Official Blog of Bannon Leadership Consulting Founder Shawn Bannon

Truth or Consequences and Public Relations

Professional Wrestling ... One of the Great Joys of My Youth

Professional Wrestling ... One of the Great Joys of My Youth

When I was a kid, I was a fan of professional wrestling.  I watched the greats of the 1980s – guys like “Macho Man” Randy Savage and the “Million Dollar Man” Ted Dibiase – battle it out with Andre the Giant and Hulk Hogan.  And I loved every outrageous storyline.  Because I was a kid, and suspension of disbelief was my specialty.  But as I got older and the stories became more convoluted and tawdrier, I lost interest and I lost track the characters that populate the industry.

So I was a bit surprised to hear that former World Wrestling Entertainment CEO Linda McMahon is running for U.S. Senate in Connecticut.  Surely, I thought, this must just be some plotline the creative types at WWE headquarters had cooked up.  But no, as I looked into it I found that Mrs. McMahon is in the midst of a serious campaign.  More surprising was the fact that she has gained serious support.  And as news out of Connecticut has developed over the last week, the most surprising fact of all may be that she – the former head of professional wrestling’s biggest enterprise – is not the candidate whose credibility is in question.

Instead we have Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, who has come under fire in recent days for misrepresenting his military service during the Vietnam War.  Last Tuesday, the New York Times ran an article reporting that Mr. Blumenthal has, over the years, repeatedly told audiences that he served “in Vietnam” when, in fact, he served stateside in the Marine Corps Reserves during the Vietnam War.

CT Attorney General Holds Press Conference Regarding Misrepresentation of his Military Record (Photo: CBS News)

CT Attorney General Blumenthal Holds Press Conference Regarding Misrepresentation of his Military Record (Photo: CBS News)

Mr. Blumenthal responded with a press conference at which he said he took full responsibility for having misspoken on a few occasions.  But the more that journalists have combed through records of his public remarks, the more apparent the trend toward misstating the facts has become.  Over the years, Mr. Blumenthal has spoken more and more frequently about having served “in Vietnam” rather than “during Vietnam.”

Mr. Blumenthal has insisted that he’s never intended to misstate his military record.  His excuses are thin, at best, and it seems that few of his supporters really buy them.  Instead, they suggest that he was just trying to better relate to audiences of veterans and military families with whom he frequently speaks and that the lines with regard to his own record began to blur.  To me – admittedly an outside observer – it looks like he flat-out lied again and again about his service.

In a follow-up article published by the New York Times last Friday, we discovered that Mr. Blumenthal spoke far too often about serving “in Vietnam” when he should have said “during Vietnam.”  At a 2007 Memorial Day event he’s quoted as having said, “In Vietnam, we had to endure taunts and insults, and no one said, ‘Welcome home.’”

In Vietnam?

In 2008, he appeared at an event where military families gathered to express their support for the troops and is quoted as follows: “When we returned, we saw nothing like this.”

When WE returned?

And at a Veteran’s Day event later that year he said, “I wore the uniform in Vietnam, and many came back to all kinds of disrespect.”

See the disturbing pattern developing here?

Now, I’m not going to argue the politics of this particular race for Senate.  Rather, as a public relations professional and as a speechwriter who has worked with clients of military distinction, I’m astounded by this story on a number of levels that are entirely apolitical.

First of all, by all accounts it seems Mr. Blumenthal served honorably in the Reserves.  So why not just tell audiences that he served stateside during the Vietnam War?  No audience would have looked down upon him for that.  Nobody would have questioned him if he’d simply said that he wore the uniform at home while others fought overseas and that he saw the effects of both combat and a hostile public on returning soldiers.

Questions over Blumenthal's credibility open the door for GOP candidate and former WWE CEO Linda McMahon in the race to become the next U.S. Senator from Connecticut.

Questions over Blumenthal's credibility open the door for GOP candidate and former WWE CEO Linda McMahon in the race to become the next U.S. Senator from Connecticut.

The lie really makes no sense, and we’re left to assume that Mr. Blumenthal sought either the special admiration we reserve for those who fight to protect our freedom or the sympathy we feel for those who have sacrificed so much and survived the hell of battle.  He may have had a right to our respect for having worn the uniform in the Reserves, but his lie dishonors all of those who serve and who have served at home and around the world.  What’s more, it forces voters to step back and ask if they can’t trust him to tell the truth about his personal record, can they trust him at all?

Secondly, what kind of PR advice is Mr. Blumenthal getting?  I understand the desperation with which he wants to diffuse this situation, particularly as the McMahon campaign works to fan the flames and keep this issue front and center.  I even understand why, with a Senate seat still up for grabs, Mr. Blumenthal is unlikely to do the truly honorable thing, which would be to admit that he lied and apologize for that.  But as this last week has dragged on and more evidence of the lie has surfaced, his apologies have become more defiant and – as one fellow communications practitioner has put it – angry.

Now is the time for Mr. Blumenthal to demonstrate some humility and contriteness.  Instead of apologizing for misspeaking – an effort to pass off what he’s done as innocuous and unintentional – he needs to start apologizing for misleading people.  He needs to say something along these lines:

Over the years, I’ve spent a lot of time speaking to soldiers, veterans and military families.  Having proudly worn the uniform during a time of international conflict and great political debate regarding the role of the armed services, it’s become a passion of mine as we’ve found our troops again embroiled in a controversial war half a world away.  But I’ve been careless with my speech.  And though it was never my intention to mislead anybody about my military record, I’ve said some things I wish I could go back and word more clearly – more accurately. 

