Oh, boy, how quickly things can change. As a leading authority on political communication, it’s been fascinating to watch Barack Obama’s recent communication struggles. It didn’t seem possible just a short month or so ago [see Fast Company article The Brand Called Obama], but it’s starting to look like Obama has a “tin ear” when it comes to interpersonal communication.
I started noticing it a few weeks ago as the race for Pennsylvania got into high gear. Suddenly we were seeing Barack in situations where the personal touch was paramount. Unlike big speeches that are broadcast to millions, primaries are akin to statewide contests; candidates have to canvass the state, talk to real people, visit small businesses and press the flesh. It’s a big deal when a superstar like Obama comes to town. Everyone he comes into contact with wants a picture taken with him and he has to oblige or risk looking bad.
So here was the frontrunner, having established himself as a brilliant speaker, promoting the idea that he and he alone is best able to bring people together suddenly struggling and on the defensive.
It’s the little things that have been bringing him down. Like stopping into a shop that makes chocolates and candies and, as if he needs to watch his weight, refusing to indulge beyond a taste. Or acting some 1980s version of “flirtatiously” by calling women “Sweetie” and “Beautiful.” Then there were a couple of out-of-sync outings for bowling and beer drinking. He wanted only to be left alone during his recent, brief Caribbean family getaway. And at a really creepy encounter at a diner where his cell phone in his pants pocket started vibrating while posing for photos with some of the staff, he said, “I don’t want you to think I’m getting fresh or anything.” Ick. I get the feeling that the halls of the Senate are rife with that type of “humor.” I mean he could have just as easily have said, “Oh, whoops, my phone’s going off. Let me take it out of my pocket and put down while we take our picture.”
Now we’re hearing about the remarks he’s been defending for the past three days where he clumsily said that some Pennsylvania voters were bitter about their lot in life and as a result “cling” to religion, guns or prejudice. There is more, there’s a pattern here, and it’s self-inflicted.
In my field, it’s known as leakage. Leakage is when we say one thing, but our body language and/or the context says another. Obama presents himself as a unique entity, special, above the fray in many ways. As he is finding out, no one is above the fray. The everyday patter that is the bones of a campaign as well as of real life makes him feel ill at ease and unable to be spontaneous. Even photos of him with his winning smile are harder to find, replaced by photos with his arms folded, chin tilted upward and gaze off into some great beyond.
Suddenly, he’s not so unique and special anymore. That down-to-earth-ness is missing. And because his recent missteps don’t comport with his brand, they’re doubly jarring. As I’ve noted in several other blog posts over the past year (here, here and here), Obama has been an impressive communicator. He’s also good on the stump. He’s funny. This mastery has allowed him to connect with voters in an unprecedented way. Of course, the scrutiny was bound to intensify.
While running for president is very much about giving speeches and fighting back every single time a spitball comes your way, being president is more about the kinds of day-to-day things Obama's doing in PA and elsewhere – shaking hands, engaging in intense one-on-one conversations, dealing with dissent, persuading, listening. It’s worrisome that he’s having so much trouble because if he’s not comfortable meeting the people of PA, how is he going to do meeting the people of the world?
Ruth Sherman • Ruth Sherman Associates LLC • High-Stakes Communications • Greenwich, CT