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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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 early bird gets the worm

An old advertising campaign for Head and Shoulders shampoo featured the slogan “you never get a second chance to make a first impression.” It’s an important point to remember in any marketing effort. If your audience’s first impression of you is a negative one, you’re immediately behind the 8-ball. You now have to spend a lot more effort and resources to change that first impression than if you had simply given a good first impression.

A major part of this is making sure that you are the one defining yourself. This means being proactive, getting your message out there first and making sure that you’re the one who frames the situation. Doing so won’t guarantee you success. But it will make your chances of success much better than if you let your competition get its message out first.

This is true in any field. But I find it especially interesting to watch in politics. The American political landscape is littered with the corpses of political campaigns that failed in large part because they let the other side define them, rather than defining themselves. Michael Dukakis went from a double-digit lead in the polls in early summer 1988 to losing the Presidential Election by eight points that November because he sat back and let George H.W. Bush define him as weak and soft on crime and defense. Twenty years later, a little-known U.S. Senator from Illinois won the Presidency in large part because he got out first and framed the better-known John McCain as an extension of the very unpopular outgoing President, George W. Bush.

The 2010 Midterm Elections are less than two months away. And here in Pennsylvania, where I live, the same factor may have decided the state’s U.S. Senate election.

Pat Toomey is the Republican nominee. After three terms in the U.S. House of Representatives, he served as President of the Club for Growth for more than four years. His lifetime rating from the American Conservative Union was 97. That’s nine points higher than the rating held by former Sen. Rick Santorum, who lost re-election four years ago by almost 18%. Yet Toomey is, based on polling, on his way to a fairly easy victory over Democratic nominee Joe Sestak this November.

Why? The very different political climate certainly has something to do with it. But Toomey went a long way toward ensuring his election by getting his message out there first. He put his first ads up in June, when both he and Sestak were still relatively unknown outside of their own parties and former Congressional Districts. Toomey portrayed himself as the common sense candidate and Sestak as the out of touch and extreme candidate. The electorate got a very good first impression of Toomey and a very bad one of Sestak.

Sestak, on the other hand, didn’t put his first ads on the air until September. By then, the narrative had been set. Yes, Sestak’s campaign sent out emails to those on its mailing list and made some appearances. But he was far slower in getting his message out to the masses. And now, only seven weeks from Election Day, he faces a very steep uphill climb to change that first impression.

Everyone who is responsible for any aspect of promoting a brand should heed the moral of this story and the many others like it in politics. In good times and bad, make sure your story is the one that gets out there first. Make sure your audience is hearing your voice before it hears anyone else’s voice. Be proactive, not reactive. And make sure that first impression is the best one it can be.

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