In 2008, the Obama campaign talked big, drawing upon evocative words such as “hope” and “change,” and an inspirational fill-in-the-blank campaign slogan (“Yes we can”).
This time around the Obama camp is in the weeds, focusing its messages on a specific point in rival Mitt Romney’s career—his tenure as president of venture capital fund Bain Capital.
And thus far it's working, thanks in large part to the Romney campaign's failure to handle the onslaught.
In May, the Obama campaign launched attack ads insisting that as president of Bain, Romney outsourced American jobs abroad. People questioned the Obama camp's strategy, suggesting the topic wouldn’t resonate with most voters. But the Romney campaign has bumbled its way through the attacks, turning a “two-day mini-story into a major three-week distraction,” according to Huffington Post Editorial Director Howard Fineman
Prominent conservative George Will told George Stephanopoulos on ABC’s “This Week” that he’s “losing at this point in a big way
.” And political strategist Joe Trippi, writing for FoxNews.com
, said the Romney campaign has only itself to blame.
Communication professionals can learn plenty from the “three-week distraction.”
You can’t rely on a retraction/apology.
When the press started to publish stories about Romney’s time at Bain—notably a Washington Post
story article the GOP candidate oversaw companies that outsourced U.S. jobs—the campaign asked for a retraction, insisting there's a difference between "outsourcing" and "offshoring." The Post
stuck by its story.
Last week, the Boston Globe
ran another piece on Bain, revealing that Romney was listed in SEC filings as the company's president until 2002, even though he’s said he left Bain in 1999 to oversee the Salt Lake City Olympics. The article drew the
same response from Romney headquarters in Boston: Retract, please. The Globe
And when Stephanie Cutter, the deputy campaign manager for Obama, suggested Romney committed a felony in his SEC filings, Boston call on the president to apology.
Demanding a retraction is one approach when the media gets it wrong
—and there’s nothing to suggest the Post
or the Globe
erred in its reporting—but when it didn’t work the first time, the campaign should have taken the cue to move on.
And as for the apology, all that did was give the Obama campaign another opportunity to repeat its talking points.
You can’t stonewall the press.
As Fineman points out in his Huffington Post
article, the Romney campaign committed an error before the Post story even hit newsstands because it declined repeated requests for comment. Bain, meanwhile, issued a boilerplate statement.
“If Romney and Bain had engaged on the story in advance, they might have been able to explain the difference between outsourcing and offshoring. They also might have been able to point out that this was a small part of the business, and an unavoidable trend that, in fact, protected many American jobs by making the American-based companies in question more efficient.”
You can probably guess how the campaign handled the Globe
story—no comment. Communications experts time and again have said “no comment” is a terrible approach to media relations. Perhaps the Romney campaign can refer to this guide of five alternatives to “no comment.”
You can’t move slowly.
The media cycle moves at a lightning quick pace, which can benefit and hurt brands. Fail to respond quickly, and a minor incident can explode. Then again, it might fade just as quickly.
The Romney campaign waited six days to offer a proper response to the Post story on outsourcing. Six
days. Imagine someone attacking your brand or client, and you telling the boss, “Let’s wait this one out a week.”
But it doesn’t end there for Romney. President Obama is calling upon the candidate to release his tax returns.
Romney has released his 2010 tax returns only, as well as estimated returns for last year. President Obama has made public his returns dating to 2000; Romney’s father released 12 years of tax returns when he ran for the White House in 1968.
Conservative commentator Bill Krystal called the Romney camp’s strategy to the tax returns “crazy.” He told “Fox News Sunday” that Romney should release them “tomorrow.”
“You got to release six, eight, 10 years of back tax returns,” Krystal said. “Take the hit for a day or two.”
According to Krystal, Romney should then give a speech on Thursday in which he puts the attention back on Obama, thereby shifting focus from the GOP candidate’s personal narrative to the president’s economic record.
Despite the calls from within his own party, Romney appeared on Fox News on Monday to restate his position that he'd only release two years
and to attempt to shift the
argument to President Obama's lack of transparency. We'll see if works. At least it didn't take six days.
You can’t use ambiguous language.
How did the campaign respond to the Globe
story that Romney was president of Bain until 2002? Senior advisor Ed Gillespie went on CNN on Sunday and said, “[Romney] took a leave of absence [from Bain] and in fact, ended up not going back at all and retired retroactively
to February 1999 as a result.” (My emphasis.)
Retired retroactively? It sounds confusing at best—disingenuous at worst.
’s Taegan Goddard called it the “worst talking point ever
Without a clear statement, the media will continue to hammer away.
You can’t forget that the news cycle moves fast.
Remember Rev. Jeremiah Wright? Four years ago, then candidate Obama took a shellacking for weeks due to the controversial preacher from his church in Chicago. It was brutal, but the story went away eventually.
The Romney campaign can turn the negative around quickly, if it reacts quickly—sorry, Boston, no more six-day lulls. This morning, the campaign is out with an attack ad saying Obama gave “payoffs” to cronies as the middle class languished. We’ll see how the narrative resonates, and whether Romney can shift the conversation. If it fails, he might consider a shakeup with his communications staff.