Avoiding the '47%' trap

In just a few days, President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney's positions on economic and social issues will fade from public memory as attention turns from the presidential horse race to the business of governing.

In just a few days, President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney's positions on economic and social issues will fade from public memory as attention turns from the presidential horse race to the business of governing.

But the public is unlikely to forget Romney's “47%” comment anytime soon. It's an election game-changer, much like John Kerry's “I voted for it before I voted against it” remark, Michael Dukakis' botched tank photo-op, and Gerald Ford's baffling statement about Soviet dominance of Eastern Europe.

The political impact of Romney's remark and what it revealed about his philosophy has been discussed by pundits ad nauseam. But it's worth examining from a communications perspective. Here was a skilled politician making a strong appeal by employing the classic rhetorical tactic of “identification.” When Romney told a group of donors that there are 47% of people “who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are entitled to healthcare, to food, to housing, to you-name-it…” he was combining ethos and pathos to show that he understood — identified with — the world view of the group he was speaking to.

Based on Romney's successful fundraising during that period, I think it's safe to conclude that his appeals were effective. Romney, of course, is far from the first presidential candidate to rely on this tactic. It's used all the time. Remember Obama's comment in 2008 suggesting that jobless, rural Americans “cling to guns or religion?” It's a communication trap that remains seductive despite its risks.

The risks are great, as we saw in Romney's case, where an individual attending the private fund-raiser recorded the candidate's remarks and made them available on the internet. How do we ensure our arguments are persuasive to our target audience, but not offensive to others?

Communications that speak powerfully to one group, but are sensitive to other perspectives aren't developed off the cuff, as Romney admitted his remarks were delivered. They require a surgical precision that can be difficult for organizations with siloed communications that are relegated to a support role, rather than a strategic management one.

Fortunately we're seeing more corporate chiefs recognize the business risks associated with uneven communications, as indicated by the 2011 PRWeek/Hill & Knowlton Corporate Survey. While many Fortune 500 companies still have decentralized communication functions, more are elevating the role to a strategic management one that presides over a flatter structure that encompasses all communications.

Flat structures can promote more collaboration, which is crucial to crafting language that speaks directly to the concerns of one audience while not unwittingly turning off others.

Barring a major crisis, corporations usually aren't subject to the intense and prolonged media scrutiny that presidential candidates are. Politicians perform this very public communications balancing act regularly, which makes their rhetoric particularly instructive. The most drastic shifts in their messaging occur from primary season to the general election, when audiences become more heterogeneous.

During Romney's first debate with Obama, he began by talking directly, with great empathy, to voters in the so-called 47% — the unemployed — and how he would help them. It was a stark shift from his comments that spring day in Boca Raton. A couple moments later in the same debate, he spoke to another very different group, reassuring them that the economic recovery would not be won through spending, taxing, and regulating. His rhetoric was hailed as a tremendous success. Whether it will be enough for him to win is unclear. One thing is certain, however, “47 percent” is now firmly part of the cultural and political lexicon.

Sarah Litton is an adviser in Stanton Communications' public affairs practice.

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