clean, and by then it was too late. Now the program that won seven Big Ten titles, nine of 10 meetings with archrival Michigan, four BCS bowls and a national championship under his watch is disgraced, and so is Tressel. Like so many college coaches, he preached doing things the right way but sacrificed that principle in the name of winning football games. And that gambit ultimately failed, as it usually does.

Do you have any other examples of communications turkeys?

From my family to yours, Happy Thanksgiving to all of you.

Bachmann vaccine furor shows importance of getting out in front of misinformation

Politicians will say almost anything if they think it will help them win their next election. But in Rep. Michelle Bachmann’s quest to win the Republican nomination for President, she re-hashed an old falsehood last week – one that set off a furor in the medical community and illustrates the importance of getting out in front of misinformation in your field.

One of the issues Texas Governor Rick Perry is defending is a vaccination program he instituted in Texas schools in 2007. Sixth grade girls received Merck & Co.’s Gardasil vaccine to prevent Human papillomavirus (HPV), an STD which is linked to cervical and other types of cancers. The candidates’ criticisms have ranged from whether government should force children to have vaccinations to whether or not Perry ordered the program to get a political donation (according to the Washington Post, Merck has made nearly $30,000 in donations to Perry since) to whether getting the vaccine encourages girls to have sex prematurely.

Where the firestorm was really ignited, however, was in a TV interview Bachmann (R-MN) gave the morning after last week’s Republican debate in Florida. In the interview, Bachmann said:

“[The vaccine] comes with some very significant consequences. There’s a woman who came up crying to me tonight after the debate. She said her daughter was given that vaccine. She told me her daughter suffered mental retardation as a result of that vaccine.”

The American Academy of Pediatrics swiftly moved to debunk Bachmann’s quote, saying in a statement “There is absolutely no scientific validity to this statement. Since the vaccine has been introduced, more than 35 million doses have been administered, and it has an excellent safety record.” And there was criticism of Bachmann in the media. But she had already perpetuated the myth, one that plays to a skepticism many already have of vaccinations, and one already fueled by other prominent figures (such as Jenny McCarthy).

Now the medical community is not only fighting a myth, but a myth that makes sense to a lot of people based on what they already believe to be true, and one that was espoused by a prominent figure at that. And that is the hardest type of myth to fight.

The communications lesson here for any organization: get your message out there first, make your message as clear and easy to understand as possible, and keep shouting it. Don’t leave any kind of void for your “opponents” to fill, because they will. Use every communications tool that will reach your target audience to accomplish this.

In the case of the medical community, physicians should present the research they read about in Pediatrics to their patients and others in a more accessible, easier-to-understand form. Social Media is a great way to do this, especially since health care consumers are increasingly turning to these tools for health information as it is. But the most important thing is to be proactive. If the patient shows up in the office questioning the benefits of vaccines, the physician is already behind the 8-ball.

The cover up is always worse than the crime

There are many important rules of public relations in a crisis situation. Over the last two weeks, we’ve seen two examples of perhaps the most important yet most violated rule – one from the world of sports, one from the world of politics.

That rule: When bad news hits, come as clean as possible as soon as possible.

The cover up is always worse than the crime. ALWAYS. Obviously, lying about what you did will hurt you even more when the truth comes out (and it always will). But even simply refusing to reveal anything will make the problem worse. The truth will eventually trickle out in bits and pieces, and it will do so on someone else’s terms – terms that will likely be far worse for you. Now not only do you still have bad news, but that bad news is staying in the headlines longer.

Consider the two very recent examples I referred to earlier:

Ohio State University football coach Jim Tressel: The coach of four Division I-AA and one I-A national championships at Youngstown State and Ohio State, Tressel resigned in disgrace on Memorial Day and left one of the country’s marquee college football programs vulnerable to harsh NCAA sanctions because he lied to school and NCAA investigators about his knowledge of NCAA rules violations committed by his players. Had he reported the violations to school officials as soon as he knew about them (reportedly in April 2010), the players would have served a suspension and that would have been the end of it. Instead, he covered up what happened, finally admitting to things only after they were reported in the press. Now he goes down as both a cheater and a liar, and will probably never coach a college football program again.

Rep. Anthony Weiner (NY-9th District): When a blogger reported that the Congressman had tweeted a picture of his crotch (I’m trying to keep it tasteful here, folks) to another woman, Weiner should have immediately admitted what he did. It would have been immediately embarrassing, but it would have then gone away. Members of Congress have survived far worse. Instead, he denied the story, then semi-denied it, before finally coming clean this week after more stories leaked out. Now he is facing pressure to resign. And even if he survives politically (he represents a New York City district that strongly favors his party), any ambitions for higher office are likely gone now.

