Thursday, November 8, 2012

Thoughts on Tuesday’s Election

For Republicans, this election should have been about the economy.  In a normal year it would have been awfully difficult for any President, or any incumbent, to get re-elected in this economy.  After four years, it should have been nearly impossible to shift blame.  But the fact that none of this happened says something fundamental about the GOP in 2012.

Tuesday was not about the economy.  It was not even about whether Pres. Obama’s healthcare law was an overreach by the government and his party. 

Tuesday’s election was about George Wallace. Yes, the Governor’s part of history now, passing away in 1998 (and to be fair, he did express remorse at the end), but the bitter, resentful, angry, self-righteous, anti-immigrant legacy he left to today’s GOP has now consumed the party.  On Tuesday, simple math and the “better angels” of America’s nature evoked by Lincoln, combined with the dynamic character of America’s population, finally caught up with the Republicans.

Here’s the math:  In a country where the percentage of minority voters is now 28% - and rising – the GOPs 40+ year strategy of appealing to white voters, and more specifically white males, has now run its course.  Gov. Romney won 59% of white voters, who made up 72% of the electorate.  But he lost African-Americans 93-7(!) (13% of the electorate); Hispanics 71-29 (10%, and surging) and Asians 73-27 (3%).  These Americans (and other immigrants) hear what is being said about them, either directly or in code.  Naturally, they are voting against it.

In 2008, following John McCain’s defeat, I wrote this – “Twenty years ago, when Jesse Jackson was winning Democratic presidential primaries, I used to wonder if a Democrat could say what had to be said to win the nomination and still win in November. Walter Mondale and Mike Dukakis confirmed that the answer was "No.”

The GOP is now in the same ditch, far from the electable mainstream and right where the Democrats were before Bill Clinton pulled them out.     

Another interesting facet of the current state of the GOP is the party’s indifferent relationship with facts. Whether it’s an insistence that tax cuts reduce deficits, Gov. Romney’s misleading (at best) ad about Jeep moving jobs to China, the attacks on Nate Silver’s use of statistical models to assess polling data or Karl Rove’s meltdown about his home network Fox News bowing to scientific laws of probability and calling Ohio for Obama Tuesday night (and here), the party seems to have adopted Nietzche’s philosophy that “There are no facts, only interpretations."   This outlook will only reinforce an existing tendency towards unfounded certainty, making it even easier to blame the voters.  This, in turn, will make the transition to something new and electable even harder.

All of these troublesome traits find their focus on the problem of the so-called “Tea Party”, which will be a vexing one for the GOP to solve.  They are a reliable enthusiastic base, but they are not really serious about problem-solving, and their allegiance comes at a very high cost.  They forced Sen. McCain (see, Sarah Palin) then Gov. Romney far to the right to win the nomination.  For both, there was no coming back to electability.

The Tea Party has also cost the GOP four U.S. Senate seats.  In 2010 it was Nevada and Delaware (“I am not a witch”).  In 2012, it was Indiana and Missouri, where two fringe candidates made comments about rape that cost the party seats they should have won.  Forfeiting four winnable Senate seats is a high price to pay to secure a base that is never, ever satisfied.

This is not to say that America is not facing serious problems.  While the Obama years have seen a significant reduction in the rate at which spending has increased, we continue to accumulate debt at an unsustainable rate.  Further, we have made commitments to entitlement spending that simply can’t be met.  In Rhode Island, our state’s economic performance speaks for itself. 

Once, the Republicans had an answer:  Ronald Reagan.  But Pres. Obama was right when he observed that Reagan could never win today’s GOP nomination.  The cheerful, optimistic, neighborly, “give the other guy a hand up and the benefit of the doubt if he genuinely needs it”, pragmatic world-view that personified the Gipper has been swallowed by something much darker.

People are open to alternatives in 2012, largely because they are uneasy, some even frightened.  Things have changed so much from our parents’ day that bedrock ideas – like the notion that hard work and loyalty would bring security and upward mobility – are now called into question.

This uncertainty, and our self-evident, self-created problems make people open to change.  But they’re reluctant to give the reins to strangers who make them vaguely uneasy –a little too rigid, a little too self-certain, a little angry and maybe even a little mean.  Given the choice presented on Tuesday, it’s not surprising that many voters decided to overlook the familiar flaws of the status quo, and stick with what they know.  That uneasiness, and the resulting outcome, was felt here in Rhode Island, too.

