Event Recap (+ Video): Campaign 2012—The Messengers and the Media

Video highlights of "Campaign 2012—The Messengers and the Media,"
sponsored and produced by Kates Media, are on the PhillyLegalMarketers YouTube channel.

On February 21, 2013, Metro Philly LMA members gathered at Duane Morris’ offices to hear Larry Ceisler and Ken Davis debate and analyze some of the greatest PR “hits” of the 2012 presidential campaign.  The exercise focused on audience reaction to the most notorious media clips. Joshua Peck was on hand to moderate the discussion and engage the crowd.  Andy Laver, the LMA chapter’s 2014 president, volunteered as show-runner. Ceisler, a Democrat, and Davis, a Republican, gave their perspectives on every gaff, blunder, and self-inflicted wound, while maintaining a spirit of bi-partisanship.

Context matters.

The first clip shown was Romney’s infamous “binders full of women” comment from the presidential debates. Larry and Ken each pointed out a theme that ran through the entire presentation—context is everything.  What was offensive or awkward about the “binders” comment?  Was it the language Romney used or was it Romney’s delivery of the comment?  What if Romney had used the word “resumes” instead of binders? 

Ken commented that developing files of diversity job candidates is very common in the business world.  From Ken’s perspective, Romney was simply explaining what a typical business would do in a recruiting context. One of the LMA participants felt that it was the way Romney approached the topic that made the comment awkward and offensive. From her perspective, Romney’s poor delivery made it seem that qualified women were somehow unique and hard to find, which in turn made Romney seem tone-deaf on the topic of diversity.

The take away for legal marketers is that your attorneys’ language and delivery are crucial. Attorneys are not always the best communicators. Any time attorneys are talking to a reporter, or their own clients, they need to be aware of their audience, the language they are using, and how they are communicating. 

Next the panel addressed Obama’s famous “you didn’t build that” remark.  Again, context makes the difference.  Republicans quickly sampled the comment and put together a series of television advertising clips and talking points that painted a socialist narrative around Obama and his economic ideas.  If one listens to the entire clip, Obama’s tone of shared responsibility is evident.  However, as edited by numerous political action groups, and some media outlets, the statement became damaging.

The panel then addressed the similar Romney gaffe, “I like being able to fire people.” The group disagreed on whether this comment—even in context—was salvageable.  Romney, who was already in trouble for the general perception that he was an out-of-touch CEO, seemed to confirm for the viewer that he would have no problem firing them. Not a smart strategy in a time of high job anxiety and high unemployment.  In this climate, no candidate should ever espouse the joy of firing anyone, even if he loves firing low-performing health insurance providers—as was the case in this clip.

Our takeaway?  The media likes sound bites and headlines.  Knowing that, marketers need to work with attorneys before they go prime-time with either the media or clients.  Attorneys should keep comments and ideas simple, and positive whenever possible. Josh pointed out one of Bill Clinton’s best strategies when engaging the media: give the reporter the clip he or she needs. Clinton always engages the media with, “here’s what’s really important,” followed by the sound bite he wants the media to cover. 

No one will hear what you are saying if they are too busy watching what you are doing . . .

Obama’s miserable performance at the first debate teaches us the value of good body language.  Clearly, Obama doesn’t like being lectured by Romney.  He didn’t even look like he wanted to participate in the debate—smirking while taking notes, not looking at the camera. This is why every attorney can benefit from proper media training.  Here are some tips from Josh and our expert panelists:

  • Never have your top guy talk first.  If you have a secondary person speak to the media and there is a problem, you will need the top representative to clean up the mess.
  • Don’t be too scripted.  Always engage the reporter in a discussion.  Using a reporter’s first name during an interview encourages a more conversational tone.  This also helps the attorney listen to the questions the reporter is asking.
  • Body language: don’t do anything that distracts from what you are saying. See, e.g., Marco Rubio’s bottled water gaff.  Does anyone remember anything Rubio said in his response to the State of the Union address?

You’re on candid camera—don’t be surprised.

The 47% of America that Romney professed to not care about, really didn’t care for Romney’s opinion of them—as illustrated by polling after the campaign’s killing comment became public.  While there is a lot to unpack about the 47% gaffe, the best lesson is that in this age of digital media and camera phones, everything is on the record—permanently.  Even if you listen to Romney’s entire speech, which shows that he was referring to the portion of the electorate that was unlikely to vote for him, under any circumstances, this self-inflicted wound was a big win for his opponent.  Josh pointed out that the 47% comment seemed to summarize the Democrats’ entire argument against voting for Romney. 

Make sure your attorneys know that in front of the media or clients, they are always on.  As my Dad is fond of saying, if you wouldn’t want your comments printed on the front page of a national newspaper, skip sharing them with others in person or online.  Did Romney learn nothing from Obama’s guns and religion remark to his donors in 2008?

I’ll get back to you.

We ended the exercise with the impact Hurricane Sandy had on the campaign.  As legal marketers, we know that things change quickly, an unexpected RFP arrives, a Chambers submission becomes due, and an attorney needs his bio updated—TODAY.  In our industry we have to expect the unexpected.  That’s true for interactions with the media as well.  Reporters will ask questions that seem to come out of nowhere.  Encourage your attorneys not to answer questions reflexively.  It is fine for an attorney to tell the reporter that he or she will have to get back to them.  That gives you and the attorney time to talk about the most appropriate response.

Many thanks to Ken, Larry, Josh and Andy for putting together such a fun, creative, interactive exercise; it absolutely was a memorable LMA event.  We hope to see you all at our next event in March!

Event recap by Elizabeth Catterall, Principal, Catterall Communications.

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