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.

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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.

The sins of Marketing, PR and Communication

Yom Kippur begins at sundown this Friday. By translation, it’s the Day of Atonement. It’s the day that the 13 million or so Jews in the world (including yours truly) fast and spend the day praying in synagogue to be forgiven for sins against God (I believe the day should be about much more literally than asking God for atonement for our sins, but that’s another story). Not surprisingly, at the heart of the Yom Kippur prayer liturgy is a series of confessional prayers that list sins that some Jew, somewhere, committed over the course of the previous year; all Jews recite them as a sign of solidarity.

With this day fast approaching, I was thinking about what mistakes people in my field commonly make. What are the “sins” of Marketing, Public Relations and Communication in general? Here are several that I thought of:

1. Giving your customers the message you think they SHOULD want: The most important element of a successful business is providing a good or service that your customers want. Many aspiring business owners and marketers make the mistake of trying to force feed their vision to consumers rather than serving their customers. If you own a Ford dealership and car buyers in your area prefer driving pickup trucks and SUVs, make sure you stock a lot of Ford Explorers and F-150s and convey to your potential customers why Ford’s products in these classes are better than the competition. If you stock a lot of Fusion Hybrids and tell your customers that they should buy them instead because they’re more fuel efficient, the dealership probably isn’t going to last very long. The ideal business should know what its customers want so thoroughly and have an offering so finely tuned to those desires that the product sells itself.

2. Letting your opponents define you and your brand: If you don’t aggressively define yourself and your message to your audience, your opponents will, and not to your advantage. Many businesses, celebrities and politicians make the mistake of not being proactive, particularly in crisis situations. Get your message out there early and keep repeating it.

3. Not being up-front and transparent in crisis situations: Many businesses make the mistake of thinking they can hide bad news from the public. You can’t, especially now with the web. And the cover-up is always worse than the crime itself. If you don’t come clean yourself and do so right away, someone else will do so on their terms, not yours. Now in addition to the consequences of the bad news itself, you have the added image damage that comes from not being forthright with your consumers.

4. Using Social Media as just another means to shout at consumers: The most valuable characteristic of Social Media are that they allow for two-way communication. This provides businesses opportunities to actually engage consumers and build relationships with them. A business that simply uses Facebook and Twitter as another channel to send out the press release announcing their new Chief Financial Officer is not going to get the most out of those tools.

5. Using a one-size-fits-all approach to marketing: This somewhat goes back to #1. No two businesses are exactly alike, so no two sets of marketing and communication strategies should be exactly alike either. What works for Amazon.com won’t necessarily work for Southwest Airlines. Know who your audience is and where it is, THEN design the strategy.

What about you? Can you think of any other “sins” of marketing, PR and communication?

And to my fellow Jews, G’mar Chatima Tovah – may you be sealed for a good year ahead.

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.

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.

 

Don’t miss opportunities to frame

One of my first posts here was on framing. And a piece of news out of Washington today was a great example of missing an opportunity to frame a situation to your advantage as a communicator.

One of the many issues being discussed as November’s Midterm Elections approach is the impending expiration of the tax cuts that then-President George W. Bush passed during his first term. Since they were passed using the Senate’s Budget Reconciliation process, they have to be renewed by the end of this year or they’ll expire. Letting taxes go up, let alone doing so during a recession as deep as this one, is normally a huge political no-no. But Rep. John Boehner, the Republican’s leader in the House of Representatives (and the man in line to become Speaker if the GOP regains control of the chamber), gave Democrats a great opportunity to frame earlier this month when he said he’d be willing to accept extending those tax cuts only on the first $250,000 of annual income.

And the Democrats squandered that opportunity right away.

All the Democrats had to do was bring a bill to the floor extending the tax cuts only on the first $250,000 of annual income. If the GOP had used the filibuster and/or other procedural tactics to kill it, the Democrats could frame the debate as them being on the side of Middle Class Americans and the Republicans being on the side of the rich and big business. That would have been a very strong talking point.

But the Democrats announced today that they won’t even try to bring the bill to the floor. They won’t even try to pass it. And in the process, they squandered the framing opportunity and lost the message war on two fronts. Republicans can now frame the Democrats as wanting to raise taxes, and the Democrats’ base has even less reason to take the time and jump through the hoops needed to cast a vote this November.

The ability to frame issues and debates to your advantage is critically important in politics. Part of that requires speed. But you also have to seize opportunities when they’re there. Your opponent(s) certainly won’t frame it to your advantage.

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