Tuesday, August 03, 2004

Teresa and Four More Years of Hell

Ned Barnett
(c) 2004

For background on this latest "issue," see my other Barnett on Politics blogs: "The Candidate's Message - Stay on Message" (http://barnettonpolitics.blogspot.com/2004/08/candidates-challenge-stay-on-message.html) and "Kerry finds an Attack Dog Surrogate" (http://barnettonpolitics.blogspot.com/2004/08/kerry-finds-attack-dog-surrogate.html)

Yesterday (August 2, 2004), after some pro-Bush hecklers shouted out "Four more years" at a Teresa Heinz-Kerry rally in Milwaukee, the feisty First-Lady-In-Waiting snapped back, "Four More Years in Hell."

She may think this response is akin to Harry Truman's famous statement during the 1948 debate. At a rally, a supporter yelled out, "Give 'em Hell, Harry!" Truman replied, "I don't give them Hell. I just tell the truth about them and they think it's Hell."

What President Truman said was funny, pointed - and it captured the spirit of the man, Harry Truman - in fact, he's come down in history to us as "Give 'em Hell Harry."

However, Teresa's comments - while sharing the word "hell" - are not at all in the same vein, and will not "play" with the public in the same positive way as did Truman's comment. Mrs. Kerry's comment is more in line with her self-appointed role as Kerry's "attack dog" - but it also reflects an attitude that has not, heretofore, been found in America's first ladies (at least not in public).

This difference was reflected in media coverage of her statement - much of that coverage positioned her statement against her husband's call for a "high-road" campaign in his acceptance speech last week. The comparison was not, for the most part, favorable.

It is becoming ever more clear that Mrs. Kerry has a thin skin and a quick temper - and that very human vulnerability (one most professional politicians quickly learn to control) means that reporters wanting to "create" a major story out of yet another business-as-usual stump speech will try to find ways of triggering her temper. If those temper outbursts play well, they will helps the Kerry campaign; but if her reactions are seen as negative (and public displays of temper are often seen as weak or in bad taste by the media and the public), then her off-the-cuff candor will hurt her husband's candidacy. In such a close race, even minor negatives can get blown out of proportion, and Teresa's temper certainly has that potential.

On the balance, from a public relations point of view, Teresa Heinz-Kerry is becoming one more polarizing element in what is already the most polarized election in recent memory. There is nothing Senator Kerry can do - his wife is not only a free agent, but she also seems to feel the kind of independence that comes from huge and unassailable wealth. If reporters who are eager for sensational stories - and if Bush supporters who want to keep triping her up - keep triggering that now-famous temper, Teresa Heinz-Kerry will quickly become a liability. This liability for Kerry will especially be felt among the independent/undecided voters who will (as they always do) decide the election.

On the other hand, she her temper will almost certainly help to solidify Senator Kerry's vocal feminist base - and perhaps by becoming a polarizing "cause celebre," Teresa will serve to motivate a greater turn-out among those feminist voters.

However, from a purely public relations point of view, I believe that - on the whole - a continuation of Mrs. Kerry's off-the-cuff anger will hurt her husband in November. While she's flamboyant and unquestionably interesting, Teresa Heinz-Kerry is projecting an image that will leave many Americans uncomfortable ... because rightly or wrongly, we have expectations of First Ladies that more closely reflect the quiet, dignified role that Laura Bush plays as First Lady.

About Ned Barnett:

Ned Barnett, the owner of Barnett Marketing Communications (http://www.barnettmarcom.com), 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