Monday, April 04, 2016

Words Matter: Lessons from the Trump Campaign [Abbott PR]

Political newcomers will make mistakes, and perhaps it's a bit unfair to judge someone like Donald Trump to harshly when it comes to his many gaffes and errors when speaking.

After all, his supporters often say, Ronald Reagan also made gaffes during his 1980 campaign. Jokes were made about his misstatements, and his advisors said it was okay for him to make the occasional mistake when speaking because, after all, he wasn’t a professional politician. "Let Reagan be Reagan," was their frequent statement.

And that’s fine. Everyone is going to say something incorrect on the campaign trail. Barack Obama famously said he had been to almost all of the 57 states, after all. George W. Bush had made his share of verbal faux pas, and so has anyone who spends seven days a week on the road campaigning for president.

In the end, however, words do, in fact, matter. And actually speaking the right words is critical for a candidate if they want to effectively convey their beliefs, principles, hopes and aspirations to voters.

"The difference between the right word and the almost right word,” opined Mark Twain, “is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug."

And saying something that is inconsistent, shocking, or simply incorrect can be devastating to a candidate’s credibility.

That's why the words Donald Trump uses really do matter; and they matter in any political campaign.

They matter to those who don’t support him almost as much as to those who are inclined to do so. In fact, in the final analysis – and on Election Day in November, if he’s the Republican nominee – the words Trump has used in this election year will either convince people to either acquiesce to his candidacy and support him, even if they didn’t in the primaries, to stay home, or to vote for the Democrat or another candidate not a member of the two Major Parties.

Of course if too many voters make any of these choices other than supporting the Republican nominee, it could easily have devastating consequences for House and Senate candidates and other statewide candidates on the ballot.  And party officials are fearing just that.

In my professional career as a campaign consultant or as a manager for a political candidate, I’ve stressed repeatedly how important messaging is to a campaign’s success. 

Candidates, especially wealthy ones and first-time ones, tend to believe that whatever falls from their lips is golden. I take pains to make it clear to them that this is not the case.

In fact, based on my experience with them, many first-time candidates seem to believe they don’t need to use a script or to answer the same way each time they’re asked about a particular issue.

They believe "winging it" will help them come off as more authentic and even "folksy."

And while being universally known with near 100% name recognition, as Trump enjoys, may allow a bit of a "pass" and a cushion for errors and even a bit of deliberate low-browism, two examples from The Donald’s campaign thus far will illustrate why this is the wrong tactic, even for him.

Donald Trump’s campaign announcement speech, as written, was brilliant, to the point, and conveyed a message and a candidate that was strong and focused.

His audience at the Trump Tower in New York, and the television audience who watched it on TV and hundreds of times thereafter online never heard this speech.

Instead, he took the bones of this written speech – written perhaps by an aide but clearly expressing Trump’s own views – and ad libed. Profusely. What was written as a 20-minute speech lasted well over an hour.

This is the origin of his famous/infamous “they’re rapists” comments, along with numerous iterations of his brags noting that he’s “very rich.” These set off alarm bells, though to be fair, they also attracted many disillusioned voters who were seeking just that kind of “politically incorrect” and bold language.

Fair enough. But the problem with this is that the result of this speech was almost universal condemnation and a silent fear that, as the primaries progressed, more “straight talk” would bring harm to the Republican brand. Which of course it has, possibly irreparably.

(Note here that Ronald Reagan's announcement speech was dignified, uplifting and greatly beneficial to both his image and, ultimately, to that of the Republican Party.)

That brings us to the second example.

The March 30 interview with Chris Matthews – a liberal progressive, with whom a seasoned conservative politician would take great care answering questions – demonstrated why off-the-cuff policy-making is also a bad idea.

His seemingly off-handed remark that women who get abortions would be “punished” was not only a rash and dangerous statement, it shocked pro-life campaigners who, for decades, have said just the opposite, and have fought the stereotypes of the Left that being pro-life is somehow “anti-woman.”

Not to mention his seemingly off-the-cuff remarks that NATO should be all-but disbanded and that Japan and South Korea should be armed with nuclear weapons. Pacifist Japan, along with South Korea, reacted strongly and angrily to these comments and those suggesting they’re not paying America enough for their defense (they pay over half of all expenses for having our troops there.)

