Can PR Pros Learn From Romney’s Mistakes?

It’s been a tough two weeks for Mitt Romney’s campaign. It’s hard to separate the aggressive punditry, faux outrage, and media overkill from the real lessons here. But there are lessons.

In my view it’s not about gaffes. Those occur on both sides, and the media pounce and squeeze every last ounce of news value from each verbal misstep or surrogate slip, but they’re relatively minor. In the heat of a campaign, they’re also unavoidable. (see Biden, Joe) But many of Romney’s recent setbacks are the result of strategy mistakes. Maybe most importantly, it’s about what he hasn’t done.

Stay on message. And choose your spots accordingly. That’s one rule of  communications that the Romney team has abandoned of late. Empty campaign promises, dueling claims, and obfuscations are, sadly, to be expected. But Romney shows a dangerous tendency to “shoot from the lip.” His criticisms of the President following the attack on the U.S. consulate in Libya had him wading into foreign policy matters, mere hours after our ambassador was killed. Many thought it unseemly. But from a pure communications point of view, these are perilous waters and ones where the candidate lacks credibility. Far better to show respect, then return to hammer his message about jobs.

Offer big ideas. There was actually a time when the GOP considered itself the party for big and exciting new concepts. It was supposed to be the rationale for the choice of Paul Ryan as running mate, yet the campaign has squandered the opportunity. If a bold new policy position had been unveiled it might actually have helped distract from secret videos and tax questions. But Ryan seems reduced to an attack dog, which at best is a waste and at worst is a fatal error.

Be authentic. Now this may sound mealy-mouthed or naive in the hardball age, but elections, unlike business deals, are won on intangibles like likability and trust. I can’t escape the notion that Romney is uncomfortable with his own message, how it’s communicated, or even the whole campaigning thing. He could take a lesson from Chris Christie or Mike Bloomberg, — both strong personalities, often disliked, but who convey exactly who they are in their dealings with constituents and media alike. Romney’s camp gives the impression it’s trying to mold the candidate to please everyone, with the result that no one’s excited by him, and he looks weak in the bargain.

If the team’s broke, fix it. If’s report of disarray in camp Romney is only half true, something is seriously wrong.  The hastily rewritten RNC speech, the Clint Eastwood debacle, the rapid strategy shifts – all signal a Keystone Kops approach to messaging. Romney himself wrote in an August Wall Street Journal editorial, “A good idea is not enough for a business to succeed. It requires a talented team, a good business plan and capital to execute it.” Well, he’s got the capital. There was a plan…once. But the team isn’t firing on all cylinders. For a guy who’s staked his entire candidacy on his business track record, this is probably his worst mistake. If he can’t fix his campaign, there’s no way he’ll convince independents that he can fix the country.

PR Lessons From The 2012 Campaign

Since the primaries began, I’ve been thinking about the PR strategies we’ve witnessed so far during this election season. On the surface, campaign PR doesn’t offer many similarities to corporate and brand communications. After all, it tends to be more localized, more combative, and, recently, shockingly negative. Yet, campaign 2012, as well as the ones that preceded it, holds learnings for PR pros.

Narrative trumps policy. Many believe Barack Obama was able to win in 2008 because his narrative of hope and change was more compelling than John McCain’s warnings about a dangerous world and the need for experience at the helm. An inspiring story is worth a thousand policy statements. For my money, Herman Cain was the master of narrative (while he lasted), with Rick Santorum trying hard to weave a strong story of his own. Marketing and corporate PR professionals are increasingly harnessing the power of storytelling for our clients. Whether a product, corporation, entertainer, or service, we need to take our audience on a “hero’s journey” through challenges and changes to arrive at a new destination.

Speed counts. No one’s more conscious of this than a political operative. With pundits parsing every word and opposition specialists ready to pounce, a rapid response machine is a critical survival skill. We’ve seen how a small slip, poor turn of phrase, or slow reaction can lose the news cycle for days. (See: Mitt Romney, “I’m not concerned about the very poor.”) Brand PR pros can learn from the typical “war room” setup pioneered by James Carville. When hit with the unexpected, respond early and respond often.

Mobilize allies and advocates. Using friends and third-party allies to evangelize is a classic PR strategy, but campaign pros probably do it better than anyone. The late Michael Deaver set the bar when he created a “message of the day” strategy for the Reagan White House, which literally had every level of representatives saying the same thing. Message consistency is more important than ever in today’s fragmented media environment. Here, Romney holds the advantage, as local governors and representatives have increasingly fallen in line for the candidate.

Keep it simple. Have we forgotten “It’s the economy, stupid?” Or Herman Cain’s “9-9-9” tax proposal? The reality is often complicated, but no one wants to hear it. We see this often in technology PR, where engineers and product specialists can get caught up in the back-end explanation of product superiority. Don’t try to explain the technology, detail the solutions, or list all the features. Just tell me why it’s awesome.

Authenticity counts. Politics is about real people, and no amount of packaging, prettifying, or spin can hide the individual’s true essence. Romney runs into trouble when he tries to act like a regular guy, because he’s simply not. That’s why his best moment may have been the Florida debate, where, helped by a new coach, he forcefully defended his wealth and success. The best positioning nearly always builds on what’s real.

For PR pros, the best is yet to be. The final match-up is bound to offer more communications lessons for all of us.