15 Years Ago Today: A Wave I’ll Never Forget

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on October 20, 2014 – 1:23 am

On October 20, 1999, Elizabeth Dole—a former Reagan and Bush cabinet secretary—ended her bid for the 2000 Republican presidential nomination.

I was working at CNN in Washington, D.C. at the time. As I was leaving work late that night and crossing through the building’s quiet front lobby, I noticed Ms. Dole entering for her appearance on Larry King Live.

As I neared Ms. Dole, I watched as she looked past me, gave a huge, broad smile, and offered an unusually enthusiastic wave.

Elizabeth Dole 1999 Website

I was confused. I didn’t remember passing anyone else in the lobby, and couldn’t imagine to whom she was waving so excitedly. I turned around to see what I was missing, and there he was: a single, solitary news photographer.

Ms. Dole clearly knew how to play to the cameras. From the perspective of the photographer’s lens, the photo would have suggested that there was a throng of supporters greeting her arrival. No one seeing that photo would have had any reason to believe that she had actually arrived without even the slightest hint of fanfare.  

56111976

I knew that politicians managed their own photo ops, of course, but I didn’t realize politicians were that calculating. I found the moment deceptive (she purposely sent a false message), impressive (here’s a woman who knew what she was doing), and instructive (be skeptical of photographic “evidence”).

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If You Commit Gaffes, Do You Get A Pass To Commit More?

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on September 18, 2014 – 9:04 pm

Nathan Gonzales, an old friend and colleague who serves as the Deputy Editor of the well-regarded Rothenberg Political Report, recently sent me an interesting theory: 

“Here is a working hypothesis for politicians: The more stupid things you say, the more leeway you are allowed. Basically, if you have a reputation for being a straight talker or saying politically incorrect things, then you are allowed to say politically incorrect things.” 

He included two examples—Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV), whose recent remarks to an Asian Chamber of Commerce in Las Vegas generated some unflattering headlines—and Vice President Joe Biden, who Nathan calls “probably the best example of this.” 

Although Nathan sent me his theory a few weeks ago, Biden helped validate it on Tuesday by committing yet another of his infamous gaffes.

Joe Biden Gaffe

According to Yahoo News:

“Vice President Joe Biden drew fire from a prominent Jewish group on Tuesday after he described unscrupulous bankers who prey on servicemen and servicewomen deployed overseas as ‘Shylocks’ — a term frequently condemned as an anti-Semitic caricature.

‘Shylock represents the medieval stereotype about Jews and remains an offensive characterization to this day. The Vice President should have been more careful,’ Anti-Defamation League National Director Abraham Foxman said.”

Biden compounded his error by also referring to Asia as “The Orient” earlier this week which, as ABC News noted, “is considered widely outdated and could be perceived as offensive, or insensitive, especially when used in reference to people.”

It’s not just Harry Reid and Joe Biden, of course—examples on the political right include flamethrowers like these two Texas congressmen: Rep. Louie Gohmert (sample quote: “[The Obama] administration has so many Muslim Brotherhood members that have influence that they just are making wrong decisions for America.”) and Rep. Steve Stockman (sample quote: “If babies had guns, they wouldn’t be aborted.”).

Steve Stockman Tweet

Nathan is onto something. These politicians—all of whom commit gaffes and/or say outrageous things with some regularity—seem to at least partially inoculate themselves from future criticism for subsequent gaffes since they’ve already created an expectation of committing such gaffes. (For example, many people are likely to greet a Biden gaffe at this point with a shoulder shrug and a half-hearted “Ah, that’s just Biden.”)

To stick with Biden-as-case-study, I suspect many people like his style (he’s a straight-shooter who doesn’t spin me) while others view him as thoroughly undisciplined. Most people have already chosen their side by this point, meaning Biden’s gaffes are already baked into his approval rating, as are those of the other politicians mentioned in this post, and many others who aren’t.

Would I recommend this “gaffe inoculation” as a purposeful strategy? No. Few people can make it work for themselves long term without their gaffes and outrageousness backfiring on them. But does it work for many public officials? The answer, for better or worse, appears to be yes.

What do you think? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.

 


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Hillary Clinton Needs A New Message, Stat!

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on June 25, 2014 – 5:47 am

Hillary Clinton has been talking about her wealth—or relative lack thereof—a lot lately, and her responses have done more to raise eyebrows and encourage additional follow up questions than to satisfy the questions and put a close to the issue.

