Mitt Romney’s secretly videoed remarks, in which he disdainfully tells a group of well-heeled donors that 47 percent of Americans are “dependent on the government” and “believe they are victims,” provided plenty of controversy when they surfaced last Monday.
But a week later, the comments continue to be the subject of intense discussion on television, radio, online forums and dinner tables across the country. From a public relations standpoint, the fact that Romney is still dealing with the fallout underscores a fundamental failure by him and his campaign to properly manage his brand and then adequately defend it from attack.
Odd as it may seem, the Romney debacle offers important lessons about reputation and brand management for all sorts of organizations, including small businesses. Here are a few to consider.
Avoid reinforcing your critics’ claims
For months, Romney’s Democratic rivals have sought to portray him as an out-of-touch rich man who is incapable of identifying with average Americans, and yet nothing may have done more to reinforce that image than the words Romney spoke on videotape. The lesson here is to know what your critics are saying about you and avoid doing or saying anything that lends any level of credibility to their claims.
Present your side of the story cogently—and move on
Romney and his team have been all over the map trying to contain this crisis. He initially tried to dismiss the episode as a matter of poor word choice, saying that his remarks were not “elegantly stated.” He then explained that he was merely describing the kind of voter who would not be inclined to support him. Then his wife weighed in, saying that her husband harbored no disdain for people receiving government help. Finally, Romney appeared to try to take the whole thing back, telling a crowd on Wednesday that his “is a campaign about the 100 percent.”
The bottom line is that you should have a concise, coherent and consistent response, especially when under media attack or scrutiny. Otherwise, you run the risk of compounding the crisis with gaffes and ambiguity, thereby giving the story more life and potentially drawing further negative coverage.
Measure your words carefully even in closed-door meetings. These days, anyone with a smartphone can secretly film or tape a conversation, as the Romney episode illustrates. When in doubt, follow the old rule of thumb: if you would not say something publicly or would flinch if you saw it in print, do not say it at all.
Change the subject
Changing the subject is essential to ending the cycle of negative media coverage. That usually involves taking a dramatic action that allows you and your organization to “reset,” as they say in politics. The risk of failing to take dramatic action is that the story continues spiraling out of your control. In this case, Romney has been unable to pivot to more favorable terrain, like, say, the economy.
The news cycle moves fast. Responding quickly and unequivocally to a public relations problem can protect your company’s reputation and can mean the difference between a temporary setback and a lasting blow.
Shrita D. Sterlin is the chief executive of Penn Strategies, a Bethesda-based branding, public relations and marketing firm.
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