Posted: 5 June 2008
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Article Summary When Barack Obama accumulated enough delegate commitments to clinch the Democratic presidential nomination, the defeated Hillary Clinton faced a classic risk communication challenge – managing her followers’ outrage (and her own) so as to enable them to transfer their loyalty to Obama. Politicians were of course giving her traditional public relations advice – stress your enthusiasm about Obama; don’t mention your followers’ anger or your own; etc. But her problem wasn’t a public relations problem. So Jody Lanard and I decided to give Sen. Clinton some risk communication advice. This column is the result.

Risk Communication Talking Points
for Hillary Clinton:

Some Primary Principles for
This Post-Primary Moment

We wrote this column two days before Hillary Clinton’s scheduled speech endorsing Barack Obama, arguing that Sen. Clinton should use outrage management strategies to help reconcile her followers to Obama’s candidacy.

The speech she actually gave on June 7 was well received – but in our judgment it didn’t do much to address her followers’ outrage. See our post-speech analysis, but read the column first to see what we were recommending.

The first column written for this website was entitled “The Palm Beach Presidency.” Written in the early days of the Bush-Gore 2000 Florida fiasco, it argued that an electoral crisis was a time for risk communication, not public relations – and with that in mind it suggested talking points for both candidates.

This is the 64th column written for the site. It’s about what we think Hillary Clinton should say to her followers and to the country on Saturday (June 7, 2008), when she concedes that Barack Obama has won the Democratic nomination for the presidency.

The key question is whether she will concede in a way that helps her most fervent followers make the transition to Barack Obama or in a way that impedes that transition. That is, she will either mitigate or exacerbate many of her followers’ outrage at the victor – their mingled anger, resentment, and disappointment, and their resulting inclination to deny him their support.

This too is a time for risk communication. So we are seizing the opportunity to outline some talking points for Sen. Clinton, linked to the risk communication principles from which they are derived.

Our recommendations might have more credibility coming from fervent Clinton supporters. For the record, we both supported Obama for the nomination. That probably makes us the wrong people to tell Hillary Clinton how to concede with grace. But because of our risk communication expertise, we’re going to give it a shot anyway.

Sen. Clinton’s Core Task

The key audience for Clinton’s speech is, of course, her followers. And the key mental state of many Clinton followers is loyalty to her – a loyalty that amplifies their pique into rage and their disappointment into grief, and thus inhibits them from embracing Obama. She needs to validate that loyalty before she can redirect it.

Considering how similar Clinton’s and Obama’s policy proposals are, it is shocking to think that many Clinton supporters may sit the election out or even vote for John McCain, rather than lining up behind Barack Obama. The possibility that Clinton’s followers might help elect a Republican out of loyalty, pique, and disappointment is the central issue for the concession phase of the Clinton campaign. The November election may hinge on what Clinton’s followers do between now and then. Sen. Clinton’s post-election reputation certainly hinges on what her followers do between now and then.

Her task on Saturday is twofold: to empathize with her many followers whose inclination is to keep their distance from Sen. Obama; and to guide them into his arms. She cannot do the second unless she also does the first. Her Tuesday evening (June 3) non-concession speech did neither.

(We say “her task on Saturday,” but this will be her task for some time to come. It will take more than one graceful moment for Sen. Clinton to redirect the fervor of her followers.)

Empathy and Anchoring Frames

We are confident that Sen. Clinton is getting lots of advice to make a strong statement in support of Sen. Obama – his policies, his campaign, and his fitness to be president. That’s good advice. A strong statement of support is absolutely essential.

But Clinton’s praise for Obama is likely to fall flat if that’s where she starts. Even if she musters all the enthusiasm in the world for Sen. Obama, it may well sound to her unenthusiastic listeners like she is dutifully parroting lines the party heavies have drafted for her. Many will convince themselves that she doesn’t mean it. Many who decide she means it will feel betrayed rather than led.

Clinton must start instead by acknowledging and validating what her loyal supporters are thinking, feeling, and telling her – their anger, their grief, their frustration and bewilderment. Politicians will probably advise her that this is the wrong message – and in a traditional PR environment they would be right. But outraged people are unlikely to abandon their outrage until it is acknowledged and validated. Only after this has been accomplished can Sen. Clinton help her followers rededicate themselves to the Democratic Party doctrines that presumably predated, and will outlast, a single exuberant campaign season.

