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.

The importance of having one voice

I apologize for not having posted in more than six weeks. I started a new job a couple of months ago, and that has kept me plenty busy. Hopefully now that I’m settled in some I’ll be able to write more and post more on social media.

This new job has been great. I work with great people, I get to do intense but fun work and I work for a company that is helping a good cause. There are many great stories to tell.

This is true for many businesses. The key is to tell those stories through one voice that reflects the company’s broader positioning strategy.

Most of my career up to this point has been in relatively small businesses – under 500 employees. My last employer only had 10 employees. Now I work for a company with more than 3,000 employees across the country. And it is responsible for communicating the stories for businesses in many different states. That’s a lot of different interests to consider, and a lot of possible stories that can be told. That makes it all the more challenging to maintain one voice.

This can take a lot of forms. In some cases it is due to the corporate bureaucracy parodied by the Dilbert cartoon above. And in most cases the conflicts are accidental and/or done with good intentions. But they nevertheless can result in more aggravation for the people responsible for conveying the story and/or lead to mixed messages coming out of the company. And that is not a good thing in the world of public relations.

Any entity – whether it has five employees or 50,000 – needs to speak in one voice. The message needs to be the same no matter who is doing the talking. Whatever stories the company is telling need to fit within the company’s overall positioning strategy. The larger the company, the more challenging this communication management is.

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.

Cases of poor crisis communication: Herman Cain

Crisis communication is never a pleasant experience. And good crisis communication is particularly challenging these days when Social Media and the web further reduces how much time one has to get out in front of a story.

But one thing you should definitely not do in a crisis is what Republican Presidential Candidate Herman Cain did this week: change his story multiple times.

On Sunday evening, the political website Politico reported complaints that Cain sexually harassed two employees while leading the National Restaurant Association during the 1990s. The Associated Press reported a third complaint on Wednesday.

Cain is hardly the first Presidential candidate to be ensnared in a scandal involving the opposite gender. And while sexual harassment is certainly unacceptable, politicians have survived worse (see Bill Clinton). But Cain didn’t help himself by changing the story he presented to the media so frequently it was hard to keep track.

Here is the timeline of Cain’s “explanations,” as assembled by TalkingPointsMemo‘s Josh Marshall:

  1. Cain claimed the Politico report was false.
  2. Cain admitted that there were allegations, but that the allegations were false.
  3. There were allegations, but they were false and he didn’t know what money was paid (how could he not know that if he were in charge of the organization?)
  4. He didn’t know whether money was paid and that it would be wrong to find out if money was paid because that is confidential (see #3)
  5. He was cleared by an in-depth investigation but didn’t know anything about it.
  6. Finally explaining the gesture that led to the complaint and admitting that he remembered discussing a settlement figure.

By changing his story so many times, he kept the story in the news longer than it may have needed to be. Had he simply responded quickly to the Politico report with a detailed explanation of what happened and stuck by that story (and assuming that that story held up factually), he could have gotten this story out of the headlines after a day or two. Even with the first Presidential primaries still two months away, there would have been plenty of news (political and otherwise) to take its spot. And if voters can forgive Bill Clinton for cheating on his wife in the Oval Office and lying under oath, they certainly could have forgiven  Herman Cain for a sexual harassment charge that may not even be truthful.

Instead, it became a major scandal that has been in the headlines all week. And that’s not a good thing for an public figure or organization in a crisis.

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.

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