The topic came up during an interview with Diane Sawyer earlier this month, and Secretary Clinton fumbled the answer:

DIANE SAWYER: “It has been reported you’ve made $5 million making speeches, the president’s made more than $100 million.”

HILLARY CLINTON: “Well, if you — you have no reason to remember, but we came out of the White House not only dead broke, but in debt. We had no money when we got there and we struggled to, you know, piece together the resources for mortgages for houses, for Chelsea’s education, you know, it was not easy. Bill has worked really hard and it’s been amazing to me. He’s worked very hard, first of all, we had to pay off all our debts which was, you know, we had to make double the money because of obviously taxes, and pay you have at debts, and get us houses and take care of family members.”

Mrs. Clinton may be right on the facts—but no one is likely to relate the struggle of the average American family to a former U.S. president and first lady exiting the White House with enormous future earning potential.

And did she say houses, plural? That tone-deaf answer is stupefying given that John McCain famously committed the same gaffe (he couldn’t remember how many homes he owned) and that Mitt Romney infamously said his wife drives two Cadillacs.

Hillary Clinton Diane Sawyer

Mrs. Clinton doubled down in an interview with The Guardian this week:

“With her huge personal wealth, how could Clinton possibly hope to be credible on this issue [income inequality] when people see her as part of the problem, not its solution?

“But they don’t see me as part of the problem,” she protests, “because we pay ordinary income tax, unlike a lot of people who are truly well off.”

Is she saying that with their millions of dollars, the Clintons aren’t truly well off? That’s a subjective claim. If she’s comparing her family to Warren Buffett and Bill Gates, she has a point. But I’d guess most Americans are comparing her to themselves, not to the Buffetts of the world.

(In fairness, that quote could also be read another way: that she’s saying she is well off, but unlike others in her economic class, her family pays income tax. If that was her intent, the ambiguity of her statement is her responsibility.)

What should Mrs. Clinton say?

She should stop the phony pose of pretending she’s just like the average American. She’s not, and I can’t imagine many potential voters expect her to be. Instead, she should simply say: “My husband and I have done very well financially since Bill left the White House. But I understand firsthand the challenges that families face, and I support policies that will make it easier for them to succeed in this economy.” That’s it.

She should also look at the tape of her husband’s 1992 town hall presidential debate, during which a woman asked: “How has the national debt personally affected each of your lives? And if it hasn’t, how can you honestly find a cure for the economic problems of the common people if you have no experience in what’s ailing them?”

Mr. Clinton didn’t discuss his own financial situation—even though it was presumably much less impressive at the time. Instead, he discussed his personal experience with people who were hurting and described how his policies would help them.

I wouldn’t be opposed to Mrs. Clinton describing her modest upbringing. But describing their obvious wealth as anything less is a bad strategy destined to backfire.

What do you think? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.

 

 


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The Smear Cycle: Hillary Clinton May Have Brain Damage

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on May 15, 2014 – 6:02 am

Karl Rove, the former top advisor to President Bush, launched a new smear campaign against Hillary Clinton late last week. Speaking at a conference, Rove brought up Clinton’s 2012 health scare, during which she spent several days in a hospital. From The New York Post:

“Thirty days in the hospital?” Rove said, according to Page Six. “And when she reappears, she’s wearing glasses that are only for people who have traumatic brain injury? We need to know what’s up with that.”

The headline of that piece, “Karl Rove: Hillary May Have Brain Damage,” was exactly what Rove sought. That headline triggered many others (American Thinker went with “Might Hillary Clinton Have Suffered a Stroke?”), and forced the story into the mainstream media. Suddenly, outlets including The Washington Post, Politico, Fox News, and MSNBC were talking about Mrs. Clinton’s health. 

Hillary Clinton Leaves Hospital

Here are some facts: Hillary Clinton was not in the hospital for thirty days; she was in the hospital for four, and physicians anticipated a recovery with “no long-term consequences.”

To be clear, there are legitimate questions about Clinton’s health and age. Similar questions have been posed about Ronald Reagan, Bob Dole, and John McCain (among others), and it isn’t sexist or ageist to pose such questions.

But Rove’s smear wasn’t a genuine attempt to raise questions about Clinton’s fitness for office. It was a classic Lee Atwater-like tactic intended to damage his party’s most likely opponent. (Atwater, also a former Republican strategist, repented for his brand of scorched-earth politics on his death bed.)

