Wednesday, May 19, 2010

On Blumenthal and getting caught by your own quotes

There's a reason my company's called don't get caught, and it has more to do with what happened to Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal than, say, bank robbers or unfaithful spouses.

Blumenthal's ever-expanding statements about his military service during the Vietnam War era took him from talking about serving behind a desk (true) to stating that he served "in the war" (not), and that arc was revealed yesterday in this article in the New York Times.  The headline, "Candidate's Words on Vietnam Service Differ From History," should be a case study in Coverage You Really Don't Want, But May Well Deserve.

What's more unusual, cringe-worthy and worth keeping on file is today's article, in which Rep. Christopher Shays, a Connecticut colleague of Blumenthal's, describes watching him descend this slippery slope, step by mushy step.  It's an excellent cautionary tale, and I wouldn't hesitate to use this with an overstepping client.

Working as I do in Washington, and having worked at the highest levels of government, I get asked all the time whether high-flying politicians and other leaders just need better staffing or a good speechwriter.  The truth is, all the advisement in the universe won't help a leader who just can't help what comes out of his mouth.

But you, now, you can keep some warning signs in mind if you're advising a leader on how to put their money where their mouth is:
  1. Know your limits.  In her very good book, Am I Making Myself Clear?: A Scientist's Guide to Talking to the Public, Times reporter Cornelia Dean puts it straight: "Don't let your mouth write checks that your ass can't cash."  That "I misspoke" response covers less of what you've exposed than you think it does.
  2. The bigger your issue or your identifiers, the more scrutiny you can expect. In this case, Blumenthal almost seems in hindsight to have begged for someone to poke at his dedication to veterans, given how extensive and public it was. There's a lot a psychologist could tell you about that compulsion, but here's my advice:  If you are going to wrap yourself in the mantle of truth, justice, motherhood, family values or any other noble-sounding cause, get ready to be an open book on the topic and prepare accordingly. Otherwise, the best anyone can say of you is that you must have seen that train wreck a-comin'.
  3. Don't overlook credible options.  What might his statements (and the coverage) have been like if Blumenthal used, ahem, the plain truth or just some more precision?  "I sat out the war, and in hindsight, I've realized that I've been given an opportunity in my career to serve our veterans--so they are now my top priority," perhaps, or "There's a role for those who serve at the desk, but I want to honor today those who served at the front lines. They made my career possible."   Brainstorming what else you can say is often overlooked in the joyous embrace of what you want to say.  Someone on the smart leader or CEO's team should always be asking, "Can we say that with a straight face? Why?"  Put another way, asking, "What would the headline say?" is often a useful tool to bring overstatements crashing back down to earth.  In this case, asking that question would have led right to the headline in yesterday's paper--but years before, and without the coverage.
For communications directors: A lot of what goes into making this work is choosing a good leader to serve in the first place.  But you might use this episode as a reminder to build strategic preparation into your routines and culture--or to step up what you're already doing.  Making sure your team knows it's okay and even preferable to question, test assumptions, and look for credible alternatives is the best way to head off similar problems.

Thanks for letting me preach to the choir this morning...

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