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Gini Dietrich

Leadership Lessons In Washington

By: Gini Dietrich | August 10, 2011 | 
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Let’s see. I’ve already talked about religion here, when I talked about how missions prepare Mormon men and women for leadership positions.

So why not talk politics, too?

Actually, I’ve been trying to find both communication and leadership lessons in what’s happening in Washington. Because I’m so disgusted by it all, it’s hard to separate the emotion from the business.

But I think I finally have it. And this is not about whose side of the fence you’re on. This is about both communication and leadership.

I live in Chicago. That immediately makes me an Obama fan. Even if you don’t agree with his politics, when he was elected, all of Chicago was on fire.

It was really fun living here that first year as they talked about where he and Michelle were eating and how they were spending their time when they came home.

We even rode our bikes, one Sunday afternoon, through Hyde Park to see the police surrounding his house, which is now a historical feature.

But what he did last week, for his 50th birthday, is not just astounding, it’s a poor lesson in leadership. And it’s a poor lesson in communication because we all know perception is reality.

Here is what I know:

So, in order to take the emotion out, I thought about this as if I were his on his communication staff. Let’s even say I’m the first person he turns to, when it comes to communication.

This is the conversation I would have with him:

Mr. President, I love birthdays. You know this because I announce my birthday right after the first of the year and I count down until it happens. I think everyone should celebrate their birthdays in the biggest way possible. BUT. If you have your party in Chicago, no matter the reality of your needing to raise money for your campaign, the perception will be that you’re above what the rest of the country is experiencing with the debt ceiling and the possibility our credit will be downgraded. I know it’s been a long time since you’ve had to pay college loans, but 95 percent of Americans are living paycheck to paycheck. Small businesses don’t have cash hoarded. It’s time to step up, be a leader, and show what you’re made of. Show Americans you are willing to sacrifice with them. We can delay your party and have it in a few months, when things settle down.

Maybe that conversation did happen and he chose, instead, to go ahead with his party. Maybe it was too late to cancel the thing, when he realized Congress didn’t yet have a solution. But I know that if I were advising him and he didn’t take this advice, I’d resign.

About Gini Dietrich


Gini Dietrich is the founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. She is the author of Spin Sucks, co-author of Marketing in the Round, and co-host of Inside PR. She also is the lead blogger at Spin Sucks and is the founder of Spin Sucks Pro.

141 comments
Adam Boatsman
Adam Boatsman

Come on guys - the system is broken. Redistricting at the state level creates a culture that encourages creating 'safe seats' which really means you end up with fringe elements controlling both parties via the districts they set up. And since no one really likes controversy what happens when the politician goes home? They hear more of the same instead of a credible, balanced message. Television has only made it worse. What happened to the good old days of Tip O'Neil drinking with Ronald Reagan (I was encouraged to see that Scott Brown is training for a triathlon with John Kerry). Until either voter turn out improves OR we fix the redistricting system we will continue to have this issue.

Narciso17
Narciso17

I Have to Say That This Was Certainly an 'Error in Judgement' (and That's Certainly Putting It Lightly). I'm Just Disappointed That What Could've Been a Celebration Turned Into a Political Affair.

Regardless of Your Party Affiliation, It's Just Not Smart.

I Was Actually Talking About 'ROI' and 'Perceived ROI' With a Colleague - You Have to Make Sure That Your Audience's Perception of Something Great is Tangible and/or Something That They Can Brag About. Otherwise, You're Just Telling People That What They're Getting is 'Great' or of Value.

That's Like Being in School Where People Told You What to Think and How. We're Adults Now and We Have to *Believe* That What We're Getting is of Value.

MSchechter
MSchechter

You just love stepping in the controversial don't you @ginidietrich :)

It's an amazing point and it's depressing. Or better yet, take all those donations and put it towards the nations debt. Donate it to many of the programs that got cut. Not towards another horrible election that will just take us farther away from the one thing our nation needs... solutions.

debmorello
debmorello

Great discussion here! And once again @ginidietrich great post! I will just say this, I believe Obama's "leadership" style - or lack thereof - his, "management" style - or lack thereof - has been the strongest factor in creating a completely dysfunctional Congress. President Obama "enables" these maelstroms and because of his style brings out the worst dys-functionality in government. Bill Clinton was hands-on, very hands-on. Obama is not, at.all. This has cost him. No question in my mind, at the end of the day, politics and fundraisers aside, political persuasion aside - election or re-election campaigns aside - leave all that out of it for now and what do you have? A president who can't manage his team, a leader who is indecisive - show me any entity, company, organization, or corporation, let alone a country, that will succeed with those odds.

