PR Fish Bowl

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June 10, 2014

What PR Pros Can Learn From Hillary Clinton

Hillary Clinton is on the campaign, er, book promotion trail, and whether you love her or hate her, PR practitioners should listen up! Mrs. Clinton is a smooth operator in the interviewee chair. Here are some examples of her expertise that can be applied when managing B2B or consumer PR clients.

Skirting the awkward or negative. Last night hillary Clinton spoke with Diane Sawyer, who asked how the public should view “Bill and Hill’s” rich speaking fees in light of the stagnant economy and plight of many Americans. The former Secretary answered as easily and smoothly as if the question had been, “Care for more tea?” The Clintons may not have left the White House “broke,” as she put it, but there was an assuredness to her unwavering and detailed response.

There is an art to the cool, unruffled rejoinder that PR agency folk should adopt for difficult conversations with clients, colleagues or press. Client spokespeople can adopt this practice as well. It begins with picturing the conversation in your head and writing down key points. It’s helpful to try out some phrases with someone you trust and employ your own relaxation techniques to stay focused. Easy, right?

Pointed but never nasty.  This morning Renee Montagne of NPR began her interview by stating that Clinton’s new book, “Hard Choices” was a “classic campaign book.”  Unwilling to let it slide, Mrs. Clinton said in a very kind but authoritative voice, “Oh, I disagree!” Then began her perfectly positioned argument that a campaign book looks forward while her book reflected on the past, revealing untold stories behind key decisions. And Renee dropped that line of questioning and moved right along. The lesson here is an old and obvious one; you get more with honey than vinegar.

Deflecting by association? Asked about any guilt she may have over lives tragically lost at Benghazi, the former secretary paused and acknowledged the grief she feels over the incident and then traced an arc of previous Secretaries of State who each suffered the loss of American (and other) lives while making their own “hard choices.” This was a masterfully employed strategy: place yourself in respected company, acknowledge the legacies of each, and deflect the negative as “cost of doing business,” even for this exalted group. This approach has less chance of working for a PR professional or a client, but should you find yourself or your client in a crisis situation, knowing and understanding some of the history of the issues is always helpful.

Taking the high road. Mrs. Clinton had the opportunity to address Monica Lewinksy and could have chosen to chastise, dismiss, or edit history. Instead, she did the expected and articulated a reasonably compassionate, but brief, comment about the woman who nearly brought down her husband’s presidency. She even gave her a little advice, saying “I hope that she is able to think about her future and construct a life that she finds meaning and satisfaction in.” By taking the high road, Mrs. Clinton diminished the importance of the question and came off as a smart, caring individual. Or, at least a very well-prepared one.

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