Posts Tagged ‘communication’

Interview: La Opinión a Coruña (11/7/2010)

November 7, 2010

PABLO GATO

Two years ago he left journalism to advise organizations and businesses that operate in the United States, among them Spanish banks.  He is the Hispanic journalist who has covered the most international conflicts on US television, has worked for large networks such as CNN and NBC and received two Emmys and four nominations from the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences for his investigative reports.

A journalist from A Coruña in the USA who received two Emmys for his investigative reports

 “Obama’s big problem was his inability to sell his accomplishments”

“[Hispanic Senator-elect] Marco Rubio is being touted as a presidential nominee rival in 2012, but this will depend on what he does about issues such as immigration reform”

Santiago Romero (A CORUÑA)

–   Why did things go so badly for Obama in this election?

–   There are two issues.  The underlying one is the criticism about the high public cost of Obama’s ambitious agenda and the other which has had more impact on the ballot box: Obama has had a huge communication failure; he didn’t know how to sell his accomplishments.  They communicated perfectly well to get him elected President, they mobilized the country, and he actually raised more money than anyone else.  But when it came to governing they neglected that communication machinery.  And Obama has paid for it.

–   It looks like Hispanic voters have turned their back on him.

–   The problem is the immigration reform.  Obama promised it would happen during his first year in office and he didn’t do it.  Therefore, even though there are things that Hispanics say are good and that benefit everyone, failing to fulfill this campaign promise puts everything in a negative light for the Hispanic community.  Everything else is not important and there are a lot of disappointed people.  This cost him votes.

–   Will Obama have to change his agenda?

–   He will be forced to change it or he won’t be able to get any legislation passed.  I think that the agendas of both the Democrats and Republicans will change.  If everything comes to a halt the Republicans will be punished for it, not just Obama.  Now that they’re a majority in the Congress they cannot continue being the party of no.

–   Can these results be extrapolated to a Presidential election?

–   They’re different. There are many people who voted for the Republicans not because of their ideology, but to punish the Democrats.  The Republicans admit that this is not a confidence vote in them, but actually a second opportunity.  And it is limited to the next two years.  It can easily change in 2012.

–   Will [Hispanic Senator-elect] Marco Rubio be Obama’s opponent in 2012?

–   He’s automatically being talked about as a presidential candidate.  Now, the issue is more complicated than that.  First of all, getting Hispanics behind him doesn’t guarantee he will become the presidential candidate.  In addition, it’s yet to be seen if the majority of the Hispanic community feels comfortable with him as their so-called official representative.  Undoubtedly he will be someone to watch out for, but it’s still left to be seen how far he’ll go.  Among other things, he will have to go on the record with actual votes [in the Senate].  The support of the Hispanic population will depend on what he does and the key will be immigration reform.

–   I believe that you are the Hispanic journalist in the United States who covered the most wars.

–   Yes, because it was of great interest to me during a time in my career.  Between that and the fact that no one else wanted to cover these conflicts, it was the perfect combination.  I have met several Spanish war correspondents who unfortunately died, for example Julio Fuentes, who was murdered in Afghanistan and during the Iraq war I met Julio Parrado a day before he was killed.  And Antena 3’s Ricardo Ortega, who died in Haiti.  In Spain the saying is that a cat has seven lives; in the United States it’s nine; I have used up all nine.  I could have been killed several times, but was lucky.

–   You were recognized by the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences for your coverage of September 11.  How was that experience?

–   It was surreal.  I live near the Pentagon, in Washington.  I was driving and saw a huge smoke cloud coming from the military complex, which took days to extinguish.  I immediately called the office, they knew about the World Trade Center but not about the Pentagon.  It was like the Apocalypse: cars driving the wrong way, armed people crossing the highway and suddenly all the cell phones went off while you could hear explosions everywhere, it was the power lines, but there were rumors that a car bomb had gone off at the State Department.  It just seemed like Washington was under attack.  It was going into that chaotic situation and working non-stop at the news desk during many days.

–   What happened in Washington is the least covered of the September 11 attacks, which is why so many people believe in conspiracy theories.

–   Well… it’s only because there isn’t the same kind of video record as there is for what happened in New York.  My colleague Lori Montenegro was right in front of the Pentagon and saw clearly how the plane crashed into the Pentagon. She saw it, but there isn’t a video where it can be seen clearly as in New York.  That is why all those things have come out.

