Obama administration shows communicating often means not talking

You can't help but be impressed with President Barack Obama's ability to communicate.

You can't help but be impressed with President Barack Obama's ability to communicate. Whether it's a formal speech to a joint session of Congress, an informal discussion after a summit on a very controversial subject, responding to questions at a press conference, or bantering with someone on ESPN, the president always seems to be on message, informed, articulate, and confident.

But the most impressive part of the Obama administration's communications abilities actually goes far beyond what is immediately evident: the president and his people may be the best we've seen in quite a while in taking the long-term view of communications by not talking.

The president first displayed this deep understanding about communicating by not talking during the campaign when he repeatedly refused to be drawn into daily controversies. His eye was always on winning the election rather than winning the daily news cycle. No matter how often his opponents and detractors said negative things about him, candidate Obama seldom responded immediately and often not at all. That constantly transformed what might have been a story with legs into what often was at most a one-day story that quickly lost its salience when there were no additional news hooks. It had to be incredibly frustrating for Hillary Clinton and John McCain who, to get attention, instead had to respond to the issues Obama raised when and how he wanted to raise them.

President Obama has displayed this same extraordinary communications discipline since taking the oath of office. He has spent little time responding to charges leveled against him and instead has focused attention on what he wants to accomplish. As a result, he has been very successful at limiting the daily controversies that otherwise might have consumed his first two months in office. That has allowed him to determine the agenda instead of explaining why he disagrees with what others are saying.

To a certain extent the Obama White House is following a strategy the George W. Bush administration used very successfully on the federal budget. The Bush White House always preferred to play to its strengths by talking about terrorism and defense and to avoid its weaknesses, like the deficit. As a result, no matter what was happening, the administration talked as little as possible about the budget.

The Bush administration even dispensed with what up to then had been the traditional interviews for the OMB director on the Sunday morning talk shows the weekends before and after the president's budget was submitted to Congress. In fact, as the host of one of the major talk shows once told me, the Bush White House generally didn't make its economic officials available to the talk shows if the topic was the budget and instead typically offered someone from the State Department or Pentagon.

By not talking about the budget, the Bush administration denied its opponents the ability to respond. That eliminated the controversy that would have otherwise existed and, therefore, the news. No news meant no coverage.

Whether the Obama campaign and administration learned by watching what the Bush people did over the years on the budget or came up with its communications strategy independently, the results have been obvious. Even the more obvious controversies surrounding some of the president's failed cabinet appointments, which might have consumed other administrations less adept at communicating, have quickly died because there was nothing new to report.

The lesson here is obvious: there are times when the best way to communicate is not to say anything. This requires an extraordinary amount of trust from a client because every cell in their body may well be demanding a massive and immediate response. They may also want to see clips as evidence that something was done to counter what was said.

But as candidate and now President Obama so far has proven, restraint, not talking now, and a focus on the bigger and longer-term goal may well be the best way to deal with the communications challenge you are facing.

Stan Collender is a partner in the Washington, D.C. office of Qorvis Communications. He can be reached at scollender@qorvis.com.

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