PR Winners And Losers In The Government Shutdown

From a public relations, communications, or any other point of view, it’s hard to find much positive in the Congressional wrangling that devolved into a government shutdown last night. A quick overview of traditional media showed plenty of “he-said, she-said” punditry, message-point-stuffed interviews with elected officials, and a few polls showing that the American people were – wait for it – thoroughly disgusted by the shutdown showdown.

The frenzy took over major social platforms, with Twitter’s trending topics featuring dueling hashtags #HarryReidShutdown and #ShutDownTheGOP. Some PR-savvy Representatives tweeted that, when the shutdown caused government workers to be furloughed, they would forgo their own salaries. It was a nice gimmick;  pity Rep. Sean Duffy, the reality-star-turned-congressman. When aggressively and repeatedly questioned on CNN about whether he’d defer his own pay, Rep. Duffy could only stammer out his talking points.


Republican governors.  Basically, any member of the GOP who was able to remain above the fray probably comes out ahead here. N. J. Governor Chris Christie’s criticism of both parties made him sound like the only adult in the room full of tantruming toddlers.

Senator Ted Cruz.  This one is arguable, but I’d say that Cruz accomplished what he set out to do. Although he was plenty demonized by Democrats and others for his 21-hour faux filibuster on the Senate floor, it earned him enormous visibility, right down to the Dr. Seuss soundbites. For some, he’s the new face of the party, and a 2016 run seems inevitable.

The Affordable Care Act.  President Obama’s centerpiece legislative achievement has not only survived, it might have even benefited from the brouhaha. In fact, some early technical glitches around the opening of the online health exchanges would probably have received far more attention if they hadn’t been eclipsed by partisan squabbling.


John Boehner.  As was widely reported, Boehner showed that he has absolutely no control over his own caucus. After all, hammering out a consensus IS the Speaker’s job, so this one looks particularly helpless and hapless.

President Obama. POTUS probably belongs on both lists, since he has communicated with consistency and statesmanship around the budget issues, but I’m placing him here for balance, since entities like Congress, the American people, and all government workers are a bit obvious for analysis. Although the President made a resonant speech Monday in which he outlined the reasons he wouldn’t and shouldn’t negotiate on Obamacare, the brinkmanship pointed out the White House’s failure to fully explain the Affordable Care Act and sell its benefits to the public in the months that preceded the shutdown.

The Tea Party. Though it succeeded in triggering the government shutdown that many members had promised since they were elected in 2010, the party may have overplayed its hand. According to a CNN poll ending September 29, 54% of Americans disapprove of it, and Gallup reports that its strong opponents outnumber strong supporters for the first time. The word “extremist” has crept into the majority of news accounts, and when your most common descriptor is the same one used to describe foreign terrorists, it might mean you have a PR problem.

Year-End PR Winners And Losers

Year-end wouldn’t be year-end without the inevitable lists! In PR it’s instructive (and full of just a little schadenfrude) to reflect on those who burnished their PR image and those who bruised and battered it. Here’s our best shot at PR Winners and Losers. See what you think.

PR Winners

Chris Christie
Jersey’s often-mocked Republican governor scored major points at home after Hurricane Sandy. Gov. Christie threw himself into the relief efforts as soon as the storm hit the Garden State. His ability to blur party lines and work with President Obama days before the Presidential election helped him maintain the image of a focused leader during the disaster, which led to a huge spike in his most recent approval rating.

Lydia Callis, Bloomberg’s Sign Language Interpreter
How often does the “hearing” public pay attention to sign language interpreters? The answer was ‘not often’ until Lydia Callis signed for Mayor Bloomberg during his post-Sandy addresses. Her enthusiasm and clear sympathy made her stand out, earning her an inspired skit on SNL and rocketing her to internet stardom. She also put sign language interpreting into the zeitgeist.

Hillary Clinton
Who knew that a photo of Hillary Clinton checking her phone would redefine the Secretary of State? The ‘Texts from Hillary’ Tumblr began as a fun way to portray the former presidential candidate, as ‘Hillary’ and ‘Humor’ aren’t often synonymous. The site launched popular memes, which Clinton chose to embrace, and her farewell video and latest “selfie” taken with Meryl Streep just confirmed her appeal with multiple audiences. Welcome to the world of memes, Hillary! We hope you’re here to stay!