–   You’ve personally met several Presidents at the White House.  Which one impressed you the most?

–   Clinton, without a doubt. He is able to make you feel like you’re the center of the universe when you speak with him.  Bush is also affable and speaks a bit of Spanish.

–   One of your reports that received an award uncovered something that is not well-known in Europe: the connection between Islamic terrorism in South America.

–   Yes, it’s in the area known as the Triple Frontier between Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay, the Latin American smuggling capital.  This zone has a strong Arab community and there had been accusations that Hezbollah raised funds there for the Middle East.  We went to find out and surprisingly found people who admitted openly their affiliation with radical Islamic groups and one who told us that he would be willing to be a suicide bomber if he were in Iraq.

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Journalism on Life Support

July 24, 2010

With a few honorable exceptions, in my opinion, journalism is clearly declining.  Every day it becomes less relevant when it comes to exercising its primary function as an independent mechanism of oversight and investigation of the government and organizations regarding issues of vital importance for our society.  The latest example is the surreal case of Shirley Sherrod.

For openers, it is surreal because President Obama called her twice, couldn’t reach her and she didn’t even return his call until the following day.  What?  What do you mean?  THE President Obama?  The one that world leaders constantly court and go through hoops to hold fleeting meetings with at the White House?  Yes, the very same.  Just like you have read.  And when he was finally able to speak with her, it was to apologize.  And this is just the latest of the twists in this story of journalism-fiction.

What could have led to this Presidential apology?  Mrs. Sherrod was an employee of the US Department of Agriculture.  This past March 27, Sherrod made a speech at an event of the NAACP, an organization that defends the civil rights of minorities in the United States.  A few days ago, a blogger and conservative activist, Andrew Breitbart, uploaded on YouTube a video clip of Mrs. Sherrod’s remarks.

On the video, she admitted that 24 years ago she hesitated about whether or not to help a white farmer who came to her for assistance to save his farm.  The reason?  He was White.  At the time, Sherrod worked in the south of the United States for a non-profit agency established to help African-American farmers.  Mrs. Sherrod is African-American.

When the media got a hold of the video, all hell broke loose.  A strange and schizophrenic virus took over all media outlets, the Administration, as well as the public.  A first year journalism student would have behaved in a more professional, ethical and responsible manner than the reporters who covered this story.

Especially, the conservative media began to attack Sherrod furiously, accusing her of being a racist.  Like an out-of-control forest fire, the video spread throughout the Internet and the attacks increased, culminating in the Secretary of Agriculture’s decision to fire Mrs. Sherrod.  Some commentators have said that the White House responded so quickly and forcefully out of fear that the Administration of an African-American president would be accused of racism against Whites.

There’s a small problem.  It happens that the video uploaded to YouTube was a specifically edited clip of what Mrs. Sherrod said during the NAACP event.  The real story told by Sherrod was the complete opposite:  one of redemption and racial reconciliation.

At the event, Sherrod acknowledged her previously held prejudices, her inner struggles and stated that she finally decided that she and the farmer were human beings and that there were no differences between them.  She not only helped the White farmer to save his farm but a long-lasting friendship grew from their encounter.  The farmer, Roger Spooner, and his family confirmed that everything that Mrs. Sherrod said was true.  That is, the exact opposite of the image that the world built of Mrs. Sherrod was real.  However, there she was: fired from her job, slandered and constantly criticized by one and all.

Afterwards, the conservative blogger acknowledged that the video he uploaded to YouTube was actually an edited version of the speech.  According to him, the people who gave it to him never told him that the video was made up of selected clips.  Whether or not this is true, the damage was already done and journalism in general suffered a serious setback.  Others accuse the blogger of knowing exactly what he was uploading and that he did it anyway to create a controversy that attacked the Obama Administration and promote his blog.

