Maybe it is that I am on vacation and the sun of Mission Bay has gotten to my head. But I am going to risk going into the dangerous waters of commenting on this election season. I do it not from a political perspective but from the point of view of what today’s communicators can and should learn from observing the most interesting examples of crisis management at work today–that of a political campaign.
Last night I watched the Ohio debates. My family always laughs at me because I could never really enjoy an episode of Seinfeld–George Costanza just made me too uncomfortable. Larry David’s comic genius is found primarily in pushing the extremes of uncomfortable embarrassment–in Seinfeld and then on his own HBO show. George was Larry’s favorite weapon in this comic assault. Watching the debate, and Senator Clinton in particular, reminded me of how I felt watching George in his most outrageous antics. Shouting down Brian Williams, complaining about always being asked the first question, smiling with a venomously benign smile while her tirade against Obama’s tactics were replayed in front of her. Insisting that she be allowed to continue despite the need for a commercial break. I cringed in agony. The big question going into the debate was which candidate would show up to speak for Hillary Clinton–the gracious, sometimes vulnerable “nice” candidate? Or the vicious and mean fighter. In two minutes, we knew the answer. But the fact that the question was there at all–let alone the lead question–is why the race for the Democratic nominee has been all but settled.
The strange thing is this. Democrats and perhaps the majority of Americans like her positions–they agree with her. Not only that, they perceive she is one of the most highly qualified candidates for this office to come along in a long time–in part because of her “co-presidency.” She is strong, determined, well organized, and has stood on the brink of history opening new ground for women. But she failed–and she failed in such a basic simple way that it should be a primary lesson for all in communications.
Before explaining further what I mean, let’s talk about President Bush. History will be the final judge, of course, but journalism and public opinion–the first drafts of history–have determined his a failed presidency. This is more than Iraq. As I have written before, even his friends had difficulty at times with the persona. Even those who saw in him a good man, a decent man, an honest man trying to do his best in difficult circumstances, had George Constanza reactions some times to his embarrassing communication style. I’m not just talking about the English language gaffes–the strategery and all–I’m talking about coming across as the eternal frat boy jokester who looks at life as if it is one big party and he is the self appointed “life” of it all. History will judge by actions and consequences of actions. But we who watch the news clips and the speeches–we react to the shoulder hunched naughty chuckling, the uncomfortable joking around in sober circumstances, the personality that plays incredibly well in a small group and bombs in the big moments.
The problem is this: George Bush is George Bush and Hillary Clinton is Hillary Clinton. As much as campaign handlers may wish to manipulate and comb and prepare them and try to make them something else, they are who they are. And the truth is–we don’t want a person with Hillary’s unlikeability as our leader. We don’t want someone with George W’s apparent playfulness as our leader either.
Am I saying that choosing the person who will set the path for us for the next few years, and the leader of the free world comes down to likeability? Yes, that is exactly what I am saying. Of course, there are complicating factors–but essentially personality, style, communication ability, and who we judge that person to truly be is what matters most. We are electing not just an executive–we are electing our spokesperson, our face to the world. We want that face to represent us in a way we are most comfortable with.
The lesson for communicators is clear. Substance matters in crisis. Certainly it does. What you accept responsibility for, what promises you make, what actions you take–all this matters. But in this age of transparency, of personality, of celebrity, of image plus authenticity, the who matters as much or more than the what. It is what good old Aristotle said a long time ago: ethos is the most powerful persuader. We are seeing in this election season a battle over ethos. That means a sober assessment must be made as to who will represent the company or organization when all the cameras are turned on. How does that person come across? Even more important–does that person in his or her whole nature represent the values and character of the organization? Because that is how the ethos of the organization will be judged, through the very personality and character of the face and person they see.