Mugged by Reality

ICangles Communications Post…

Revised Q1 GDP was released last Friday showing anemic 1.6 percent growth. This came on top of still high unemployment rates and plummeting home sale numbers. It is safe to say that reality hasn’t just mugged the Obama administration’s recovery summer PR campaign aimed at the midterm elections, but knifed it and left it for dead in the gutter. To keep this post apolitical, spread the criticism around and also mix a few metaphors, the Bush administration itself crashed and burned when the president pulled the PR stunt of landing on a carrier deck after the invasion of Iraq under a mission accomplished banner. Both cases illustrate the dangers of trumpeting future successes before they have been realized. Credibility tends to be far easier to keep by being conservative in one’s promises then it is to get back once lost.

Another communications misstep each administration made was to show a lack of focus and commitment ironically in both cases around a disaster in the Gulf—the BP oil leak and Katrina storm. Supporters might argue that Obama couldn’t personally plug the oil leak or that Bush’s presence would only have hindered rescue efforts, and that neither caused their respective disasters. That’s not the point. From a perceptual standpoint it was important for both to publically show leadership—that they cared and were on top of their respective situations from day one via communications. Even if the only thing they could do was communicate that they were engaged then that is what they needed to be doing.

The art of communicating—and it is an art—is tricky. In the first instance communications not backed-up by results proved the wrong move. In the second a lack of communications before there were results to point to was a mistake. But a basic lesson is for leaders to show they are engaged on the topics that matter to their audiences without overpromising results in the process.

This can mean simply addressing and publically recognizing the scope of a pressing problem before a solution is ready.  Not just incumbent politicians, but many business leaders for some reason think doing so is a mistake. It’s not. It shows voters or customers that you care and are focused on their problems, even if a solution isn’t ready yet. Doing otherwise by not speaking, even if behind the scenes you are feverishly working on a solution, or making promises you’re not sure you can keep risks getting branded as arrogant or out of touch.

Of course there is a limit to the effectiveness of communications. Reality can be spun, but it can’t be reversed. Even with good communications a botched Iraq war and Katrina rescue effort would have damaged the Bush administration’s brand. Although the recovery summer messaging and images of high-end vacations on the part of the Obama family in Spain and Martha’s Vineyard, when many American families are struggling, hurt that administration, the reality of a struggling economy is the root cause for what will almost certainly be big Democratic losses in upcoming midterm elections.

After the midterms the Obama administration will face two big positioning choices. Some political advisors draw the analogy to Reagan who fighting a tough recession stuck to his policies even after losses in midterm elections and handily won reelection. Other advisors point to Clinton who after disastrous midterms swung to more moderate and centrist policies and won reelection.

Both Reagan and Clinton were excellent communicators, and that certainly helped in their reelections. But what mattered more than communications was that the respective policies they choose set the stage for strong economies when their elections came around. Most important to the Obama administration’s reelection prospects is choosing the right policies that will set the stage for a strong economy. Good communications may not be able to make bad policies work, however they can keep people who matter whether they are voters, customers or employees on your side through tough times.

Communicating effectively is the key to keeping enough people on board to be able to execute policies. For the current president communications may prove the deciding factor in the Democrats keeping or losing the House and perhaps even the Senate, as many races look to be close. And eventually communications have to be married to results. It will be that marriage that will decide whether Obama is a one- or two-term president. Unpleasant realities can pose significant danger, but proper communications means you don’t have to get mugged by reality and left without the resources to execute.

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