Did no one verify to make sure that the story and the accusations were true? Where did journalistic ethics go? Where are objectivity, the sense of information equity and justice?  Did nobody bother to request a complete copy of the speech to find out if the quotes reflected accurately the spirit of what was said?  Or was it that, just like it happened, the quotes were taken out of context?  Did anyone find someone who actually attended the event to confirm the authenticity of the remarks?  Did anyone check with a variety of sources to verify the information? Did an experienced editor or producer review the story before printing or airing it? Was nobody suspicious that an organization such as the NAACP, which is on the forefront of calls for social harmony, would invite a supposedly racist speaker to their event? Did this simple fact not raise the alarm?  Did anyone bother to speak with Mrs. Sherrod to allow her to defend herself? Did anyone demand that the story not be made public until all the information had been verified, to ensure that irreparable damage to her reputation was not made if the accusations were not true? My goodness, I could go on and on all day writing this type of questions.  These are the basic tenets of journalism.

However, as I mentioned previously, this situation goes further.  How could the Obama Administration fire someone without verifying that the accusations were true, basing this decision only on press reports?  Is it that those in the government do not know that just because something is published by the media it is not necessarily true?  Then, is it true that, as some people insist, President Obama was actually born in Kenya and that instead of being a Christian is actually a Muslim?  Is it true then that Elvis Presley was having breakfast this morning in Las Vegas? And, how is it possible that the general population can also let itself be influenced in such a manner by the media without displaying the least interest in finding out whether or not this story was true?  Did anyone say, “Wait a minute, is this true? Could someone be making too big a deal out of this?  Couldn’t these be politically motivated falsities?  Has she been given the opportunity to defend herself?”?  No, no one said anything and the life of a woman who has fought during decades on behalf of others’ civil rights, regardless of their skin color, radically changed in a matter of days.  Suddenly, the entire country saw her as a racist.

When everyone finally realized the enormity of the mistake they had made, a great feeling of collective guilt took over.  The Secretary of Agriculture apologized during a press conference and offered her another job.  Some of news outlets also apologized and President Obama himself called her to apologize on behalf of his Administration.

However, once again, this case goes beyond this one situation affecting Mrs. Sherrod.  These are the consequences of what we see in journalism nowadays.  On the one hand, newspapers, television and radio stations fire a large number of experienced journalists to replace them with recently graduated one who are paid a third of the fired journalists’ salaries.  However, they clearly have no experience.  News bureaus have less and less true professional journalists on staff and those who are still around have an enormous amount of work.  They cannot properly do their job.  It is not their fault.  Journalists nowadays have to do the work of two or three people, support the online side of the news, as well as sometimes film and edit the stories they cover.  It is impossible to deliver good, solid work as a journalist under these conditions.

On the other hand, there is the emergence of the so-called blogosphere, which isn’t necessarily journalism.  Many times it is its very opposite.  A weird world where we come across true professionals, but also an army of lunatics and people without the most basic knowledge of issues or journalism but who sell themselves as “serious” journalists.  That, of course, without including the throng of crazed political activists who want to make themselves pass for journalists and don’t have a clue about what they’re writing about.  The result is that you can come across anything on the Web, but readers don’t always know or can’t distinguish between good information and blatant propaganda.

Media outlets always want to beat the competition to the punch when it comes to reporting news.  It is the nature of the business.  To be first.  However, with the arrival of the Web and 24-hour news cycles, the struggle is now down to beating the competition by mere seconds.  The pressure to be first is very strong and, as we can see from this example, the right steps are not always taken before publishing or going on air with a story.  Speed trumps the truth.

The media needs to be an institution where respected journalists and professionals come together and are able to inform the nation in an independent way. People who dedicate their lives to investigate and report the news objectively and truthfully to their readers, viewers, and listeners.  They have to be the point of reference for the public, where they can confidently go to get the news.  The media cannot be the circus sideshow that we just saw with Mrs. Sherrod.  I have profound admiration for journalists who embrace and take seriously their profession.  They are vital to our society.  A real democracy cannot function without a strong, independent, truthful, qualified and brave media.  In spite of this, I think that journalists who are not in this group do real damage to our society and we have to protect ourselves from them.

Many will view this episode as anecdotal, but the problem is that it isn’t.  It represents a very dangerous tendency.  Do you remember the Iraq War?  Do you remember the weapons of mass destruction that were supposedly being hidden in Iraq?  The media did a terrible job in its coverage prior to the war.  And what can be said about the current economic crisis?  How is it possible that financial sector journalists didn’t investigate the problem that was brewing?  Now we know that more than a few predicted something was going to happen, but where were those reporters to talk about these concerns, about the imminent danger of a financial catastrophe?  Surely, due to the decrease in newsroom budgets, these reporters were covering several stories a day and didn’t have the time to cover any of them properly.

