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Shooting from the Hip Communications

From the outset, many thought he might be the one. And in fact, Texas Governor Rick Perry might very well become the Republican nominee to square off against President Obama in the general election. But right now, he’s in the middle of a heated, three-person race: Perry, Romney... and Perry.

Perry currently leads in the polls and brings bravado and swagger to the campaign trail. But his inexperience on the national stage is impacting his candidacy. For years, I have advised clients to think before you speak because words have consequences. Develop your key talking points and communicate them in a debate, press interview, or prepared statement. Think about your message before it is sent, and analyze how it will be deciphered by the receiver. In this case, the receivers, of course, are the American constituency, corporate America, and the world around us. Even more, a presidential strategy must include an awareness of how the press corps will interpret the message and how it will be channeled to their audiences.

Let’s take a look at a few communications missteps by Governor Perry and how these might be handled differently down the road.

There’s an old and incorrect statement in PR that “any PR is good PR.” Nothing could be further from the truth. Perry opened up with a verbal shot to Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke that he might be guilty of "treasonous" behavior for his economic policies. The story became the word “treason,” rather than his message. If he would have simply delivered tough talk about the Fed’s policies and behavior, he could have gotten his message across and sounded “presidential.” This communications gaffe was a “shot heard around the country,” as the American people's first impression of him was a negative one.

He then led into his assault on Social Security, labeling it a Ponzi scheme. Love it or hate it, Social Security is part of the American fabric. Americans know that the system is broken, but the key communications strategy is not to focus on the problem, but to focus on the solution. And while many on the right are applauding him for “telling it like it is,” how can it be good communications and good policy to put fear into millions of people who had no choice but to pay into this system for 30 or 40 years?

A leader must fix this program now -- in the short and mid-terms -- for those with a vested interest. Then, develop a public-policy plan to fix the program for the long-term, for those who haven’t contributed yet. Bring into the communications package a combination of statistics, financial analysis, independent experts and testimony, along with a clear vision for the future of the program that Americans can “see” (grasp and understand). This is political leadership and sound communications.

On another front, Governor Perry said: “I would no more consider living in Massachusetts than I suspect a great number of folks from Massachusetts would like to live in Texas.” And in a media interview, when asked about vacationing on Martha’s Vineyard, he stated: “I’m not even sure where it is.” This, too, is faulty communications. The President must display an appreciation for all of America’s diverse regions.

Perhaps a more prudent communications strategy might have been to state that he differs with many of the political beliefs and politicians from the state, but that he respects Massachusetts’ fine academic institutions, historical tradition, and coastal front. And if he didn’t know where Martha’s Vineyard was, after it has been in the news for many years as a favorite vacation spot of Presidents Kennedy, Clinton, and Obama, then find out! Stating that you don’t know where part of the country is reinforces an unfavorable image that many are trying to portray.

He’s been called "street smart" over "book smart." A fighter pilot who is a tough talker and who tells it the way it is. That’s all fine and good, but as the leader of the free world you can’t just pop off and shoot from the hip. He needs to develop a program to think through how he will use communications to help his ideas resonate with the American people, and then stick to the script. There’s a fine line between tough talk and erratic behavior, and words are a politician’s assets -- they have consequences to families, markets, and nations.

Certainly, candidates need to be themselves on the campaign trail and go with what has worked with them in the past -- to a degree. But now, on the national stage, with so much on the line, it’s much different, and the stakes are much higher. It’s time Perry clicks his heels and realizes he’s not in Texas anymore. Until Perry can figure out Perry, the likely winner in the three-person race might very well be Mitt Romney.


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