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Sarah Palin's Public Relations Strategy: Presidential or Not?

3 years ago
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Sarah Palin may be the social media queen when it comes to going directly to her constituency (and the media), but she and her team have a ways to go when it comes to basic public relations skills.

The 2012 presumed GOP presidential hopeful proved that during the past week, when all eyes were on the mass shooting in Tucson, Ariz. And her exclusive interview Monday night with Sean Hannity on Fox News (the network that employs her) didn't help.

We're on board with Jared Loughner carrying the sole blame for the tragic assassination attempt on U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords that killed six people, including a federal judge and a 9-year-old girl, and left Giffords fighting for her life.

Yet Monday, Palin insisted to Hannity that she was "being falsely accused, of being accessory to murder." Meanwhile, she called Loughner a "left-leaning criminal who killed these innocents."

Then, she insisted she would not be silenced.

"They can't make us sit down and shut up," Palin said "If they could ever succeed in doing that, then our republic would be destroyed."

There's no need to silence the former Alaska governor. But is it too much to ask that she hire some more effective advisers -- and take their advice? Palin didn't rule out a run for the presidency Monday. But if she intends her organization to be political and not simply a publicity machine to drive fans to her books, next TV series or political action committee, well, she needs to step up her game.

Palin couldn't have expected political foes to ignore the fact that she'd made Giffords' Tucson congressional district a target after the health care reform vote last March. Giffords sure didn't, decrying Palin's language to MSNBC at the time. And Palin wasn't the only one criticized for using seemingly violent rhetoric. Radio talk-show hosts and other politicians shared that spotlight. Even President Barack Obama took heat for his 2008 campaign remark about bringing a knife to a gunfight.

As The New York Times pointed out in a story Monday, however, few in the mainstream (to Palin, "lamestream") media actually drew a direct connection between Palin (or even conservative talkers Bill O'Reilly and Rush Limbaugh) and Loughner. Instead, the story concludes, much of the debate occurred in social media such as Twitter or on Palin's Facebook page.

But if the 2008 vice presidential candidate really wants to compete with the big boys for the 2012 GOP nomination, she -- and her team -- have some lessons to learn.

Here are a few spots where Palin and her chief communications adviser Rebecca Mansour could have done better.

The timing, Part I. Palin's people took down Sarah PAC's Take Back the 20 Web site shortly after the Jan. 8 shootings. It was one of the sources of the infamous graphic targeting Democrats, including Giffords, for their health care reform votes. Negative comments on a Saturday morning post promoting the final episode of "Sarah Palin's Alaska," her Learning Channel series, were quickly deleted. Palin finally issued a short statement offering prayers and condolences shortly after 3 p.m. EST, about three hours after the shootings began and about 20 minutes after Obama's initial statement. Offering a sympathetic statement first, then scrubbing the Web, would have engendered more positive reaction. But that wasn't the only timing issue . . .

The timing, Part II. On Monday or Tuesday, Palin could have had a 24-hour news cycle all to herself. Instead, she released her almost 8-minute video response to the shootings early the morning of the president's Wednesday evening speech. Palin and her people set up a direct comparison with the probable 2012 Democratic nominee, instead of filling the vacuum of an entire news cycle. The comparison didn't work well for Palin, in part because of . . .

The tone. Palin's Facebook note of the video script mentioned Giffords three times and the word "victims" four times. But she never specifically acknowledged the death of U.S. District Judge John Roll (appointed by a GOP president) or 9-year-old Christina-Taylor Green. Palin did use the world "political" four times, however, as she focused on criticizing "journalists and pundits" and "the mindless finger-pointing." Obama, meanwhile, struck a tone that focused on the victims of the tragedy and how Americans might honor them going forward. Many conservatives praised the president's speech, even Palin's 2008 running mate, Arizona Sen. John McCain in a Washington Post piece Sunday. But you wouldn't have known that if you'd been following some of . . .

The supporters. Talk-show hostess and Palin defender Tammy Bruce kept up a stream of criticism (some would say snark) on Twitter throughout Obama's speech, following up with a blog post summarizing her thoughts, referring to the president as a "classic Malignant Narcissist," among other things. Contrast that with the reaction of conservatives elsewhere and Palin's supporters come off as, well, pretty shrill. Bruce, Mansour and the folks at Conservatives4Palin helped promote the "Blame Palin" meme that trended on Twitter the Tuesday evening following the shootings. Is a prank that not everyone gets really a good joke? Is the aftermath of a shooting rampage in which six people die and 13 others are injured even a time for jokes? Do these people ...

Know when it's time to move on. Monday's interview with Hannity focused almost solely on Palin's response to her critics, especially those of last week's video: "My defense wasn't self-defense. It was defending those who were falsely accused." She offered a lukewarm assessment of Obama's speech: "There were parts of it that did hit home. ... I agree with those who said the setting was a bit bizarre, like a pep rally, a campaign stop." She defended her use of the "blood libel" meme. In other words, she guaranteed that folks will be talking about her and reading about her in the days to come. But they won't be talking and reading about her bright new ideas or vision of the future, just her defense of her prior actions.

On Monday, Palin managed to end her interview with more battle imagery.

"I speak for many and will continue to do so," she said. "I'll take the darts and the arrows because I know others have my back and I have their backs."
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