marianne.worley
marianne.worley

The lack of leadership (combined with very poor PR and marketing!) has left me dazed and confused. When times are tough, we want someone to understand our problems and do whatever it takes to help. In the past few weeks alone, I've seen multiple opportunities for real leadership, but no one stood up to seize it. All of our politicians are walking a balance beam--and they're afraid of making a big, bold move because they might not get re-elected. So they all continue to shuffle across slowly, leaving us to wonder if they even comprehend what's really happening outside their own little world. Tragic.

KevinVandever
KevinVandever

You're like the female version of Jerry Maguire, which, I guess, could still be Jerry...or maybe Jerri. Anyway, I think this could have been handled differently. I would have liked to have seen a scenario much like @bobledrew 's example. Tell us he's having the party and why he is having the party. Let the public know that he knows what we all might be thinking and put those concerns to rest. As you and Bob have both stated, that would have shown strong leadership. Maybe he could have made that speech AT his party and finished it by slamming a shot of Patron. Who's going to question THAT?

FranchiseKing
FranchiseKing

Gini,

I'm not mad at all about him having a fancy Birthday Party. Really.

I'm mad at him because it seems that he just doesn't have any. He needs to grow some. But, it may be too late for that.

Our country is a mess. He's never out in front of things. He's always behind things. He doesn't really make too many decisions. He tells others to figure it out. It's not working.

The folks on the Right are Wrong. The rich folks they're protecting need to step up and contribute more in the way of taxes. Not a lot more. Just a little.

And the Pres needs to be laser-focused on jobs. He's only 2 years late on that.

The best TV news/talk show by far is on from 7Am till 9 Am. @MorningJoe is the best.

I know that Obama and his team watch it. It's just that they won't listen to the intelligent suggestions made there every morning. From both sides. The answers are there.

Our President seems to be in way over his head. With everything. The economy. The wars. The Republicans.

He needs to call back Congress right now. They're on a 30 day vacation? That's insane with what's going on.

When he gets them back, he needs to tell them how things are going to be from now on. it's gotta be his way or the highway. he can do it. After all, lots of them on both sides want to be re-elected...so they can keep their perks..their power.

And I really don't care if he's re-elected or not. I just want to be led. By a leader.

My site's down right now, but I wrote a piece on what's going on, too. It's titled "Rudderless." Maybe you can stop be and read it.

http://thefranchiseking.com/rudderless

The Franchise King®

bobledrew
bobledrew

Here's an alternative scenario:

"Some people are criticizing the fact that I'm going to have a birthday celebration this week, with all the troubles in our economy. I can see their point. But let me tell you a few things. Whatever the troubles are in our economy, we are the United States of America. We are going to better the situation. We're going to work together to rebuild the economy and the system. Some people think I shouldn't have a party because there are people in difficulty. Let me tell you why I'm having this party. I believe that there's work that needs to be done in the government. Changes need to be made. Naturally, I think I'm the one to make those changes. I look at my colleagues across the floor, and I don't think they're the ones to protect Americans and to help bring our economy around. To do that -- I need money. The Republican Party will be raising every dollar it can to get me out of office. If I thought we'd do better with a republican in the White House, I'd step aside myself. I could sacrifice this party. I could walk away from it. But I may well be sacrificing what I think is the best opportunity to bring our nation out of its troubles. So I will celebrate my birthday. And I will continue celebrate the good things that America has given me, and given all of you. And once the party is over, I will be back at work, doing what needs to be done, and in a better position to do it."

TheBDHill
TheBDHill

@c_pappas Do you think it was anymore/less than previous POTUS? I'd be curious to see the numbers

C_Pappas
C_Pappas

Im sick to my stomach! I know we - most of us - are guilty of over-indulging these past few years which is one of the reasons everything is going downhill so fast, but as the rest of us tame our spending, why are some of us so above it? Well, on the bright side, if he is so rich then he will end up getting taxed the most :)

JoelFortner
JoelFortner

Thought-provoking post for me today. I have so many thoughts but I'll keep them to myself. And no the thoughts have nothing to do with politics or political persuasion. =)

JessicaNorthey
JessicaNorthey

PS if I were president I would have had my birthday at a strip club with hot wings and cold beer...that would have been tops! (sorry Congressman Pedro took over)

JessicaNorthey
JessicaNorthey

WOW Gini! very very powerful and well written. After reading this I am kind of angry with Obama. I was starting to like him but this made me sick to my stomach.