If they want to win again, the Republicans have a painful path ahead of them.  What they’re doing now isn’t working, and will become even less likely to work in the future.  Some, egged on by the hosts of their “Entertainment” wing, will demand an even more pure version of what they are today, because that’s where the pundits’ bread is buttered.  Many will blame the voters, ignoring the market-based truism that the customer is always right.  They’ll argue amongst themselves.  But if they want to win, they’ll have to find their own Bill Clinton.  They’ll have to change.

Posted by David Preston

Thursday, July 19, 2012

What Does That Poll Really Mean?

Now’s the season for political “polls,” but what do they really mean – if anything?

There are two reasons to conduct a poll:
1. To find out information that you need to know.
2. To get some degree of validation for information that you want others to know.

Reason #1 is the political equivalent of market research. Some may find this idea unsavory because of worries that it could lead to pandering by candidates. Well, maybe. Certainly poll-driven candidates are out there, but I give voters more credit for seeing through them. In reality, it’s crucial for candidates to have good information about what voters care about in order to stay in touch with the electorate’s top priorities. If a candidate wants to talk about apples, but the electorate wants to know about oranges, the campaign’s in trouble. A poll can help a candidate know what voters want to know about – and address those concerns.

Unfortunately, polls with reliable numbers are hard to find and expensive. What makes it hard – and expensive - to conduct a good poll?
• You need good callers who understand the questions and ask them the right way;
• You need callers who can be trained to pronounce candidate names and place names correctly;
• Informative polls are long, and it’s difficult to get people to stay on the line all the way through to the end;
• It’s harder to find voters in the era of the cell phone, which are off-limits to pollsters by law;
• It takes time and a real expertise to draft a sound, useful questionnaire;
• It takes time and expertise to interpret the data, weighing it properly so it’s reflective of area demographics.

In short, the kind of good data you need for the first kind of poll is expensive and difficult to come by – and becoming even more so.

Which brings us to the second kind of poll. These tend to be notoriously unscientific and rigged to score points for whoever is releasing it. Your radar should really go up if poll numbers are released by a political party, an organization affiliated with one or a special interest group.

In reality, all public polls should be greeted with healthy skepticism. Media outlets used to do them with the necessary rigor, but few can afford it anymore, with some national exceptions (NY Times, CBS, etc.). Local media outlets are, for the most part, unwilling to spend the money it takes to get really good data. They usually settle for on-line polls or automated telephone polls. (I think my dog Buster responded to one of those the other day.) What you end up with is very cheap data that barely passes the accuracy laugh test – but is reported by the media with a straight face. The best information is usually found in the hands of well-funded candidates, and jealously guarded like the precious commodity that it is.

If you want to know who’s really up and who’s down, the best indicators are not public polls but the activities of the candidates. If they’re spending precious time and resources campaigning in neighborhoods, towns, counties or states they are expected to win, they’re in trouble. If they’re launching a desperate attack on an opponent, they’re in trouble. But if they’ve kept a consistent message, are counter-attacking from the high ground, and campaigning in areas that are considered a toss-up, they’re looking at good numbers.

Monday, May 28, 2012

What Could Schilling Have Done?

Below is an e-mail interview I recently did regarding the travails of Curt Schilling and his company, 38 Studios.  I’d be interested in your comments on my responses.
-  DP

From: Jeff Derderian []
Sent: Friday, May 25, 2012 11:43 AM
Subject: Schilling Piece-GoLocalProv.Com

Hey David--

I hope this note finds you well.

I write a weekly media piece for GoLocalProv these days and I am doing a piece on Schilling and his lack of media response.  We'll look at from PR perspective---what Schilling could have done differently to handle this better. 

I'm wondering if you might be able to answer a few questions for my piece---which will run Tuesday.  I'll put it together over the weekend if you have time to get back to me on it.

Thanks, David.


Jeff Derderian
Media Writer

From: David Preston []
Sent: Sunday, May 27, 2012 12:16 PM
To: 'Jeff Derderian'
Subject: RE: Schilling Piece-GoLocalProv.Com

Hi Jeff – Good to hear from you. 

