It’s crunch time for Barack Obama and Mitt Romney and, as David Carr just wrote in a New York Times’ article, “it may just be that audiences prefer authenticity to the confection of attack ads”. But how authentic can a candidate actually be in a debate? That “authenticity” is carefully managed. To find out how, I talked to someone who is constantly thinking about how to handle the personal brand of politicians…
As managing director for SKDKnickerbocker, Stefan Friedman does crisis communications and brand building for corporations, non-profits, unions, and politicians. He also happens to live down the street from me and is a lovely guy.
Here’s what he told me about getting out a memorable message while using video (my favorite) and dealing with personal foibles and the inevitable gaffes.
Manoush: You do strategic communications for big companies, and politicians. How does video fit into crisis communications and brand building?
Stefan: There’s always a video component for pretty much every client we have. Whether it’s corporate or non-profit or political, video is still the number one way to get your message out.
MZ: What are you finding works best?
SF: Well, for example, when (New York Mayor) Mike Bloomberg’s poll ratings were sagging a bit after the blizzard (of 2011). We went up with an ad* that used footage from his 2009 campaign. We put that on television, we put it online, and you saw his poll numbers go up slightly. Generally with politicians, you don’t use video unless it’s during a campaign cycle but this was off-cycle. The internet allows you this reach that you never had before.
MZ: Is quality or quantity more important?
SF: A great ad is better than 15 mediocre ads, because people will remember it. People always remember the 3 AM Hillary Clinton ad, for example. That’s an ad that had a lot of resonance. People want to relate to politicians and corporate folk on a human level. It’s very challenging to use humor in a 30 second soundbite for TV. But on the internet you can have a little bit more creativity. I remember this video of Karl Rove dancing at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. Those videos now go viral. There’s a danger with that of course too. If you make a mistake like George Allen’s “Macaca” moment four years ago, you’re finished.
MZ: Has that changed because of the way you do media training?
SF: No question. It’s no longer “don’t say anything you don’t want to see on the cover of The New York Times”. It’s “don’t say anything you don’t want to see on YouTube”.
MZ: Do you recommend that your clients be looser though? There is this intimacy that the internet has created.
SF: It’s a double-edged sword. It’s great if they relax and relate to people. But it’s the gaffe that you worry about. It’s the gaffe that finishes you. It’s Freddie Ferrer saying that the cops and Amadou Diallo shouldn’t have been charged. That basically ended his mayoral campaign. You have to be able to stay on message while being relaxed. It’s not something that politicians or heads of corporations are used to doing. They’re not talking heads.
MZ: Who are some of the people that you think really do cut through the camera and really grab the audience and are able to tread that fine line?
SF: The master of this is Bill Clinton. I saw him at the Rockefeller Foundation and I wanted to go the next day and volunteer to work for the Clinton Global Initiative. If you look at sports broadcasts, people like Bob Costas and Joe Buck. You feel like you’re in the booth with them. It’s a skill and a talent. There are very few who do it well and many who do it poorly.
MZ: How do you see your job changing in the next few years?
SF: I think we have to start getting a little bit more creative in the way we do advertising in politics. There is a standard message of a negative ad is the first 15 seconds of negative, and then the next fifteen seconds are how the politicians going to fix all of it, right? People are turned off by that now.
MZ: Thanks so much, Stefan. Anything else you think we should know?
SF: Look, people do things you cannot control. People are people, right? The (former NY Congressman) Anthony Weiner thing is still unbelievable… I mean, I’ve known Anthony for better than a decade now, and when that story came out a reporter from The Post called me and said, “What do you think?” And I said, “This guy is so sharp and so gets the medium. He understands Twitter and Facebook and Youtube. You’ve got to be crazy. There is no way.” It turns out that there was something in his personality that trumped everything. Media is so important and communication is so important, but personality trumps everything. There’s nothing anybody in the world could have done to help Anthony Weiner that day.
*I looked for this ad but could not find it online. Here is a link to Bloomberg’s personal YouTube channel though.
This interview with Stefan appears in my ebook Camera Ready…check it out for more interviews with thought leaders in the field of video and follow me on Twitter @manoush. Btw, this post first was first published on Personal Branding Blog.