Every presidential election has its fair share of cringe-worthy moments, but the candidates themselves often commit highly destructive communications blunders that have handicapped — and in some cases derailed — their bid for the White House.
Stanford Graduate School of Business lecturer Bill Guttentag, a two-time Oscar-winning filmmaker, and political consultant Chris Lehane can tell you what went wrong and why — as well as what the candidates should have done instead. The two have teamed up with communications expert Mark Fabiani to write a book about crisis communications management, due out in December, as well as to teach a course called The Art of Damage Control this fall at Stanford GSB.
The premise of the course and the book, Masters of Disaster: The Ten Commandments of Damage Control (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), is that crisis is a constant state of nature in our age. As the two explain: "If you don't fight back effectively in the modern spin cycle, you will no longer have your brand, your image, your reputation — or your hopes of becoming the President of the United States. Our goal is to illuminate those practices that will help you survive to fight another day." Many of the pitfalls and recommendations outlined in the book also are relevant to corporate communications.
In the run-up to the presidential election, Guttentag and Lehane reflect on some of the biggest communications blunders from past and present campaigns, as well as the lessons to be learned:
Mitt Romney's Tax Returns
From the beginning of his campaign in the current election, Romney resisted releasing his tax returns. After hemming and hawing about the issue for months, he finally relented, but the damage had already been done. Instead of minimizing the impression that he was the Wall Street candidate, it became the issue that defined him.
Communications lesson: Hold your head high and never flinch in disclosing unflattering information. It will bolster your credibility and put you in a position to reestablish trust.
Obama's "Private" Fundraiser Remarks
While locked in a bitter campaign for the Democratic nomination in 2008, Obama attended a private fundraiser and made some remarks characterizing small-town American voters as small-minded. One of the guests recorded his remarks and posted them on the internet, contributing to a narrative that he has been combating ever since, namely of being an elitist.
Communications lesson: With the proliferation of communications channels today, you should never say or do anything that you would not want to see boiled down to a 140-character tweet. Romney also had to learn this lesson the hard way in the current election cycle, with his private event comments about "the 47%," which have dogged him into the last days of the campaign.
John Kerry's Swift Boat Debacle
During the 2004 presidential election, Vietnam veteran John Kerry used his service as commander of a Navy swift boat as the touchstone of his candidacy. That is, until a political group called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth brutally attacked his military record. Kerry refused to fire back and, by the time he finally took a stand, he had slipped from a two-point lead to a three-point deficit in the polls.
Communications lesson: When a self-interested person or entity is responsible for a crisis, don't delay in exposing their agenda.
In addition to their upcoming book and class, Guttentag and Lehane have collaborated to produce a political drama called Knife Fight, which premiered at the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival and was screened at the 2012 Democratic National Convention. Starring Rob Lowe, the film will be released in January 2012 and follows a political consultant as he manages the damaging missteps of his clients.
Chris Lehane is one of the nation's leading political consultants with a particular expertise in damage control. He was a special assistant counsel to President Bill Clinton and later served as Vice President Al Gore's press secretary. He is a partner in strategic communications firm Fabiani & Lehane with Mark Fabiani.
Bill Guttentag is a narrative and documentary film writer, producer, and director who has taught at Stanford GSB since 2001. He is a two-time documentary film Oscar winner. His films, including Nanking and Soundtrack for a Revolution, have played extensively in the United States and internationally, as well as premiered at prominent film festivals, including Sundance and Cannes.