There can’t be just one reason why a presidential candidate loses an election. It’s virtually impossible to come up with a soundbite answer. There’s politics, psychology and factors and even much more complicated. In this case, it seems that ignoring an important PR fundamental, at the least, contributed to the ultimate failure of the Mitt Romney campaign.
This is a crucial fundamental, a bedrock of PR that consistently proves true regardless of changes to communications: If you don’t speak for yourself, others will gladly speak for you. If you don’t tell your own story, others will frame your story for you.
It’s worth noting again that Political PR and Business PR are different. Politics plays by a different manual and rulebook. But, from this vantage point, are a few of the many ways in which the Romney Campaign apparently seemed to allow the Obama Campaign to shape public perception of Mitt Romney:
-Romney as a rich, out of touch elitist:
I was only a couple of hundred feet away from Romney when he cracked about his wife having “a couple of Cadillacs” in the heat of Primary season. He didn’t do himself any favors with that line. But, as I discussed about 100 days before the Election in an interview on Sirius-XM radio, the Campaign’s decision not to release tax returns was one that played right into the hands of the Obama Campaign. The public had just one conclusion – that Romney was hiding a literal embarrassment of riches. That set up an ongoing narrative, often dominating the public discussion, over which the Romney Campaign had no control. The timing for such a controversy could not have been worse, with America still reeling from The Great Recession. Romney should have released the tax returns, explained them, and moved on to explaining why he should be elected President. Other wealthy men have been elected to office before but never was wealth such a barrier. Much of that was self-inflicted.
-Romney said “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt”
Mitt Romney never said “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt.” The problem for him is that he never said that he never said it. It was a headline written by a New York Times editor. We work with dozens of op-ed pieces per year with our clients. Our clients never get to write the headlines on any of them. That’s a job for editors. I will never understand why Romney wouldn’t just say that he never said that, never wrote that as it was written for him, and explain his opinion on what should have happened to the auto industry in terms voters could understand. Or, better yet (let’s suspend the reality of politics for a second), give President Obama credit for that “win,” and then talk about all of the ways he believes the President “lost” otherwise.
-Romney as a political chameleon
Ironically, it has been well reported that Romney’s health care laws in Massachusetts served as a model for “Obamacare.” But, as a presidential candidate, Romney promised to “repeal and replace” the federal law. That gave the Obama Campaign a big opening to shape the image of Romney as an unpredictable flip-flopper. This would never happen in the world of politics, but Romney could have explained that his job is to represent his party as its nominee so he’s doing his job by upholding the GOP platform. But since the code of Political PR wouldn’t allow for it, the Campaign’s brand took a hit.
This is a lesson for anyone trying to communicate. Shape your own story. Deliver it over every possible platform. Otherwise, your competition will happily tell your audiences all about you, from their perspective.