|October 2, 2008|
|Communication Breakdown – Where the Bailout PR Went Wrong|
|By Greg Hazley|
|Despite the full weight of the White House PR machine, the President, Fed chairman, Treasury Secretary, and Congressional leadership, the $700 billion bailout bill died a well-publicized death in its first House vote on Monday. The failure was a stunning misplay from a communications perspective and some PR executives and media are offering post mortem advice ahead of attempt No. 2 to get it passed that could resonate beyond the political arena.|
Jacquelynne Willcox, director, government relations and public affairs for Hill & Knowlton in Austria, sees the peddling of the bailout plan as a case study in poor communication and public affairs management, especially with regard to language. She notes that protesters and other opposition to the plan in public posed clear and concise slogans stating, in essence, that their opposition “is about greed and punishing gamblers.”
To show just how short the White House fell in selling the plan, she notes: “It is such a failure of message-crafting that their own party members of Congress have not been convinced that this type of spending is good for the nation. No wonder the taxpayers of the U.S. … haven’t bought it either.”
Time magazine’s Amanda Ripley took particular aim at Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson for failing to distill the essence of the bill for the general public and selling them on the risks.
“The most effective warnings are like the most effective TV ads: easily understood, specific, frequently repeated, personal, accurate and targeted. Paulson and his grim reapers managed only to repeat themselves frequently. They were not easily understood, partly because the problem is so complex. They did not personalize or target their warnings. And, as they themselves admitted, they did not know if their warnings were necessarily accurate, due to the novelty and unpredictability of the crisis.”
Peter Baker in the New York Times also saw Paulson in the crosshairs: “The politics of governance in Washington is as much about marketing as anything else, and from the beginning, the plan often came across as a taxpayer-financed parachute for high-flying Wall Street tycoons. The fact that its most prominent public advocate was Mr. Paulson, a former chairman of Goldman Sachs, probably did not help shake the image.”
The one-way PR offensive from government circles was also criticized in an era where campaigns must foster two-way engagement with a target audience, especially when it’s the American public. As Richard Edelman noted, “The approach to communications to date, such as the prime time address by President Bush, or the press conferences on the steps of the Capitol, and the Sunday morning talking heads TV shows, is traditional one-way communications that doesn’t afford people the opportunity to really understand, ask questions and be part of the discussion and solution.”
So what’s to be learned from a PR perspective from the legislative failure?
Here’s Jim Horton of Robert Marston Assocs.: “There is a lesson here for communicators. Know what the public thinks before attempting major moves. The administration tried to move faster than the understanding of citizens. People on the street do not see the emergency because they haven't seen the effects of a frozen credit market.”
Hindsight advice is always 20/20, they say, but with another shot at getting the bill through, it’s time for government officials to pay a little more attention to PR if they sincerely think the bailout is the right thing to do.
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