The nation was stunned by the tragic January 8th Arizona shooting that killed six, including a young girl and a federal judge, and injured more than a dozen, including United States Representative Gabrielle Giffords. Prominent public figures have stepped up to console the victims…and conveniently place blame on others. Most publicly, left-leaning pundits have speculated about Sarah Palin’s “Take Back the 20” website, arguing that Palin’s site is a call to violence, potentially inspiring Jared Lee Loughner’s shooting rampage. Now, we’re neither passing judgment, nor saying we disagree or agree with these claims, but we will say that Palin’s response has been less than stellar. As a public figure, it would have been more beneficial for Palin’s public image to focus on the victims and empathize with a mourning nation than to defend herself, such as when she declared that she has been falsely accused as an accessory to murder, as she did in an interview with Sean Hannity.
However, Sarah Palin’s PR struggles are nothing new. The 2008 Republican VP nominee and her press aide, Rebecca Mansour of www.conservatives4palin.com, have been involved in a number of publicity mishaps. Even the outspoken Newt Gingrich advised Palin to “be a lot more careful and think through what she’s saying and how she’s saying it.” Highlights (or lowlights) include: her infamous interview while a turkey was slaughtered behind her (she could have chosen a better setting), her frequent use of violent rhetoric (she could have made a better choice of vocabulary), and her recent self-comparison to the civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr. (which instantly put her in the public forefront again).
No one can deny that Sarah Palin knows how to draw attention to herself. But, if she wants to be considered a serious candidate in 2012, she’ll have to learn some important PR lessons:
- The art of timing: Timing is crucial in successful public relations campaigns and Palin’s track record isn’t great. For example, Palin released an 8-minute video responding to the Tucson shooting the morning before President Obama’s evening speech. Not only did this set up a direct comparison to the President, but it also took attention away from her statement.
- Be tasteful: Sarah Palin has a history of using aggressive rhetoric in speeches and statements. Traditionally, women who use more aggressive language are seen as powerful and strong, terms that certainly describe Palin. However, in light of January 8th’s events, Palin should be more sensitive of the fragile tone of the nation. She needs to know when it’s appropriate to use battle imagery—and when it’s not. Statements such as: “I’ll take the darts and the arrows” are not particularly productive in times of tragedy.
- Don’t expose your vulnerabilities: In politics, it’s never wise to openly expose your vulnerabilities—your opponents will take care of that for you. Palin’s vocal abstinence advocacy during her unwed daughter’s pregnancy highlighted the strange irony and made Palin look hypocritical.
- Establish your brand: Whether you are representing a company, a product or yourself, branding is a way to create, market and control an image. A brand should be consistent, cohesive and truly representative of the product/person/company. Palin needs to decide who she is. Is she a Tea Party conservative? Is she a small-town mom? Is she a feminist? Is she an anti-abortion activist? Solidifying her brand will help Palin create a professional image and propel her into the 2012 presidential race.
- Don’t get defensive: Palin’s combative, defensive tone with regards to Tucson accusations made her seem immature and petty. She needs to learn when it’s time to cut your losses and move on. A combative tone can result in continued criticism and rants and keeps the issue salient.
Sarah Palin is a political candidate who could stand to learn some valuable lessons from the business world. Only time will tell if Palin will be able to turn her image around. But, I can assure you, America will certainly be watching to see what happens.