Thursday, July 19, 2012

Romney Adrift in Communications Nightmare

By Richard Nicolazzo

Watching Mitt Romney and his campaign staff attempt to manage strategic communications is painful.

The furor over when Romney exited as CEO of Bain Capital is the latest example of how fundamental mistakes in information management can derail a Presidential campaign.

As an observer who’s been involved in public relations, strategic communications and crisis management for nearly four decades, I feel like I’m watching a college baseball team play the New York Yankees.

It’s a sound bet that in 2008 when Obama won the White House, Romney knew he would be running again four years later. With that thought in mind, there is no excuse for not identifying and thoughtfully addressing possible land mines that could (and have) come back to haunt him.

For example, one has to wonder why a rock solid timeline wasn’t developed regarding Romney’s departure from Bain? In particular, why didn’t the campaign deal directly with publicly filed documents that listed Romney as chief executive and sole owner of Bain during a three-year gap of 1999 to 2002?

So far, there is no hard evidence that Romney was “actively” involved in the daily operation of Bain while he was running the Olympics. However, is there a smoking gun to come? If emails between Romney and Bain executives begin to surface, that could be another body blow. Though I’m not suggesting they exist, emails have caused major damage to candidates, business executives, Hollywood celebrities and government officials.

Regardless, during this three-year period he collected a $100,000 yearly salary. According to a report in Vanity Fair, Romney may have also benefited from more than 130 Bain funds organized in the Cayman Islands. A lack of clarity on these and other issues creates the perception that Romney has something to hide.

The issue of tax returns, which has been in the news for months, is another communications failure. Obama, the person Romney knew he would be facing, released seven years of tax returns. Thus far, Romney has only shared his 2010 tax return and promises to release 2011 when completed.

From a strategic communications standpoint, Romney’s tax returns should have been released long ago. He could have gathered some of the nation’s top financial and political reporters and briefed them in detail. Obviously, it would have created a major story, but largely taken the issue off the table for most of the campaign.

It’s now so bad that even Republicans like Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley and former Republican National Committee Chairman Haley Barbour have urged Romney to release the tax returns. The Democrats, led by Sen. John Kerry and others, are having a field day with this issue.

Explaining his refusal to release the forms on Fox News, Romney said “…the Obama people keep on wanting more and more and more – more things to pick through, more things for their opposition research to try and make a mountain out of and to distort and to be dishonest about.”

This view reinforces Romney’s mistakes. If his campaign strategists had released this information in the first place, this issue could have been dealt with months ago.

Why is tax transparency such a big issue? Lincoln Mitchell of Columbia University may have said it best in a Huffington Post blog: “The American people, particularly after 2008, are less enthralled by the magical powers, and more suspicious of the true methods of business success than they have been in decades. Romney would have made a good candidate in 1980, 1988 or even 2000, but today his wealth and strong ties to the financial world are, on balance, negatives.”

Tax or Penalty

The trap Romney fell into when the U.S. Supreme Court upheld “Obamacare” is yet another example of poor information management. Romney and his staff knew for months that the Court would be rendering a decision in June. “Communications 101” dictates playing out scenarios and having statements ready.

But what happened? Reacting to the decision during a CBS News interview, Romney said Obama’s individual mandate in the signature healthcare law is “a tax.” Two days earlier, appearing on MSNBC, Romney spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom said Romney did not agree with the court’s majority “tax” label, instead considering it a “penalty.”

This is another glaring example of poor communications strategy and planning.

Flip-Flopper Extraordinaire

Romney’s recent communications woes follow years of what can only be described as indecision and flip-flopping. By changing his position on a large number of issues, he’s been consistently inconsistent in his messaging.

Earlier this year, a writer for Business Insider’s Politix section wrote a story about a political playbook that was used by John McCain when the two battled in the 2008 primaries.

In 200 painstakingly researched pages, the briefing book came up with 14 clear cut cases of Romney flip-flops. The subjects included immigration, George W. Bush tax cuts, support for President Reagan, the National Rifle Association, gun ownership, global warming, the military’s “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy, same sex marriage, stem cell research, favorite books, healthcare reform in Massachusetts, tax pledges, money in politics, and his stand on pro-choice.

That is a long list to overcome.

Still, new polling shows Romney’s inconsistent messaging may not be having a dramatic impact on voters. A just-released poll from Quinnipiac University had Romney and Obama tied at 44-44 percent. In June, the same poll showed Obama with a 47-42 percent lead over the Republican challenger. It will be interesting to see how future polls play out.

More Consistent Communication

Which brings us to this point: what can Romney do in the three-plus months before the election to reframe the debate and begin articulating his vision of how he would revive a moribund economy and put America “back to work again”.

First, he should release at least the last five or six years of tax returns (his father, George, set the gold standard by releasing 12 years of returns). It’s hard to imagine the issue will go away anytime soon. Surely, it will surface in future debates and along every stop on the campaign trail. How bad can these tax returns be?

According to reports in the Arizona Republican, John McCain received more than two decades of Romney’s returns as the former governor was undergoing the vetting process four years ago. Democrats have questioned whether McCain saw something untoward in those tax returns and decided to choose Sarah Palin. McCain flatly rejected the assertion.

More importantly, Romney and his staff must be coordinated when it comes to strategic communications and move from a defensive to an offensive strategy. It is time to stop responding and start initiating. Given the gaffes to date, there is likely no room for another major communications snafu or flip-flop.

How can they make sure it’s smooth sailing from here?

Romney and everyone in the campaign who has the authority to speak for the candidate must be on the same page in articulating their messages on a daily basis.

In the final analysis, the candidate that controls the communications agenda frames the debate. If Romney wants to be our next President, he must take control of the agenda and “manage” the debate.

# # #

Richard E. Nicolazzo is Managing Partner of Nicolazzo and Associates, a strategic communications and crisis management firm headquartered in Boston, Mass.

Joe M. Grillo, Partner, contributed to this blog.


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