McCain Ad Congratulating Obama - Politics Meets PR 101

If only I'd been a fly on the wall at McCain Campaign Headquarters. A textbook example of Political Public Relations 101 surely evolved, the result of which was this heart-tugging McCain TV ad recognizing the historic moment that Senator Barack Obama accepted the Democratic nomination for president.

I've taken part in many competitive strategy sessions over the years, although not for politics but around a brand or business. All of these meetings work about the same way. They are long, painful, emotional, politicized, tense and sometimes surreal. Brilliant ideas are lost because they weren't presented by someone important. Conversely, weak tactics take flight only because of who mouthed the ill-conceived idea.

I'm entertained by the possibility that the painful birthing process for this ad might have gone the same way. What follows is the entertaining scenario as I imagine it.

The campaign's going-in assumptions around which a huge meeting is called:

  • McCain's negative TV ads slamming Obama have been pervasive and probably at least a little effective. Hillary and Bill Clinton always said the young senator from Illinois wasn't ready for the White House, so the McCain folk have tried to jam the airwaves with proof of the Clintons pre-convention opinions.
  • For both parties, the tradition is to heavily increase attack ads during the opposition's convention. And that's just what Team McCain did. Until this historic night for Obama, that is. And out of this head-scratching situation surely came great internal debate...

The McCain Campaign options:

  • Should we try to steal back the limelight by announcing McCain's choice for vice president before Obama hits the stage?
  • Or should we just ramp up our ads slamming Obama, blunting every sharp thing he will surely say before and after his big speech?

Enter the fresh-thinking, innovative Intern (or a similar person no one listens to):

  • "Hey!" this kid musters the courage to finally chime in and say, "Why don't we catch them off-guard. You know... kill Obama with kindness."
  • The room goes silent. The kid wonders if he's just lost the little bit of credibility he might have amassed. Some big shot squints at the peon and says, pejoratively, "What?!?"
  • Young intern finds his voice and continues: "Well, Obama's making this speech on the anniversary of Dr. King's 'I Have a Dream Speech'. Won't we get slammed for disrespecting this historic moment if we go negative Thursday night? I mean, you'll have Sharpton and Jackson screaming bloody murder right when we're trying to make a big splash with the announcement of McCain's veep. So maybe the safest way to maintain our presence Thursday might be to make nice... just for the night. You know, produce a nice little fluff ad acknowledging Obama as a black history maker. Then come out swinging again -- harder -- first thing Friday.
  • The room is completely silent... Everyone's waiting for "someone" to tell them what they should think of that idea... As expected, "someone important" shuns the idea and embarrasses the intern. Others in the room think of four other reasons this idea stinks. So the team continues brainstorming another couple of hours, debating in agony how to "handle" Thursday night.
  • But then someone really truly very important comes to the meeting late. And she comes with a novel idea the team should consider. The light bulb clicks above her head and she says, "Hey! Why don't just make nice - just for Thursday night. Let's produce a little PR piece with McCain actually congratulating Obama for making history! How out-of-the-box would that be?!"
  • Jaws drop around the table. Everyone loves this heretofore unheard of idea. They get busy splitting up assignments for who'll write the script, booking studio time, and whatnot.
  • Energized and raring to go, they all leave the meeting room. All except the stunned intern. He sits there wondering if he's just spent a few hours in the Twilight Zone or what. He had the same idea and everybody hated it.

If anything like this scenario actually happened, the "peon" needn't sweat it. Just shoot that resume to Karl Rove soon, kid.

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