True to the tactic, Rove quickly backed away from his statement and dissembled, claiming he never used the term “brain damage.” (That’s true; he said “traumatic brain injury,” which conveys the same message.) There’s no need for the person who launched the gossip cycle to defend it once people are already talking about it; he can walk away, pretending his hands are clean, while others carry the message for him. 

Statement

Hillary Clinton’s Team Did Something Similar

In 2008, Hillary Clinton’s Senior Campaign Strategist, Mark Penn, appeared on Hardball and repeatedly mentioned the fact that Barack Obama had used cocaine—and he did it in that sleazy political way of pretending that he wasn’t talking about that issue: 

“We’ve made clear that the [unintelligible] related to cocaine use is not something that the campaign was in any way raising.”

Catch that? Penn simultaneously raised the issue of cocaine use, which helped it remain a media story, while disingenuously pretending that his campaign didn’t want to talk about it. (It wasn’t the first time a Clinton confidante employed that strategy; Clinton later apologized.) Joe Trippi, John Edwards’s senior strategist who appeared on Hardball next to Penn, confronted Penn for using that tactic.

(Exchange begins at 3:54)

 

The Smear Cycle

This tactic is used by politicians on both sides of the aisle, and it’s often effective. The smear cycle looks something like this:

Smear Cycle

That cycle is unlikely to change. But at least we can diminish its power by recognizing when it’s unfolding before us.

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Yes Or No, Congressman: Will You Give Up Your Paycheck?

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on October 6, 2013 – 6:02 am

Several years ago, I consulted with a major organization regarding a brewing crisis.

My contact—the head of communications—asked me to review the situation and give her my best communications advice. When she called the next day to ask what I had come up with, I uttered two lines that made her gasp: “You don’t have a communications problem. You have a policy problem.” Until her organization’s policy was changed, I said, communications couldn’t solve her problem.

I thought of that story when I saw several members of Congress fumbling a question they should have seen coming from a mile away: “Since federal workers aren’t getting paid, will you give up your paycheck?”

As an example, take a look at this interview from CNN with Reps. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) and Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA):

 

Rep. Lee Terry (R-NE) told the Omaha World Herald: “I’ve got a nice house and a kid in college, and I’ll tell you we cannot handle it. Giving our paycheck away when you still worked and earned it? That’s just not going to fly.”

Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-NC), according to The Huffington Post, said: “I think every American should get paid for his or her labor…That includes members of Congress. I didn’t create the shutdown.”

Rep. Renee Ellmers (R-NC) told WTVD-TV: “I need my paycheck. That’s the bottom line.”

According to The Washington Post, at least 137 members of Congress have agreed to donate or refuse their salaries. But that leaves roughly 400 members who are pocketing their paychecks as 800,000 federal workers—and countless other people affected by the shutdown—are unable to pocket theirs.

(On Saturday, the House voted to pay federal workers retroactively when the shutdown ends; that does little to help anxious workers living paycheck to paycheck in the short term.)

This isn’t a communications problem. It’s a policy problem.

There’s no way a communications professional can message this problem successfully. When the people widely perceived as causing the problem are continuing to live their own financial lives unaffected by the shutdown, no amount of spin can help them out of the corner they placed themselves in.

 

These members of Congress remind me of the late hotelier Leona Helmsley, who allegedly quipped: “We don’t pay taxes. Only the little people pay taxes.”

 

There was an easy way around this.

My personal view is that no member of Congress should be allowed to receive a paycheck during a government shutdown by statute. In lieu of that, they should suspend their own pay or donate it, in full, to charity.

All of that aside, here’s what’s mind-boggling: If this shutdown lasts for two weeks, that represents just under four percent of their pay. If they normally donate four percent or more of their salaries to charity every year anyway, their decision should have been a no-brainer: donate the money they would normally give to charity out of the money they lost during the period of the shutdown.

Doing so would have allowed them to avoid the negative publicity without costing them an extra penny. But the thing is, they weren’t even smart enough to do that. Instead, they publicly insisted on living under their own privileged set of rules and keeping every bit of the taxpayers’ money they felt entitled to.

No wonder Congress has a 10 percent approval rating.