The moral of the two stories: don’t cover up your mistakes or bad news that you couldn’t avoid. Even if you make your confessional on a Friday evening of a holiday weekend, that’s still better than not telling the truth at all. Honesty will hurt some in the short run. But dishonesty, even by sheer omission, will hurt even more in the end.

Is the news media actually biased? Or is the other side just not captivating enough?

One of the frequent complaints from this country’s political right is that the news media has a liberal bias. The political left sometimes says that the news media, specifically FOX News, has a conservative bias. Watching the TODAY show on NBC one morning this week, and seeing former House Speaker (and possible 2012 Republican Presidential candidate Newt Gingrich) brought on to criticize President Obama’s response to the crisis in Libya without anyone from the other side to offer rebuttal certainly does bring the former complaint into question.

Or does it? Does the news media as a whole actually have a liberal or conservative slant? Or does it just seem that way? Does the media actually favor one side of the political spectrum over the other? Or does it simply give more face time to whichever side gets the most people to tune in? I’m increasingly wondering if it’s the latter.

The idea of individual media outlets being liberal or conservative editorially is nothing new. But that decision has been driven by a desire to stand out from the crowd, to be different. Say what you want about FOX News, for example, but it definitely stands out from the crowd and gets people to pay attention, and its ratings reflect as much.

Ratings (or circulation in print media and pageviews in online media) drive what you can charge for advertising. The higher the ratings, the more advertisers will be willing to pay, and the more money you make. When your parent company’s board of directors also controls holdings in a variety of other industries, it is even more likely to value short-term profits above all else, and the more profits you can show them, the happier the board will be with you.

Getting ratings/circulation/pageviews in the news business these days requires more than simply reporting what’s going on. You need powerful voices and presentation. You need to be provocative. TODAY’s producers probably brought on Newt Gingrich that day because they knew he’d say something provocative that would get people talking about TODAY. Those people then tune in tomorrow to see what happens next.

Why doesn’t the other side get put on to rebut? It’s likely because, in TODAY’s opinion, it won’t do anything to boost ratings further.

If those on the left wonder why people like John McCain can get on the Sunday talk shows frequently while major figures on the political left can’t, this is probably why. The Democratic Party’s political leaders are, in a word, boring. Even if Harry Reid, Steny Hoyer and Tim Kaine have the facts on their side (sometimes they do, sometimes not), they don’t know how to push the public’s buttons the way their Republican counterparts do. The audience quickly gets bored and turns the channel. And ratings fall.

The media does not have a liberal bias or a conservative bias. It has a RATINGS bias – a desire to get as many people to pay attention as possible while expending as few resources as possible. If only one side of an argument can make its case in sufficiently captivating fashion to boost ratings, only that side will get air time.

Is Sarah Palin a new type of politician, or just a powerful celebrity?

Someone forwarded me a piece from The Nation today entitled “The Misunderestimation of Sarah Palin.” Author Melissa Harris-Perry raises the point that, while Democrats and many Republicans mock her, they are grossly underestimating her and her ability to build a following – the type of following you need to win elections.

My question is, does building a following equal winning elections? In my opinion, not necessarily.

Whether you agree with Sarah Palin’s politics or not, whether you like her personality or not, you have to give her this much – she knows how to get people to pay attention to what she has to say. Even if you think that her messages often lack substance (and I agree they often do), she knows how to get people to listen to her messages. Both of her books have been on the New York Times’ bestseller list. She has her own reality show. And she is far more adept than most politicians at using social media  to get attention and make news. In barely two years, she has gone from an unknown governor of one of the least populated states in the Union to a multimedia celebrity earning millions of dollars a year. As a communications professional, I give her a lot of credit for knowing her audience, knowing what she has to do to get people to pay attention and then executing it.

But being a celebrity is not the same as being a politician. Politics, for better or worse, is a popularity contest. You need to have a strong base behind you, to be sure. But you can’t equally antagonize the other side either. Just because people listen to what you have to say doesn’t mean they like what you have to say. This isn’t like radio or TV, where it doesn’t matter why your audience tunes in as long as it tunes in.

When Sarah Palin was Governor of Alaska, she was not the polarizing figure she has since become. Not coincidentally, her approval rating was over 80%. Even in a conservative state like Alaska, that doesn’t suggest a polarizing figure.

Even Ronald Reagan, whom Palin is often compared to because of their political views and unlikely roads to political prominence, was not polarizing. He was conservative, to be sure, but was more genteel and likeable. He didn’t come off as confrontational and mean-spirited. He skillfully framed his conservative views, so that even if you disagreed with some of the details, you still got behind his overall message. And people certainly didn’t loathe him the way Palin’s non-fans seem to loathe her.

If Sarah Palin is content to be a very wealthy celebrity who can influence Republican Primary elections, then she is definitely on the right course. And there is no shame in that. But if she really wants to be President, she needs to do more than get publicity. She needs to be less in-your-face and make sure people like her message, rather than just listen to it.

 

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