In political communications, whenever you take a stand on a hot-button issue, you must consider beforehand how your message will play outside of your circle of supporters. Apparently, nobody told that to Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett, House Speaker John Boehner, and NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre.
These three right-wing lightning rods recently took a stand against widespread public opinion, and in doing so left themselves vulnerable to the perception that they value football, politics, and guns above the lives, safety, and wellbeing of American citizens. In each case, their public outreach left me scratching my head, wondering how and why they opted to take positions that appear to oppose such universally supportable causes.
Let’s start with Corbett. In December, he filed a lawsuit against the NCAA, demanding the actions taken against Penn State University in response to the Jerry Sandusky scandal be withdrawn. In his press conference Corbett said that the penalties against the university could “threaten to devastate the state’s economy” and that the criminals who should be held responsible had been so. In a state that bleeds blue and white, Corbett’s actions likely resonate with many Pennsylvania residents. But the national consensus is that Penn State, as an institution, put football above child safety for decades, thus necessitating the punishments it received. Not even PSU is advocating for Corbett’s political maneuver; they released statements saying they are not part of the lawsuit and plan to comply with the NCAA-sanctioned punishments. Sadly, all the Governor’s actions will likely accomplish is to make him look like he values a winning football team over justice and child abuse prevention.
The next issue began as a natural disaster. Then, Congress turned it into a man-made travesty. Hurricane Sandy knocked out power for 8,100,000 households, forced 450,000 people in New York, Delaware and New Jersey to evacuate their homes, and killed 125 people in the U.S. alone. With night-time temperatures hovering below freezing in New York and New Jersey, governors of both states begged Congress to extend hurricane relief to their residents. Speaker Boehner, fresh off a bruising fiscal cliff debate, proceeded to block a House of Representatives vote on a Senate-passed Sandy relief bill, which would have allocated $27 billion for Sandy victims. His reasoning: the House needed rest after the fiscal cliff deal had been reached. So, of course, the people of New York and New Jersey living without shelter or running water could wait. It didn’t take long for fellow republicans like New Jersey Governor Chris Christie to blast Boehner who, somehow, didn’t see this backlash coming.
Finally, the NRA’s press conference in response to the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary came after a week of radio silence and a one-hour postponement by the NRA, giving the impression that they were carefully considering a thought-out response. Then, Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre opened his mouth. The words that came out were completely at odds with nearly every opinion articulated after the crisis (exhibits A, B, C, and D). From video games to TV violence, he seemed to blame everything but guns for the shooting, and said that more guns, not fewer, was the solution. At a time when the nation was coalescing around the need for gun control, LaPierre clearly demonstrated that the NRA isn’t willing to budge on the issue, and came out looking like he valued gun rights over child safety.
Corbett, Boehner, and LaPierre aren’t despicable people, but their recent communication strategies certainly didn’t endear them to the public. All three failed to adequately explain what they believe are principled stances on important issues, and in doing so completely missed the communications boat (S.S. Sympathy) that the rest of the nation caught. In the end, they damaged their own cause by allowing themselves to appear uncompromising and out of touch with mainstream values.
Good communications does not require leaders to abandon their principles, even if they are unpopular. However, these three leaders each demonstrated a stunning lack of tact and timing for men of such public positions. The next time they take a stand for their beliefs, they should make sure it doesn’t position them against things like innocent children and hurricane victims.
Brianna McWilliams is a staff writer at New Heights Communications, a Washington DC-based strategic communications and public affairs firm. She can be reached at email@example.com.