Monday, October 27, 2008, 9:33 AM

Lessons from the Bachmann controversy



Republicans don't often take political advice from democrats (and vice versa) but the controversy surrounding U.S. Congresswoman Michele Bachmann (R-MN) reminds me of some good advice former Clinton advisor Lanny Davis once gave: "Tell it early, tell it all, tell it yourself." This is sound advice for Rep. Bachmann or anyone else who commits a verbal gaffe in front of the press.

Here's the story: Rep. Bachmann stated on MSNBC's "Hardball" that she feared presidential candidate Barack Obama had "anti-American views." She also called for an investigation into whether other members of Congress harbor anti-American views. Granted, Hardball host Chris Matthews nudged her toward this conclusion, but the damage was ultimately self-inflicted.

The backlash in the press was immediate. Examples can be found here, here, and here. Since her remarks, Bachmann's opponent in this year's election has raised $1.3 million, and polling shows her reliably republican seat is up for grabs.

Ten days after her appearance on Hardball, The Politico quoted unnamed sources stating that Bachmann would release an advertisement apologizing for her remarks. Her campaign released the ad the next day, but it included no apology. Instead, Bachman stated in the ad that she "may not always get her words right," a vague nod to the Hardball controversy.

We will find out on Election Day how much this controversy mattered in the eyes of voters. Until then, several lessons emerge for communications managers and executives who commit verbal gaffes with the press, starting with Mr. Davis' advice:

1. Tell it early, tell it all, tell it yourself: Rep. Bachmann waited ten days to decisively address the controversy, leaving her critics an enormous opportunity to define her on their own terms. Had she clarified or retracted her comments within 24 hours of the controversy, she could have redefined an ugly situation and spared herself days of negative national media coverage. Additionally, the Politico's quoting of unnamed sources created expectations for an apology that never materialized. Again, had the campaign responded forcefully in the first 24 hours, mixed messaging from unknown sources would never have taken place.

2. Never let a journalist put words in your mouth: Rep. Bachmann acknowledged in this video that she essentially surrendered the terms of the interview to the reporter, who was the first to introduce the term "anti-American" in to the discussion. It's quite possible that phrase never would have crossed her lips if Matthews hadn't introduced it first. This is a vital lesson for anyone who speaks regularly with the press. We alone are responsible for our comments. Develop your own message and stick to it. Never recycle the reporter's language. If you do, the consequences can be severe. Just ask Rep. Bachmann.

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