If you enjoyed this article, would you please help me reach a larger audience by sharing it with your social networks? Share buttons are below. Thank you!

a grateful h/t to: Political Wire, Huffington Post, Washington Post, reader Ken Molay


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President Obama’s Latest Syria Surprise

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on September 1, 2013 – 8:33 pm

“We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus.” – President Barack Obama, August 2012

With those comments—now known as Obama’s “Red Line” remarks—President Obama appeared to remove any ambiguity about his foreign policy. If Syrian President Bashar Hafez al-Assad uses chemical weapons, he seemed to say, we will respond.

Obama’s advisers were surprised by his choice of words. According to a May New York Times article, the phase “red line” was used “…to the surprise of some of the advisers who had attended the weekend meetings and wondered where the ‘red line’ came from. With such an evocative phrase, the president had defined his policy in a way some advisers wish they could take back.”

President Obama Press Conference 2011

His phrase was a classic seven-second stray, albeit one with greater consequences than most. It was unscripted and unplanned, memorable and definite. With those words, Mr. Obama placed himself in a geopolitical box, reducing his number of palatable options.

Fast forward a year to last Friday, when Secretary of State John Kerry offered a rather unambiguous statement: “After a decade of conflict, the American people are tired of war,” Kerry said. “Believe me, I am, too. But fatigue does not absolve us of our responsibility.”

With those words, Kerry sent a strong message on behalf of the Administration: The red line has been crossed, and the United States is prepared to act. Kerry’s message was so clear, in fact, that Saturday’s media coverage reflected the inevitability of military strikes.

 

Washington Post Syria Front Page

 

But then on Saturday afternoon, President Obama changed his mind—or “flinched,” as some pundits called it. During a walk with his chief of staff the evening before (and after Great Britain’s parliament voted down military action), Obama changed his plan. Before ordering military strikes, he would ask Congress to authorize military action against Syria.

His abrupt about-face surprised his senior team once again, confused and angered allies, and potentially emboldened opponents.

Mr. Obama’s handling of this issue leaves him in a dangerous place. If Congress fails to authorize military action, President Obama will either have to follow through on his “red line” threat without legislative approval or respect Congress’s “no” vote and break his promise. If Congress does authorize military action, he may be forced to engage in a military action he appears to be at least somewhat ambivalent about.

To be clear, I’m not criticizing Mr. Obama’s end point. Consulting with Congress might have been the right move all along. But by telegraphing something entirely different—only to change his mind at the last minute—he risks looking indecisive, at best, if not outright rudderless.

What do you think? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.


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This Post May Be Too Complex For You

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on August 28, 2013 – 8:22 pm

When North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory spoke to an Asheville business group on Monday, he decided to take a shot at the journalists who cover state government.

Defending his economic record to the Council of Independent Business Owners, Mr. McCrory made the following comment, which provoked laughter from the friendly crowd:

“This is too complex for the journalists. They don’t have economics degrees. They’ve not been in business.”

Pat McCrory

That’s the type of unextraordinary anti-media comment politicians make all the time. They’re pieces of red meat that serve as reliable crowd pleasers, particularly for conservative politicians who score points with audiences for running against the mainstream media.

But in this case, a local political reporter decided to get the last laugh. Mark Binker, a reporter for Raleigh-Durham’s WRAL, wrote a cheeky piece for the @NCCapitol website titled “This post may be ‘too complex’ for us to write.” 

Binker waits until his closing lines to exact his full revenge against Governor McCrory:

“It may be worth noting that McCrory’s campaign website says he graduated from ‘Catawba College in Rowan County, where he earned degrees in Education and Political Science.’ There’s no mention of an economics degree.”

Ouch. So, is it a bad idea to knock the media in this manner?

Yes and no. As I’ve written before, the expression “Never argue with a man who buys ink by the barrel” no longer fully applies in the age of social media. Today’s politicians are less dependent on the mainstream press than their predecessors, and can reach their audiences using alternative communications channels.

That’s not to suggest that picking gratuitous fights with the press is wise strategy, but I’d still modify that old expression to “Think hard before arguing with a man who buys ink by the barrel.”

If McCrory made these comments as part of a pre-planned and deliberate messaging strategy, it may have been worth the risk. But if these lines were improvised, he earned a small bit of embarrassing press he could have easily avoided.

A grateful tip of the hat to reader Mike Radionchenko; photo credits Hal Goodtree, Capitol Broadcasting Company

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Anthony Weiner’s New York Times Interview: Did His PR Work?

