A Failure to Communicate: The GOP's Public Relations Debacle
It's "Merry Xmas, not" for Republicans, conservatives, libertarians and Tea Partiers, etc. Losing the November election was bad enough, but it’s gotten worse since, considerably worse.
The party, and consequentially its ideas, is in freefall.
As of last week, 57 percent approve and 42 percent disapprove of Barack Obama’s performance as president. Pretty soon he’ll be as popular as Roosevelt -- or Reagan.
What is the cause of this debacle? Largely this: Republicans, conservatives… the whole list above… do not know how to talk to the broad spectrum of the American people outside their choir.
Republicans are not just bad at public relations. They’re disastrous at it.
With rare exceptions, this goes for the entire panoply of the right – from elected officials to party leaders to pundits and talk show hosts to think tank intellectuals from the most extreme conservatives to the most losey-goosey of so-called RINOs. No difference.
What we have here in the immortal words of Cool Hand Luke’s Strother Martin is a “failure to communicate.”
And this failure has occurred at the very time America has over 8 percent unemployment and is over 16 trillion in debt. Go figure. You would think a party of economic austerity, or even semi-austerity, would be more popular than ever.
Failure to communicate, indeed.
Unfortunately, fixing this public relations deficit is not going to be easy. It's too entrenched and too long-standing. The Republican brand is tarnished, maybe even hopelessly so, certainly beyond what should be acceptable to anyone.
The kneejerk response of many is to go back to pure conservative principles -- a kind of Maoist ideological purge.
Consider this: the word conservative itself may be a large part of the problem. Few young people want to identify with it, even when the ideas and values inherent in the ideology make perfect sense to them, even when they are already living by those values.
No, the problem is more complicated and made more so by what we all know -- the overwhelming onslaught of propaganda and dishonesty from the academy, Hollywood and the media. We can complain about that all we want, but unless we start building our institutions, no genuine change will occur.
The good news in the current debacle is that it provides this opportunity for radical change, perhaps even serious rebranding. The left uses the terms “liberal” and “progressive” when there is nothing liberal or progressive about them. We are stuck with stodgy old “conservative” or "libertarian," a term attractive to me in many ways, but possibly already played out and too ideologically restrictive and utopian. The Tea Party too may have outworn its usefulness, having been relentlessly attacked, even though almost always unfairly. Maybe it’s time to think of something else, something that reaches out and brings in the America we seem to have alienated.
A quote by the nineteenth century British socialist and designer William Morris has long intrigued me: “Men fight and lose the battle, and the thing they fought for comes about in spite of their defeat, and when it comes out not to be what they meant, other men have to fight for what they meant under another name.”
Morris may have been on to something. What you call something is nowhere near as important as what it is. Or, in another sense, what you call something is often a deliberate form of misdirection.
The greats of public relations have always known that. The art of public relations has been to get people to accept something, often when they don’t want it. Conservatives and Republicans don't even have to do that. They are at an advantage in this regard. They have something the people most likely want, even though they don’t always know it. Our job is to make them know it.
But that may take some rebranding. Radical rebranding. Also a wholesale changing of the guard when it comes to our representatives at all levels -- party, media, and elected officials. We need people with the skills and ability to reach out, to talk the language of America. And we need to listen to America as well. I suspect those people who voted against us and are now drifting even more toward Obama are trying to tell us something. Most of all: we're not communicating.
Related: The Art of Persuasion