There is a disturbing trend sweeping over America. We’ve required our mainstream media to cater to our communal attention deficit, which has devalued the quality of our news. If you can’t fit your story into a 30-second clip complete with an explosion, murder, or sex scandal, we don’t want to know about it. That’s why a man named Joe Wilson so prominently dominated the headlines for weeks by uttering two simple words: “You lie.”
Few knew Wilson prior to September 9. He was a largely unheralded politician from South Carolina, whose greatest accomplishment to date had been assuming the role of Assistant Republican Whip. But Wilson made a dubious name for himself when he interrupted President Obama’s health care address to Congress, violating parliamentary procedure and general House decorum. Yet the aftermath of the incident has not been all that bad for Wilson, and it has been nothing short of fantastic for the Republican Party. Here’s where we tie this story into PR.
Sound Byte Over Substance
Unless you saw the actual speech, you would have no way of knowing that Obama addressed the Joint Session of Congress for about 45-minutes. That’s because every internet clip and news story covering the event has used the same two-minute video package that shows Wilson interrupting the president. What you don’t see is any coverage, commentary, or analysis on the actual content of Obama’s speech.
As a public relations student, I’ve always been encouraged to find an original approach to getting people’s attention. A standard press release accompanied with a photo package is simply too vanilla these days – it lacks the “wow” factor. For some perspective, let’s assume at this point that the Democratic PR strategy since Obama took office has been vanilla, and the Republican approach has been a rich, chocolate fudge.
Doing Whatever it Takes
Republican officials and party advocates have conducted themselves in ways that defy common decency in government. And it seems to be working. That’s because the party has people willing to take the fall in order to make the news. We’re taught in PR that every strategic approach must be focused around your key message. The Republicans have perfected theirs (universal health care bad; private health care good), while the Democrats are still trying to figure out where they stand on a public option. This Republican consensus has enabled its members to respond to any reporter with a set party line. Despite having fewer members in Congress, their message resonates much louder in the media.
That’s why outrageous demonstrations by party activists are welcomed by the Republicans. On August 17, a man known simply as “Chris” decided that Obama’s health care speech to veterans was an appropriate forum to protest Obama’s gun policy by carrying an assault rifle and handgun.
Although Chris is a libertarian, the Republicans used the incident as a launching pad to say “not only does Obama want to take your health care…he wants your guns too.” What response did we get from the Democrats? (Insert chirping cricket soundtrack)
Turning the Other Cheek Just Hurts Both Cheeks
When conservative Fox News broadcaster Glenn Beck rallied the ultra right, uniting them under the guise of an unwieldy, motley “tea party” that traveled the country in protest of pretty much everything, did you see any response from the Democrats? (Nancy Pelosi trying to make a frowning face when asked to comment about it doesn’t count).
Plain and simple, old politics doesn’t work. Gone are the days of spiffy white wigs and traditional etiquette. Obama has begged the media not to use its airwaves as a forum for rudeness.
“I think it’s important for the media — you know, not to do any media-bashing here — to recognize that right now, in this 24-hour news cycle, the easiest way to get on CNN or FOX or any of the other stations, MSNBC, is to say something rude and outrageous… You know, part of what I’d like to see is, is all of us reward decency and civility in our political discourse.”
Stand Up on Your Hind Legs and Bray
Again, that would be splendid, but it just won’t happen. The Democratic Party needs to figure out where it stands on health care now, and start getting the media’s attention. And when these stories arise concerning gun-toting extremists and rude politicians, have an actual response. The most dangerous two word sentence in PR is not “you lie”… it’s “no comment.”
By the way, Joe Wilson was wrong. Factcheck.org determined Obama was telling the truth when he said his healthcare plan will not cover illegal immigrants. But that hasn’t kept campaign contributors from donating more than $2 million to Wilson since the incident.