There are predictions that the first 2016 presidential debate, airing on September 26 live from Hofstra University, will be one of the most-watched TV programs in television history. It’s almost certainly not because Americans want the details of Hillary Clinton’s or Donald Trump’s fiscal, military or social policies. The true reason for the steroidal level of interest is our fascination with and desire to see potential fireworks between the two candidates. Will Trump resort to the nastiness he’s directed toward his opponents in past debates? Will Hillary try to take the high road or rather test Trump’s thin skin by insulting him? Will either say something that’ll significantly damage their campaign? And who will “win” the first debate?
In public relations we know that respect for our colleagues and our audiences are essential to successful communication. On his HBO show Real Time, comedian/political observer Bill Maher lamented the lack of respect among those in the political world. “Trump and Hillary are the first two candidates in memory NOT to call and congratulate each other when they won their respective races,” Maher noted. He pointed out that until recently, members of Congress would address each other as “my friend.” They showed mutual respect for their colleagues and opponents despite their political differences.
“If you wanna know why our country is so tense and our government doesn’t work, it’s because society functions on some basic rules of conduct and they’re all going away,” Maher said. “The infectious disease that’s threatening our election isn’t pneumonia–it’s a total lack of class.”
Skillful public relations professionals understand that good communication is knowing what to say and how to say it. Courtesy and tradition have societal and practical impact. Here’s a personal example: When a student only refers to me as”Morosoff” when addressing me, it sounds disrespectful. The convention of speaking a title before a name (Professor, Mr., Ms., Dr., etc.) is a courtesy that’s, sadly, disappearing.
“Civility is nearly dead in this country and we need to return to some basic level of bipartisan decency and respect for our opponents,” Maher lectured. Your thoughts?
“Words matter,” often notes GOP strategist Frank Luntz, and they certainly did these recent, tragic few days.
In Orlando, following the murder of rising pop star Christina Grimmie and the heinous killing of 49 people at gay bar Pulse, was the two-year-old who wandered too close to the water at a Disney World hotel and was dragged under by an alligator. Just days before, it was reported the Pulse gunman had scoped out Disney World as a possible target. Disney’s PR people scrambled to reassure the public that its theme parks are safe.
Professional communicators and politicians scrambled for the right sympathetic tone in light of the Orlando massacre, while many used the horrific event to push their anti-terrorism and anti-gun agendas. However, the right tone was not a priority of presidential candidate Donald Trump. He used the murders to praise himself for predicting the terrorism, and then falsely warned that Hillary Clinton wants to abolish the Second Amendment. He later added that patrons of the club should have been armed so they could have killed the gunman, whom he referred to as a “son of a bitch” on live TV.
Trump’s consistently poor choice of words when attacking his opponents while thrilling his supporters was the topic of Bill Maher’s remarks on his HBO show, Real Time. “Why, for so long, was there one set of rules for everyone who’s ever run for president, and then suddenly a completely new set for this Donald Trump person?” Maher showed gaffes by candidates over the years which are highly trivial by Trump standards, such as George Bush checking his watch and Al Gore repeatedly sighing during their respective debates. “I seem to remember (former Vice President) Dan Quayle being declared ‘unfit for office-dumb’ because he misspelled potato,” Maher noted.”But Trump can say ‘John McCain isn’t a war hero?’ If Hillary Clinton said that, they’d be burning pantsuits in effigy.”
Maher believes that Trump’s recent drop in national polls may be because the larger electorate doesn’t like “un-presidential” behavior from its candidates and Trump’s words are wearing thin. I wonder. Your thoughts?
Let’s review the story: 14-year-old Ahmed Mohamed brought a home-made clock to his high school in Texas. He was proud of his accomplishment and showed it to his teachers over the course of the day. Ahmed’s English class teacher saw the clock as well, but suspected it may be a bomb because of its appearance. She contacted the school authorities who then called police. The teenager, who happens to be Muslim, was arrested, handcuffed and put in a jail cell. He was released a few hours later and no charges were filed after the police confirmed the device was, indeed, a clock and not a bomb.
The outpouring of support for Ahmed was nationwide and viral. Many called the arrest an overreaction and blamed racial profiling and anti-Muslimism. On the other hand, some–including noted liberal and political comedian Bill Maher–volleyed back. On his live HBO show Friday night, Maher suggested people “drop the political correctness and consider that maybe being cautious is a good thing.” He said there’s nothing wrong with being a little suspicious when there’s a young Muslim student with something that “looks exactly like a (expletive) bomb” and there are young Muslims “blowing (expletive) up” all over the world.
Meanwhile, Ahmed has since been enjoying his 15 minutes of fame. Hashtags #IStandWithAhmed and #EngineersForAhmed saw hundreds of thousands of posts and tweets. Ahmad was offered internships at Reddit and Twitter. Google reserved a place for him at its science fair. MIT asked him to come to campus. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg posted, “Having the skill and ambition to build something cool should lead to applause, not arrest. The future belongs to people like Ahmed.” And President Obama praised Ahmed’s love of science while inviting him to the White House.
How one sees this case comes from personal attitudes. I believe what’s still missing are apologies from the school and police. Even Bill Maher added that apologies would be appropriate. There’s no embarrassment in making a mistake on the side of caution and a sincere “we’re sorry, we were mistaken” would be good for public relations. Your thoughts?
