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Media and Crisis Management

What was THAT speech about?

Posted on: July 29th, 2012

Crisis Management: What was THAT speech about?Crisis communications

A popular radio announcer once spoke to some influential business people.  He quickly told four anecdotes then asked, “Do you have any questions?”  That was it.  I liked and knew the guy but after his speech asked myself, “What was that all about?”

I had the same reaction after watching Governors Sarah Palin and Mark Sanford hold press conferences of consequence in 2009.  Alaska’s Palin announced her resignation.  South Carolina’s Sanford admitted cheating on his wife, disappearing without revealing his whereabouts, and misleading his staff.  Although the content of both governors’ presentations differed wildly they had three similarities: authenticity, passion, and confusion.

Sanford’s first words were, “I had a conversation with (reporter) Gina Smith this morning when I arrived in Atlanta, and I told her about my love of the Appalachian Trail. And I used to organize hiking trips, actually, when I was in high school. I would get a soccer coach or a football coach to act as chaperone, and then I’d get folks to pay me 60 bucks each, or whatever it was, to take the trip, and then off we’d go and have these great adventures on the Appalachian Trail.”

Palin’s presentation talked of accomplishments, haranguing media, and the expense of opposition research against her.  Then she said, “My choice is to take a stand and effect change – not hit our heads against the wall and watch valuable state time and money, millions of your dollars, go down the drain in this new environment. Rather, we know we can effect positive change outside government at this moment in time, on another scale, and actually make a difference for our priorities – and so we will, for Alaskans and for Americans.”

After watching these attractive, rising (?) GOP stars wander about verbally; again I asked myself, “What was that all about?”  Conservative George Will said he had watched Palin’s address once and read it twice, and said, “I still have no idea why she did this (resign).”  It was mystifying when she later blamed the media for misrepresenting her announcement which was, by definition, unfocused.  As for Sanford, many commentators lamented his meandering explanation as well as his judgment.

Seems appropriate to roll out the iconic 1967 Cool Hand Luke movie line, “What we’ve got here is (a) failure to communicate.”  I said as much on Twitter and got one sharp retort saying Palin and Sanford’s only failure was their passion and that was preferable to President Obama and his robotic reliance on the teleprompter.

Now I’m no more a fan of “prompter stare” than I am tangled messages.  (The President admits he’s trying to break his prompter dependency).  I also prefer people who wear their hearts on their sleeves as Palin and Sanford did.  However, when word precision is essential (and could it have been any more essential for Palin and Sanford than at this time?) then a prompter or script beats stream of consciousness bloviating every time.

Communication succeeds when the listener understands what the speaker intends to convey.  Didn’t happen here.

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