So said “a senior member” of the Romney campaign’s digital team, according to last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine article, “The Late Adopters.” The feature story by Robert Draper focused on the Republican Party’s image crisis and its snail-paced march toward the digital age. Throughout the campaign, young Republican consultants pitched software and technology, only to be ignored:
“Team Romney managed to connect with 12 million Facebook friends, triple that of Obama’s operation in 2008; but Obama in 2012 accrued 33 million friends and deployed them as online ambassadors who in turn contacted their Facebook friends, thereby demonstrably increasing the campaign’s get-out-the-vote efforts in a way that dwarfed the Republicans’. While Romney’s much-hyped get-out-the-vote digital tool, Orca, famously crashed on Election Day, Obama’s digital team unveiled Narwhal, a state-of-the-art data platform that gave every member of the campaign instant access to continuously updated information on voters, volunteer availability and phone-bank activity. And despite spending hundreds of millions of dollars, the Romney television-ad-making apparatus proved to be no match for the Obama operation, which enlisted Rentrak…through which it accrued an entirely new layer of information about each and every consumer, giving the campaign the ability to customize cable TV ads.”
Like it or not, politicians, retailers, the service industry, nonprofits–organizations and we, as individuals–can’t postpone the paradigm shift the world is experiencing. Some figures show that two-thirds of the planet’s population now use smart phones, and shopping, learning, reading, playing, and meeting online rises significantly every day. Public relations practitioners have deeply felt changes in our profession; we’ve had to become tech savvy very quickly, and many still struggle to keep up with ever-changing platforms and tools.
“There’s an old guard in Republican politics…mostly made up of television and direct-mail consultants,” said GOP digital consultant Zac Moffet in the article. It may seem obvious, but the party–and just about everyone else on earth–has to put down the pencils and get on Reddit and Instagram and whatever is new, or be stuck in 1999. But can they? Can we? Your thoughts?
Doing the “right” thing is always the best kind of PR. Take P.C. Richard, for example. The “TV, audio and appliance giant” was closed Thanksgiving Day, and ran its annual print ads denouncing retailers who asked their employees to work. “Save Thanksgiving,” reads the ad. “We value our time with our families and we know you do, too. That’s why again this year we’ve decided not to open our doors on Thanksgiving Day.” Did this mean a loss of a few dollars? Maybe. Was there tremendous public relations value in this policy of principle? You betcha. Just check the comments on P.C. Richard’s Twitter.
Then there’s New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. Some Republicans are still fuming about his praise for President Obama in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy. In an interview on NBC, Christie called Obama “outstanding” for expediting relief efforts and said that Obama “deserves great credit.” He then appeared on Fox News where he was asked if Mitt Romney would be coming to the damaged Jersey Shore for a photo op, since Christie had been supporting him. “I’ve got 2.4 million people out of power, I’ve got devastation on the shore, I’ve got floods in the northern part of my state,” he responded. “If you think right now I give a damn about presidential politics then you don’t know me.” Excellent PR value for the governor? Absolutely.
This week, a KROQ Los Angeles deejay announced he was donating a kidney to a co-worker who might have otherwise been placed on an eight-year waiting list. Gene “Bean” Baxter told CBS “It wasn’t a big emotional decision for me. And I don’t think that my part of this decision is all that big a deal. I honestly think this surgery is fairly commonplace, and in a few weeks, I’ll be fine.” Clearly this was way above and beyond a PR stunt, although the public relations value for “Bean” and the station is priceless.
Acts of kindness and principled decisions are most welcome on this crazy planet. And if the by-product of doing the right thing is good PR, then even better! Your thoughts?
Republican Congressman Todd Akin, speaking on pregnancies resulting from rape, said earlier this month, “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways of shutting that whole thing down.” The Romney campaign reacted with a statement: “Governor Romney and Congressman Ryan disagree with Mr. Akin’s statement.” Last week, Richard Mourdock, an Indiana Republican candidate for U.S. Senate said, “I think, even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen.” Governor Romney’s spokesperson wrote: “Governor Romney disagrees with Richard Mourdock’s comments, and they do not reflect his views,” but continued support of Mourdock’s candidacy.
