What PR pros can learn from Obama and Romney gaffes

August 6, 2012

They might contend otherwise, but there’s great meaning for PR practitioners in communication missteps

Sure they deny it and work to exploit it. Truth is, there’s a great deal to learn about communications when candidates place feet in mouths and then contend it was all taken out of context. Such blunders provide real-world examples of the ultimate communication trap: an inability to appreciate the totality of the audience, and the risk of speaking to one portion of that audience while alienating another.

It’s a quandary often faced in corporate communications when, for instance, a good story for investors — such as cost savings — shivers the spines of employees, who know that saving is corporate speak for job reductions. How do you harmonize messages to avoid unintended communications consequences? There’s much to learn from this month’s political messaging melt downs.

In Mitt Romney’s case, a near nonsensical need to speak derogatorily about British security efforts in light of the 2012 Olympics resulted in international embarrassment at the very time he was trying to establish himself on the world stage.

His handlers contend he merely referenced public press reports of possible security breaches. But alas, everyone knows you don’t insult the food when you visit the in-laws. Romney blundered and billowed when all the in-laws wanted to hear were raves about the brisket they had spent the weekend preparing.

In President Obama’s case, his need to poke entrepreneurs by contending, “If you got a business, you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen,” takes a hammer to the very job engine he hopes to rev in time for an election jobs rebound.

Why inflame job creators, who by all measure do shoulder the ultimate risk of building a business and often stand alone in their hopes, their dreams, and their efforts? Presidential mouthpieces claim it was all taken out of context, even though the transcript is clear. He said what he said.

So why would two facile speakers, with armies of wordsmiths, make such critical communications errors at the worst possible places and times?

The phenomenon is surprisingly common. Committed to a narrative and tone deaf to the totality of their audience, even the best communicators often go forward with the complete message, oblivious to the wrong notes being played. And as always, the missteps often come down to the first rule of communications: Know your audience.

In Romney’s case, his overwhelming need to remind and reinforce a back-home audience to his Olympic credentials blinded him to the audience standing before him. With it, he played the role of the ugly American — the jingoist who buys Levi’s in Milan or eats at McDonald’s in Paris or slaps the face of our staunchest ally over something they (and the world!) should be extremely proud of — transforming a ghetto into the site of a tremendously successful Olympic games.

And Obama? His communication sin originates from the depth of his camp’s deeply dug trenches. Back home in the White House, surrounded by trusted advisors, the talk is all about government supporting individual efforts, and how no one is more important than anyone else. After all, we all stand on one another’s shoulders, don’t we?

Not outside the foxhole, where individual effort is celebrated everywhere in America, from sport to reality shows. Attacking that assumption inflames and is just plain stupid — but it certainly plays well to a subset of the audience, government unions that are paying much of the reelection bill and want to be recognized for that contribution.

In the world of corporate communications, the key to eliminating (or at least vastly reducing) cross-audience alienation is to first identify each subset of listeners along with their motivations and special interests. Shareholders want value. Employees are interested in wages and working conditions. Customers often care about neither. They want quality, and low-cost products and services. Regulators? Respect, power, and the public good. Once defined, narratives more easily write themselves, through a 360-degree view of which messages might inspire and which might inflame.

In the case of our presidential candidates, all this fell on tone-deaf ears, providing the ultimate teaching moment to those of us who craft the message and seek to do so without simultaneously killing the messenger.What PR pros can learn from Obama and Romney gaffes

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