How To Avoid Obama’s `Stupid’ Stumble

What is truth?

The phrase, spoken by Pontius Pilate as he tried to sidestep his role in the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, is one of history’s most infamously cynical utterances.

Obviously, there are clear delineations of truth and falsehood. Right and wrong. Wisdom and foolishness.

But it’s the mark of a wise individual to know that the path to such clarity is not always a quick process. In fact, getting at “the truth” of an interaction can prove to be a never-ending journey.

All of which brings me to President Barack Obama’s surprisingly block-headed foray last week into a police investigation, when he said that police acted “stupidly” in arresting Henry Louis Gates Jr.

It all began with a report of a possible break-in at the Cambridge, Mass. home of Gates, a Harvard professor and friend of Obama.

The saga has been exhaustively chronicled by now. After a long trip, Gates did not have a key that he needed and was struggling to get into his own home. When police came to question him, Gates had an emotional explosion and got himself arrested for disorderly conduct (a charge later dropped).

Thereafter, the he said/cop said back-and-forth sprang forth.

Having written thousands of blurbs, briefs, stories and in-depth reports on incidents involving police in my journalism career, I learned long ago that what is written in reports and what actually happened can range from relatively faithful renderings of events to misleading, incomplete and even patently false accounts signed and approved by “officials” in authority.

Flawed as reports can be, the fact is that the President hadn’t even read the Cambridge Police report. So he wasn’t even close to a starting point of having an informed view of how the police department behaved–or at least claimed that it had behaved.

And he hadn’t spoken to Gates, nor had he conferred with the arresting officer, Sgt. James Crowley. And even if he had sat down the two in his Oval Office and asked for a recap, he would have received incomplete, self-serving accounts.

As I knew he would do the moment I heard his remark at the White House press conference, Obama has backpedaled from his criticism of Crowley.

But the egg on Obama’s face reveals this truth: it’s infinitely more prudent to acknowledge the limits of your knowledge than to confirm the lengths of your ill-informed, knee-jerk, know-it-all foolishness.

My Two Cents on Humor’s Pivotal PR Role

Last Friday, when I let newspaper editor Helen Karakoudas know that I had a “timely and hilarious” news release coming her way, she immediately gravitated to the “hilarious” half of that promise.

“Now you’ve got my interest,” said Karakoudas, managing editor of Wednesday Journal, Inc.

I was referring to my effort on behalf of Charo’s Hair Design and Day Spa, involving former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich and his wellspring of hair.

Karakoudas posted the story on the paper’s web site a few hours later, and the media ball had begun rolling.

Communicating with a sense of humor, clearly, is an immense aid, no matter who you are and no matter what your professional (or amateur) pursuit.

When I was a newspaper reporter, having a sense of humor was an indispensable part of how I built rapport with people, either one-time interviewees or long-term sources.

Did they always appreciate my humor? I strongly doubt it. But at least I tried, and it’s something that I continually strive to weave in to my everyday interactions as I meet a steady stream of new people, from prospective clients to folks riding the elevator with me to dealings with the cashier at Trader Joe’s.

In my experience, the key is authenticity–to work with whatever humor God gave you, and not try too hard. In sports, this is called “letting the game come to you.” In day-to-day life, it springs forth from being an active, attentive listener–not constantly thinking of what I will say next–and identifying the lighter side of things.

Related Posts:
Two Marketing Humor Strategies: Think Animals & Practice ‘Less is More’
7 Ways That Thought-Leader Pieces With Odd-Numbered Tips Really Have Gotten Out of Hand

Presidency To Test Obama’s PR Realism

President Barack Obama’s inauguration today brings two other dates to mind:

Twenty years ago today, I was an intern at the Telegraph & News of Macon, Georgia, helping edit the front page that included news of George H.W. Bush’s inauguration as president.

And 20 years before that, I was in diapers as Richard M. Nixon was sworn in as president.

Unlike Obama, both Nixon and Bush had relationships with the media that were strained, at best, and often disastrous.

I have nearly finished reading Stephen Ambrose’s Nixon: Ruin and Recovery and among other truths, Ambrose shows that Nixon recognized the impact of public relations perception on his political viability.

At the same time, it’s even more obvious that he terribly misgauged the magnitude of his actions on generating the worst kind of PR. He also had a fundamentally flawed view of the media’s very nature. He tried to battle journalism’s investigative, cynical, “gotcha” qualities instead of accepting those traits as fact and proceeding accordingly.

Of course, in the immediate aftermath of the June 1972 Watergate Hotel break-in, Nixon’s options ranged from really, really bad (if he had ‘fessed up immediately that his subordinates–though not Nixon himself–had ordered and orchestrated the botched Watergate break-in) to politically lethal (hide his subordinates’ role and then hide his role in the cover-up, then conceal each successive half-truth, distortion or outright lie that followed in the tangled web).

As for the elder Bush—fittingly, as the Republican Party’s National Chairman he was among those advising Nixon during the disintegration of Nixon’s administration in 1973-74—his view of the media became remarkably unrealistic and embittered over time.

In 1997, four years after he left office, Bush 41 issued a ridiculously impossible “no media allowed” demand on a talk that he gave in Elgin, Ill., where I was a reporter at the time for The Courier News.

What brought him to town? He was the featured speaker at Money magazine’s “adoption” of the city to teach personal finance lessons. While the magazine was at it, maybe they should have added a PR lesson for Bush.

As his talk before thousands at Elgin High’s gymnasium approached, reality set in, and Bush’s handlers had no choice but to “waive” the unenforceable media ban.

Obama, on the other hand, appears to have developed a clear-eyed view that he can influence, but not impose his will, on the media.

That realism will be put to the test as his honeymoon media-darling phase comes to a close in rapid fashion, and he begins bearing the inevitable brunt of criticism that confronts all Presidents.

This essay also appeared in the Marshfield (Ma.) Mariner, the publication where I began my journalism career 25 years ago.

Obama Addresses Emperor Blagojevich

Give President-elect Barack Obama credit a few minute ago for knowing how to address the elephant in the room.

At the start of a press conference on the national economy this morning, and mindful that reporters would be quizzing him on the issue, Obama shared some words about Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s scandalous efforts to help his own personal economy.

As U.S. District Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald and his staff revealed on Tuesday and as I touched on in yesterday’s Inside Edge PR blog post, Clothes-less Emperor Blagojevich had placed Obama’s recently vacated U.S. Senate seat on the auction block.
“I was as appalled and as disappointed as anybody by the revelations” about Emperor Blagojevich, Obama stated. He stressed that he is “confident no representatives of mine would have any part” of any deals brokered by Emperor Blagojevich, Obama added.

“This Senate seat does not belong to any politician to trade,” Obama intoned. “It belongs to the people of Illinois. They deserve the best possible representation.”

Chill On The Obama Countdown, Tribune!

Here in Chicago, the countdown is on, ticking down the days before Barack Obama is inaugurated as President of the United States. While I understand and appreciate the excitement, it strikes me as a tad overblown to have the countdown be by the second, as it is on the Trib’s website.

Tempering the Tribune’s online breathlessness is columnist John Kass, whose wry assessment of potential Obama assistants, like Oprah Winfrey, Jesse Jackson, Tony Rezko and Todd “Urkel” Stroger, is on Page 2 of the newspaper.

My favorite part of the column, rightfully slamming Obama’s cynical endorsement of the incompetent Stroger two years ago:

“Send Stroger to Washington,” Susan E. wrote. “Don’t really care in what capacity, as long as we get rid of him. Let him work his magic for the nation. We really shouldn’t be hiding this talent in one place. Send all 500 of his closest relatives, too.”