Battle of the Bad Sound-Bites: Coming To An Election Near You?
As I was preparing an executive communications training for a client, which includes exercises on effective sound-bites, I heard the latest "what was he thinking?" statement from Republican front-runner Mitt Romney: "I'm not concerned about the very poor."
This has been parsed in every news channel this week and used by competing candidates to bash Romney even while the candidate attempted to clarify that it was taken out of context. His full comment is below:
"By the way, I’m in this race because I care about Americans. I’m not concerned about the very poor. We have a safety net there. If it needs repair, I’ll fix it. I’m not concerned about the very rich, they’re doing just fine. I’m concerned about the very heart of the America, the 90, 95 percent of Americans who right now are struggling and I’ll continue to take that message across the nation."
Yes, it was out of context, but if you've ever had media training that included sound-bite training, you know that you have to be careful that no piece of your answer becomes that "gotcha" statement that can be used to distort your message. This is why speaking in paragraphs can be really dangerous, as any piece of it -- and sometimes it’s the pithy, albeit negative, pieces -- can be pulled out and completely change the meaning of your intended message.
This is a lesson Mr. Romney needs to learn, and fast, as he's fallen into this trap a number of times on the campaign trail and it has fed the perception that he is out of touch with the average American. For example, his attempt to say he was going to support the average American by being tough on service providers like banks, and firing them if necessary, left only this part of his complete thought hanging in the airwaves:
This fragment, taken out of context, was used to brand him as a heartless capitalist who is out of touch.
The ridiculous attention these statements have garnered worries me that this election could come down to the battle of the bad sound-bites. President Obama is no sound-bite king either and he's had more than his share of gaffes. Here's his top ten list, courtesy of Kevin Whalen of PunditReview. I wrote about Obama's lack of clear sound-bites when he was the Democratic candidate and delivered a 45-minute speech to deflect criticism about his association with Reverend Wright, who was under attack for making inflammatory comments. Obama is another politician who speaks in paragraphs rather than summing it up.
And speaking of bad sound-bites and gaffes, I thought it was a hilarious turn of events when Vice President Joe Biden decided to summarize the President's first term in a 40-minute speech and managed to come up with a very good sound-bite:
ABC blogged about the speech and went on to say:
"The Obama campaign has made the killing of bin Laden a signature foreign policy and national security talking point and has increasingly sought to promote the resurgence of the American auto industry in the wake of an Obama-backed, government-funded bailout as a heroic move. Today marked the first time a campaign figure boiled down those two points to a “shorthand” phrase."
Whether or not you agree with the statement, Biden’s sound-bite stays with you and it works. And it can't be shortened to anything that will hurt The President in the upcoming election. Of course, one can't say the same about the risk of having his VP, notorious for foot-in-mouth statements, continuing to summarize his accomplishments and long speeches for him. That is definitely frought with disaster.
I do worry about what I'm calling a "battle of the bad sound-bites" in this election. It's why I recommend that all spokespeople -- including candidates -- be concise and clear in their communication to avoid "gotcha" sound-bites that can be taken out of context and used against them. But I also appreciated the sentiment in a column by former Democratic Congressman from Washington, Brian Baird, who warns against either side trying to reduce complex matters like foreign policy to pithy comments intended to drive applause and campaign contributions.
"As a general rule, we should be suspect of any candidate statement on foreign policy that generates raucous ovations or an inpouring of interest group contributions during campaigns. (…) Nuance, complexity and long-term strategy are not easily distilled or communicated, and some of the most significant foreign policy actions must, of necessity, be conducted out of the glare of the media or publicity."
What I'm hoping for as the election year rolls on is less rhetoric and more clear communication. I'd prefer it to be in the form of shorter, clearer sound-bites that help the busy electorate net out where the candidates stand on key issues. But I'm sure Jon Stewart and others are hopeful that the battle of the bad sound-bites will continue to pepper the airwaves and blogosphere, for entertainment value.
What do you all think?