For Barack Obama, Stimulus Effort a Communications Catastrophe

By failing to sell plan's benefits and set the tone and language of debate, president nearly blew it.

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Michael Maslansky, CEO of Luntz, Maslansky Strategic Research, advises Fortune 500 corporations, industry associations, major litigation practices, and nonprofit organizations on what to say, how to say it and, why it matters.

Passing the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (a.k.a. "the stimulus plan," a.k.a. "the bailout," a.k.a. "the spending plan") was a policy victory, but it is a communications disaster.

Whether you agree or disagree with the plan's particulars, it is tough to say the administration did an effective job of managing the conversation about the plan itself. Rather than controlling the conversation, they were controlled by it—forced to go on the defensive when they should have been on offense from the beginning.

The Obama team made three crucial mistakes. We see these problems all the time when we are working with clients on issue communication. And these mistakes, when taken together, are often fatal:

1. He sold the problem, not the solution. For many years, salespeople have been taught that the key to selling is to create a "disturber"—to highlight the problem and then fill the need you have created. They used fear to create desire or a heretofore nonexistent need. And, by and large, it worked. Our research has consistently shown, however, that this approach has lost its relevance. In a world where we do not trust companies, institutions, or government, we respond to fear-based selling as an overt form of manipulation. And as a society becomes more media saturated and therefore more media mature, the same messages and techniques from the past begin to lose their potency. Fear-based selling, much like propaganda, is only effective to the extent that you don't recognize it as such. The moment you do, it loses everything. So, at best, it paralyzes people. At worst, it sends them in the opposite direction. But in most cases it doesn't work because everyone can so clearly see the boogeyman standing behind the curtain.

Obama's sales pitch to the nation was based almost entirely on fear. He went from a candidate who spoke of the "audacity of hope" and "the fulfillment of dreams" to a president who talks about "crisis," "catastrophe," and "loss of confidence." He spent most of his time talking about the problem and not nearly enough selling the solution. Though he began to emphasize the goal of 4 million new jobs in the end, he never spent the necessary time explaining how his plan would actually create the jobs, similar to a salesperson telling you his product will leave you with a clean house without explaining that he is selling you a vacuum cleaner.

2. He never articulated the principles that define an effective plan. In every sport, there are clearly defined rules. One of the most important benefits of these rules is that they allow us to judge success and failure. Without the rules, anyone can make their own case for what constitutes a run, basket, or touchdown. When it comes to communicating about an issue, rules are equally necessary. And the party that defines the rules usually wins the debate. In healthcare, if we all agree that finding the lowest cost medicines should be the rule, then generics companies win. But if we agree that innovation is critical to healthcare, then the pharmaceutical companies have an edge.

In the stimulus debate, Obama never set the rules of engagement. He told us we have a huge problem. He told us that we needed to act urgently. And he told us that we needed to create 4 million new jobs. But he never laid down the ground rules for judging whether his plan was a good one.

So what should Obama have said to the American people that would not only engender real confidence and support but also keep with this overarching narrative (the one that won him the presidency) of hope and change?

Something along the lines of: Every element of this recovery package must (a) have an impact in 2009 or 2010, (b) clearly demonstrate that it will create new jobs (not just stop the hemorrhaging), (c) represent a new approach to solving old problems, and (d) have provisions to ensure that those responsible for implementation will be held accountable for success.