In the public affairs arena, sometimes less is more

Imagine the following scenario: You are a public relations professional for an advocacy organization at the tip of the spear of a highly controversial public policy campaign with national security and constitutional rights implications.

Imagine the following scenario: You are a public relations professional for an advocacy organization at the tip of the spear of a highly controversial public policy campaign with national security and constitutional rights implications. After a decade of tireless determination on behalf of your cause the opportune political and legislative time to achieve victory is finally at hand.

In the waning hours leading up to the final debate and vote you are contacted by the biggest celebrity on the planet offering to aid your cause by speaking at one of your rallies.

Given the opportunity, the temptation to accept the offer would be great. However, a seasoned public affairs practitioner would be well served to think twice. In the sport of public affairs, sometimes less is more and sometimes well-meaning celebrities can do more harm than good.

Lady Gaga's recent trip to my hometown of Portland, Maine, to garner support for the repeal of the federal government's “Don't Ask Don't Tell” policy serves as a clear case study of how public relations and public affairs goals can often be divergent, if not mutually exclusive.

With an anticipated tight vote in the U.S. Senate on whether to repeal the policy, the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network organized a rally in an effort to pressure Maine's U.S. Senators Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins to break ranks with their fellow Republicans and vote in favor of the repeal. Both legislators, along with Senator Scott Brown (R-MA), represented the likely swing votes that would determine whether a filibuster would prevent the bill from advancing to the Senate floor.

One night before the event Lady Gaga announced to her 6.4 million followers on Twitter that she would be headlining the rally — and the media circus began. Needless to say the event saturated the Maine media market and made a splash in national and international outlets as well. But in the end, she may have alienated the very people she was seeking to win over.

While she has a colossal fan base of millions of “little monsters” around the world, the public persona of the avant-garde Lady Gaga is nothing if not extreme and non-conformist. Those are not two qualities she shares with typically moderate and modest voters of Maine and Massachusetts.

In her speech, Lady Gaga described equality as the "prime rib of America" that was being denied to gay soldiers around the nation. "I don't get to enjoy the greatest cut of meat my country has to offer. Are you listening?" she screamed rhetorically, directing her question at Snowe and Collins. (That's an interesting metaphor from someone who often wears dresses made of meat, but I digress.)

The measure to repeal Don't Ask Don't Tell, which was ultimately defeated by the Senate in a 56-43 vote with Brown, Snowe and Collins in the majority, was part of a larger $726 billion defense spending bill that also included another hot-button item, a rider on immigration policy.

Lady Gaga's appearance did call attention – a lot of it – to repealing the policy. But it also may have alienated Senators Snowe and Collins too. Perhaps the senators were disinclined to vote for the repeal and/or had concerns with some of the other elements of the bill. Or maybe, in the glare of the national spotlight, they were leery of the appearance of becoming Gaga's newest little monsters.

Derek M. LaVallee is director of public relations and public affairs at KG Partners and a former White House and Pentagon staffer in the Clinton/Gore Administration.

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