From my vantage point, there are only a handful of news media outlets with the financial resources and professional staff to truly make a difference in today’s media world.  Most journalists are doing the work of several people or are deeply enmeshed in looking for the daily irrelevant scandal to increase viewership, ratings, and the number of newspapers or magazines sold.  Many bloggers don’t even care if what they write is true or a lie.  Everything is geared to creating a scandal to get the most hits on their page.  And with that, to increase their notoriety.  Fame.  Others, with political motivations, whether on the right or left, don’t even care about that; their concern is to politically hurt their opponents.  Again, without caring if their accusations are true or merely made-up.  As you well know, a lie told a thousand times becomes the truth.

All of this is truly dangerous for our democracy and for the overall well-being of our society.  Crises bring about serious economic problems for millions of families.  Wars bring about death and enormous debt.  The public has a right to be well-informed to be able to make important decisions.  Journalism’s mission is to provide this information.  It has always been said that journalism “informs, educates, and entertains.”  From my point of view, today’s journalism informs very little, educates even less, and entertains us more and more every day.

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The White House Bubble

May 30, 2010

Every president is a victim of it.  Each one, sometime during their Administration, hears that he has locked himself in “the White House bubble.”  This means that, immersed in his daily work, spending most of his time isolated in the Executive Mansion, he has distanced himself from the country’s realities.  That he doesn’t understand what’s happening on Main Street.  That he doesn’t understand any longer the daily concerns of the common citizens. These criticisms are now aimed at President Obama.  The reason?  The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

The White House is on the defensive regarding this issue.  During the first weeks of the crisis, the polls stated that the public had decided on a clear responsible party for the disaster, British Petroleum (BP), and approved of the way the government was handling the situation.  However, opinions have been changing substantially since then and the confidence on the Administration has fallen significantly.

Many pundits criticized President Obama for, apparently, not giving the crisis the importance it merits from the very beginning.  The April 20 incident has already become the largest oil spill in the history of the United States. 

The President responded by holding a press conference on May 27 and said that his Administration has always led the response to the crisis and that those who doubted this, simply “don’t know the facts.”

However, even well-known Democratic activists such as James Carville, who lives in the affected area, have directly confronted the White House, accusing it of responding to the crisis too slowly.  Carville even added that if the crisis had taken place on the coasts of California or on the beaches near the Washington, DC area, the response would have been completely different:  quick, efficient, forceful, well-coordinated.  Carville, a key advisor during the Clinton Administration, has grown more aggressive in his critique of the way the White House is managing the situation.  And he is doing this publicly, completely aware of the resentment that he is creating in the Administration.  Still, Carville isn’t the only one.  Louisiana’s Democratic Senator, Mary Landrieu, also stated “the President has not been as visible as he should have been on this and he is going to pay a political price for it, unfortunately.”

The Republicans state that if this had happened to former President George W. Bush, rather than to President Obama, the Democrats would be criticizing him mercilessly 24-hours a day.  They would accuse him of incompetence and of not being actively involved in the crisis because of his ties to the oil industry.

During the press conference President Obama insisted that this is a clear priority for his Administration and that from the onset they have devoted the necessary experts and resources to solve the oil spill as fast as possible.  According to him, this situation is first on his mind when he wakes and last when falling asleep.

We won’t put in question the President’s statements regarding his efforts, but the truth is that many people think that the government has not done enough and that they have let BP take the lead in dealing with such an important issue.  These people qualify the spill as a national crisis and add that, therefore, the government should clearly have a leadership role and attitude.  According to them, this leadership has either not been in place or has not been properly communicated to the American people.  And as we all know, in politics perception is 90 percent of reality.

I think that the President’s press conference took place too late.  It was not proactive but reactive.  I believe that if President Obama immediately named US Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen to be in charge of the Federal response to the disaster, from the beginning Allen should have stood shoulder-to-shoulder with BP’s representatives during the daily press conferences.  This also applies to the local and state authorities.  But the US public only saw one person:  the BP spokesperson.  I think that the President cannot hold a press conference without being informed that a key player in the situation had been fired or had resigned.  This person is Elizabeth Birnbaum, the former director of the Minerals Management Service, an executive who answered to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar. This is the very government agency that President Obama criticized for its responsibility in allowing the oil industry to have improper influence in the environmental control area and security regarding oil rig accidents.

