Chris Lehane has served as Bill Clinton's special assistant counsel (during his 1996 campaign), Al Gore's campaign press secretary, the head of John Kerry's communications team for most of 2003, and, after leaving Kerry's camp in September, acted as an unofficial advisor to Wesley Clark's campaign before the candidate withdrew in February 2004.Lehane, along with fellow Gore and Clinton campaign alumni, Mark Fabiani, has moved on to the corporate sector, providing counsel and PR expertise to such diverse firms as Cisco, the Screen Actors Guild and the San Diego Chargers. They also provide counsel to beleaguered companies that, due to their aforementioned woes, are not disclosed. Recently, Lehane sat down with PRWeek.com to talk about Dean's mistakes, the NHL, switching from political to corporate communications and dispell the myth that he is related to the author of Mystic River. Let's get the most important question out of the way. Are you related to Dennis Lehane, author of Mystic River? - JL, Washington D.C. I know of no direct connection besides being a fan, although my mother met him at a book signing in Maine, and I think that they found out that our families are basically from the same area of Ireland in County Kerry. I get that question all of the time. People must think we share similar outlooks of human nature and life [laughs]. Is political communications more exciting? Is it more cutthroat? What's the one thing you enjoy most about the two different sides? - KO, New York The political side is interesting, first and foremost to me, because politics is a passion and love. The pace and intensity of politics are hard to match. It almost does become like an addiction, and you have to be wary of it. There is such a rush to it. It's probably comparable to what a major league athlete goes through. When they leave the sport, there's a transitional period. The business stuff ends up being very interesting, primarily because you end up learning a great deal about a bunch of different businesses across the country. It's interesting to spend some time with a company and their top executives to learn what they do and what their products and services are. The business side involves substantial amounts of money, as well as commerce and employing people. All of those aspects make it very interesting. The big distinction is the pace and intensity. On the other hand, in politics, you may be dealing with a dozen ifferent stories on a daily basis. In business, you may be dealing with one story, but that story may make or break that company. It impacts shareholders and, depending on the size of the company, tens of thousands of employees. While the pace may be different, the ramifications and consequences can be much bigger for the business. Do you see any conflicts in working closely in the public sector with influential politicians and then going to work with companies that are dying for the ear of the government? If so, what do you do to avoid such a conflict? - TA, New York Our practice does not specifically or represent any business interests before government entities. Obviously we can help people, based on our background in government, by explaining how the government will respond in certain situations or what the government is going to be doing prospectively that could impact them or their company. That knowledge base allows you to have an insight into both worlds and helps these companies going forward - whether they're trying to position themselves for potential market opportunities or whether they're trying to react to a regulatory change or responding to a legal investigation from the government. Having been on both sides of that, it gives you a unique sense and awareness of how the government is likely to react. There aren't many PR efforts more cut-and-dried than a political campaign, with its clear winners and losers. How do you protect your stature in the political communications arena after you've been on a few losing efforts? - MC, New York In the communications world, people can pretty quickly figure out whether you are good at what you do or not. You obviously establish and develop relationships with important press outlets and publications. Oftentimes, your private sector clients are looking for your ability to get publications in front of certain key people. Those types of relationships are oftentimes developed through the campaign. You're going to have wins and losses; that's the nature of politics. The questions people need to analyze are whether or not it was a well-run campaign and that the piece that you were responsible for made sense and worked well. What happened to Dean's campaign? Was he a victim of the media, or just not smart enough in dealing with it? - JH, New York He was a transitional candidate for the Democratic Party. He really gave the party a voice in opposition to Bush and the Republicans. He did that very effectively and gave all of the candidates in the party an effective voice. He ended up not being a transformative candidate because he never really articulated an opposition agenda or philosophy that would give people an idea of where he would ultimately take the country. The candidate's message has to be like a compound sentence. The first part of the sentence is about what's wrong with the person you are challenging, and the second part has to [elucidate] what you're going to do differently. He did the first part effectively, but didn't have the follow-up. Ultimately that became a challenge for him. Also, the voice he developed for the campaign did not match up with his record as governor of Vermont. At some point, that disconnect became quite clear to folks. Switch political party hats for a few moments. What campaign advice would you give to President Bush, and where do you see John Kerry being most vulnerable? - GK, Minneapolis, MN Bush's biggest challenge is that when you are an incumbent, sitting president, your fortunes will be dictated by whether people think the country is on the right or wrong track. Bush's future will be contingent on two overarching factors: whether people think the economy is coming back and the situation in Iraq. There's some mixed information on that and it's unclear whether the perception that the economy may be coming back has trickled down to the vast majority of Americans or not. If you're looking to judge the trajectory of the campaign, the most important polling data is the right-track/wrong-track numbers. Kerry's challenge right now is that he needs to define himself - in terms of his personality and background - and his vision. There is literally a battle to define what the storylines of the campaign will be. The Bush people are clearly trying to define Kerry one way. A lot of these campaigns are like a barroom brawl. Only the first punch really connects. Is it rare that the candidates seem to be meta-campaigning - spending most of their time campaigning about each other's campaign? - PRWeek.com There are enough pundits, commentators, and specialists that the process part of politics almost overwhelms the substance. I thought the Dean campaign managed the process part well. Much like good fat and bad fat, there is good political process and bad political process. The political reporters that cover these campaigns are much more interested in process stories, like staff changes and poll [positions]. It becomes a challenge to break through with your substantive message like what you want to do for the country and in what direction you want to take it. Kerry's challenge is to put out his bumper slogan. Bill Clinton had "putting people first." George Bush, in 2000, had "compassionate conservatism." Kerry