PR Tips For Moving Past A Public Mistake

This week the Trump campaign and the Republican National Convention reminded the PR community —  and everyone else — of the perils of mishandling a public mistake. Within an hour of what should have been the high point of a shaky first day for the RNC, the campaign was in full damage control mode. Melania Trump’s primetime address, which had been carefully orchestrated to “humanize” her husband, was found to contain language lifted from Michelle Obama’s 2008 DNC speech.

It didn’t take long for social media to erupt in flames. Twitter featured damning videos of Ms. Trump and Ms. Obama speaking side-by-side, using nearly identical language. Mocking hashtags like #FamousMelaniaTrumpQuotes featuring iconic historical quotes were everywhere. Speech-gate quickly trickled up to “traditional” press, dominating the news cycle on Tuesday.

The mistake was bizarre and the resulting coverage inevitable. But what made it infinitely worse was the campaign’s response, led by Paul Manafort. Manafort insisted – despite visual evidence – that there was no plagiarism and that the accusations were dreamed up by a jealous Hillary Clinton. That lasted about 32 hours, until today, when the Trump organization released a statement from a previously unknown writer who took responsibility for the mistake. The statement extended the story, but now that a (somewhat) more coherent explanation is out, it will probably be put to rest,  unless there is more to the saga.

Freakish as it was, the entire episode is instructive. It’s a pretty fair guide for what not to do if you break a rule or make a public mistake. Here’s what they should have done instead, and how it applies to other situations.

Rule one: Acknowledge the mistake. In this case, the failure to admit error was probably driven by Trump himself, but a PR heavyweight like Manafort should have known better than to deny the obvious. Claiming the similarity was a coincidence didn’t just destroy the campaign’s credibility. It also made the press mad, feeding their determination to get satisfaction. Check out a visibly frustrated Chris Cuomo’s interview with Manafort here. It’s seven minutes of a truly extraordinary tug-of-war that Manafort is just not going to win.

Rule two: Where necessary, explain. Reasons aren’t always required, and some mistakes are compounded by complicated explanations, which can sound like excuses. But in this case, a semi-feasible rationale was required. It wouldn’t have been hard. All the campaign had to say was something like, “As an aide was helping Ms. Trump polish her remarks, some language from the writer’s notes on previous convention speeches were inadvertently included in the final draft.” Maybe not 100% airtight, maybe not even true, but good enough to offer respectable cover.

Rule three: Apologize. Make it sincere, credible, and unselfish. Focus on the damage done or persons offended, not on the one who committed the error. Again, Trump is not a guy to issue a mea culpa, but the reluctance to do so here drove the story into overtime. People make mistakes, and the public loves to forgive. In this case, where the real victim was Melania Trump and not her husband, it would have been PR-savvy (and shown common sense) to include a brief expression of regret to the public explanation of how the speech contained material not original to the writers.

Rule four: Accept blame. Don’t point fingers, deflect, or try to blame someone else. Acceptance of responsibility is the foundation of a sincere apology. Contrary to what some may think, it’s a sign of strength, not weakness. Manafort’s attempts to connect the mini-scandal to Hillary Clinton just weren’t credible. They infuriated the media and gave the Clinton campaign fresh material to include in their fundraising emails.

Rule five: Fix the problem.  In most cases a business or individual will announce a fix as a way of assuring that the error won’t recur. The company recalls its faulty product, settles a lawsuit, or changes its policy. Maybe the celebrity checks into rehab to receive treatment. In the case of speech-gate, this isn’t vital because a fresh mistake would only harm the campaign, not the public. But the Trump team would do themselves a favor by adding  more communications infrastructure, including the typical vetting process that should accompany any public remarks.

Overall, the Trump campaign’s handling of the situation, from the speech itself, to the stonewalling and spinning and eventual admission of a problem, reeks of an amateur operation. In politics, as in PR, it pays to have professionals on the job when the stakes are high.

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.