Monday, August 02, 2004

The Candidate's Challenge - Stay on Message

Ned Barnett
(c) 2004

Senator Kerry is facing a serious PR-related problem – fringe stories are dragging Kerry "off-message" when he desperately needs to stay on-message. During Convention Week, there are three glaring media distractions: the NASA Bunny Suit photo op/flop, Teresa’s "shove it" dust-up, and the "salute." None of these is a big issue, but each is an unwelcome distraction – and they’re coming at a time when Senator Kerry cannot afford distractions.

The NASA photo flop was just bad campaign management (I know, I've been campaign media manager before). The Kerry campaign knew that both NASA and media pool photographers were there taking still and motion pictures – one look will show Kerry posed for them. But beyond that, EVERY event a candidate attends is photographed – that’s SOP for campaigns, and the media, and the Kerry Campaign’s managers know this, as does the candidate himself.

Afterwards, NASA submitted the photos to the campaign before they posted them. There were no problems until the media started to make fun of the photos, and of Kerry in his “bunny suit.” Some said he looked like a Saturday Night Live-skit “human condom;” others thought he looked more like Woody Allen’s “human sperm” from his “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex” film. Regardless, the candidate was being made fun of, during Convention Week!

Immediately the campaign's chairwoman, Mary Beth Cahill, went on Brit Hume’s Fox News Channel program, where she charged that this photo op was a Republican set-up. She claimed that the campaign knew nothing about these "surprise" photos. This was blatantly false, as NASA proved and Hume pointed out, but Cahill’s “conspiracy” claims kept the story alive for another news cycle. Then NASA was pushed to take the photos off their official website (Kerry’s campaign complained that the Hatch Act, of all things, was being violated), which kept the story alive for yet another news cycle. The next day, NASA's attorneys said "this is no Hatch Act violation" and told NASA to put the photos back up, keeping the story alive for a third extra day. At a time when Kerry needed to stay on message and focus on his candidacy, his campaign self-inflicted an annoying PR screw up, keeping this minor story alive for three extra days, and making it seem far more significant than it really was.

The "shove-it" comment by Teresa Heinz-Kerry was, in itself, is no big deal; however, in the middle of a dull campaign, you just know that lots of reporters (especially those covering Teresa) suddenly realized that she's got a thin skin and a quick temper. From now on, they'll be "gunning for her," trying to provoke her into making more on-camera (or on-mike) angry statements – not because those statements are momentous news stories, but rather to get themselves a quick 90 seconds on the national news. This will prove to be especially true for local-market reporters wanting a bit of national exposure. From now on, Mrs. Kerry is a "target-rich" environment for reporters on-the-make. And each time a reporter succeeds in provoking the now-famous Teresa temper, the story itself will be a small thing – but each incident will once again distract the media away from covering what Kerry wants them to cover.

(However, there is one balancing factor for the campaign out of this – see Kerry finds an Attack Dog Surrogate blog for details)

The third annoying distraction – the one Kerry could have prevented all by himself – is the "salute." Every veteran and many other citizens know that the US military has a very specific way of saluting. Each raw recruit has had this salute drummed into his head, and every veteran recognizes the difference between a real salute and a bogus one. I had the only official salute drummed into my head in ROTC, and I have never forgotten it. However, for whatever reason, US Navy veteran John Kerry saluted the convention (and the world) in a way that is nothing at all like a US military salute.

Now, at a time when the Senator is trying to win over veterans, and many of those veterans feel insulted by his non-regulation salute. And, at a time when more Vietnam vets oppose him (the last numbers I saw were 48% against and 42% in favor), at a time when the campaign is vigorously pushing Kerry's Vietnam record, this kind of simple-to-prevent dust-up is just exactly what Senator Kerry does not need. Not only does “salute-gate” distract at least some of the media from his message, but it risks tearing down the one element of his record that Senator Kerry most wants to promote ... his role in the military.

Bottom line for Kerry – in a very tight race, coming out of a convention that yielded – at best – a dead-cat bounce, the Senator just cannot afford these kinds of distractions.

This election is just as tight for President Bush, too, but – after a dropped-ball winter (with his endless ROTC-record “problem” which went away as soon as he released his records), and after a dismal three-month run of news in Iraq and on Capitol Hill, the President (for the moment) seems better able to keep things on-message. That could change tomorrow, but for now, the President seems to be winning the “on-message” competition.

About Ned Barnett:

Ned Barnett, the owner of Barnett Marketing Communications (, is a 32-year veteran of high-stakes crisis-management public relations, and is a frequent “source” for print and broadcast journalists. Barnett has advised many corporate and personal clients on effective crisis relations – often stopping a crisis in its tracks, even before it gets started.

As a political consultant and speechwriter, Barnett has worked for candidates and officials from both parties, as well as for public interest advocacy groups in areas involving the economy, the environment and healthcare. As a historian, Barnett is widely published in military history magazines, and has appeared a number of times on the History Channel, discussing military technology.

Barnett has taught PR at two state universities, and has written nine published books on public relations, marketing and advertising. He’s earned PRSA’s coveted Silver Anvil, two ADDYs and four consecutive MacEacherns; in 1978, he was the youngest (to that time) person to earn accreditation from PRSA, and in 1984, he became the first person to earn a Fellowship in PR from the American Hospital Association. But mostly, Barnett provides PR counsel to a range of corporations, authors and advocacy groups.

© 2004 – Ned Barnett
Barnett Marketing Communications