But whether you agree with Trump’s policies or not, the impression, if not the reality, was that he was making them up on the spot. He recanted the abortion position later that day – perhaps at the demand of his shocked and appalled aides – leading one to believe he did in fact make them up.

The bottom line is that any candidate, be they running for president or city council, must be clear, articulate and consistent when they speak.

Policies spoken to one group that don’t match up when said to another suggests clear pandering, and subconsciously, that the speaker is inconsistent and, by extension, untrustworthy.

And it’s worth noting that presidents must always measure their words, and express their policies, in a very cautious and mature manner. There’s a reason why presidents have spokesmen in the White House press room calmly and cautiously answering reporter’s questions each day.

It may be frustrating to reporters looking for a “gotcha” moment, but in truth, any rash or poorly thought-out statement by a president or his spokesman could send stock markets reeling and, as we’ve seen with our Asian allies, diplomatic incidents occurring. 

(And back to Reagan; he never appeared to anyone to be making up his philosophy or principles as he went along, despite occasional missteps on the campaign trail.)
Candidates should therefore view what Donald Trump is doing as a textbook case illustrating how NOT to handle political speech. To take the opposite lesson would make my job infinitely harder, not to mention the destruction and damage that could be done to individual campaigns – and to political discourse in the United States, generally.

Stephen Abbott is a public relations consultant and political messaging specialist, and the principal of Abbott Media Group, specializing in helping political candidates, business leaders, groups and start-ups craft effective messages. More at

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

7 Common Pitfalls of First-Time Political Candidates [Abbott PR]

As first-time candidates throughout the U.S. begin to prepare for primary elections, it's a good time to take a look at some pitfalls these candidates often encounter.

1. Trying to self-manage a campaign. If you serve as your own campaign manager, you're being managed by a fool. Why? Because you cannot objectively make decisions affecting yourself. For example, you cannot objectively tell yourself that your wardrobe is inappropriate, that you must tone down your favorite diatribe, or that you're speaking too long. This is true for your spouse and other close family members, too. They cannot be totally objective. To run a winning campaign, it takes an outsider's clear view of the campaign to make these kinds of decisions - objectively. Sometimes it's hard to hear that you're approaching a campaign from the wrong direction, and you may even be upset, but better you hear it from someone who WANTS you to win, rather than from voters on election day. (Note: For some races for smaller offices with smaller budgets, a strong campaign adviser - or a communications consultant - may be fine as a substitute for a full-fledged, full-time manager. But the advice holds - get outside help.)

2. Failing to raise and spend the right amount of money. Speaking of money, if you don't have the cash, you must raise it. First-time candidates often delude themselves into thinking money doesn't matter. It does. Without money, there isn't a campaign. And it must be not only raised, but spent, wisely. Even if you think you only need a small amount of money, media and voters will be watching to see if you have the ability to raise more than you need. The truth is, candidates need professionals to help them to raise money - or force them to, if necessary.

3. Focusing on the wrong issues. You have 40 issues that you want to tackle in your campaign: abortion, the IRS, Federal defense spending, social security, etc., etc. But wait a minute, you're running for a seat in the state legislature! Much of this will be irrelevant to the office you're seeking. Spending time on issues you would have no control over if you're elected is a waste of time, and can unnecessarily give voters reasons to vote against you. A campaign must focus on a select few, relevant local issues, and not deviate from them.

4. Talking about the wrong issues ... to the wrong people. You should never lie or change your views to chase poll results in order to get votes. Voters can sniff out a phony. But it simply makes sense to speak to groups and individuals about things they care about. Making wildly irrelevant speeches to influential groups is a sure way of looking foolish - and irrelevant, yourself. Relying on speech writers, your manager and/or your communications consultant to direct your campaign's focus on issues is a wise move. It will likely keep you from looking completely out of touch, and will give your campaign a polished look and feel, without compromising your principles.

