Dukakis in the Tank: What we all can learn from campaign media fails

Debra Pickett is president of Page 2 Communications (www.page2comm.com).  A former newspaper columnist and television commentator, Pickett offers consulting and training services to law firms and lawyers who deal with the media.  She writes here each week on topics related to law and media.  To learn more, reach her at deb@page2comm.com.

Remember Michael Dukakis in the tank?

That image of the presidential candidate, looking goofy and inept, solidified the impression that many Americans already had of Dukakis: he wasn’t tough enough to be commander-in-chief.

It comes to mind, of course, this week as another former Massachusetts governor is running for president and has made a similar blunder, with remarks that seem dismissive of 47-percent of Americans: the ones who aren’t making a lot of money.  In hindsight, media stories like these are often remembered as key turning points.  And, indeed, should Gov. Mitt Romney lose in November, pundits are sure to point to the release of these remarks (and his handling of their release to the public) as the moment when it all went wrong.

For many people I talk to, this is the sort of thing that informs their notion of my firm’s work: they see media strategy as the art of avoiding bad press and spinning your way out of it when it does happen.

In my view, though, our real work is quite different from this.  I don’t spend a lot of time or energy worrying about “bad press.”  In fact, when there’s a media story out that paints one of my clients in a negative light, my usual advice is pretty simple: keep your head down and let’s move on.  Our work together is about defining the story you want told and getting it into the right hands – the best-suited reporter or producer – to communicate it to the broadest audience possible.  I’m paid, in other words, for good press.

Effective media strategy, defining yourself for the public by telling your story the way you want it told, is a kind of inoculation against bad press.  And epic media fails, like Dukakis in a tank, aren’t so much about the single negative image or story that takes on a life of its own as they are about the vacuum – the lack of a positive self-definition – that the negative item grows to fill.

Tell your own story in a clear and compelling way and the public won’t be swayed by a single misstep.  But fail to define yourself and your blunders will define you, especially when they confirm people’s suspicions.  If Romney and his campaign team had been pro-active about telling the right story about his wealth and business success (like, say, how the American system made it possible and how, in recognition of his great luck, Romney has always made it a point to mentor others), his comments that seem to dismiss retired and lower-income folks as “victims,” wouldn’t reverberate in the way they are now.

The time for a media strategy is before the bad press, not after.

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