Back when I was a much younger public relations guy for a major corporation, I was advised by a higher-up of the danger of making the CEO your spokesperson all the time. "You must use your top guy sparingly," he said. "If the press and the public get used to the CEO as your spokesman, no one else will ever suffice again. And then over time, he just becomes another guy." In other words, you diminish the power of that office.
This past Sunday, President Obama was on five -- count them, FIVE! -- talk shows to tout healthcare reform. How effective could that have been after a while? Let me make clear, the man can be masterful in a public role. Just look at how charming he was on David Letterman's show this past Monday, comfortable with the audience, the host, and perhaps more importantly, in his own skin. And with one phrase -- "I was actually black before the election" -- he defused Jimmy Carter's tin-eared and unwelcome assertion that opposition to Obama was race-based. He said very clearly and pointedly, "Don't call the American people racist. They elected me knowing I was black." But I digress.
Obama is risking the diminishing of one of his most powerful assets -- his power of communication and persuasion. This was so evident in his campaign, whether talking about race in America at the Constitution Center in Philadelphia, or articulating a creative, economic solution to the economic meltdown. Now, by overusing this skill and becoming the ubiquitous promoter of healthcare reform, he is counter-intuitively not strengthening it but diminishing it. As my advisor said, he is becoming just another guy. Plus he is not addressing the concerns of the sizable number of people who are against him, the man. As long as he is THE face of healthcare reform and he is inextricably tied to it, its chances are diminished.
I'm not promoting healthcare reform here. My views are immaterial, and in fact, I have many problems with it as presented. I'm simply looking at this as a marketing and public relations exercise. Where are the other voices promoting healthcare reform? There was much talk about "death panels" and "letting Grannie die." Why haven't we heard more about the AARP's support of the plan? Non-medical people on talk radio are given free rein to denounce the plan, but the American Medical Association -- the real medical experts -- have endorsed it. Why are their view not heard?
I often go back to the effective communications successes of the Reagan administration, and I imagine how those folks would have handled this. I suspect that they would have kept their President a bit more in the background and found other credible supporters to tout their plan. They used the power of the Great Communicator with discretion. Obama should pay attention to this.
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