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What we can learn from the budget “negotiations”

12 Apr

Last week, our elected officials took the whole country to the brink. Whether you think it was ideology, intransigence, real economic crisis or plain circus, we all got a painfully clear view of what kind of government we have, and it was not a pretty picture.

But not all is bad. We can derive some lessons from this latest governmental crisis that can be applied to marketing:

  • At some point, spin does not compensate for the reality on the ground so stop spinning already!
  • Repeating the same phrase over and over becomes meaningless (e.g. “we are fighting for the American people,” “we do not want to shut down the government.”)
  • Innuendo and doublespeak are not substitutes for clear communication.
  • Say what you want unequivocally. You want cuts to Planned Parenthood–say that. Don’t make it a “rider” so that you can sneak it in under the radar.
  • Don’t underestimate your audience…they can see through your antics.
  • Be prepared for people to question you, your motives and your goals.
  • There is a difference between justifying your actions and explaining your actions.

Politicians, like PR or advertising professionals, are in the business of persuasion. And like PR or ad people, they are beholden to special interests (or as we call them “clients”).

What did you learn about marketing from our government’s game of chicken?



WaPo: Carney hopes and Pepco failures

2 Feb

Two items from today’s Washington Post caught my eye.  One was about Jay Carney, the new White House press secretary and the other was a letter to the editor regarding Pepco.

Speaking for the White House

Jay Carney is taking over from Robert Gibbs as White House press secretary. Carney was a journalist, and many people think he will bring a journalist’s viewpoint to the White House briefing room. Dana Milbank wonders “Can Jay Carney Hack it as a Flack” in an op-ed in today’s Washington Post. Few people will miss Gibbs, so maybe by comparison, Carney will already do better. I wrote about Gibbs snark here. If one thing Carney can learn from Gibbs is how not to act. I think the press corps are looking for information without sarcasm.

Proving advertising doesn’t turn the lights back on

Another hot topic this week (other than the ongoing protests in Egypt) is Pepco. If you live in the DC area you know that Pepco failed, once again, to restore power in a timely fashion following a weird snow storm last week. At one point, they had 300,000 customers without power and in many cases, it took them three or four days to restore power to all of them.  Witness how people felt about it, and more importantly, about how Pepco mishandled communications by reading letters to the editor in today’s Post. Notice the title of the piece includes the word “outrage.”

This latest episode in Pepco’s ongoing reliability struggle proves my point that no matter how many nice ads and promising assertions you make, you have to back them up with real action. As you recall, Pepco started running an ad campaign talking about all the stuff they are doing to make themselves more reliable and responsive. Well, sadly, it was just words. No one believed it then, and certainly, no one believes it now. Instead of spending lots of ad dollars on an image campaign, Pepco should spend some money figuring out how to increase its reliability, responsiveness and communications with customers.

The bottom line for both these stories is that communications matter a whole lot. How you handle communications, what you say, when you say it, can truly impact public opinion and your image.

It’s never “just words”

12 Jan

Those of us who work in communications appreciate the power of choosing words well. We sweat it out over how to phrase a headline or a tagline because we know words matter. Different words carry different meanings, connotations, appeal and can sway your audience one way or another.

In the aftermath of the Arizona shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and the murder of six people by a deranged Jared Lee Loughner there has been A LOT of discussion over whether political discourse contributed to this heinous act. In truth, the only person who can answer if there is a direct correlation is Loughner, but I doubt we will be getting a sane answer from him. And many people on both sides of the political spectrum are pointing fingers at each other, at the heated rhetoric, etc.  In my opinion, words do matter. They may not have been the cause in this particular instance, but when you are continually demonizing the other by labeling (job-killing, un-American, etc.) you create chasm and you create distrust. You create or stoke hatred.  You reinforce the idea that those you attack are different than you, that they cannot be trusted, that they are out to get you.

So, although Sarah Palin’s rhetoric and demagoguery are not what made Loughner go into a store to buy a gun and then shoot innocent people, and she is right to claim she is being wrong accused, that does not make it right for her to accuse the media of a “blood libel.” First, because Palin (and her communications crew) clearly do not understand the meaning of phrase and second, as my friend Daria Steigman pointed out, using the word “blood” in the aftermath of a bloody tragedy is just plain poor choice of words.

Here are a few articles to read about Palin’s word choice:

David Frum on what she should have said.

New York Times’ The Caucus

Palin seems to be a master manipulator of words, and making herself the victim of a conspiracy against her (which is what I believe she meant to say with blood libel) is no error. She should be taken to task. I will be waiting to see what she says next now that the criticism is mounting.