PR Losers

When McDonald’s turned to social media to hear their patrons’ #McDStories, they could have never anticipated the can of worms they were opening. McDonald’s diners used the hashtag to air their grievances about the chain, instead of share their success stories. The twitter campaign promptly ended once it was deemed a #McFail.

Penn State
It’s sad to see an institution like Penn State fall from its pedestal, but that’s what happened when the school was caught in a child molestation scandal. Although assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky was found guilty of the awful crimes, the school was burned when the Freeh report revealed that the late head coach Joe Paterno and the administration covered up the situation. As a result, the school took a major hit to its reputation and football program.

Donald Trump
Of course, no PR list would be complete without “The Donald.” Trump claimed he had a “game-changer” in the Presidential election by challenging Obama to release his private records in exchange for a $5 million charitable donation. Celebrities took to the twittersphere mocking the mogul’s cry for attention and Trump’s offer became a joke. But, we were still talking about Trump, so maybe he belongs on both lists!

Can you think of other great PR moments? Any that should be left in the dust? Feel free to leave them in the comments!

How To Give A Killer Speech: Lessons From The 2012 Political Conventions

Most of the time, a political convention combines the best of public relations strategy, messaging, marketing, and theater. But good or bad, there are always learnings that PR pros and our clients can take to any public speaking opportunity. Here are some from my convention-watching over the past two weeks.

Match the room. Politicians and their surrogates often face the dual-audience dilemma: whether to address the television viewing audience or the  convention hall itself. But most of us can tailor our voice, gestures, and energy to the physical environment and a single group. For a smaller venue, a natural speaking style works. But a large auditorium calls for bigger, bolder gestures and vocal inflections, and a higher-than-normal energy level.

Know the material. Overreliance on a teleprompter is a key reason why many speakers fall short. If you’re not comfortable with the material, or feel you need to read every last line, the delivery can be monotonous and wooden. The best speakers memorize portions of the speech, and/or they learn to read ahead so that eye contact, head movement, and vocal inflection can be more natural.

Tell a story. Everyone knows this, but political speakers tend to do it best. A single anecdote is more powerful than a policy download. One story beats statistics. The mom whose daughter needed heart surgery, Governor Susana Martinez’s anecdote about her GOP awakening, and Tammy Duckworth’s inspiring story were just a few of the standouts.

Show your feelings. The goal of any speech is to connect with the audience. It’s often effective to share a personal anecdote and show real emotion, as long as it’s appropriate and not unchecked. Mitt Romney’s evocation of his father and President Obama’s tribute to his wife were both well calibrated. Joe Biden’s emotional pauses at the end of his speech were a bit distracting, because he seemed to have teleprompter difficulties and I initially wondered if he’d blanked out.

Have a back-up. “Always pack your own parachute” is how one speaker put it when a letter she planned to read wasn’t placed at the podium as planned, and she was able to pull another copy out of her pocket. Errors happen. Teleprompters go down. Does anyone remember President Bill Clinton’s SOTU address in 1994? Another speech was loaded into the teleprompter by mistake, but the Improviser-in-Chief famously didn’t miss a beat, turning in a perfect rendition until the error was fixed. Of course, he abandoned the prepared text again at the DNC in Charlotte, but that was purposeful. The point is most of us wouldn’t have been able to wing it. Check, then check again. Redundancy rules.

Connect to your content. Jimmy Carter used to smile when delivering serious news. At the RNC, Nikki Haley looked cheerful while blasting Obama’s policies. This can undermine the message. The best speakers, including Condoleezza Rice and Michelle Obama, were perfectly in sync with their words in terms of facial expression, voice, and body language.

Don’t distract. This is where preparation and videotaped rehearsals come in. If you were on Twitter during the speeches, you may have seen tweets about Paul Ryan’s frequent throat-clearing or Ted Strickland’s shouting, each of which arguably distracted from their content. Also odd was the swirly blue background in Tampa – I found it vertigo-inducing.

Build it. And both parties did! A truly great speech has phases, – maybe a warm, humorous intro, followed by a faster-paced and punchy middle, a more “intimate” sharing, and a roaring finale. Several speakers, including Ann Romney, used their voice to powerful effect, lowering it for personal reflections, then raising it to punctuate an important point. Deval Patrick’s fire-breather rose to a climax worthy of a Baptist Sunday sermon. The effective pacing and vocal inflections made these some of the best at either convention.