It's such a strange world we live in. So much to worry and wonder about. The future leadership scares me. I was a PoliSci major in college and have lost hope in political leaders.

Honestly... think we need to say to hell with Politicians and vote for an Accountant in 2012...whaddaya think about that? cc @ginidietrich

Aaron Weber
Aaron Weber

I believe there's a point when it's fruitless to attempt to control everyone's perception. From a re-election standpoint, it was the *perfect* time to hold a 35K a plate dinner. After all, Obama had a still bleeding example of "THIS is what we have to stop in DC."

I think most folks understand that we've turned the presidential race into a 2 year endurance rally (and I think nearly everyone agrees it shouldn't be so). The only folks I've heard complaining about Obama's dinner are pundits who far, far prefer to cast a negative light on things. It's not like people believe that 35K goes right into Obama's birthday fund.

AdamMcGinnis
AdamMcGinnis

The President has to raise at least a billion dollars for his re-elect and his campaign saw his birthday as a good way to help them out with this necessary goal. Honestly, this decision was probably not even his to make, which is hard for people to grasp.

glenn_ferrell
glenn_ferrell

Or perhaps he thought if he didn't have the party now, in a few months no one would come :)

Kidding aside (was that 'kidding' ?) I think your analysis and conclusions are spot on. His problem is that the election is going to be especially tough because of the economy, so what fund-raising method is the right one to use. Clearly no-fund-raising is probably not an option.

It seems to me that the best option would be to find a fund-raising idea that could be linked to raising awareness for the challenges-to and sacrifices-being-made-by individual families and small businesses in these tough times. If you could find a fund-raising idea that actually reinforced Obama's alignment with those concerns - that would be a real PR coup.

Ah - another tenuously-related idea -- security professionals perform audits on systems by staging mock hacking attacks. PR professionals should offer a similar service -- showing how they (if they were the opposition) would "spin" what the client is proposing to do ;-)

KarenBice
KarenBice

@ginidietrich I was living in Chicago during the time of Obama's election and it was exciting times. I'm disappointed in the leadership of both the White House and Congress. I'm an Independent but I get a lot of emails from the Democrats asking for contributions. I replied to one email that I was unemployed, but if I was employed I wouldn't contribute because the email was bashing the Republicans while at the same time asking for money. Furthermore, the email was whiny, unprofessional and unbecoming to the dignity of a President. I'm now a firm believer in term limits for all elected officials and in a compensation policy that is based on merit, not on hot air and grandiosity, The leadership in all three branches of the government are an embarrassment to the American people and a joke to the rest of the world.

TheJackB
TheJackB

If you could see my thoughts you would see a picture of me covered in gasoline and dancing in the middle of a huge bonfire trying not to get burned.

In between my two stepping through and around the flames I’d try to calmly explain that it infuriates me how many people do not understand basic civics as well as how many don’t vote.

I’d rant about the shameful way that our politicians behave. I am not talking about morals because frankly I don’t care who they sleep with or who is serviced by whom provided that they get the job done.

But the need to stop working halfway through their term to begin working on the next election is shameful. The need to create a huge war chest so that you have a real chance to win is shameful.

The influence of soft money is shameful.

All that aside the disconnect between the politicians and the people is terrible. It is hard to truly understand/appreciate the challenges that ordinary people face when you don’t face them.

If you aren’t forced to deal with long lines at the security stations at airports you don’t quite get it. If you don’t worry about how to pay for healthcare and private school tuition you don’t really feel the pain.

When you don’t have to worry how to spin the real reason you are moving to your children you don’t get it.

And more importantly when there is no real fear of being punished for your actions you don’t get it. Back in the real world people can’t tell their employers/bosses/customers that they aren’t getting work done because they can’t get along. They don’t do it because they know that they will be fired.

But congress isn’t really worried about being fired. There is no collective fear of the consequences of their actions nor concern about an immediate response to their posturing and pandering.

So we are faced with a much greater challenge in how to not just demand accountability but ensure that it happens.

