PR blunders turn certain victories into devastating losses

Massachusetts attorney general Martha Coakley initially looked to be a shoo-in to fill the vacant US Senate seat resulting from the death of Edward M. Kennedy—a seat that has been occupied by a Democrat ever since John F. Kennedy won it back in the 1952.

Massachusetts attorney general Martha Coakley initially looked to be a shoo-in to fill the vacant US Senate seat resulting from the death of Edward M. Kennedy—a seat that has been occupied by a Democrat ever since John F. Kennedy won it back in the 1952.

But Republican Scott Brown, a Massachusetts state senator with a fraction of Democratic Coakley's name recognition in the Commonwealth, seized upon several missteps by his opponent and emerged victorious, coming up from a 20-point deficit in a relatively short period of time.

How did Coakley end up in this situation? Some say arrogance. Others say complacency about her chances for winning. She thought she had the race in the bag, so why engage Brown and give him more attention than he deserves?

Coakley took a six-day break from the campaign trail around the Christmas holiday, and that was Brown's opportunity – one he seized upon. Utilizing his people skills to the utmost, he held three times as many public events as Coakley did. Taking the media bull by the horns, he aggressively went on TV to define himself in front of Massachusetts voters and a national audience. And in an artful move of paid-media jiu-jitsu, Brown's ads showed him claiming the mantle of JFK's legacy.

This particular political race is an object lesson for all of us who represent companies, individuals, and organizations that find themselves dealing with adversity, whether it's angry and vocal customers, negative publicity, or actions that are out of their control.

Situations can unravel quickly. Think about how many turns that healthcare “reform” legislation has taken since Congress began their work. Think about where Tiger Woods' “brand equity” was the day before Thanksgiving, and where it stands right now. Think about how one would-be terrorist who almost succeeded in blowing up a plane in Detroit has once again shaken our confidence and rekindled our fears about our national security, air travel, and how the rest of the world perceives us.

Each one of these situations requires quick thinking, quick action, and agility in navigating through some very difficult terrain. It requires taking the initiative and getting out in front of problems and challenges. It's about being diligent about responding to attacks and charges and counter-charges. It means proactively defining your client before others try and define them.

The events of the past two weeks – and this Tuesday's end-result, in particular – are instructive for PR and public affairs practitioners in reacting quickly to changing events, and by being nimble and making mid-course adjustments along the way.

Robert Tappan, a former senior official at the US State Department, is president of public affairs firm Weber Merritt. His column looks at issues advocacy and related public affairs topics. He can be reached at rtappan@webermerritt.com.

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