After the 2008 presidential election, a Reagan Library spokesperson joked that the facility was really busy. You’d think the punch line was that conservatives were pining for their hero, but, in fact, it was the Obama team making request after request for copies of the Great Communicator’s speeches and photos.
Why? Because they understood that governing requires more than just huddling with advisers and signing off on policy decisions; to lead requires imagery and communications. In many ways, Woody Allen summed up this approach best when he said, “Eighty percent of success is just showing up.” You have to demonstrate day in and day out that you’re leading, especially in times of crisis.
Reagan set a standard for “showing up,” for being at the right place, saying the right things, combining imagery and substance. It’s a model that was embraced and copied by Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama to varying degrees of success.
But it’s a lesson that Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake seems not to have learned in her career as a politician. As Baltimore descended into chaos, she disappeared, communicated from behind a lectern and had a muddled message. Rudy Giuliani she is not.
After holding no photo ops and no major interviews for most of the day on Monday — a day when rioting started and images of smoke, fire and looting filled the airwaves — the mayor held a news conference at 8 p.m. to announce that she was too busy “managing” during the day to talk to the media. She then did an interview with CNN’s Don Lemon near midnight (not exactly peak viewership) and then walked away when a tough question was asked.
Contrast this ragged performance with the dramatic photo of President Obama and his team gathered in the Situation Room the day of the raid at Osama bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound. Remember Rudy Giuliani hustling from meeting to meeting on 9/11 and in the days after? He went from a funeral for a police officer to a church wedding where he fulfilled a promise to give a bride away. New Yorkers felt a grownup was in charge.
This is not a superficial point. Imagery is not always fluff: It’s key to crisis communications. It visually demonstrates that you’ve prioritized, that you’re working on solutions, that you’re actually “managing.” It mitigates the necessity to stand up at a news conference and tell people that you’re “managing.”
The flip side of this, of course, is President Bush’s handling of Hurricane Katrina. It’s arguable whether the Federal Emergency Management Agency or other federal government agencies could have made a huge difference in the initial two days, but the image of Bush observing the wreckage from Air Force One en route back to Washington was terrible. It was public relations malpractice.
Here’s some advice for Rawlings-Blake:
- Get out in the street. A leader needs to show that he or she is available to the public. Talk to protesters, police officers, community leaders and invite the media to watch, in safe environments, of course. Some of these meetings may be unpleasant, but politicians are also judged by how well they take a beating, not just how much applause they get.
- Do live interviews from the street corners with the cable and broadcast networks and local television in prime time. You need to seem to be everywhere, and live television provides this better than any other medium. And for better or worse, answer the tough questions even if you have to admit some mistakes. Leadership does not require infallibility.
- Convey a sense of order by articulating your plan in short sound bites. Whatever the plan is for restoring order to the city, you need to boil it down to three of four sentences that people can easily understand.
- Actions speak louder than words. Do you think the police failed? Fire someone. Do you think you received bad intelligence? Fire someone. Do you want the looters arrested and punished? Start doing it.
Let’s acknowledge that the mayor has a real crisis on her hands and not all crises are communications problems. But in disasters that impact the public, man-made or natural, leaders who don’t communicate aren’t effective. Competency is the essence of governing, but communications is one of the keys to demonstrating it.
This article was reposted from Real Clear Politics
Steven Schlein is a senior vice president at Dezenhall Resources, a crisis communications firm in Washington, D.C. He also served for 11 years as press secretary to members of Congress. He can be reached at Sschlein@dezenhall.com.