This week on CNN, former New Hampshire Governor and Romney operative John Sununu commented on Gen. Colin Powell’s endorsement of President Obama. “Frankly, when you take a look at Colin Powell, you have to wonder whether that’s an endorsement based on issues or whether he’s got a slightly different reason for preferring President Obama…I think when you have somebody of your own race that you’re proud of being president of the United States, I applaud Colin for standing with him.” A Romney spokeswoman said Sununu’s comment “did not reflect the views of the campaign.” Also this week, former GOP vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin wrote, “We deserve answers to this (attack on the U.S. embassy in Libya). President Obama’s shuck and jive shtick with these Benghazi lies must end.” Conservative commentator Ann Coulter tweeted after Monday’s debate that she approved of “Romney’s decision to be kind and gentle to the retard.” And…Donald Trump offered the president $5 million for any charity (specifically citing inner city children in Chicago) if he would release his college transcripts. There was no comment from Romney on the Palin, Coulter and Trump remarks.
Some say this series of slips and slurs reflect a hopelessly backward, racially prejudiced and out of touch GOP. But it may be unfair to assume that all this buffoonery will result in collateral damage to the top of the ticket. What we should really note is Romney’s responses. He has chosen either tepid reactions to these outrageous points of view or silence. If I headed the campaign’s PR efforts, Romney would take a principled stand and denounce–under the strongest possible terms–what was said by these individuals.
But all was not negative this past week; Romney did get endorsements from the New York Post and Meat Loaf. And he is running neck-in-neck with the president with a few days left in the campaign. Your thoughts?
As we almost universally agreed that Mitt Romney “won” the first presidential debate last week, we almost universally forgot that the event is supposed to be about substance, not style. But we all–especially PR people–understand that our emotions are often more influenced by images than by words. This is why there was far less discussion about the facts and policies presented by the candidates and far more discussion about body language and appearances.
There was little question that Barack Obama didn’t bring his “A” game to the debate on Tuesday. Romney supporters, after several weeks of missteps and widening polls, were re-energized. Obama supporters, after seeing gains in key swing states, began to worry again. But take heart or caution: The debates are a three-round playoff series and, as in the president’s favorite game, there are plenty of rebounds.
Please excuse the mixed sports metaphors but with a month to go before Election Day, there are still a few more innings to play. All eyes will be on Hofstra and the candidates on October 16 and again in Florida on October 22. As an added bonus, a vice presidential debate takes place this coming Wednesday. We and the TV pundits will again analyze who “won” and who “lost,” and we’re likely to spend far less time on the issues and far more time on likeability, mistakes and who delivered the better “zingers.”
I don’t blame the times we live in for this seemingly shallow approach to electing a president. Certainly we know that images have often outweighed words since the dawn of art, and then photography, and then television. PR and media pros understand how to use images to their best advantage. We know the story of the 1960 debates: those who listened on the radio thought Richard Nixon won while those who watched on TV preferred Kennedy. And in 1984, Walter Mondale was considered to have handily beaten Ronald Reagan in the first debate, yet there was no President Mondale. Because of or despite the debates, no one will have won or lost until November 6. Your thoughts?
I don’t envy Mitt Romney. Missteps during the last couple weeks have put him in a pressure-filled position: he’s got to be outstanding in the first presidential debate on October 3. The political pundits believe that Romney must significantly outperform President Obama if he is to regain his footing and make up for lost percentage points in the polls.
I don’t envy Barack Obama. By all rights, he should lose this election because presidents who don’t turn a struggling economy around (as if they truly have the power to do so) almost always get kicked out of office. Obama must significantly outperform his opponent if he wants to hold on to the slight gains he has made in the polls.
At Hofstra, site of the October 16 debate, my one-credit course this semester, “PR and the Presidency,” examines how candidates and presidents have used public relations techniques to gain support or help with damage control. So far we’ve watched Richard Nixon’s “Checkers” speech, a bold and early use of television that saved his 1952 candidacy for vice president; we’ve also viewed highlights of the Kennedy-Nixon debates of 1960. In that famous case study, Kennedy’s smart coolness made for a striking contrast to Nixon’s pallid and sometimes shifty appearance. Kennedy was well-rehearsed, well-dressed and well-prepared for what the debates meant to his candidacy.