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on April 10, 2013 – 12:47 pm

This morning, Anthony Weiner’s attempt at a comeback began with a high-profile cover story in The New York Times Magazine.

It’s a fascinating story worth a full read, but one line in the lengthy article is garnering the most attention: “At breakfast, Weiner quickly put all the speculation to rest: he is eyeing the [New York City] mayor’s race.”

Personally, I don’t believe that Mr. Weiner has any place in public life. Not only did he exercise ludicrous judgment by sending lewd texts to strangers—but his deeds came with a hefty price, turning a reliably Democratic district red (his district voted for a Republican to replace him; the district turned blue again earlier this year).

Regardless of my personal feelings about Mr. Weiner, my goal in this post is to analyze the effectiveness (or lack thereof) of his first detailed public confessional from a PR perspective.

Let’s start with the good. In some ways, Mr. Weiner appears to “get it” and displays remorse—particularly regarding how his behavior affected his wife, Huma Abedin (a top aide to Hillary Clinton). The reporter noted two times when Weiner cried during the interview; in once incident, she recounted:

“He paused and took a deep breath and started to cry. ‘She’s given. . . .’ He stopped again, could barely get the words out. ‘She’s given me another chance. And I am very grateful for that. And I’m trying to make sure I get it right.’

Weiner says he’s been in therapy since resigning his post, and he seems to be making a real effort at both understanding and modifying his behavior.

He also benefits from his wife’s forgiveness. Unlike other spurned political wives who have famously stood by their men at press conferences during their moments of humiliation, Ms. Abedin didn’t. But she willingly participated in this interview, titled “Anthony Weiner and Huma Abedin’s Post-Scandal Playbook.” If they didn’t look like a solid team two years ago, they sure do now.

But in many other ways, Weiner strikes me as a man who is still very much in the process of trying to figure things out—and who still has a long way to go.

I’ve been right in making those types of judgments about Weiner before. On June 2, 2011—in the early days of the Weiner scandal—I wrote on this blog, “I can’t shake the feeling that his actions are consistent with those of a man who doesn’t want his wife to learn what he’s been up to.” In this interview, Weiner confirmed my analysis, saying, “I lied to her. The lies to everyone else were primarily because I wanted to keep it from her.”

The photo that made Anthony Weiner infamous

 

Weiner blames his reckless behavior on his need to be liked, saying:

“’There just wasn’t much of me who was smart enough, sensitive enough, in touch with my own things, understanding enough about the disrespect and how dishonorable it was to be doing that. It didn’t seem to occupy a real space in my feelings…‘I wasn’t really thinking. What does this mean that I’m doing this? Is this risky behavior? Is this smart behavior? To me, it was just another way to feed this notion that I want to be liked and admired.’”

That quote, in addition to others, leaves me with the inescapable conclusion that he’s still trying to figure it all out. On a human level, that’s appropriate, and I respect that he’s doing some hard work in therapy. But on a political level, that’s just not good enough. Until he can more accurately diagnose and account for his own motivations, he’s not ready to be entrusted with the second act the public so often grants to politicians.

Plus, there’s this “pass the buck” gem, about Twitter:

“If it wasn’t 2011 and it didn’t exist, it’s not like I would have gone out cruising bars or something like that. It was just something that technology made possible and it became possible for me to do stupid things. I mean, the thing I did, and the damage that I did, not only hadn’t it been done before, but it wasn’t possible to do it before.”

So without Twitter, his reckless behavior wouldn’t have emerged in other ways? Unlikely.

Then again, a potential run for NYC mayor may not be about trying to win the race. As one pundit said:

“Is this about winning?” asks the political adviser. “Or is this an attempt to get the scandal off the books? Then the next time he runs for something, he can say: ‘You know what? We talked about that last time. Aren’t we beyond that?’

And that might be the most brilliant PR strategy of all.

What do you think? Can Anthony Weiner’s political career be resurrected? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.

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  • About Mr. Media Training

    The Mr. Media Training Blog offers daily tips to help readers become better media spokespersons and public speakers. It also examines how well (or poorly) public figures are communicating through the media.

    Brad Phillips is the Founder and Managing Editor of the Mr. Media Training Blog. He is the president of Phillips Media Relations, a media and presentation training firm with offices in NYC and DC.

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