These are hard questions to answer since I’m missing some key information: 
  • What is this the financial condition of 38 Studios? (Other than “bad”).  
  • What were/are Schilling’s business goals for 38? 
  • Does he know of, or suspect, that there has been any malfeasance involved?  (I am an attorney, but before answering this last question, he would probably want to hire our firm as a sub-contractor to his law firm in order to preserve attorney-client privilege.  This is something we do quite often in a crisis communications situation.)
I should also note that I’m approaching your inquiry as if Schilling, personally, were the client.  If my client was an agency of Rhode Island state government, an individual in government, or the theoretical “Citizens of Rhode Island”, my answers to these questions would be very different.

Communications is not an end in itself -  all communication, crisis or not, should support the goals of an organization, and be designed to create a climate where those goals can be achieved.  38 Studios disintegrated so rapidly that there may not have been anything Schilling could have done business-wise.  If so, all that is left is to try and protect his reputation.

If, as it appears, this is a case of protecting his reputation, I’d advise him to be candid and forthright about how things happened, thank and praise his employees, express regret and accept responsibility for his role.  Above all, he should avoid bitterness or finger-pointing at all costs.

The only possible business scenario that works here would have been that some type of private investment was imminent, and 38 Studios just needed a bridge – money, time or both – to realize the new capital.  In that scenario, I would advise him to make the case that 38 was on the verge of new capital, and that the state would be positioned to preserve and reap the benefit of their entire investment with just a little more time and/or money.

The bridge scenario is unlikely, so it’s probably now strictly about his reputation.  The bottom line with Schilling’s silence so far is that what Rhode Islanders think about Curt Schilling may not be a priority for him.  He also knows that outside of Rhode Island very few people that matter to him will be concerned about this.  If this happened in Massachusetts, New York or California he would have to respond much differently.

Here's a list of questions--and feel free to add any perspective I may be leaving out. 

Q:  What should have Schilling done immediately---press release?  Sit down with all three TV’s? One on one interviews?  If so, why?  What would that have done? 
A:  In the scenario where funding was imminent, I would recommend that he define his position very quickly with a clear, direct written statement.  I would let that stand for about a day, and see what kind of reaction it gets, particularly from decision-makers in government, and in the private capital markets.  From there, I would follow up with a day or two of one-on-one interviews - Rhode Island, Boston and nationally - to further press the case for a bridge.  Stringing these out over a couple of days would allow him to calibrate his message in response to developments, and allow him to define the conversation by constantly creating “news.”  One-on-ones are more conducive to the appearance of a conversation.  They also convey a sense that regardless of what is going on around him, Curt Schilling is calm, rational, thoughtful and accessible, i.e., direct and has nothing to hide.

Q:  Allow workers to talk (about) how they tried to make it work, etc.?
A:  It’s very rare to see the kind of media discipline among employees that seemed to be almost unanimous at Studio 38.  (I would caution him, however, against overtly trying to manufacture expressions of support.)  At this point, with it likely that only Schilling’s reputation is at stake, the employees could be helpful in defining Schilling as someone who had built a strong, team-oriented culture.  Last Friday’s “We Love Curt” sign in the window, regardless of who posted it, reinforces the impression that Schilling is well-regarded by his ex-employees and that he had earned their loyalty.

Q:  Is too late for him to get in front of this?  Why – why not?
A:  From a business perspective, it’s probably over.  From the standpoint of preserving his reputation, I’d advise him to do a couple interviews with friendly reporters (probably in Boston or a couple national sports reporters).  He should be candid and forthright, thank and praise his employees, express regret and accept responsibility for his role. 

Q:  What would you advise him NOT to do?
A:  No finger-pointing or bitterness.  This is unlikely to damage him outside Rhode Island, unless he brings it on himself by appearing to be a self-absorbed, entitled jock who blames everyone but himself, tells lies or denies incontrovertible evidence (see: Roger Clemens, Pete Rose)

Q:  Does this hurt his baseball great image?
A:  This is an interesting question, because the consensus seems to be that he is “on the bubble” for the Hall of Fame, something that would matter very much to a guy like him. Fortunately for him, most – if not all – of the people who elect players to the Hall are from outside Rhode Island.  In order to make sure this doesn’t damage him with Hall voters, the interview regimen I outlined above becomes even more important.  If the interviewer is also a Hall of Fame voter, so much the better.

If he executes the interviews well, they should be enough to prevent this episode from damaging his Hall of Fame prospects - and there are scenarios where it might even help.

