Messaging and Class Warfare: The PR of Politics
Jan 23, 2012 Beth Monaghan
Given the choice between helping a client compose messages about reports of his private equity work or his infidelity, I would choose private equity every time.
Occupy Wall Street and tepid improvements in the unemployment figures ushered in this very strange Republican Primary season. In this kind of tumultuous environment, swings of passion and loyalty are more than possible given the right message delivered to the right audience.
Enter South Carolina. In the days leading up to the Republican Primary this past Saturday, two things happened: Mitt Romney refused to disclose his tax returns (he is now planning to release them tomorrow), and Marianne Gingrich, Gingrich’s second wife, appeared on ABC claiming that he asked for an “open marriage.” I thought Gingrich was done.
On the contrary, Romney appears to be losing ground due in large part to a successful wielding of the class warfare weapon by the Gingrich campaign. How did this happen? It is primarily a game of who can retrofit his message to appeal to a passionate, yet unconvinced Republican electorate.
In this strange turn of events that has unseated Romney as the inevitable nominee, private equity (along with the elite 1%) is on trial. Private equity is a complicated industry that requires a long-term view of job creation — something that Romney does not have the luxury of explaining in media sound bites. In a highly simplified nutshell, the goal of many private equity transactions is to restructure a company to make it more profitable, which often means layoffs in the near-term, but more jobs in the long-term once the company becomes profitable. Without an easy way to explain this evolution, the industry has been positioned as one led by wealthy bankers and greedy CEOs (all part of the 1%) who are engaged in an elitist game of greed.
The problem? The electorate wants jobs NOW. Therefore, Romney is left to higher-level notions of defending “free enterprise,” such as this quote from an ABC News report on his concession speech in South Carolina:
“When my opponents attack success and free enterprise, they're not only attacking me, they're attacking every person who dreams of a better future, he's attacking you. I will support you. I will help you have a better future.” This phrase is fairly meaningless unless you understand the role of private equity to begin with.
On the other hand, Gingrich’s answers about his infidelity, while punctuated by angry barbs targeted at the news media, are pitch-perfect and capitalize on a growing distrust of the media. The quote I’ve read and heard most often in the past few days is this one:
“Callista and I have a wonderful relationship. We knew we’d get beaten up. We knew we’d get lied about. We knew we’d get smeared. We knew there would be nasty attack ads. And we decided the country was worth the pain.”
As we look toward Florida, Romney is refining his Gingrich attack rhetoric. According to a story in The Wall Street Journal, he told FOX News on Sunday:
"I don't think that the people of this country are going to choose as the next president of the United States a person who spent 40 years in Washington as a congressman and a lobbyist."
I am not a political strategist, but this is a fascinating exercise in real-time message development that will be studied for years to come. I’ll be watching to see how the unique electorate of Florida changes both campaigns in the coming week.
To read more, I recommend the following links:
E.J. Dionne Jr.’s Op-Ed in the Washington Post: Newt Gingrich exploits politics of class and culture.
Gail Collins’s (@nytimescollins) Op-Ed in the New York Times: Opening Newt’s Marriage
Dan Primack’s (@danprimack) explanation of venture capital versus private equity (Dan is one of the top reporters covering the PE and VC industries): Venture Capitalists: We don't do private equity
The video that claims partial credit for Gingrich’s win in South Carolina and chronicles Romney’s work with Bain Capital, “When Mitt Romney Came to Town”
Pam Levy’s explanation about the difference between venture capital and private equity in Talking Points Memo: “The Media Is Confusing Private Equity And Venture Capital — To Mitt Romney’s Benefit”
The #Gringrich and #Romney hashtags on Twitter