It has become a public relations practitioner’s role to create content and monitor social media on behalf of their clients. We then encourage transparency by allowing our publics to comment. But it can be a hazardous policy.
I was reminded of these risks when Senator Harry Reid had an unfortunate home accident last week. Online news platforms provided a place for comments both sympathetic and downright nasty. Examples: “Anyone really believe a story of this wimp capable of breaking exercise equipment? I think the real story involves a car and a bottle of scotch,” “Maybe it knocked some sense into his liberal head,” and “There is a God.” And these were the more tame comments. Some wished the senator an early death–and worse.
After Robin Williams’ suicide a few months ago his daughter Zelda received numerous “cruel and unnecessary” comments, according to an Instagram post she published. There were also terrible Photoshopped pictures of her father’s death, leading her to shut down her social media pages. “I will be leaving this account,” she wrote, “Mining our accounts for photos of dad, or judging me…is cruel and unnecessary.”
I recalled a 2013 episode of Bill Maher’s HBO show “Real Time” in which he editoralized (warning: R-rated content) about the culture of hate we seem to have created via the Internet. He observed how when Miss New York, Indian-American Nina Davaluri was crowned Miss America, “Twitter exploded with so much racist hate that you’d have thought President Obama had just made a reasonable remark.” He showed Twitter feeds that fired expletives to innocuous targets–even one directed at a popular restaurant: “F*** you, Cheesecake Factory.” “Who wastes their time telling Cheesecake Factory to f*** off?” Maher added. “Why has hate become the national pastime?”
We often walk the line in America between free speech and nasty, hateful language. PR people must monitor social media for their clients, but they have to tread lightly when deciding to edit or delete comments. Transparency includes allowing voices in, but I often wonder when–or if–it shouldn’t. Your thoughts?
“I really think a filibuster is the political version of twerking,” comedian and satirist Bill Maher said on HBO Friday night, referring to Senator Ted Cruz’s 21-hour Senate floor filibuster last week. “He reminds me of Miley Cyrus…because he is not afraid to incur the wrath of even some of his fans for the greater good of drawing attention to himself.”
Cruz, a Tea Party hero, attempted to shame his fellow Republicans into shutting down the government if Obamacare isn’t defunded. The heavy media coverage of Cruz’s lengthy, sometimes laughable, speech was generally negative, and comedians relished poking fun at Cruz’s reading of “Green Eggs and Ham” and his imitation of Darth Vader, among other Senate floor silliness. Many high profile Republicans including Senator John McCain and Congressman Peter King were publicly critical. King and his staffers have since endured terribly nasty phone calls from Tea Party supporters as a result. “I think what we have to do is reach out to (Cruz’s) people and let them know that they’re following a false leader here,” King said on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” show.
I heard a reporter frame Senator Cruz’s filibuster as “putting publicity before policy.” But despite the anger and often mocking coverage, Bill Maher may be wrong; Cruz might not have incurred the wrath of his fans. In fact, according to The Huffington Post, “Only a few days before the speech, a YouGov poll conducted Sept. 20-21 showed 52 percent had no opinion of Cruz. At that time, 24 percent had a favorable opinion of Cruz and 25 percent said they had an unfavorable opinion. Among Republicans, favorable opinion of Cruz jumped from 46 percent in the earlier poll to 61 percent in the new poll, while those saying they were unable to rate Cruz dropped from 46 percent to 30 percent.”
Does this poll add proof to the old adage that “all publicity is good publicity?” PR pros don’t believe that. But Senator Cruz is certainly not the first politician to put publicity before policy. With the debt ceiling vote looming, did Cruz sacrifice real responsibility in exchange for a high visibility performance? Your thoughts?
This past week, NPR’s Edward Schumacher-Matos asked, “Fiscal cliff? What fiscal cliff? And who is going over it? Seldom has a popular metaphor been so overworked and been so wrong, and yet curiously been seen by so many as somehow favoring the other political side.” Great Britain’s U.S. edition of The Guardian notes, “The fiscal cliff is the unfortunate yet necessary term that many news organizations and businesses are saddled with for the duration of the debate…A growing group of media – and media-savvy – dissidents are backing away from the term.” Political comedian Bill Maher tweeted, “Media, pls stop using term ‘fiscal cliff’, when America is plunged into the unimaginable hell known as the Clinton tax rates.”
Why this controversy over two words used to describe what the U.S. government may face on January 1? That’s when the terms of the Budget Control Act of 2011 are scheduled to go into effect, bringing massive budget cuts and significant tax increases–unless Congress and the president can cut a deal to avoid such drastic measures. The media seized upon the term after Chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve Ben Bernanke first used it in February when he described that “a massive fiscal cliff of large spending cuts and tax increases” would take place on the first of the year.
When I think “fiscal cliff,” I picture a plunge into an abyss of economic disaster. Yet everyone agrees that this wouldn’t happen on New Year’s Day even if no agreement is reached by then. Whatever the negative effects on our economy, they would be slow to happen and would likely be eased by policy-making after the deadline.
Those in the media are linking everything from Wall Street’s performance to consumer confidence polls to the looming “fiscal cliff.” But there is some danger in using words that scare people. Politicians, organizations and the media do this quite often to achieve a desired result. Words are the PR person’s most significant tool, and they can be used well — or abused. There are ethical questions involved in using words that frighten. The “fiscal cliff” maybe be counted among them. Your thoughts?