The bottom line is that what we say and how we say it does matter and it does influence perception. Advertising and public relations people know this better than most.

And President Obama agrees

5 Nov

In an interview to 60 Minutes (which is excerpted in this CBS News piece and which will air on Sunday, November 7), President Obama says:

“I think that’s a fair argument. I think that, over the course of two years we were so busy and so focused on getting a bunch of stuff done that, we stopped paying attention to the fact that leadership isn’t just legislation. That it’s a matter of persuading people. And giving them confidence and bringing them together. And setting a tone,”

Leadership is about inspiring people to follow you. Inspiration requires that you have an ability to communicate.

I will be interested to see if the White House changes how it communicates.  And to see what the Democratic leadership does–will Harry Reid still be Majority Leader in the Senate?  Perhaps not such a great idea, since his failure to communicate nearly lost him his seat to an extreme candidate.

Why the Democrats lost

3 Nov

A Caffeinated editorial

The Democrats lost because they lost the message.  President Obama, his administration and certainly the House leadership did a poor job of communicating what they accomplished and of refuting the sometimes crack-pot ideas the Republicans, and especially the Tea Party candidates were offering.

Communications matter in shaping perception. The Tea Party was especially successful in convincing the public that Obama was “socializing” the country. The perception of the Democrats as un-American was instilled.  Did Obama prove otherwise? No.  He didn’t seem to grasp that how he communicated what his administration achieved was just as important as what he actually did. He didn’t make the case that the changes he made may have helped stem the recession. He also didn’t make the case that jobs were his number one priority. What was? Health care reform.

Timing is crucial in communications and in politics.  If Obama had put health care on the back burner (or at least seemed to) he may have been able to say he prioritized jobs.

This mid-term election is a tremendous failure for Democrats. The Republicans were led by someone who constantly put his foot in his mouth, Michael Steele, and yet managed to win control of the House. Sarah Palin, arguably  the most superficial politicians of all time, is the voice of the Tea Party on a national stage. She talks in platitudes and unsupported statements, and yet the Democrats couldn’t find a way to reduce her credibility.

Nancy Pelosi, who is a brilliant politician, failed to make the case. Obama failed to make the case. And the many incumbents who lost their seat, failed to make the case.

It all comes down to communications and having a message that is relate-able, repeatable, and that resonates with voters. Democrats did not have this in 2010.


Personality and style communicate

15 Sep

All the advertising in the world is not going to make a frog into a prince. People respond to things personally–especially to things (like politics) that affect them directly.

In Washington DC, incumbent mayor Adrian Fenty lost the democratic primary to his opponent council member Vince Grey. Why? Partially because people preferred Grey, but in larger part, because people did not like Fenty’s arrogance and leadership style. You can read an article in the Washington Post that further delves into this here.

Would you vote for someone you don’t like? Probably not, even if he or she had the nicer ads, the flashier website.  My advice to political strategists is people respond to people they like more than to ads they like.

Editorial: The Obamas need better communications advice

11 Aug


From the start of the Obama presidency, I have been surprised at the lack of good communications advice given (or maybe it is received) by the president.  Last year, the president irritated DC residents by saying they weren’t tough enough about winter. Robert Gibbs, the current press secretary, has gotten himself in many a bad situation, most recently calling left wing critics of the president “crazy.”

And then there are two more troubling, recent missteps. First, Michelle Obama chose to take a mother-daughter trip to Spain, and did so at considerable expense. The trip was roundly criticized as being in poor taste as many Americans are in dire financial straits. Kathleen Parker in today’s Washington Post calls the trip “tone deaf.”  It’s like Michelle Obama had no reality check, no perception check before embarking on her trip. I am sure that she could have found a great place to vacation, with her entourage in tow, in the United States.  In my opinion, Obama’s Spain trip is the result of a lack of communications counseling. Someone at the White House is not thinking in terms of public perceptions.

The other recurring and ongoing communications issue is President Obama’s apparent obsession with blaming George Bush. Instead of referring to the current GOP power base, Obama keeps blaming Bush’s policies for the economic slump.After nearly two years in office, this economic mess is Obama’s, not Bush’s. Also, as Frank Rich pointed out in the excellent New York Times opinion piece, “How to Lose an Election Without Really Trying,” many ideas that Obama is saying are Bush’s are not.  Again, this is a lack of communications advice. People are looking for reasons to vote for the Democrats, not reasons to vote against the Republicans. Most people have lost track of George Bush and are more interested in knowing what OBAMA is going to do.

What the White House needs is better communications advice. And stat. As midterm elections approach, people are going to be deciding to vote for Republicans or Democrats, and if the Republicans gain momentum, they may kick out Obama out of office in 2012.