Less is More on the Political Trail, Barack
Watching the tense battle going on in the Democratic primary, I have been paying particular attention to the communication lessons I believe are being told by the recent crisis in the Obama camp. As I watched the news and the blogosphere to see how the Democratic front-runner was going to respond to the outrage at the selected diatribes from his pastor of 20 years, I was curious to see how his well-organized and Internet-savvy campaign team would respond. The buzz was all over the news yesterday morning -- if somewhat quieter in the blogs -- about the important speech on race he was planning to give in Philadelphia at the Constitution Center. I was in a meeting during the actual speech, so I have watched clips from it and have pulled his transcript off of the web. It truly was a brilliant speech, which Obama apparently worked on himself in the middle of this crazy period of his campaign. It was personally revealing. It was heartfelt. It was well delivered. He is a gifted orator.
But from a communications perspective, did it do the job it was intended to do -- to quiet the furor over Reverend Wright's assertions that associated Obama with someone who is being depicted as racist and anti-American? The news media is asking the same question and is saying "time will tell."
Obama refers to YouTube in his speech and says that if all he knew of Rev. Jeremiah Wright was the inflammatory clips on YouTube that are being watched by millions online and, seemingly on an endless loop on cable news (my words, not his), he would be appalled about him too. He then goes on to give a larger picture of the man and his contributions and his struggles that are the context for the snippets the public have seen.
Obama's detractors quickly point out that he did not stand up and correct Wright or walk out of the church when he made the inflammatory comments. They are looking for a defense for Obama's passivity in the face of these types of comments. They bring up the fact that he allowed his children to listen to this week after week in church. Listening to the detractors, I recalled the times my own Dad would take me by the hand and walk out of Mass at our parish church because he disagreed with the singing of patriotic songs like America the Beautiful in place of a closing hymn. His reason was that Catholic means universal and should transcend any country. He felt it was inappropriate and he showed that he disagreed by leaving whenever it happened. I mention this personal incident because I believe that is what the detractors are looking for from Obama -- something that shows he took courageous action against something he did not believe in.
So the speech did not dissuade them. But perhaps that task is impossible, just as Hillary Clinton cannot change the minds of people who feel she is cold and calculating and have issues in general with the way she and her husband have operated over the years.
But will Obama's speech -- as a vehicle to address the crisis -- move the undecideds? I don't think so and I think it's purely a case of the wrong medium for the time. The speech was described by some of the commentators and reporters as Lincolnesque. It certainly began with an eloquent recounting of our forefathers' language in our Constitution. It was statesmanlike. It was educational. It was riveting. But it was 45 minutes long. He decries the reduction of Jeremiah Wright to snippets on YouTube, but he seems to forget that we are a YouTube generation, whether we like it or not. His speech is difficult to cut into sound-bites or snippets that can capture his entire meaning. It is being diced and sliced depending on what the person using it is trying to get across. It is too long to provide the kind of clear messaging that is the hallmark of effective communications.
As a long-time communications professional and someone who has counseled many executives regarding clear and concise messaging, I have to say that this new tactic of long speeches will not work to Obama's advantage at this point in the campaign. His catch phrases like "yes we can" and "not this time" (in the current speech) will work for him. But the days of people sitting down and listening -- really listening -- to a 45-minute speech to understand a candidate's view on an important issue disappeared a long time ago. The only ones who will do it are the media and most of them are struggling with how to boil it down into something they can quickly comment on.
So what should he have done? The speech was great. But I think he needed to spend more time crafting a segment of the speech which would quickly deal with this situation. Because of the Wright clips, he is now viewed by many as being led or influenced by someone painted as racist and anti-American. He needed a sound-bite that said, "I heard these statements and I disagreed with them, and I was remiss in letting them go by without my comment or action." Then he could have continued his speech, eloquently explaining more about this man and his work so people will understand why he made this mistake.
Now THAT would have been the clip on the news and on YouTube. Instead, the latter has his speech in four segments and the last segment has the fewest viewings so far. It is just too much information.
Less definitely is more when you are in a sound-bite age of communications and politics.