With less than four months to go before the Presidential election, the battle between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney is reaching a fever pitch.
Every word, sentence, statement, campaign stop, and live TV appearance has the potential to shape the outcome.
The speed at which candidates must act is increasing exponentially. Four years ago, new communications elements like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, were accelerating. Today, they blaze across the political landscape like shooting stars.
There’s an old saying that the “fog of war” blurs actions and judgment in the heat of battle. In my view, that fog is playing out in the political arena and impacting communications in ways never contemplated.
What recently happened to Romney illustrates the point.
During a CBS News interview on July 4th, Romney said Obama’s individual mandate in his signature healthcare law is “a tax.” Two days earlier, appearing on MSNBC, Romney spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom said Romney did not agree with the court’s majority “tax” label, instead considering it a “penalty.”
Talk about being on a different page.
The Obama camp immediately seized this inconsistency in messaging and issued an official statement: “Romney contradicted his own campaign, and himself. First, he threw his top aide under the bus…second, he contradicted himself by saying his own Massachusetts mandate wasn’t a tax – but Romney has called the individual mandate he implemented in his home state a tax many times before. Glad we cleared all that up.”
The mess created a perfect Obama campaign sound bite.
The issue of message inconsistency plays on both sides of the aisle. In June, President Obama said during a press conference that “the private sector is doing fine.” But his statement was made at a time when the economy was struggling to recover with unemployment above 8 percent.
Like what Romney had to do for Fehrnstrom, Obama’s senior campaign adviser David Axelrod went on Sunday morning talk shows and explain that the President really didn’t mean what he said, calling it an “out of context clause.”
The bottom line is these message patterns were flawed and both candidates paid for it. Unless there is a dramatic change in campaign management, we can expect more.
Message inconsistency does more than short-term harm. Within 48 hours of Romney’s last flip-flop, Rupert Murdoch came out swinging. He “seems to play everything safe,” said Murdoch, who has had his own problems in recent months but maintains a loyal conservative following.
In a Tweet, Murdoch told the world, “Tough O Chicago pros will be hard to beat unless he drops old friends from the team. Doubtful.” This was all followed by a blistering editorial in the Wall Street Journal (owned by Murdoch) that said the campaign looked “confused in addition to being politically dumb” and “is slowly squandering an historic opportunity.”
Other critics from Romney’s party jumped on the bandwagon. Writing in the conservative Weekly Standard, Editor William Kristol wrote, “Adopting a prevent defense when it’s only the second quarter and you’re not even ahead is dubious enough as a strategy.”
Erratic messaging is dividing a party that will need much more cohesiveness in messaging if Republicans want to defeat an incumbent President.
Many political pundits argue that politics is a world unto itself, and the basic rules of strategic communications management and message development don’t apply.
No matter what type of pressure a candidate or an official spokesperson is under, in my opinion, there is no excuse for not having their key messages in synch. How difficult can it be for Romney and Fehrnstrom to be on the same page? Can they make the case they don’t have time to be in synch before conducting interviews with national news media outlets?
In today’s helter-skelter media landscape, the importance of clear and precise messages cannot be understated. When it comes to the Presidency, if the wrong message gets communicated at the wrong time, the results could be catastrophic.
It’s not just about a campaign manager’s appearances and messages, but how a potential leader of America communicates to key constituencies here and internationally. In one sense, not only is the President the leader of the free world, but the nation’s “chief communications officer.”
The same principles apply in the game of Presidential politics. That’s not to say that key messages can’t be expanded, tweaked, or even changed, but everybody on the team has to be – and stay -- on the same page.
Presumably, his top campaign communications strategists should have the experience and requisite skills to develop and agree on three to four overarching key messages that need to be consistently and continuously communicated to all audiences.
It remains to be seen if the Romney and Obama camps can achieve message consistency in articulating what they would do if elected. So far, the messaging has been inconsistent, shallow and a “game” of one-upmanship. They’re acting like two boys in the playground throwing stones at each other, and focusing only on sound bites.
Time for a substantive dialogue about national and international issues. No more stones and schoolyard games. After all, it is “only about our future.”
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Richard E. Nicolazzo is Managing Partner of Nicolazzo and Associates, a strategic communications and crisis management firm headquartered in Boston, Mass.
Joe M. Grillo, Partner, contributed to this blog.