Can President Obama effect a comms reversal with voters in the next year?

A lot can happen in one year.

Yes

Stacie Paxton, VP, Hill & Knowlton
Was national press secretary for the Democratic National Committee and spokesperson for ex-Sen. Chris Dodd (D-CT)

Despite creating or saving millions of jobs through an economic stimulus, bringing Osama bin Laden to justice, enacting troop reductions in Iraq and Afghanistan, saving the auto industry from collapse, and passing healthcare reform, President Barack Obama has declared himself the "underdog" in next year's election. Why?

Though a talented communicator, he has fallen into the trap of spending too much time in Washington. In 2008, he spent every day talking to regular people and facing real problems. He was able to naturally create a connection with Americans.

As President, however, there has been too much talk of super committees, bills, and budgets, and too little distinction between his policies and those of Republicans. He needs to show passion, conviction, and that he's fighting for the people. 

To get back on track, Obama should go back to his campaign roots by doing the following:

  • Play offense. Hit the road and talk directly to Americans. Don't hesitate to call out opponents for obstructing progress. Draw clear distinctions between Democrats and Republicans, such as the GOP voting to end Medicare as we know it. And don't wait until there's a nominee to start making the case.
  • Jobs, jobs, and more jobs. Message discipline is key. In 2008, his message was summed up in one word: "Change." Voters must believe he's doing all he can to improve the economy.
  • Show, don't tell. Obama must illustrate his accomplishments and vision for the future through the art of storytelling. Don't just say, "Pass this jobs bill," illustrate how it will create jobs and improve people's lives. Talk about, for example, the young woman who will have healthcare despite having a previously existing condition.
  • Inspire us again. Voters want to believe tomorrow will be better than today. Obama must acknowledge that things aren't where they should be, talk every day about how he'll get the US working again, and make it clear that he is the leader who will get us back on track.

No

Tony Blankley, EVP, global public affairs, Edelman Washington
Served as Newt Gingrich's press secretary and speech-writer for President Reagan

Sure, President Obama can turn it around, but given his team's failure to effectively marshal its communications assets in its first three years, it likely won't succeed in its fourth year. 

The President, and the government and campaign assets he controls, are potentially the most formidable communications entity on earth. He can make news whenever he wants and make history every day. In fact, he does. But unless his team is working off a constantly updated strategic plan, the news and history he makes might not be useful for his re-election.

At the strategic, operational, and research levels, he controls assets that could design and execute smart messaging, grass-roots organizing, coalition-building, and social messaging. He has scores of professional PR and senior management staff government-wide, which may reach out to every sector of the economy and culture and command attention. Each department can legally use research and program development to assist the White House in the issue-by-issue design of their strategic communications.  

The Reagan and Clinton administrations coordinated smart messages that enhanced coalition management and public attitudes from a strategic plan on a daily basis via the public affairs shops of the entire government. In contrast, the Obama White House has poor "client relations management" with the government agencies.

Consider that the Department of Health and Human Services alone can put out PSAs, digital communications, direct mailers, and social media targeted to all  Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security beneficiaries to shape the public view of the White House's handling of these vital programs. Properly timed, designed, and executed, this would be the largest, deepest, and broadest grassroots campaign.

But unless all assets are strategically and strenuously managed by the administration from its first year, they are wasted by being randomly used by each agency rather than as key parts of a strategic plan. The administration's failure to manage all these assets on behalf of its jobs message is but one example of its broad communications failure. 


PRWeek's View
A lot can happen in one year. For instance, employment figures could greatly improve. But with Obama's flatlining poll numbers, his communications team will have to vastly boost its effectiveness to give him a chance at reelection

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