Whole lotta gaffes goin’ on!

by Ken Feltman

A word to the wise ain’t necessary – it’s the stupid ones that need the advice.
– Bill Cosby

Bill Cosby practices tough love. Hundreds, probably thousands of people who have descended on Washington recently may need a little tough love, too.

Many perceive that Washington is the new financial and media capital of the United States, maybe the world. They must be here to protect their clients’ interests and their own. But many newcomers are not doing well. They find the natives unfriendly. If New Yorkers and Hollywood types find Washington alien, what about people from Mumbai, Madrid, Riyadh and Beijing? Washington is Babel on the Potomac, with a cold shoulder and a shove for good measure.

Newcomers bring their ways of doing things with them. When they sense that they are in trouble, they call in someone else from back home in Berlin, Buenos Aires, Dar Es Salaam or Seoul. That fails. Think about it: How far do loud, pushy New Yorkers get among the over-educated and cautious public officials? Washington was simply a government capital until 2008. Like any formerly insulated city, Washington has its ways and the Lingua Franca is the language of life-long bureaucrats, lobbyists and lawyers who have made their way through Washington’s thickets for years.

+ You gotta know the territory.

Few do – and they guard it jealously. So at the risk of offending many, I will make a few observations.

+ All decisions in Washington or involving Washington are political. Politics cannot be separated from business or from anything else.

BP is a case study of what not to do in political public relations. What is amazing is that BP public relations people recently told media outlets and public officials in Houston, New York, London and Washington that BP did as effective a PR job as circumstances permitted in the aftermath of the Gulf oil spill. Do they really believe that?

Even the dullest BP executives must realize that something went wrong. They must know that a clear majority of Americans think that the response was, and is, inadequate. Millions of dollars spent by BP on slick ads did not clean up the oil slicks. Nor did that money help plug the leak.

BP public relations operatives – guided by BP’s London PR team – tried to spin and some of them even blamed the American public: “Most fair-minded Americans” believe that BP “is doing everything possible,” they insisted. No, most Americans do not. Most Americans think that BP’s performance is abominable. They recognize BP’s judgmental use of the words “fair-minded Americans.” Almost all Americans think that they are fair-minded and believe that BP is self-serving. They conclude that BP has lawyered up and sent the PR flacks out to paint a rosy picture of an awful catastrophe.

+ Americans are as provincial as any people, anywhere.

 To reach them, you should get on their level, their wavelength.
Perhaps BP could not have avoided some negative aspects of the news coverage. They got off on the wrong foot when they chose BP CEO Tony Hayward as spokesman. (How do you tell the CEO that he should keep his mouth shut?) Accents matter in any language. Former French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin still carries the accent from the West of France. Parisians smile and sometimes ridicule his “country” tones. Raffarin recognizes the potential liability that accents create.

At a Paris reception a few years ago, he tried to put me at ease among people whose ears I was hurting as I butchered the French language: They laugh only a little bit more at your accent than at mine, he said. Of course, that was not true but it shows Raffarin’s courteous diplomacy and his awareness that the French notice how someone uses their language. The British are less sensitive to the power of certain British accents outside the British Isles.

Hayward, for all his skills and abilities, is as burdened by his accent as Eliza Doolittle from George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion. Americans react negatively to the old-school-tie accent of upper crust Brits. Many Americans find those tones snobbish, condescending and boorish. Hayward could not help it but someone, somewhere in BP should have said, “Sir, perhaps ….”

+ Americans are forgiving of people who did not grow up speaking English.

BP Chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg made an unfortunate remark about “small people.” Television stations played and replayed the clip and some tried to incite more controversy. Americans paid attention and understood that English is a second language for Svanberg. They heard the empathy in Svanberg’s voice as well as the words. They gave him a pass. The media moved on.

Americans struggle with languages, including their own. So Americans understand when a foreigner has trouble. But Americans expect that the British know English – which makes it tougher to be British in the U.S. Fair or not, those with the cultivated accent of Oxbridge are held to a higher standard. Why fight that fact?