Prepare for the unexpected. Public speakers need to be prepared for physical discomfort, nerves, delays, interruptions, equipment failure, spontaneous applause, even hecklers at times. As for Clint Eastwood’s now-famous 12 minutes, it was unusual in that the iconic star was apparently allowed a free hand. Giving up control is a huge risk to be avoided at all costs. I’d call it a distraction at best (at Marco Rubio’s and even Romney’s expense) but the empty chair did get buzz. Whether it was good, bad, or ugly, however, probably depends on who was watching.

Are Executive Vacations Bad PR?

As President Obama parks his sleek tour bus (dubbed “Bus Force One”) and travels to Martha’s Vineyard for a little R&R this week, the predictable criticism has followed. Some question whether our chief executive should be taking time off amidst stock market volatility, a “crisis” economy, and dropping poll numbers.

Chief among the President’s critics, of course, are the declared GOP candidates for his job. Newt Gingrich blasted Mr. Obama for taking vacation…as Gingrich himself headed off to Hawaii for a “fundraising” trip. A more credible objection was voiced by Washington Post columnist Colbert King, who argues that the President already enjoys two taxpayer-subsized residences and should spend his time off talking with hard-pressed citizens, not rubbing elbows with the elite in Martha’s Vineyard.

The Obama vacation ‘controversy’ is probably more about PR than reality. After all, the man’s completely accessible, and Congress doesn’t get anything done even when it is in session. But it raises an interesting question. Should chief executives take off during tough times? If your company’s been downgraded, your customers are losing confidence, and your recovery prospects uncertain, do you cancel the trip and stay home?

Optics matter. Leadership is often conveyed through images. A CEO in crisis shouldn’t be photographed in luxury surroundings, but neither should he be seen as deskbound, beleaguered, or overwhelmed. A strong leader needs to be seen as engaged, committed, but also independent. And as Rosabeth Kanter writes in “Should Leaders Vacation?,”  timing is a critical factor.

I don’t begrudge the president his break, partly because he deserves it, but mostly because the presidency follows him everywhere. But if he were my client – and the CEO of a company beset with public problems – I’d probably advise him to skip the Vineyard and unwind at Camp David for a working vacation.

How Bin Laden Renewed My Faith In "Old" Media

It was after 11:00 p.m. eastern time when a tweet caught my eye, then another. Within moments, I learned that Bin Laden was dead, and that President Obama was preparing to speak about it on all major networks. This without leaving my Twitter app or clicking on a single link.

The speed with which the news ricocheted around the Web was impressive. Facts, opinion, sentiment, jokes, and quotes about the raid were available within minutes. Most fascinating to me were @BrianStelter‘s updates about the furious re-editing of The New York Times’ front page at, quite literally, the 11th hour. It was the big one, and it burst in at the end of a lazy weekend as a tour de force for Obama, a boost for the country, and – most notably for communications pros – a direct hit for Twitter.

And yet, the first thing I and many others did upon learning the news was turn on the TV to await the President’s remarks, while surfing for analysis about what it all means. What’s the reaction of the Muslim world? Has Obama just won reelection? Should I re-book my flight for next week?

My appreciation of the “old” media’s handling of the unfolding Bin Laden story may have been heightened by the tragic deaths of two journalists in Libya recently. And it was reinforced by the other top headline on my feed, which was Lara Logan’s account of her horrifying sexual assault in Egypt.

Yet, it’s not about the danger, even if it should be. It’s about the role of “real” journalism in our culture. Yes, it’s a milestone that one of the biggest stories since 9/11 itself broke on Twitter. And lingering on Twitter and trading updates until well past midnight gave me that addictive sense of community and conversation that makes it so irresistible.

But, as with most major breaking news, the tweets left me craving the broader society of the mass media audience. This might be probably generational on my part. But Romanesko reports that New York Times page views were up a blistering 86 percent overnight. So, I’m not alone in the need for real-time insights into how the news could affect my life, New York City, our national standing, and the broader political landscape.

So, I’m grateful for the raid for all the usual reasons, and even for its validation of social media. But, it also renewed my faith in the “traditional” press, who rose to the challenge like champs. I believe our enormously symbolic victory over an iconic terrorist can also be seen as an equally big win for “real” journalism as we (thankfully) still know it today. And perhaps that’s yet another “mission accomplished.”

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.

