Sandra Ericson|Oct 19, 2012

When I saw that PRSA had tapped former Republican National Committee Chair Michael Steele to serve a keynote address at PRSA International Conference, I must admit I was surprised. After all, with such a highly politicized election just weeks away, you would think PRSA, above most organizations, would think carefully about perceivably granting one side favor over another.

It’s no secret that Michael Steele is highly partisan, and he is certainly no stranger to scandal himself. So what advice would he have for us (that we’d listen to, anyway)?

During election season, I always find it interesting how small and minute perception missteps, which often have very little to do with policies or leadership, can make career-ending differences. Remember the “Dean Scream,” which undid presidential hopeful Howard Dean in 2004? So the guy’s a little emotional. Who among us hasn’t delivered a misplaced “WHOOOO!” at a sporting event or party?

The same snap judgements occur today. “Romney walks too stiffly – he’s not one of us!” “Obama didn’t look up at the debate – that means he’s weak!” Is it fair to judge these human beings on these impossible standards and watch their every move so closely?

And then I thought, well why not? They are certainly judging me. Check out this ad I received in the mail, addressed to me. Could it get more invasive and specific?

Once I’d established that we’re all under the same microscope, I was ready to listen to what Mr. Steele had to say about his impressions of the presidential race so far and how messaging and perception can make all the difference.

Steele talked a lot about the importance of the narrative and laying out your own story first, before your opponent has a chance to do it for you. He said that President Obama did a good job of that at first, which is important in this election because political ads aren’t having the same impact they’ve had in previous years. (And that’s with 70,000 political ads purchased in the swing state of Ohio alone.)

Well that sounds like great news – the public will vote on policy and platform and not be fooled by low blow ads or tricky rhetoric. Aren’t we all mature!

Except that, according to Steele, any major moment in time can change all that. Clint Eastwood’s infamous empty chair routine was a score for Team Blue. Obama’s poor body language and tone in the first debate was a big win for Team Red, to the tune of narrowing a 15-20 point margin in favor of Obama down to one percent following that debate, according to Steele. Let us not forget that neither of these huge game changers have anything to do with policy or social views.

But what about Big Bird, you say? Steele admitted it wasn’t a great idea on Romney’s part. In fact, he said, “If I want to make an example, I do not take something culturally popular and kill it.” So why wasn’t Romney more derailed when the Obama campaign turned the comment into an ad featuring the Bird himself? Steele said the ad reminded everyone of Obama’s poor performance, his body language and his lack of eye contact.

What I took away from Steele’s talk was a reminder on the importance of perception and brand personality. How even something as monumental as the election of our President can come down to a glance, a tone of voice or a carefully crafted narrative.

On the eve of the final presidential debate, Steele surmised it would all be decided in the perceived comfort level of the first question: Would Obama come out swinging or would Romney again put him on the defensive?

With less than three weeks to go, it will be interesting to see how these narratives play out and which “brand” better sells their story. Skepticism aside, it was a treat to hear about the process from an insider and be reminded how eerily similar my business can be to his.

As we think about brand perceptions I’ll leave you with my favorite Steele quote of the day: “There’s politics and then there’s what the Clintons do. I’ll take the Clintons every time.”


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