5. Steering out of the Mainstream. Okay, so you believe in UFOs and aliens, you  think flying cars can solve traffic jams, and that JFK was shot five times by CIA operatives, Castro and the Mob working together. Keep it to yourself. While some of this may seem "folksy" coming from long-time politicians, remember this: nuts don't often get elected. And if they do slip in, they frequently don't stay elected. Say something off-the-wall and it by very well be the only thing voters remember about you, and the only thing the media will focus on, and can easily destroy your chances of victory. In short, keep irrelevant views to yourself. A speechwriter will be able to "filter out" items that you may not notice in a first draft, and keep you from saying things that will "ALIENate" voters.

6. Running to lose. Sometimes, the better part of valor is not running at all. If you don't have the financial resources, if you don't have the support of colleagues and family members, or if you don't have the willpower, health, time or effort to run an effective campaign, don't do it. (And if you can't keep your head above water in one of these areas at any point in the campaign, consider dropping out.) If you do run, however, you must run to win, not to make a point. People don't vote to make a point, they vote for winners. And voters sense when you're just riding a hobby horse, and don't really care about winning.

6. Being Unprofessional. Failing to present your campaign as professional is a sure sign you haven't hired professionals to design your campaign. For example, you had better use professional design and printing, because if you don't, you may be viewed as not credible as a candidate. Independent candidates often get carried away with their message, filling a sign, website, or brochure with trite slogans and LOADS of text, resulting in unreadable nonsense no one will actually read. This is the sure sign of an amateur candidate - one who will not be  taken seriously. Keep it brief and keep it professional, and the best way to do this is to have it written by a professional.

A professional campaign consultant will help you to avoid these pitfalls, and many more, in the course of your campaign. Abbott Public Relations offers a wide array of reputation building and campaign consulting services for right-of-center candidates and future candidates in Florida and throughout the US.

Stephen Abbott is a public relations consultant and political messaging specialist, and the principal of Abbott Media Group, specializing in helping political candidates, business leaders, groups and start-ups craft effective messages. Visit Abbott Media Group for more information.

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Wednesday, November 25, 2015

"#MostUsedWords App" Launches #PR Offensive After Criticism [Abbott PR Blog]

Not that giving all one's personal data to a third party has ever been safe, and not that Facebook "quizzes" have ever been safe, either, but the firestorm around the new Facebook app "Most Used Words" really struck a chord with the 17 million Facebook users gave it permission to use its data.

And after the Comparitech blog did a breathless take-down of the Korean-based Vonvon, creator of the App, on its site Sunday, Nov. 22 in which it called it a "privacy nightmare." Comparitech specifically attacked the App's "oxymoronic privacy policy And called the company and the App a "shady data dealer" but not the only one to "masquerade behind a viral quiz mill."

The "nightmare" angle spread like a virus, shared across Facebook, becoming a trending topic there and also on twitter, where many accused the App of "stealing" personal data.

By Tuesday, the company had already sprung into action.

It posted updated language on its website that it was, as of Tuesday, Nov. 24, acting to "proactively" address the concerns by "significantly" reducing "the magnitude of access privilege" required by the App. It also clarified that the App does not collect users' email addresses, "so there is no way we can spam you." It also note

It's CEO Jonghwa Kim also took to the battle to Comparitech itself, sending a rather predictable legalistic and threatening message to the firm (noting that he was "deeply concerned about your false accusation") but also mentioning the positive steps it had taken, and explaining that the information collected, "is never stored in our databases." Comparitech published his letter as an update to the original post.

As for emails, Kim notes bluntly that, "As we do not store any personal information, we have nothing to sell. Period." He swears that the App never deals with Third Parties.

The company has been in existence for less than a year, but says it has more than 100 million unique users from US, UK, France, Brazil, China, Japan, Korea, Thailand, etc. and operates in 15 languages.


It remains to be seen whether this coverage will damage this Korean startup. It also remains to be seen whether this App is any more damaging or dangerous than any other Facebook App.

But the PR response by Kim and his company seems on point, and an effective demonstration of how crisis management is done: directly address both the alleged technical and ethical problems, then let people know.

By Stephen Abbott, Principal of Abbott Public Relations, a division of Abbott Media Group, which creates written messages which inspire, inform, educate and engage, in mass media, publishing and public relations. On twitter and Facebook.