Memo To Obama: Don’t Get Mad, Get Going

I used to work with a man who was notoriously calm and self-contained. His demeanor was so low-key that it was easy to parody. I perfected an impersonation of him asking for the sale at a typical new business pitch, just to entertain the staff. I’d stare straight ahead, let all trace of expression leave my face, and utter in a flat, robotic monotone, “We’re passionate about what we do.” It always got a laugh.

It also reminds me of Mr. Obama’s latest PR problem – you know, the “President Spock” syndrome. In the wake of the Gulf Oil accident, the TV talking heads are calling for him to spill — his guts, that is. They’re in a frenzy for the President to spew more emotion, more passion, and a real connection to the crisis.

But, that’s not the real Barack Obama, at least in my view. And, while it’s true that Mr. Obama lacks the cowboy swagger of George Bush or the quick temper of Bill Clinton, anger isn’t the issue. The recent interview with the “Today” Show’s Matt Lauer showed the futility of reacting to the criticism, and of trying to be what you’re not. It’s a classic “damned if you do/damned if you don’t” situation. The President’s measured response to Lauer’s question about whether he should “kick some ass” seemed inauthentic and unsatisfying.

At this point, most Americans are too jaded and disillusioned to find much solace in threats, tantrums, and blame. We’ve had it with apologies and excuses also. It’s time for this most oratorical of leaders to stop talking and display three things: action, authority, and decisiveness. These attributes, I believe, fit him better than anger or frustration. The public lost confidence in BP’s ability to contain the situation weeks ago, and the White House has been tarred with the same brush of ineptitude and indecision. It needs to step in decisively and take charge of the Gulf oil fix before meting out penalties and punishments. Risky? Of course, but not nearly so risky as the current course.

The President needs to stop trying to channel Clint Eastwood and take control of the containment and cleanup process. It’s not about getting mad, it’s about getting going. That would make my day.

White House vs. Fox News: Who’s Winning The PR War?

As the adage goes, you should never pick a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel. So, what’s behind the White House’s PR offensive against Fox News?

When Obama communications director Anita Dunn first referred to Fox as not a news organization, but, rather as an arm of the Republican party, I was surprised. It seemed to run counter to conventional communications strategy, if not good sense. First, it provided several days’ worth of distraction from actual policy discussion. It also served to put a spotlight on Fox, which wasted no time in casting itself as a victim of Nixonian partisan politics. And, the administration’s interview boycott – in theory – deprives it of access to an audience that is surely broader than the most hardcore conservatives.

The PR war would also seem to go against the president’s own “brand” persona. Though the Obama campaign took plenty of shots at Fox before the election, he was supposed to be the guy who would heal our wounds, bridge the political and cultural divide, and bring us together as a nation. The White House has been careful to use surrogates in its criticism, leaving the president somewhat above the fray. But, he still risks looking partisan, or even petty. What happened?

My take is that the White House isn’t really going after Fox. At least, not solely. Sure, it probably wants to show more spine after the beating it’s taken over healthcare. But its true goal is to delegitimize the Republican party. The prize? Independent voters. A classic strategy to woo the middle ground, after all, is to marginalize the other guy.

The initial White House statement didn’t call Fox a mouthpiece for “conservatives” or “right-wingers.” Nope, it equated it with the GOP. If the administration can identify the entire Republican party with its most extreme advocates – the ranting, fist-shaking, conspiracy-spotting “mad men” like Glenn Beck – it can perhaps capture the independent-minded middle. Meanwhile, Fox also continues to position itself as serving the ordinary American. What it really comes down to is a contest to see who can be perceived as more mainstream.

Is it working? Both sides, of course, are claiming advantage. Fox says its ratings are up. The White House points to a new Washington Post/ABC news poll in which only 20 percent of Americans identify as Republicans – a  26-year low for the party.

But, it’s far too early to tell who’s going to come out on top in the PR war. Network ratings are up and down all the time with the news cycle. (Last week, “balloon boy” actually drove everyone up.) And, Republican poll numbers took a dive long before the election. As usual, the real winners are the pundits. But, the show sure is fun to watch.

