For Mitt Romney, his fateful night occurred in Boca Rotan as he spoke candidly, foolishly – and he thought privately – at a fundraiser with wealthy donors, only to learn later he had been secretly videotaped.
For Barack Obama, it was the Disaster in Denver, where he all but slept-walked through the first debate, inexplicably handing Romney momentum that could just carry him to the White House.
For PR and Communication pros and leaders, I think both nights hold lessons that translate to a wide range of situations. Here are just three emanating from each candidate’s unsavory evening.
- The camera is always rolling. So obvious, yet so often forgotten. While the number of full-time paid journalists plummets, the amateur ranks have exploded. Anyone with a smart phone or Twitter account is a potential reporter, and everyone in the public eye should assume they are on-the-air and on-the-record 24-7. Romney felt safe in the comfortable confines of the donor’s home. He learned otherwise. His campaign also was reminded that one candid moment has infinitely more power than scores of staged ones.
- An image is worth 1,000 words, and a gazillion Tweets. Maya Angelou said it so well: “People will forget what you said. People will forget what you did. But people will never forget how you made them feel.” Indeed, Steven Spielberg could not have come up with a more compelling angle for the Romney video. The flickering candle next to a gleaming silver vase. The clinking of wine glasses and fine china. The “help” occasionally passing in front of the camera as they scurried to and fro. It was the perfect backdrop for Romney’s diatribe on the the 47%, set to the arrogant chuckles of the dinner guests. The scene instantly reinforced – and in many ways affirmed — the worst stereotypes of Romney. Long after many Americans forget exactly what Romney said, they will remember how watching that video made them feel.
- Fess up when you screw up. I heard an interesting observation shortly after the video went public: It’s one of those rare instances in our sound-bite era that the longer you listen, the worse it gets. Certainly, the standard “I was taken out of context” excuse simply couldn’t work for Romney. The full-length video provide considerable context for his controversial statements. Of course, he first stood by the remarks, and then defined them as inelegant. Finally, weeks later, he admitted they were totally wrong. Romney was in an indefensible position, and should have vehemently denounced himself immediately.
Not to be outdone, the President rescued Romney from the jaws of potential defeat…
- If nothing else, show you care. Contrary to popular belief, most people can be pretty forgiving. They understand mistakes. They accept when someone admits they misspoke or were misinformed. What they have little patience for – particularly in a leader – is indifference or apathy. Yet, that is exactly what Obama displayed in Denver, and really what left the deepest wounds. Even his most loyal partisans felt betrayed by the President’s demeanor. Many probably wondered “if he doesn’t seem to care, why should I?” That Obama did not passionately defend the core principles of his Party — particularly when Romney had provided him a slam-dunk with his Boca comments — is still beyond bewildering. Everyone can have a bad night, Obama’s apparent indifference made his much worse.
- Use your best stuff: The world of sports proves this time and again: Sitting on a lead rarely works. Play prevent defense long enough, and eventually your opponent makes you pay. And so it went with Obama, who was undoubtedly told by advisors to hold back, be “Presidential,” don’t provoke or attack during the first debate. Bad advice. While there are often sound strategic reasons to hold back some information or take a tempered approach, generally it’s better to use the best stuff you’ve got and go from there. Often, you only get one real chance to state your case to a captive audience, so you best deliver in an authentic and substantial way. Of course, Obama probably figured he had three chances. Yet while he brought his A-game to the second or third debates, the damage from round one still wasn’t mitigated. Not even close.
- Recognize when the game changes – and respond accordingly. About halfway through the first debate I was texting with a friend who supports Romney, and I wrote: “Tonight is a major game changer…” If I could sense the changing dynamics of the race while sitting on my couch — half-listening as I helped my daughter with her homework — one would think the big brains with the Obama campaign would have as well. Still, shortly after the debate ended I received an e-mail “from Barack” with the subject line: “I hope I made you proud tonight.” He then proceeded to ask me to donate money. My thoughts: No you didn’t… and no I won’t. Now, I am sure that e-mail was probably crafted days ahead of the debate under the assumption Obama would, at very least, deliver a performance good enough to keep the tribe happy. Yet, considering the train wreck that occurred, it would have been best to re-work that subject line prior to hitting send. Not only that, in the days that followed the Obama campaign seemed to operate as if unaware that the earth had shifted under their feet. I’m not suggesting they should have flat-out admitted defeat, but the tone, tenor and tactics of the campaign needed to change more quickly to reflect the new realities of the race. It’s bad enough to screw up, but continuing the same spin despite the changing situation just kills credibility.
One of these two candidates will have yet another really bad night on Tuesday. Whether it’s Romney or Obama, I’m convinced that in large part the loss will trace back to either Boca or Denver.