John Fitzgerald
John Fitzgerald

Gini just tiptoed through a mine field and made it to the other side. Excellent work!

John_Trader1
John_Trader1

I have to agree with John and Laura on this one. This story is less about PR/Communications and heeding good advice and more about the unbelievable amount of money and resources that it takes to win a Presidential election in modern times, truly a reflection of how our democracy has evolved, where the amount of money that a candidate raises often trumps the validity of their platform. Why do you think Trump wanted to run in the first place?

If you ask me, considering the prowess of Dan Pfeiffer and his reputation in the industry, my opinion is that this was thoroughly reviewed, debated and discussed before deciding to move forward. What's sad is that as John points out, "the campaign is the show and the show must go on." Modern elections require candidates to start raising money earlier and earlier, and more and more often. If you do not have millions and millions of dollars in the coffers leading into the race, you are sunk and might as well not run. This requires often throwing good sense and judgement to the wind and not following the true parameters of a responsible PR strategy to be the beacon of your actions. In my opinion, the campaign probably weighed into account the fact that most ordinary Americans (Spins Sucks community excluded of course) would probably not know about this fundraiser and the event would not factor into their decisions on who to vote for next year (all the more reason to subscribe to the Spin Sucks blog and become more aware of the reality of life).

I think it's sad, but truly a reality that should wake us all up to how the political machine is broken and needs to be rebuilt.

LauraPetrolino
LauraPetrolino

So, this is a topic I need to be careful getting into because it is one of those that can through me into endless rants that result in my throwing stuff across my office...but...

I started my career in politics working in fundraising and communications, so I've seen all sides of the spectrum on this one. The issue you bring up here is a common one and really comes full circle as to many of the problems our country is facing. Our politicians and a good deal of their top advisors (and the longer they are in office, the worse it becomes) are not connected with the average citizen. They know the 'stats', but those 'stats' don't resonate with them emotionally because they live in a very separate and different world. The average american's voice is one that is quickly drowned out by the donors voice, especially when they start feeling desperate (which Obama and his staff is probably in that mode at this point) to retain power.

As much as we don't want to recognize it (because it spits in the face of what a democracy actually is suppose to be) money buys power in Washington and keeping donors happy is far more important to everyone involved than keeping American's happy.

This is partially their fault and partially ours (as average citizens) neither of us are living up to our side of the deal in a true functioning democracy. American's are no where near educated enough on the actual state of affairs in the country, most (of course not all) are what I call 'lazy voters' whose opinons are made based on media sound bites, ambiguous promises and motivational monologues that give a warm fuzzy feeling and little substance. The average voting public can be swayed by many things and don't often pay attention to the details. The donor however does....and the donor will spread your message to the masses and fight in your camp (in multiple ways) when the shit hits the fan and it actually 'counts', plus the donor will fund your campaign and allow you to suffocate the masses with useless messages that sound nice......thus the focus is and always will be the donor.

And I'll stop, because I could go on forever...but good article and points.

John Falchetto
John Falchetto

I think he feels the show must go on. In his case the campaign is the show and it needs funding. There will always be something, the debt, unemployment, a crazy shooter who kills a bunch of innocent people, homeless people, so when is a good time?

Will things really settle down in a few months?

When was the last time small businesses had cash to throw at 40K plates dinner parties? He isn't talking to them he is looking at the fat cats he bailed out and saying 'payback time'.

wabbitoid
wabbitoid

What would I have advised him to do? Go to a suburban ChuckECheese and found kids who he shared a birthday with. Then play a round of Skee-Ball with 'em. Talk to the gathered reporters about the next generation and/or what life was life in America when he was 10.

EricaAllison
EricaAllison

They are all behaving like three year olds (I'm quite in tune to that age range) when they play peek a boo or simply close their eyes and truly believe no one can see them. We do in fact see you, Mr. President, and every other elected official who chooses to believe they are either invisible or above the same rules and constraints that the very people they govern have to live within.

As a poli sci junkie and major, I love this post and I also wonder where the heck the communication/PR team is in this mix and if they have in fact offered advice, only to have it so blatantly ignored.

I've participated locally in appointed boards and have been asked more than once to run for office. I've declined, primarily because I find it more and more difficult to believe (regardless of level of office) that even if you don't walk in step with the system, eventually, the system will step on you and by default or through the seduction of power, you will succumb. I don't want to risk that.

kerijaehnig
kerijaehnig

@ginidietrich ,

Good post!