I can’t tell you how much it saddens me to think that there may be veterans of foreign wars who feel slighted by anything that I’ve said.  But I can promise you that there isn’t a candidate currently serving in or running for the United States Senate who cares more about providing the services our veterans deserve and the training and equipment that our troops in harm’s way desperately need.  And though no, I never fought overseas, if elected I will fight everyday for the benefits and support that our vets and active personnel have earned.

That’s what he should be saying over and over again in the coming weeks until this story dies down.  If he did, it would.  But instead, Mr. Blumenthal’s camp has been busy denying the lie and ridiculously attacking the McMahon campaign for (allegedly) giving this story to the press and, in turn, the press for running it.  I can’t believe they don’t see that the only result of a battle with the media over this issue will be the steady decline of the candidate’s poll numbers.

And before I get a bunch of comments about shoddy New York Times reporting of this story or the fact that Blumenthal has been honest about his record on many occasions, let me just say that I’ll agree that he probably thought he was just fudging the truth a little or that he was walking a rhetorical tightrope and leaving it up to the audience to interpret his meaning.  After all, he didn’t create an elaborate story about his time in Vietnam.  But the fact is that he did lead people to believe that he’d served in combat, and given the number of occasions on which we already know he misrepresentated his record, I’m just one observer who can’t believe this is a simple matter of having misspoken.

Beyond Mr. Blumenthal’s campaign, there are some valuable lessons to be learned from this story for all who are in the public eye.  Chief among them is what I consider a golden rule of conscientious public relations: tell the truth.

It’s not always as simple as it sounds, and there are sometimes good reasons for not wanting to speak publicly about an issue.  Other times, it may make sense to limit public remarks on a given subject.  But even in those instances, if you are going to open your mouth in public, nothing but the truth should escape it.

BP CEO Tony Hayward has been on the hotseat since an explosion at an offshore drilling site left a ruptured pipeline gushing thousands of barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico more than a month ago.

BP CEO Tony Hayward has been on the hotseat since an explosion at an offshore drilling site in April left a ruptured pipeline gushing thousands of barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. (Photo: The Guardian)

As we look at the political and industrial landscape today we see countless examples of elected officials and business leaders who have been less-than-forthright with the public.  Toyota and BP are two examples of companies that have suffered massive hits to their credibility in recent months.  And General Motors has been called out for airing commercials in which the CEO claimed that the company had paid back its federal bailout debt ahead of schedule when, in fact, it appears GM is still heavily in hock to the American taxpayer.

The sad reality is that Mr. Blumenthal had a good personal and professional story to tell – a story of a long career of public service – that could have won him election without any misrepresentation of his military record.  As I’ve pointed out in a previous blog, Toyota would have been better off addressing questions about defects in its cars openly and honestly from the start.  BP would find a lot more public support for its efforts to stop the oil spilling from it’s damaged tanker line into the Gulf of Mexico if its public estimates of the flow and likely environmental impact weren’t so incredibly far below every independent report.  And GM would have been just as well served by producing a commercial that just let the American public know that the company is getting back on track, is producing great cars and is growing stronger every day.

The point is that there are no little white lies in public relations.  Integrity is the key to reputation and brand strength.  And the public is growing less and less tolerant of political and business leaders who don’t respect us enough to tell us the truth.

A couple of weeks ago, I found myself on the phone with a potential client representing a major American metropolitan region.  Despite vast improvement in quality of life and economic opportunities over the last few decades, it’s a region that’s had trouble positioning itself as modern, diverse, and ideal for business investment and talent relocation.  We talked about those challenges and what’s being done from a public policy perspective to make the region more perfect.  We weren’t talking about lies; we were really just discussing whether or not his product – his region – was shiny and clean enough to earn the interest of the media and public.

You don’t have to present yourself as perfect to be attractive, I told him.  People will be engaged in your story if you tell it well.  And if you tell it honestly – that is, if you talk openly and proudly about both your accomplishments and your efforts to overcome the challenges in front of you – people will root for you to succeed.  They’ll become invested in your story, which is what ultimately leads to investment in your product, place or person.

I just wish more of our “leaders” would heed that message.

Want to share your thoughts on this interesting issue?  Think I’ve got it wrong or that maybe I’ve not come down hard enough on those who would seek to mislead us?  Leave a comment below or e-mail me.  And don’t forget to sign up to follow Bannon Communictions on Twitter.

2 Responses to “Truth or Consequences and Public Relations”

  1. Ron says:

    Excellent blog Shawn, I couldn’t agree more.

  2. Michael says:

    Great article, Shawn. I agree wholeheartedly with the “honesty is best” approach, especially in times of scandal.

    The American public may be fickle in regards to what stories matter to them, but once they’re invested they can’t be shaken off by spin. They most certainly can’t be – and refuse to be – “handled” by misdirection or clever PR tactics.

    Integrity matters, and it’s a requisite attribute – and key to success – in all relationships, private and public.

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