Top communicators seem to always have a good response

Public relations guru Michael Deaver once told a story about then-California Gov. Ronald Reagan.

Public relations guru Michael Deaver once told a story about then-California Gov. Ronald Reagan.

The two were walking down the street when a man approached Reagan for an autograph. The man claimed that Reagan was one of his favorite people - actor Ray Milland. Reagan signed the man's paper "Ray Milland." When Deaver asked Reagan why he did that, he replied, "I know who I am."

Deaver used this recollection to stress the importance of a leader being comfortable with him or herself. Stretching the point further, it also highlights the value of satisfying the audience - sometimes at personal expense; never at the expense of principles.

Politics and communications share a symbiotic rhythm. What politician has ever reached nirvana being lousy at communications? What communicator has ever marched to the top lacking political savvy? President Reagan's skill at galvanizing the public even earned him praise as "the great communicator." As candidates campaign and PR pros progress, looking at shared lessons makes for an interesting exercise.

You need a clear viewpoint. Constantly representing others' views or sitting back and letting the elephants trample the grass has its place. That place, however, is somewhere in the pack and not held by the alpha dog.

Witness Sen. John Kerry, who was tagged as a "flip-flopper" to ruinous effect in his 2004 White House bid. Or look at ex-New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, who was famously quoted as saying, "I have no plans to make plans" when asked about his intentions to run for president. It's as old as the Bible. Proverbs 29:18 reads: "Where there is no vision, the people perish."

You also must be timely in sharing that vision. Former Sen. Fred Thompson announced his candidacy for president on The Tonight Show after months of reflection. In introducing him, Jay Leno remarked that Thompson had tested the waters so long he was "starting to get a bit wrinkly." Besides avoiding being the office equivalent of a late-night zinger, another reason for moving swiftly is that there really aren't that many big, new ideas. On a day-to-day basis, most decisions are "yes" or "no." Why not be the first to say it?

But what matters most in politics, PR, and just life itself is how well one responds, not simply how one reacts. Careers include good and bad hits. Reactions are instantaneous and offer a snapshot. To know how someone responds to changes, success, and failure takes time. The outcome is character and reputation.

Mike Deaver passed away in August. As a Fellow at Harvard University's Institute of Politics, I had the pleasure of spending time with him. His pioneering in politics and communications is renowned. What struck me is that his legacy is built on vision. And he had the ability to share it at the right time and he always gracefully responded to both the opportunities and challenges in his life.

Lisa Davis is VP of corporate communications at AstraZeneca. Each month, she looks at a different aspect of counseling senior management from an in-house viewpoint. If you have any comments or suggestions, e-mail her at lisa.davis@prweek.com.

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