"Note from Neil Nixon" features short articles regarding public affairs, community relations and reputation management issues of current importance to the energy, utility, chemical, manufacturing and transportation industries.
Note from Neil Nixon - January 2009
In dealing with sensitive, contentious or crisis situations our clients always hear us preach about the critical importance of having a clearly articulated message. Ideally, a simple message or concept, constantly stressed and repeated.
In closely following our nation’s recent presidential election, it struck me how vital this same approach is in a political environment. Being a student of history, I thought back on the close elections of my lifetime – Kennedy vs. Nixon in 1960; Nixon vs. Humphrey in 1968; Carter vs. Ford in 1976; Reagan vs. Carter in 1980; Clinton vs. Bush Sr. & Perot in 1992; George W. Bush vs. Gore in 2000 – and in each and every case the candidate with the most simple, consistently articulated message won the election.
Just think back (for those of you old enough to remember) on some of these campaigns. In 1968, amid a Vietnam War and racial strife that was tearing at the very fabric of our nation, Richard Nixon consistently stressed in his campaign messaging that he represented a “silent majority” that while not as vocal as those staging protests in the streets, most desired stability and order. What was Hubert Humphrey’s overriding message??? Result: Nixon won the election in a squeaker.
Or take 1980 as another example. Ronald Reagan’s central message was actually a question, repeatedly articulated at each campaign stop, debate, etc. At the close of his scripted remarks, Reagan simply asked the question “are you better off now than you were four years ago?” What was Carter’s response to this question??? Result: Reagan erased a deficit in early polls and defeated an incumbent President.
In 1992, Bill Clinton’s message cut through the campaign clutter and myriad issues facing the country with the simple jingle “it’s the economy stupid.” Using that phrase, Clinton demonstrated to a majority of the electorate that he understood the real issues of real people better than the other two candidates. Result: Clinton won in a close election.
Many in the national press corps characterized George W. Bush as somewhat of a simpleton during his campaign against Al Gore in 2000. Yet at every campaign stop and each debate, Bush’s two messages: “I will cut your taxes,” and, “I will restore the dignity to the office of the presidency,” were constantly repeated. Now, we can all debate (and historians will) whether he accomplished the latter, the point is, voters got a sense of the man’s focus and agenda. In contrast, what was Al Gore’s message back in 2000? Something about a “lock box?” “Inventing the internet?” Stressing of the need for more emphasis on the environment? Gore had too many messages and they weren’t well focused.
While the last presidential election really wasn’t as close as some of the others I’ve cited, the theory still holds. Barack Obama’s central campaign theme was “CHANGE.” There wasn’t much discussion, or many details provided as to what specifically the change would entail. Still, voters got a sense that this guy was different and committed to shaking things up. In comparison, John McCain ran a campaign that seemed to be constantly searching for a key theme. One week it was “I’m a maverick.” The next week, the campaign was touting his well-earned status as a war hero. Later, McCain even tried to adopt Obama’s message – “I’m the real change agent.” We all know the result.
Unlike politicians, organizations, in the literal sense, aren’t fighting for votes. In the figurative sense however, they are seeking to win the battle of public opinion. The lessons from the political world are very applicable to organizations in confronting a sensitive issue or crisis situation. To effectively communicate and influence, you MUST have simple, understandable messages and you must seize opportunities to repeat these messages again and again using communications vehicles (including well-trained spokespersons) that know the themes inside and out.
Nixon & Associates offers media training for executives and front-line personnel to help clients prepare to take control and proactively provide critical information to the public in an emergency or crisis situation. Our Crisis Media Training seminar is an award-winning program that has been implemented by more than 250 companies with participation by more than 7,500 individuals. More information about our media training services and tips for communicating during a crisis are available at http://www.nixonassoc.com/services/media_training.asp.