PR Pariah? Congressman Akin and the GOP’s Message Can Survive with Damage Control
By David E. Johnson, CEO, Strategic Vision
In politics, there are always public relations professionals doing damage control and trying to spin a negative story until it goes away. Some politicians can make a gaffe and walk away to fight another day (Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton). Others make a slip of the tongue and are finished (Rick Perry and Christine O’Donnell). Right now, we are witnessing another politician thrash about and see if he can handle damage control – Missouri Congressman Todd Akin, the Republican Senate candidate.
In addition, he is ruining his party’s message of the week leading up to its national convention. The Republican Party wanted a message to narrow not widen the gender gap. So we are faced with two media disasters. Can either be saved?
As the world knows, Congressman Akin said:
“It seems to me, from what I understand from doctors, that’s really rare. If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down. But let’s assume that maybe that didn’t work or something: I think there should be some punishment, but the punishment ought to be of the rapist, and not attacking the child.”
His Democratic opponent, Claire McCaskill then sent the tweet heard around the political world saying she was stunned at his remarks. The media in the doldrums right now picked up the story and it has been dominating the news ever since Akin made the remarks. National Republicans are moving fast to distance themselves from Akin’s campaign and some have called upon him to drop out.
Can any amount of damage control and spinning save the Akin candidacy?
No. There are several reasons why Akin can’t recover by November in a public relations sense. First, there is not enough time between now and the election to get the media to change the subject. Second, are times when no matter what a public figure or corporation does you are beyond redemption. This is one of those instances. Akin’s remarks were so offensive to so many people and voting blocs that there is no recovery. This is one of those times. Akin has launched his apology tour trying to take a page out of Bill Clinton’s playbook. The problem for Aiken is that Clinton was largely known to the public unless you were living under a rock and people wanted him to finish out his term. Akin is largely unknown to voters and this was their first real glimpse at him and first impressions matter.
Although there should have been an inkling that Akin was a public relations disaster in the making when Claire McCaskill spent millions to help him win the Republican primary and Democrats said he was the candidate they wanted the embattled incumbent to face (usually your opponent backing you isn’t a sterling recommendation). So Akin can’t be saved.
The other media disaster is the Republican message of the week leading to Mitt Romney’s nomination. Republicans wanted a soft message of the human side of Mitt Romney to help narrow the gender gap. Instead they have the Akin story.
The Aikin story is now about more than one Senate seat for the GOP, it’s about limiting damage to the party brand. Non-stop news coverage of Akin’s comments entirely stepped on Romney’s message, at a time when the campaign badly needs to win over disaffected female voters. The longer Akin lingers, the tougher that task becomes. Romney has denounced Akin, as have other Republicans. Indeed the story and narrative have become Todd Akin and how Republicans want him out.
What should Romney and the Republicans do to get back on message? Ignore Akin. Stop talking about him. Stress in their messages the economy and who Mitt Romney is as a person. They should discuss his wife’s battle with MS. They should bring out Mitt Romney’s childhood and the lessons of inclusion and fighting racism that he learned from his father, the late George Romney. They should highlight his work at Bain Capital and how his experience there will help him fix the economy. Finally facing the gender gap, they should discuss the record number of women that Romney hired as Governor of Massachusetts and when he was in charge of the Salt Lake City Olympics. The response on Akin should be we discussed it and denounced him and called upon him to step aside end of story.
Akin and Republicans face damage control and crisis communication. One is beyond redemption. The other still can be saved and get their message out but only if they think strategically in their message. Otherwise this week could be Mitt Romney’s version of his father’s I was brainwashed in Vietnam ordeal.
David E. Johnson is the CEO of Strategic Vision, LLC, an Atlanta public relations agency. Additional information on Johnson and Strategic Vision, LLC may be obtained at www.strategicvision.biz