While I'm not an Obama fan, I can appreciate and respect those that are, and can be objective in approach.

Your conversation words are dead-on, and I too would do the same as you - resign. Regardless of who I supported or what party I belonged to.

I've already received my letter that in 2014 my Social Security account will be bankrupt. I paid into that fund, and I continue to pay. I find it offensive that at such a time the President of our country would have a party with the ticket price exactly at the limit of allowable campaign contribution.

My husband is an elected official - locally - in our small Ohio town. I see things that many others don't.

Thank you for sharing your thoughts! I'd consider it a privilege to chat with you on this topic sometime. :)

~Keri

Howie Goldfarb
Howie Goldfarb

I agree with the message is really bad. I dealt with this in California as they were sliding into financial oblivion. It was all Arnold's fault. It still is Arnold's fault.

1] Arnold get's elected the state has a $98bil budget and a $14b short fall.

2] Arnold flies to NYC invites the banks that want to float debt for us to meet with him. The cost? $250k a head to sit at the table that went to his re-election fund.

3] The Economist compares debt issues with Illinois and Florida who issued less debt at better rates. Surprised?

1] Arnold says he is rich no one can buy his vote

2] Arnold lets a lobbyist pay for his hotel in Sacramento

3] Arnold allows a friend with major business interests in the state to let him use his jet to commute every day of the week.

4] Arnold claims he was saving california money.

End result? IN 6 years budget ballooned from $98bil to $150bil. Schools can't afford supplies they have fund raisers begging for money everywhere. Infrastructure is crumbling. State almost went bankrupt a year ago. Special Interests owned Arnold's 6 years in office.

This is why Fiorina and Whitman lost people are scared of people like Arnold now. And Obama took that whole superstar thing hook line and sinker.

If Obama was smart he would take that money from his birthday and donate it to a children's charity.

KenMueller
KenMueller

This might be one of my favorite posts ever. And partly because of the bipartisan nature. If it weren't Obama, you could interchange the name of just about any politician in there, regardless of party or philosophy.

There are very few politicians who would have heeded your advice, Gini. And that's what is sad. This is business as usual in DC (and in every state capital, etc), and despite the fact that this happens time and time again, they never seem to heed the lessons of the past.

This WILL happen again. As will the Rep. Anthony Weiner situation. And John Edwards. And so on.

It's trite to say, but the system is broken. And I fear it is beyond repair. If Spin Sucks, then politics sucks even more. And this is why I would NEVER run for any office of any sort.

Nic_Cartwright
Nic_Cartwright

What is clear the world over is that there is the 'Real world' where most of us live, and there is the world in which our 'leaders' (government/political/corporate) live.

You very rarely get to see inside this 'other world' - but when you do - it generally scares the beejeezus out of us....(The Movie 'Inside Job' is Halloween/Freddie/Paranormal Activity all rolled into a very scary one...)

When Obama came to office (yes over in Edinburgh I was up watching and cheering) - it felt like the tide had a chance to turn. Sadly, that tide has not turned and continues to get stronger (washing many more of us out the way).

How do we change it???

Stage #1 - go get that gig as Obama's Press adviser!!!

NancyD68
NancyD68

I would have suggested to him to donate the money to charity to save face. Having such a lavish party with what is going on in our country makes you look like an egomaniac.

The best way out would be for him to help his hometown. What more gracious act than to donate the whole wad of money to various charities?

I love birthdays too.

PS - My boyfriend and President Obama have the same birthday. Just saying.

PenPointer
PenPointer

Such great advice -- and not JUST for the leader of the free world. Sure wish you were the first one he turned to for communication advice. In fact, maybe I'll forward your name to someone in the White House ... assuming you want to take a big pay cut.

geoffliving
geoffliving

He has lost his soul, so to speak. We became me, which became removed, and distant from the common man. In essence, the man has succumbed to the game.

Trackbacks

  1. […] Leadership Lessons in Washington – Since I just returned from D.C., I thought it only fitting to share Gini Dietrich’s compelling post about President Obama’s choice to have an expensive fundraising dinner for his 50th birthday. I’m not one to talk about politics here, and this post really isn’t about that. Instead, Gini used this post to talk about leadership and communication. It’s great read and the comments are fantastic too. […]