However, his career as a political activist may not be as robust as it once was, and the days of delivering his stump speech about how government should stay out of the private sector are probably over.

Q:  When advising crisis clients who don’t want to talk — what do you tell them and why?
A:  It is exceedingly rare for silence to be a good option.  In almost every instance I tell clients that they have to fill the vacuum and define their position on their own terms, even if it is only with a written statement.  Keeping silent is a dangerous choice – it lets other people define you on their terms, which is almost without exception a bad idea.  In this case, however, silence doesn’t seem to have done Schilling any meaningful harm – yet.  As facts become known, however, silence will become an increasingly risky choice for him.

Q:  If Schilling were to call you—what is the one thing you would tell him?
A:  I’d ask him how he viewed the viability of the business.  If, as I suspect, he told me it was over, I would suggest that he take steps to protect his reputation.  The lawyer in me would recommend that his attorneys hire our firm as a subcontractor.  We’d set up a couple interviews and we’d put him through some intense media training.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Apologize Like You Mean It…

Recently, Susan G. Komen for the Cure® faced an avalanche of criticism when they announced their decision to eliminate most of their grants to Planned Parenthood. Within hours, the decision dominated online chatter and social media outlets, making it the lead headline on the network news cable news, and almost every major newspaper and online news-site across the country. Realizing they had made a major misstep, Komen eventually released a statement of “apology,” and revised their decision.

Now that the dust has begun to settle, it’s worth taking some time to address Komen’s apology and assess its effectiveness. In my view, the apology was flawed for several different reasons.

First and foremost, the apology rang hollow. Why? Because Komen seemed more focused on asking the public to relax and calm down, rather than truly seek forgiveness. As they put it, “We believe it is time for everyone involved to pause, slow down and reflect.” They also urged “everyone who has participated in this conversation across the country … to help us move past this issue.”

I understand Komen’s leadership desperately wanted to put the barrage of criticism behind them, but when you make a mistake, part of the learning process means having to hear from those you’ve disappointed. And if you’re an organization that raises millions of dollars from hundreds of thousands of donors, you should be willing to show some patience.

Second, Komen tried to deflect their blame as a misunderstanding between why the decision was made and how the public interpreted it. According to the Foundation, the criticism erupted as “a presumption” from the public that the decision was based on politics. Building upon that theme they insisted they did not want their “mission marred or affected by politics – anyone’s politics.”

But was it really the public’s fault that their decision became politicized? Surely, they recognized well before issuing the new policy that there would be major political ramifications. If not, you would have to wonder if their policy team was asleep at the wheel, which in itself would warrant an apology.

Most importantly, the apology was ineffective because despite using more than 300 words to express their “apology,” not once did Komen “take full responsibility” for the decision, and the fallout that rocked the organization. Within hours of the decision being deemed unacceptable by millions of people who had supported Komen in the past, they should have recognized immediately that they had greatly misjudged the public’s reaction.

In my view, taking full responsibility for that misjudgment would have gotten Komen quite a bit farther in repairing the public’s trust. When an individual, a company, or an organization has done something wrong, you can never underestimate how important “taking full responsibility” can be to repairing the relationship between the public and those at fault. Taking responsibility, showing patience, and admitting your flaws in judgment are some of the most important keys to making a genuine, sincere, and effective apology.

Friday, January 13, 2012

New Name, New Look

When you've been in business for more than 100 years, like the Visiting Nurse Service of Greater Rhode Island, changing your name and look is a very big decision. You have to get it just right, making certain that the change reflects your brand, your mission and - in this case - a long tradition of caring. Getting it right requires thoughtful research, constructive brainstorming, and strategic planning.

Yesterday afternoon, in the State House rotunda, the result was unveiled, when the non-profit, home health care provider announced it was formally changing its name to Visiting Nurse Home Care.

The process began last summer, as we helped their team navigate the complex process of the name change and rebranding. We helped outline the challenges inherent in their previous name and zeroed in on what the new name could say to better represent their services. They also wanted to reflect the unique human caring that every member of the VNHC team brings to what can be a challenging task. When it was over, we were confident that the new logo's look and feel was a perfect match for the new name and the 103-year old organization.

We want to congratulate Visiting Nurse Home Care on this major milestone, and we look forward to working with them in the months ahead to let people know about their new identity.