needs to come up what his version of that is. You attacked Howard Dean from your position in two different campaigns. Meanwhile, John Edwards exceeded expectations with a positive campaign. Do you feel that attack campaigning is likely to elect the best candidate, or is it better for democracy for candidates to simply offer their vision and ideas? KZ, Vermont Offering your vision and ideas is part of the ongoing dialogue. That includes a back and forth. The back and forth that took place in the Democratic primary is going to be thumb wrestling compared to what will take place in the general election. The process of the primary is to test the mettle of the candidates to determine whether their background on public policy issues matches their rhetoric and to flush out where they stand on the issues. Any part of a dialogue has a back and forth. How do you predict the 9/11 commission hearings findings will affect the outcome of the presidential election? - JS, New York It already has affected the election. For the past three or four weeks, the Bush campaign has been on the defensive. In campaigns, you're either on the offensive, scoring points and winning, or you're on the defensive, being scored upon and losing. Bush has been losing for the past couple of weeks because the campaign has not done a good job of managing their reaction to the commission, such as the refusal to allow [Condoleezza] Rice to testify went on for a week before they capitulated; the inconsistent responses they gave to Clarke created more stories than it necessarily needed to; and the fact that they have withheld documents, have been pounded for days due to their refusal to release those documents, and eventually released them. The race has already been impacted on the shortterm. In the long term, Bush's campaign assumption was that national security and the war on terror were going to be his great strengths. From today's standpoint, those are not necessarily strengths. Do you think their initial refusal to allow Rice to testify was a sign of callow judgment or the fact that such an undertaking like the 9/11 commission had never been done before? - PRWeek.com Every administration in recent memory has had to go through intense hearings on one subject or the other. Sometimes they are personal, sometimes they relate to public policy. Everyone has had to go through a similar dynamic. The lesson that shines through every one of those situations is that you're never going to win the fight to withhold information. People feel that you have the duty to provide them information. The question becomes not if you're going to turn over this information, but when. From a strategic management process, you have to minimize the amount of damage control. It seems like they violated a major tenet of damage control by letting this investigation drag on through the media.> - PRWeek.com They have been particularly effective in [allowing] bad stories [to become worse] over a longer period of time than what was really required. They resisted efforts to turn over information under the executive privilege theory earlier in the administration, particularly with the energy task force. They did that in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 when the administration could push their message and people were reluctant to push back because of 9/11 and the natural desire to be patriotic and supportive. The old rules have come back into play as we've gotten further and further away from 9/11. Another thing that has hurt them is that they really did do everything possible to stymie press requests and press interaction. They really lost a great deal of credibility with the press. The press wants this information and they smell this blood, and they don't have a reservoir of goodwill. I am a corporate communications professional who would like to possibly transition into the political side. This seems much more difficult than going from politics to corporate. Any advice? - JL, Washington DC Find a candidate that you genuinely like, support, and believe in. By definition, that will make that it a worthwhile experience - win or lose. Find a way into a campaign. That probably means you will have to leave Washington DC for some time. There are a lot of opportunities out there for campaigns that are looking for good competent, qualified people. Would you say that it might behoove people to take a lesser post in order to get onboard? PRWeek.com My first job with the Clinton campaign in 1991 was the very exalted position of teaching folks from Arkansas how to put lawn signs into the ground after the first frost in New Hampshire. I'm from Maine, so they must have assumed that I had experience with the subject matter [laughs]. Once you get your foot into the door in a campaign, it's a type of environment where people recognize men and women who get the job done. It's better to get your foot in the door with a candidate that you want to work for, rather than looking for a title. You've done a fair amount of counseling with the beleaguered National Hockey League. The league's collective bargaining agreement expires in September, and many experts believe a strike/lockout is imminent. Is there any chance to save professional hockey? - GF, New York Anyone who has watched any of the first round of the NHL playoffs would recognize that it's a great sport, has the world's greatest athletes, and a tremendous fan base. It will always be a very strong sport. If you were to give John Kerry three bullet points for his campaign to follow to unseat Bush over the next six months, what would they be? And, would they focus upon answering daily issues more strategically or focus upon the core consistent foundations of the campaign? - RH, New York It can be reduced two bullet points. One bullet point on what's wrong with Bush and the other bullet point referring to what Kerry stand's for. The bullet point on Bush should be some variation of why he's taking us in the wrong direction. [He needs to] say it every single day related to any given situation that is out there [that involves] Bush. The second bullet point should be: this is the direction that I, John Kerry, will take our country. The second bullet needs to be whatever slogan they come up with. Do you think the current landscape, with the two camps being so polarized, is geared towards the contentious campaigning we're seeing? - PRWeek.com I think we live in an extremely interesting historical time period. The closest time period that relates to what we're seeing today is the late 1800's where you have a country that is evenly divided into blue states and red states. There are huge demographic differences between the two sides. The classic swing voter [represents] a very small slice of the American public. In order to win, candidates have to do everything possible to get their natural supporters out to vote. Whoever does a better job of intensifying and energizing his supporters in an evenly-divided country shall prevail. Secondly, given the fact that there is a small swing vote element, they need to say something to get their votes. It creates a huge communications challenge. I don't think campaigns have changed that much over the past couple of hundred years in terms of the natural campaign and contrast element. Arguably, campaigns in the 1800s and most of last century have been a lot more negative than they have been in recent years. Every election I've ever been in, people always wring their hands about the negativity. That's a natural process of two different political parties having two different ideologies and competing hard to win the election.
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