Will Healthcare Damage Brand Obama?

In “Mad Men”‘s season debut, fictional ad man Don Draper quietly advises a colleague, “Limit your exposure.” It’s actually an oblique reference to his associate’s indiscretion (and his own secret past), but I thought of Draper’s advice today in a different context. I’ve finally joined the ranks of those who fear that President Obama may be overexposed.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m charmed by Michelle Obama’s vegetable garden, and even those famous Obama arms. The president’s advice to schoolchildren was fine by me. I don’t mind the magazine covers, text messages, Facebook updates, or even hearing what he thinks of Kanye West…no surprise there. But, I’m concerned about what some have called the Obama omnipresence in his full-tilt quest for healthcare reform.

Is Obama trying to be our first Omnipresident? This weekend, Mr.Obama will “road block” the Sunday talk shows with no less than five TV appearances in a go-for-broke attempt to win over the public on healthcare reform. He’ll also be the sole guest on Letterman Monday night. The appearances come after the president’s third “60 Minutes” interview and two televised speeches on the issue. The media filibuster is unprecedented for a sitting president, and it has sparked – what else – even more coverage about the president’s press schedule as a test of his star power.

As chief executive, Mr. Obama is clearly the issue’s best advocate, but I worry about the fatigue factor – or as we say in marketing, brand dilution. Healthcare’s a complicated, torturous, and risky issue. In a prominent story about a month ago, “Health Debate Fails To Ignite Obama’s Grass Roots”  the Times reported on the relative failure of the  president’s vaunted grassroots network to mobilize in support of reform. And some polls indicate that the more the public hears about the issue, the less support it gives to the president’s proposal.

If it were up to me, I’d add more surrogates to the White House healthcare outreach and more airtime to Congressional allies. But, as at least one (Republican) adviser explains on ABC News, “If you are not communicating, your opponent will be.” In the end, Mr. Obama has little choice but to keep slogging. I’m reminded of another industry maxim that I first heard before a big client presentation. “Tell them, Then, tell them what you told them, Then, tell them again.” With an issue as complicated and divisive as this one, maybe we do need the All-Obama-All-The-Time media offensive, or what the pols call “the full Ginsberg“. Here’s hoping it can achieve a successful – and civil – resolution.

Truth and Consequences

Transparency and honesty are good things, right?  They build trust, and trust engenders loyalty.  But, here’s a dilemma.  What happens when telling the truth makes the situation worse?
Case in point:  President Obama cautions that a full economic recovery could take years, and the market shudders.  Senator Dodd refers to bank nationalization, which most experts believe is inevitable to some degree, and it takes a dive.

The market runs on emotion, and the current financial crisis is so complex, and market conditions so fragile, that what would on any other day be called straight talk is precarious today.  So, a little sugar-coating is called for, right?

Wrong.  Even the President’s soaring words that the stimulus package marks “the beginning of the end” of the crisis didn’t help matters; in fact, it seemed to breed cynicism.  When the chips are down, honesty’s the most direct path to building long-term trust.

Bullish on the Ox?

Today is the start of the lunar Year of the Ox.  In Asian astrology, the ox symbolizes calm, hard work, resolve, and tenacity, which seem like reassuring symbols.  Chinese astrologists, however, are predicting a tough year.  In fact, according to an Associated Press report prominent Asian soothsayers say newly elected US President Barack Obama will have a hard time, partly because he is the 44th American president, 44 being considered a particularly unlucky number.

Yet, despite gloomy predictions, we’ve all seen how a new beginning, coupled with strong leadership and evocative words, can change perception and even alter behavior.  It’s no different in the corporate world.  People will respond to honesty.  Asking the American public – or a team of employees – to sacrifice, pull together, and put aside selfish goals for the good of the greater entity is an excellent first step.  My guess is that, against a backdrop of uncertainty, we need not only to hear about tangible fixes, but we also crave inspiration and a common vision.  It’s part of true leadership, whether of the country or a small business.