Three experts - Mark Penn, Robert Mathias and Mark Irion - weigh in on the PR challenges ahead for President Barack Obama and the embattled Democratic Party, and the newly-resurgent Republicans.
By Mark Penn, global CEO, Burson-Marsteller
It’s clear President Obama needs to make some significant changes in the wake of his party’s routing by the Republicans; as I would advise any client facing a crisis of this kind, it’s critical these changes address both his substance (in this case, policy) and his style (or performance.)
Substance of course is key here; to save his party (and his presidency) Obama needs to make real progress on the economy, move back to the center, and reach across the aisle. As important as his policy changes, however, will be his ability to demonstrate to the country he heard their call for change. From a PR standpoint, the country needs to see his act two.
I would suggest to Obama a few key, highly visible changes as proof he’s taking the voters’ message to heart. President Clinton reworked his staff in the wake of the ’94 midterms; Obama could restock his cabinet with new, more moderate players to signal his intentions to work across the aisle. A bright new economic team would say he’s intent on addressing our employment woes and economic malaise. The rhetoric needs to change as well; no populist attacks or drastic slides to the left. The Midwest today might be hurting the most; Obama would do well to speak their language with centrist, common-sense policies explained in straightforward terms we all can understand.
In short, it’s true policy always trumps performance; but even the most stunning progress can get lost in sub-par presentation. If he wants an act three, Obama’s going to have to muster both.
The Republican Party
By Robert Mathias, president, Ogilvy PR, Washington DC
Hubris and humility. These are two words that the Republicans in congress need to fully understand and internalize as they assume their new place in the majority. They must avoid the overconfidence and arrogance that scarred their tenure when they last regained control of the House in 1994. Instead, they need to demonstrate a true understanding of and interest in the daily lives of average Americans.
The 2010 election cycle did indeed result in historic losses for incumbents and the shift of power in the House to the Republican Party, but the new majority would be unwise to assume a “mandate” and overreach as the result. Voters were and are unhappy with where America is at this point in time but the votes they cast were as much a result of the business cycle as they were any grand shift in political ideology.
The American public wants to feel good about their lives again. They want those feelings of prosperity and confidence to return to their kitchen tables. In their communications, Republicans need to avoid distracting pointless calls-to-action such as “Beating Obama in 2012” and all of the allocations of blame that defined the campaign. Instead, the newly powerful Republicans need to focus with laser-like clarity and specificity on how they will be working tirelessly to improve the economy, create jobs, reduce spending, and other easy-to-understand ways in which they will help improve the quality of life for all Americans. And it wouldn’t hurt to indicate a willingness to work with those in the Democratic minority along the way.
In 1980, Ronald Reagan told us that “It is morning in America.” He helped us believe in ourselves again. The new Republican majority in the House of Representatives would be smart to take a page out of the Gipper’s play book and communicate with all Americans – in both aspirational and concrete terms - how their lives will be better because Republicans are now in charge.
The Democratic Party
By Mark Irion, CEO, Dutko Worldwide
The one advantage of a resounding defeat is that it puts all options on the table. This is the bright spot for Congressional Democrats following last week’s resounding rejection of Democratic Party candidates. It was truly a “national” election where Democrats lost more because of their affiliation with the their party than rejection of an individual candidate’s personal performance in office.
This is a classic branding problem. It is a problem of what “Democrat” came to stand for in the election more than the product President Obama and Speaker Pelosi actually delivered. You can favor or disfavor their “product”, but you can’t argue with whether the goods were delivered. What wasn’t delivered was a message that makes voters feel good about their “purchase.” In November 2008 voters made a very bold and audacious “purchase”. They threw out the ruling party and elected a historic figure to the highest office in the land. The competition, however, ran a masterful campaign of creating “buyer’s remorse.”
The biggest challenge for Democrats is to convince the approximately 25 percent of voters who identify as independents, and which make up the balance of power in American politics, that the Democrats actually have a governing vision that will solve the problems voters care most about. Turnout counts for some of the recent results, but you can’t win by losing over 60% of the independents.
Democrats need a reformed communications plan that starts with listening to what the middle majority cares about, delivering the ideas to take care of those concerns, and then staying on message that they have a governing agenda that matches precisely what the consumer wants.
The circumstances of the American economy are such that there is no near term fix to its structural economic problems. One option for Democrats is to deliver a message that Republicans do not have an appealing brand either. Americans may be in the mood to throw them out too if the economy does not improve. A better option for sustainable success is to use the next two years to convince American independents that it is listening and has an idea-based agenda for governing that matches independents’ concerns.