Bad Communication in Massachusetts: A Recipe for Disaster

I recently wrote about the Haitian government’s failure to communicate during the tragic times it is going through.  Today we will see how this doesn’t just happen in poor countries without resources, but also in the wealthiest ones.

The US political world is still astonished by Republican Scott Brown’s victory over Martha Coakley in Massachusetts in a special election to fill the late Senator Ted Kennedy’s seat.  Massachusetts is a bastion of the Kennedy family and the Democrats.  Up until a few weeks ago, the Democratic candidate led her Republican opponent by more than 20 percentage points.  Nevertheless, she lost.  After practically five decades in Democratic hands, the seat now becomes Republican.

This change has national repercussion because the Democrats lose their 60 seat majority in the Senate, needed to prevent Republican filibusters.  The immediate result is that the Health Care Reform Plan, one of the pillars of President Obama’s domestic agenda, is in danger of not being approved.  Or of being approved without most of the provisions the Democrats wanted.

What happened?  President Obama stated it clearly:  bad communication.

President Obama said that even though his Administration’s programs are good, there has been a failure in not communicating and explaining well to the American people the projects’ benefits and advantages.  “We were so busy doing our work and managing the immediate crises at hand that we neglected to speak directly to the American people,” said Obama during an interview with ABC News.  During the 2008 campaign, even Obama’s detractors praised his communication strategy, singling it out as innovative and one of the main keys to his final success.  This is precisely why the experts are so confounded about this failure.  If they had such an effective communication plan during the campaign, why did they stop using it?

There were communication missteps at both the national and local levels.

The first misstep, the local candidate’s.  Be it due to arrogance, excessive confidence or a rather imprudent underestimation of the Republican candidate, many Washington Democratic leaders predicted that the election would be a “cakewalk” for Martha Coakley.  But did they ever have a rude awakening.  These same Democrats openly admit that Coakley neglected her campaign.  For example, from December 23 to the 30, she made no public appearances.  Before she aired her first TV ad, Scott Brown had already aired two.  In addition, the Republican candidate took much better advantage of social media tools such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

Some Republicans say that the Massachusetts election became a national referendum of President Obama’s Health Care Reform Plan and the money that is being spent in it and other programs.  The second misstep was at the national level, which Obama himself has admitted.  According to him, the message regarding the Plan’s benefits was not properly conveyed to the middle class.  Republican analysts state that the plan created uncertainty and unhappiness among the middle class and that this unhappiness carried over to the Massachusetts election.

Once again, poor communication at the highest levels causes devastating damage.  The political consequences for the Democratic Party and the Administration could be very painful.  Those who do not understand the value of knowing how to communicate are destined to fail or to succeed incompletely.  Even professional politicians forget the most basic rules: constant communication, conveying a clear, ongoing and easy-to-understand message.  Don’t become distracted from your message.  Know the audience to whom you’re speaking.

And now, there is even talk of Scott Brown as a possible Republican presidential candidate.  Until a few days ago he was a true unknown in the national political arena.  Now cameras follow his every move in Washington as if he were a Hollywood star.  He is a lawyer, handsome, young, a good communicator, not easily intimidated, who knows how to highlight his virtues and how to best expose his opponent’s weaknesses.  In addition, he understands very well the importance of communicating and especially of social networks.  Is he presidential candidate material?  Who knows! There still is an eternity left in political terms to know the answer to this question. His political experience is limited to having served as a state legislator.  But Obama was also unknown barely three years ago.  What we do know is that the last person to underestimate Brown paid dearly for having done so.

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