On Friday, May 28, the President once again to the affected zone to witness the effects of the disaster.  The government now asserts that instead of the five thousand barrels of oil it had previously stated were being spilled, the real number is 19 thousand.

President Obama went to one of the beaches suffering the effects of the crisis and later met with the leaders in charge of fighting the spill.  After the meeting, he left Louisiana.  He left without even speaking with the fishermen and citizens of the area.  Those clearly most directly affected by the disaster.  It was a flyover type of trip.  Taking into account the criticism, right or wrong, regarding his behavior up to then, why not take advantage of the long Memorial Day weekend to stay a couple of days in the area and become more deeply familiarized with the situation where it is happening?  Why not stay to listen to first-hand accounts from the victims?  Why not stay and convey the clear message that he doesn’t have a priority more important than this one?  I think that it was a great lost opportunity for the President and that this has highlighted even more Louisiana’s belief that Washington truly doesn’t understand what this situation means to the state.  A state already very resentful with the federal government for its response to Katrina.

President Obama was universally praised for being a master in his relations with the media during the presidential campaign.  He is undoubtedly a great communicator.  He’s also has left his mark in history by being the first who knew how to mobilize massive popular support for his campaign through social media networks.  Something that enabled him to raise more money than any other presidential campaign in history with an average contribution of $100 or less.  He also has shown that he is not afraid to “grab the bull by the horns.”  In just a year he has led the fight for health care reform, financial reform, and significant economic stimulus packages.

President Obama said in Louisiana that he has tripled the aid to deal with the oil spill.  He has even given his White House phone number to the local community authorities so that they can call him directly if something that has been promised is not taken care of.  His advisors confirm that he is constantly briefed about everything that is happening and that stopping the oil spill is one of his main priorities.  That this issue takes up many hours of his day.

Nevertheless, the truth is that the ongoing perception is that there hasn’t been enough presidential leadership on this matter.  To this day, many people still don’t know who is really in charge of this crisis.  Yes, the President stated that he is ultimately responsible, but, who is responsible on a day-to-day basis?  BP? The Coast Guard admiral?  The governor of Louisiana? The local authorities?  Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar?  Someone in Washington? Who?  I, who have been following this situation closely since it began, must admit that I have no idea.  The Administration has yet to put forth a face that we can all identify as the person responsible for the daily management of the crisis.  Something fundamental in terms of public perception is that someone specific is designated as being in charge.

And that it’s not enough to do things, but that you must know how to efficiently communicate what is being done.  It is difficult to understand how an Administration such as this one, so aware of the importance of public opinion, has allowed for this perception to spread regarding an issue as important as this one.  Now, in addition to solving the problem, they will have to communicate extremely well everything being done to prevent that this ecological disaster also becomes a political one for the White House.

Cristina Fernández de Kirchner didn’t deliver

April 15, 2010

Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, Argentina’s president, gave a speech at the US Chamber of Commerce in Washington, DC on April 9, 2010.  The powerful US Chamber has three million members.

In his introduction, Chamber president Thomas Donohue told President Fernández de Kirchner that the US business entrepreneurs in the audience were especially interested in three subjects:  corruption, transparency and accountability.

The president, during her more than 30 minute talk, gave a detailed, precise and very well executed accounting of her country’s economic situation and sold it as a very good place to do business.  She only mentioned in passing that problems or conflicts always exist between partners and that their obligation is to find a solution to those disputes.  However, she never directly addressed the issues that concerned her audience. 

There are two ways to look at this situation.  The first one is that the president simply did not want to delve on these issues and avoided them.  The second is that she was not ready for the questions or did not understand what was asked of her.  I do not know if Mrs. Fernández de Kirchner understands English well enough.  Her presentation was in Spanish.

Regardless, the result was a negative one.  If she did not want to speak about the issues of concern to the audience, the question at hand is why did she accept the invitation?  Since she took the time to be there and obviously made a real effort to convince the potential future investors that Argentina is, according to her, a good investment choice, it is not logical that she then did not address her audience’s most important concerns.  The reason is that if these questions are not addressed this obviously will not help to convince them to invest their capital in Argentina.  On the other hand, if she did not understand what she was asked, the result was equally damaging.