In the past half century, we’ve seen presidential campaigns turn sour on a single slip of the tongue or soar on a well-turned phrase during debates. President Gerald Ford watched his candidacy against Jimmy Carter tank after he mistakenly said, “There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe,” an ignorant statement he surely didn’t mean. Just four years later, President Carter looked helpless as candidate Ronald Reagan ended the debate by asking America, “Are you better off than you were four years ago?”
The 2012 candidates have much to fear–and much to prepare for. The pressure sure is on. And for us, this is going to be really fun to watch. Your thoughts?
Mitt Romney and his campaign team created an opportunity to demonstrate the presidential candidate’s international chops this week. A well-timed trip to London, then Israel, and then Poland, was planned to give Romney an international stage 100 days before the election. But when he arrived in London, he forgot one of the Golden Rules: ‘If you can’t say something nice, don’t say it at all.’ His criticism of the country in which he had just landed created a bit of a PR problem.
To be sure, these trips are part of a well-executed public relations effort. This isn’t to minimize the importance of such visits for a candidate, nor does it belittle public relations as a way to create, reinforce or change attitudes. But we can understand that international travel is a proven recipe in the pressure cooker that is a presidential campaign. When mistakes are made, they can be costly.
“On a trip intended to prove that Romney was capable of appearing presidential overseas,” wrote Alon Harish of ABC News, “the former Massachusetts governor made himself the target of hostile British headlines and rebukes by the British prime minister after he publicly questioned (during an NBC interview) organizers’ preparedness for the 2012 Olympics.” Harish went on to observe, “In a sign that the campaign may be anxious about the risk of another gaffe, a campaign spokesman announced…that (a) fundraiser, which will be attended by some of Romney’s biggest bankrollers…will be off limits to the press. With that move, the campaign reneged on a commitment it made in April to allow a pool of reporters to cover all Romney fundraisers held in public venues.”
In an effort to be more cautious, Mr. Romney’s team may have made an uncomfortable situation worse. Closing the doors to the public might easily be interpreted as a statement of uncertainty, an image that a candidate certainly hopes to avoid. But the London gaffe served to magnify a campaign truism: Candidates must be so careful about every word they utter, every venue in which they appear, and every move they make during a campaign. It’s not an easy task. Your thoughts?
We tend to think of crisis communication as those moments when famous or powerful people do something stupid, and PR people are called in to repair the damage. But this is a narrow specialty of the public relations profession. Our role in a crisis is often far more complex and significantly more important.
The horror at the Aurora, Colorado movie theatre this week leaves most of us at a loss… a loss for the right words to say and a loss for an understanding of how a brilliant young man can become so twisted. Reporting the facts of this case is the job of journalists who have (so far) told the story accurately and with much respect to the victims’ families. There’s been little sensationalism (so far) of the alleged gunman’s crime and personal history. Everyone connected to the tragedy–especially the law enforcement agencies and emergency response teams– have performed extraordinarily well under unthinkable circumstances.
Communication in such a moment of crisis has to be accurate, empathetic and, for the most part, immediate. These are the moments where public relations practitioners are at their best. Every authoritative entity involved in the theatre massacre needed to release facts and comments. The police departments, the FBI, the fire departments, the hospitals, the theatre owner Cinemark, the mayor of Aurora, Colorado’s governor, the gunman’s high school and colleges, the “Batman” promotions team, and other related institutions quickly disseminated information and made statements to the press. Even Barack Obama and Mitt Romney–both on scheduled campaign swings that day–suspended their activities and struck the right tone in their remarks to the American people.
And whatever their titles, the communication staffs for each of these entities have consistently been at the top of their public relations game, doing a superb job under the most difficult of circumstances. They’ve set the right tone at a time when mistakes could easily be made as information and public sentiment is moved so quickly to the media. Your thoughts?