In Defense Of The 9/11 Anniversary

It’s hard to forget what day it is, and not just because I’m writing this while waiting to board a plane. Occasionally I’ll glance up at a CNN monitor and catch video of President and Mrs. Obama observing the moments of silence earlier today, or glimpse the rain-drenched ceremony down at the World Trade Center site. The reminders are all around me, and rightly so.

So, I can’t quite understand the virulence of Jack Shafer’s disgust with what he calls “the 9/11 anniversary racket.” Shafer feels that the wave of features, columns, and commentary surrounding the day is “a media scam designed to exploit audiences by reviving memories — usually painful ones — to sell newspapers or boost ratings.” He indicts the press both for exploiting the occasion and for phoning it in, as well as us – the lazy, complacent public, who “crave the psychological stimulation that the familiar brings,” (a sentence that makes no sense to me.)

It’s true that many anniversary stories – particularly those around disasters, death, and tragedy – can be little more than sensationalized rehash jobs. But, I didn’t feel that way about today’s coverage.

First of all, it hasn’t been excessive. I’ve heard and seen more about this week’s healthcare speech and the distraction du jour, Congressman Joe Wilson’s heckling of the president, than I have of the 9/11 anniversary. Enough already.

The occasion is more than just a chance to open up the video vault and relive our trauma. It’s a legitimate opportunity to review the actions leading up to and resulting from the event, with the perspective of eight years’ time (Afghanistan, anyone?) Or, to check the progress (or disgraceful lack of it) on the WTC memorials, as the New York Times does in a restrained, but cogent editorial today.

We need reminders. Most of us lead harried lives, and our consciousness is increasingly divided. As writer Ryan Sager points out in a blog  post about Shafer’s rant, memory is reconstructive, not reproductive. We’re unlikely to recall something that happened an hour ago without a complex process of recalling and reconstitutionalizing it.

And, then, there’s the perspective and synthesis that only time can bring. We owe it to ourselves to think about what happened eight years ago, and not in a shallow way. Beyond the social and political consequences of the September 11 attacks, the anniversary’s commemoration in the media is a remembrance of how much was lost, and how much we still take for granted.

Was The Beer Summit A Teachable Moment?

What is it about beer? Former President George Bush was elected partly because he was a guy most Americans could imagine sitting down and having a beer with…ironic, given the fact that he doesn’t touch the stuff.

This week, knocking back a cold one became the symbol for a “cooling off” event involving President Obama, Harvard’s Professor Henry Gates, and Sgt. James Crowley, the Cambridge police officer who arrested Gates at his home recently. I think the beer detente (or beerastroika) was a decent move to effect damage control by the White House.  It’s clear from their efforts to lower expectations that they didn’t welcome the outpouring of media attention, however.  But, once opened,  you can’t put the cap back on the bottle. The photo op that summarized what one blogger called “Cold Beer Diplomacy” is now international news.

The roughly 30 seconds of video has been scrutinized by scores of reporters, bloggers, and even body-language experts.  Most entertaining was the on-air pun-ditry.  ABC served up a segment headlined “The Audacity of Hops,” while MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow went with the more classic “From Beer to Eternity.” Of course, I was interested in the branding sidebar, so I tapped into the coverage of each participant’s choice of drink.  There was a potential brou-haha at first.  Some Summit-watchers were in a lather because three of the beers originally mentioned –Bud Lite, Blue Moon, and Red Stripe – are not American brands.

Craft brewers protested, and, as recounted in a front-page story in The Wall Street Journal, Massachussetts congressman Richard Neal lobbied for a more patriotic choice.  In the end, Professor Gates traded his Red Stripe for a Sam Adams, a great beer and a hometown favorite.  (And what could be more fitting than a beer named for a Founding Father?)  Blue Moon, which is brewed in Canada, is a product of Molson Coors, so I give it half-credit.  And, though the President’s choice of Bud Lite is an Anheuser Busch beer now owned by Belgian conglomerate InBev, it’s still an iconic American brand.  (Later, Vice President Joe Biden crashed the party with the choice of a “near beer,” the low-alcohol Buckler brand, owned by Heineken.  Meh.)

My first thought was that the White House planner should have had the guys in shirtsleeves, sharing a pitcher of the same beer; after all, it’s better symbolism.  But, perhaps in a celebration of their diversity, each ordered his own favorite.  And, they did it, we hope, while sharing views and building bridges, which would be the best and most ideally “American” outcome of all.
I’ll drink to that.