Media Training: Where President Bush Went Wrong

As a teenager, I used to sell baseball cards at local flea markets. My father and I would spend a few Saturdays each year standing on hot asphalt as we peddled an unsealed pack, a slightly bent Nolan Ryan rookie card, or a late model Mickey Mantle.

On one particularly slow Saturday, a hot prospect finally came over to my table – a boy of maybe nine or ten years. We were close to finishing a sale, when I casually asked him if he liked any of the girls in his class. Within seconds, his mother scooped him up and whisked him away, costing me the sale.

“You broke the cardinal rule of selling,” my father admonished. “Never talk to customers about sex, politics, or religion.”

For the first time since then, I’m throwing caution to the wind and discussing…

The Harriet Miers Fiasco

When President Bush nominated White House Counsel Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court, he couldn’t have expected such fierce opposition. That some democrats would have spoken against her was predictable; that conservative republicans would do so was not.

Numerous conservative groups publicly opposed the nominee, as did high profile republicans such as Senator Trent Lott, Rush Limbaugh and George Will.

Late last month, the president accepted her withdrawal. For a White House so well steeped in message control, what went so terribly wrong?

According to USA Today, just four people considered Harriett Miers prior to her nomination to the Supreme Court – President and Mrs. Bush, Chief of Staff Andy Card, and Ms. Miers’ deputy, William Kelley. (In contrast, new Chief Justice John Roberts was interviewed by at least twice as many people prior to his nomination.)

Join the “Real World”

In keeping the selection committee so small, President Bush failed to take a “real world” test. The four people Ms. Miers met with knew her well, liked her personally and believed she’d be seen the same way by everyone outside the room as well. She wasn’t.

Instead of doing the same market testing any manufacturer would do before introducing a new product to the marketplace, the president eliminated the market testing stage. A “real world” test could have saved his administration a lot of heartache.

Popping the Bubble

Many executives, isolated at the top of the food chain, make the same mistake. They socialize with people “like them” who tend to see the world from the same vantage point. They tend to agree that their ideas are good ones. Worse, they rarely solicit feedback from their subordinates – and even if they do, their employees are reluctant to disagree.

When Rainforests and Museums Collide

The head of a major environmental group with whom I once worked was a media darling. He was regularly interviewed by the nation’s largest news organizations, and had a habit of likening the destruction of rainforests to the destruction of museums.

“Imagine how you would feel if we destroyed all of the great art in the Louvre or the Guggenheim,” he might say. “The same thing is happening to the species that live in our planet’s ever-shrinking rainforests.”

The comparison always fell flat with me – so I market tested it. Roughly half the people I asked said that linking museums with rainforests resonated for them; the other half said it didn’t. I decided fifty-fifty odds weren’t good enough – and kept developing new messages until we found something better.

So What Should You Do?

Before you finalize your next message or introduce your next big idea to the marketplace, test it. Ask the receptionist his opinion. Ask the janitor hers. Talk to the middle manager. And include the senior staff as well. Just a few minutes of extra work can help avert a public relations disaster.

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