Conversation with Dan Bartlett

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Note: I’ve been trying to write this post now for about a month – in the online world, FOREVER.  Dan was extremely open and honest about challenges the Bush administration faced, and mistakes that were made.  I wanted to be fair when recounting this conversation.  Whether you agree or disagree with the Bush doctrine, take this for what it’s worth – a facinating discussion about the communication challenges all of us face, regardless of whether you are in the private or public sector.

We had the distinct pleasure of speaking with Dan Bartlett the day after the inauguration.  Dan was a Counselor to the President during the Bush administration, and he flew back to Texas with former President Bush after he left the White House for the last time.  Dan resigned from the administration in June of 2007, and currently works for Public Strategies, based in Austin, Texas.

It was interesting to see how the government and today’s companies face the same communication struggles, and, in the end, the old adages still apply:

Keep It Simple Stupid (KISS).  First and foremost, as communicators we must keep our message simple – it must be able to be easily understood and repeated.  Dan applauded the Obama campaign for keeping their message simple and consistent.  The message of “Change” never wavered, and every communication pointed back to that one key message.  The federal government, with its multitude of agencies and departments, struggles with staying “on message.”  Likewise, corporations have the silos of public relations, analyst relations, investor relations, internal communications and marketing to contend with.  In order to support your brand and maintain one message, companies need to have a comprehensive communications strategy that spans each of these groups.

A Picture Speaks A Thousand Words.  The days of Katrina were definitely some of the darkest for America and the Bush administration.  Leaving for a pre-scheduled event with the troops at Naval Base Coronado, Dan says Bush was under the impression that the levees in New Orleans were holding.  At the base, Mark Wills presented Bush with his guitar when coming off stage.  An ABC News correspondant took a picture of the exchange and sent it to friends “off-the-record” – instead the picture is broadcasted and tagged “Bush Plays Guitar While New Orleans Drowns.”  Traveling from San Diego to Washington, the administration decided to visit Mississippi and Alabama – also devastated by Katrina – on their way to New Orleans.  Bush was seen as careless and non-responsive.  According to Dan, Katrina was one of the major mistakes from which the Bush administration never recovered.

Know Your Audience.   Most of us remember Bush’s speech aboard the USS Lincoln in May 2003, and the pictures of him appearing before a “Mission Accomplished” banner.  The picture appeared throughout the traditional media and online postings, and garnered quite a bit of backlash – many felt it was wrong to declare the war over when we were still occupying Iraq.  The interesting “other side” to the story is that Bush never knew the banner would be there.  The commander of the vessel asked the administration whether they could display the banner – the carrier crew’s moto during their 10-month mission – and Dan was the one to approve the decision.  When presented the idea, Dan said, he was simply thinking of the pride the sailors took in their mission.  Unfortunately, much to the administration’s dismay, the decision was not looked at from all constituents’ point of views.   Dana Perino, White House press secretary, told CBS News in 2008, “We have certainly paid a price for not being more specific on that banner.”  It’s important to think about how each of your constituent groups will interpret your communications.

Know Your Most Credible Messengers.  Heading into the later years of the war, the Bush Administration knew that they needed a knowledeable and credible spokesperson to communicate efforts in Iraq.  In January 2007, General David Petraeus was named Commanding General of the Multi-National Force in Iraq.  Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, said of Petraeus, “He is the preeminent soldier-scholar-statesman of his generation and precisely the man we need in this command at this time.”  After his appointment, USA Today, stated in February 2008, that “the US effort has shown more success.”  Clearly the American public respected General Petraeus as the voice of the Iraq battle:  he was named as one of the four runners up for the Time Person of the Year, in 2007; GQ “Leader of the Year: Right Man, Right Time”, in 2008; and the 16th most powerful person in the world by Newsweek in 2008.

Talk About What You’re For, Not Just What You Are Against.  The percentage of Americans who get their news from traditional media sources continues to decline.  Social media is changing – and challenging – the way the government, as well as corporations, communicates with constituents.  In today’s digital world, sound bytes can be repeated around the globe in an instant.  Dan believes that participation in social media is well worth the risk – you must participate in the conversation.  However, when you choose your message, you must choose one that transparently and honestly communicates who you are and what you believe in.  In 2001, President Bush did not submit the Kyoto treaty to the Seneate for ratification.  Fortunately, the administration stayed on message.  Unfortunately, the message was completely about why they were against the treaty – they failed to mention what they did support. 

Speaking with Dan was facinating, and definitely the highlight of our 3-day marketing strategy workshop.  Many thanks to him for taking time out of his busy schedule to spend with our team.

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