The second-term curse seems to be biting Barack Obama especially hard. With three simultaneous “scandals”, the opposition smells blood and, yes, they’re already talking about impeachment.
So, what can the President do? How can he limit the damage? If I were his communications director, what advice would I give?
First, imagine what you would do if you were attacked by a swarm of angry bees. Would you go on the offensive? Would you attack them? That’s probably a very, very bad idea. The best you can hope for is to contain them, put on some protective clothing, and limit the number of times that you get stung. (This is a great analogy and I adapted it from Marilyn Buckner’s work).
Here are some tips:
Appoint one (and only one) spokesperson – the more spokespeople you have, the more likely it is that the public will perceive contradictions.
Tell the truth even if it makes you look bad — Better to look bad but honest rather than bad and dishonest.
Don’t blame the opposition – even if they’re being hypocritical. You’re not in a position to point fingers. For instance, President Obama might say, with a roll of the eyes, “Wait. The Tea Party claims tax-exempt status because they’re non-political? Are you kidding me?” That might be emotionally satisfying (heck, it may even be accurate) but it only inflames the bees. The goal is to do the opposite.
Don’t blame the media – it only inflames the bees.
If there’s more to the story, say so – the press is great at digging up dirt in a slow, drip, drip, drip fashion. Rather than being tortured over time, get it over with. Tell the whole story and get out in front of the process.
Explain how you’ll fix the situation – remember that you can only win an argument in the future tense. So, develop a plan, reality test it, and present it. It’s important to do this quickly but it’s even more important to reality test it. If it’s a half-baked plan, the bees just get angrier.
Don’t drag your feet – it’s important that the public perceives that you’re doing something. Have a sense of urgency. Appear active.
Don’t hide – you may not feel like coming out for a daily dose of abuse but you need to. You’re going to get abused no matter what. Better to be abused while looking stalwart rather than to be abused while looking cowardly.
Heads must roll (most likely) – it’s sad but true that good people are going to get hurt in the process. But, hey, that’s politics. The bees will demand a sacrifice. Delaying the inevitable only makes it worse.
It’s not an easy process. Your emotions will likely tell you to act in ways that will only damage your position. Michael Levine, a Hollywood PR wizard who has supported some spectacularly stupid stars, probably says it best: “Go fast. Go humble.”