DC PR Firm Dispatch: How McDonnell Should Respond to the State of the Union

January 21st, 2010

As is customary, a member of the opposing political party has been tapped to deliver the response to the President’s State of the Union speech next week.  This year it’s Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell’s turn to do the deed, and as a rising star in the Republican party, he has high expectations to meet.

When you’re assigned an enormous public relations task – parrying with the President – you owe it to yourself to prepare well.  If this were a contest, you’re battling the toughest opponent there is.

So what should you say in your speech?  To answer that question, let’s reverse engineer Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal’s absolutely disastrous performance last year when he delivered the response.  That way, we can understand some helpful public relations tactics and considerations for McDonnell.

Maintain appropriate tone.  When discussing America’s standing on the world stage, you’re addressing serious issues in global public affairs.  Therefore, your tone as a thought leader should never stray toward anything silly.  Jindal’s words and demeanor were better suited to lecturing toddlers on the importance of listening to grown-ups, but poorly focused on serious political debate.

Practice before skeptics.  Even if Jindal rehearsed his speech with his staff, he should have done so with people outside politics – after all, this is a speech to the nation, not just political insiders.  When your message will be heard by different audiences, make sure you speak to more than just your base.  Otherwise, you risk having your speech finalized via echo chamber, with no constructive feedback to improve it.

Know the consequences of your attacks.  Bashing a government program, particularly when you are a government official, brings you dangerously close to self-inflicted wounds.  In a typical rant on out-of-control government spending, Jindal harshly criticized taxpayer dollars being wasted on “volcano monitoring” and he emphasized these words to enhance their latent absurdity.  Only problem is, “volcano monitoring” is actually a very important geological monitoring service done by the federal government to anticipate natural disasters.  Just like the one that struck Jindal’s state a few years earlier…

Don’t lie.  We all know that being political is often an exercise in bending facts, but some politicians still think out-right lies are smart strategy.  Jindal’s “aw shucks” anecdote about locals standing up to big bad government bureaucrats during Hurricane Katrina disaster relief was later revealed as a total falsehood.  Once your speech wanders into fantasy, you’ve lost almost all credibility.

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