Hayward’s problem was not just his accent. He looked out of place among the residents of Gulf fishing villages. His PR handlers suggested that it was not reasonable to expect the CEO of a huge international corporation to mix well with oystermen, clam diggers and shrimpers who “have only one suit and a few soiled ties” (as one PR person put it). Ouch! What was he doing there if he was such a misfit?

Through the whole ordeal, Hayward and his people sent a signal to the locals: Hayward believed that he was the one inconvenienced. Eventually, the clubby Hayward did himself in. First, Hayward said he wanted to be done with the spill so he could get his life back. Hayward soon disappeared after he stonewalled Congress, attended a yacht race and let loose a few unguarded remarks when he thought no one was listening.

+ Today, someone is always listening.

Most politicians across the world come from traditions that give officials time to consider and react, whether their governments are authoritarian or democratic. The U.S. has not outgrown the wild west. BP could not pick the timing. BP’s only hope was to work with the media when the media were ready to go live. Sadly, very few PR people from outside Washington appreciate the difference between “back home” and the “always-on” nature of political PR in Washington.

+ Washington is cruel.

People get eaten up for a slip that would go unreported elsewhere. Few master the art of political public relations as it is played in Washington. They need help.

Everyone can learn something from Republican Chairman Michael Steele’s comments on Afghanistan. Steele may be prone to make dumb remarks but he knows how the public relations game is played in Washington. Conservatives called (again!) for his resignation. Liberals were overjoyed (again!). Many among his dwindling number of supporters hid. Was this the gaffe that finally would force Steele out? The answer came a week later from Steele: “I ain’t going anywhere.”

How did Steele survive? Anyone can benefit from Steele’s example.

+ You get only one chance to issue your first response to a gaffe.

Choose your response wisely, deliberately but quickly. That first response will replace the original gaffe if it is not clean and convincing. Senate candidate Sue Lowden of Nevada was pressed on her suggestion that to save money in Obamacare, patients should barter with their doctors. She refused to back down. Instead, she escalated the situation when she defended herself with a now-famous line about trading chickens for healthcare. That comment exploded on television and the Internet and came to define her as a little loopy. She went from front-runner to loser. The lesson is simple: Be precise with your words. Otherwise, it will be gaffe redux.

+ Get ahead of the story.

Steele’s a pro at this. Sure, he gets lots of practice. But you can learn from him. By the time his Afghanistan gaffe had made it from the blogs to the mainstream outlets, key members of Steele’s board and his communications director had made statements available to the press. Reporters used those comments in their coverage, diluting the toxic nature of the story.

Speed was essential and Steele was able to meet the test because he applied an effective, time-tested strategy:

Ask all your friends to help you. Use your contacts, and everybody else’s, too.
President Obama compared his bowling skills to those of Special Olympians in a taping of a TV show. Before the show aired, Obama had asked Special Olympics Chairman Timothy Shriver for help. Shriver was on television defending Obama and assuring everyone that Obama had apologized “in a way that was very moving.”

+ News stories are like fires: Take away the oxygen and the fire dies down.

Steele did not provide more oxygen by going on television to explain what he “really” meant. That video would have been all over the place, making a difficult situation worse. Steele let others speak for him and, when the story passed, he claimed victory. Perhaps he should have been a little more humble about it. He came close to breaking – once again! – the first rule for those who have gaffed:

+ Stop! Don’t do it again.

People may forgive you the first time, but they will figure that you are a chowderhead if you do it again.

Expect Steele to serve until January 2011, when the Republican National Committee will thank him for his service and he will move on to something else.

With his knowledge of the folkways of Washington, he may hang out a shingle and advise newcomers. The newcomers need the help. The newcomers should think about a good rule for success in Washington:

+ Hire people who know how Washington works.

About Radnor Reports

Ken Feltman is past-president of the International Association of Political Consultants and the American League of Lobbyists. He is retired chairman of Radnor Inc., an international political consulting and government relations firm in Washington, D.C. Know as a coalition builder, he has participated in election campaigns and legislative efforts in the United States and several other countries.
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