The conclusion is that her presence at the forum did not meet its objective.  The president should have addressed these issues in more detail, even if she didn’t focus the presentation on them; otherwise she should not have gone to the event.  President Fernández de Kirchner could have talked about Argentina’s economic situation and at the same time touched on the issues of corruption, transparency and accountability. 

Was the purpose of the event not explained thoroughly to the president?  Did she not understand well the audience to which she would be speaking?  What is clear is that many of the entrepreneurs, after the event, said that they left with the very same questions they had when they arrived.

What was clear to me is that the message was not well prepared and that it was a lost opportunity to attract investments to Argentina.  It isn’t every day that a political leader can speak to an audience of the most powerful and influential business leaders in the United States.

Later, during the question and answer period, the president did something that, from my point of view, gratuitously distracted attention from her message to encourage investments in Argentina.

A member of the audience asked regarding the issue of copyright piracy, such as DVDs.  The moderator said that piracy was a current and global phenomena and that it can even be seen on the streets of Washington.  The president said that she agreed with the statement that piracy was a current issue and then mentioned the subject of the Malvinas [Falkland Islands].  The audience laughed.

We do not need to address the issue of whether or not the islands are Argentina’s; that’s not the point.  The point is that such a statement from such a high-profile official immediately distracts the audience and distances it from the message at hand.  They did not listen to her message about piracy because everyone was commenting about the statement about the Malvinas.  In addition, if the implication was that the British are pirates because of their presence on the islands, we must remember that the United States assisted Great Britain during the Falkland Islands war; therefore, if the British are pirates, so are the Americans.  I do not know if it is appropriate to call the Americans pirates to their face during a presidential visit to Washington, and then ask them to invest their money in Argentina.

Definitely, the issue that the audience talked about at the end of the presentation was not that Argentina was a good investment opportunity, but that the president had not talked about transparency and corruption and what the diplomatic reaction would be from London to the president’s statement comparing the British to pirates.

I do not think that the event helped the Argentinean leadership’s goals for more investment in Argentina.  They were not effective in getting their message to their audience and this could result in less foreign investments in the South American country, resulting in less economic growth as well.

The Argentinean president cannot be aware of everything, but I think that she was not well advised or prepared for the event.  However, I also think that she made a mistake by not honing in on her key message and introducing an unrelated controversy, distracting attention from the main focus of her presentation:  invest in Argentina.

The White House Learns a Lesson the Hard Way

February 18, 2010

President Obama has recognized that his Administration is not communicating well.  According to him, this inability to communicate effectively with the American people has been one of the main reasons for the Democrats’ most recent setbacks.  Poor communication equals big problems, be it in the political or business arenas.  Does this sound familiar?

The Democrats are still in shock after the loss of the Senate seat in Massachusetts that during almost five decades was a Democrat stalwart, and more specifically a Kennedy seat.  Republican Scott Brown’s surprising victory put an end to the Democrats’ super majority and, more importantly, with Obama’s healthcare reform proposal.  That is, the proposal the President wanted.

The White House stresses that the plan isn’t at fault; the problem is that the American people have not been told clearly what the plan entails.   The Administration is now retooling its communication strategy.  It will now include quicker responses to political attacks, a more stringent control of messages and more public appearances by the President.  The White House has said that its communication team allowed the opposition to take the lead with its message and failed to counterattack effectively.  Some examples of the new strategy include Vice President Biden’s appearance in two network Sunday shows.  After seven months, President Obama held a press conference last week – another example of the new strategy.

The conclusion is clear.  The White House has taken the offensive to be able to ensure the same support it had during the presidential campaign.  Everyone recognizes that the campaign communication strategy was one of the pillars of its successful run for the White House.

Another important part of the new strategy is getting the President out of the White House, to enable him to be seen in other scenarios where he is not surrounded by “Washington suits.”  If he is going to speak about the environment, he’ll go to a national park.  If he’s going to announce an initiative about the automobile industry, he’ll do so at a car assembly line in Detroit – the perfect photo op.

You can never let your guard down when it comes to communicating.  You must be proactive and sell your message constantly.  You must define your message and not let others do it for you.  If you do so, you’ll pay a very heavy price.  The White House has understood this all too well.

Bad Communication in Massachusetts: A Recipe for Disaster

January 22, 2010

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.