The risk communication principles here are empathy and anchoring frames. Both teach us that we must start our communications where our audience starts. Clinton’s followers are “anchored” by their loyalty to her, and by whatever grievances against her opponent helped spur them on to keep fighting for her. Before she can effectively urge them to move on to a different anchoring frame, she must empathize with how they feel about abandoning the one they’ve got.

Sharing the Feelings

Even Sen. Obama ought to be acknowledging and validating the feelings of his opponents’ followers. But Sen. Clinton can go one step further. She can do something he can’t do. She can share those feelings.

“I can sure relate to that!” she can say about her followers’ anger and grief, and share a wry laugh with her crowd.

“It’s natural for you all to feel that way after a hard-fought primary. Maybe it’s even more natural this time, because we seemed so far ahead a year ago, and because we were all so excited about breaking that glass ceiling. And it’s even more natural for me to feel that way, after 16 grueling – wonderful, yes, but still grueling – months on the road. Of course you have some negative feelings to deal with. Of course I do too.”

Ambivalence about Obama

Clinton should also acknowledge and share her followers’ ambivalence about Barack Obama. On the one hand, he’s a solid liberal (as she is), an amazing speaker, an admired colleague and perhaps even a friend. The causes Sen. Clinton has spent decades fighting for will be far better served with Obama in the White House than McCain. On the other hand, he beat her! (How dare he?) Her followers gave her campaign everything they had, and even so he beat her!

This kind of ambivalence doesn’t happen in a tepid campaign. It’s a side-effect of a dazzling, astonishing, compelling campaign.

But if Clinton’s followers act out their ambivalence about Obama, they may very well cost the party the election. Feeling it is natural. Acting on it is childish. Clinton needs to make that clear too – but empathically, always empathically. Some possible language:

So for these and other reasons, a lot of you tell me you are angry, angry at Barack Obama, the party’s nominee, angry because he beat us – even though I think he beat us fair and square. If you are fervent Democrats, as well as strong Clinton supporters, you may feel torn between loyalty to the party and loyalty to me. When people feel that way, sometimes it is easy to act out. It is easy to forget what the campaign is about, and what’s at stake for our country. Sometimes your passion can even make you lose track of your underlying values.

Why is it so important for Sen. Clinton to acknowledge the ambivalence of her supporters? Ambivalent people communicate on a seesaw; they go to the side of their ambivalence that’s inadequately represented in their communication environments. Faced with a steady diet of one-sided demands to support the party – even from their candidate herself – many Clinton stalwarts might feel all the more inclined to stay aloof. By contrast, acknowledging their ambivalence helps them bear it, and helps them make a principled decision which half of their ambivalence to act on and which to keep under control.

Again Clinton can go one step further than acknowledgment, sharing the feelings she is acknowledging:

I’ve read a lot of commentary in which I have been accused of forgetting some of those things myself. You all saw that I had a difficult time Tuesday night, when I couldn’t make myself concede that Barack had won our party’s nomination. It wasn’t just about conceding. I wasn’t ready to move on yet. For me, tonight, moving on means doing everything in my power to help Barack Obama win this election. That’s what I need it to mean for you too.

Showing She Can Bear It

Part of her followers’ loyalty to Hillary Clinton is their sense that perhaps she cannot bear her defeat, or shouldn’t have to bear it. Some of this may be projection of their own feelings that it’s unbearable to lose the nomination. It doesn’t matter whether it’s projection or not. Sen. Clinton must show her followers that she can bear this defeat, and that she expects them to be able to bear it too.

In short, she must act like a grown-up, and call on her followers to be grown-ups with her.

This can and should be explicit:

I want to show you that I can bear this loss, and that I am moving on to my rightful place in the party at this time – which is to do everything in my power to help elect Barack Obama. I expect that my strong and smart and ferociously loyal supporters can also bear this loss, and will redirect your energy as I am redirecting mine, to make Barack Obama the next President of the United States.

Feminism is a relevant anchoring frame here, we think:

What would it mean if my supporters came to think that I can’t bear to lose, or if the watching world came to think that my supporters can’t bear to lose? You can guess what some people would conclude from that about women candidates. What a tragedy that would be!

And Clinton’s pugnacity is also a good anchoring frame:

I’ve been saying all campaign long that I’m a fighter. Now I have to show that I can lose with grace and dignity, and without my defeat hurting the principles I care about so much, the principles of my party. I am still fighting for my party, and I still want you to fight with me.

Not a Spoiler

Perhaps most important, Clinton needs to express how outraged her party would be at her, and how outraged she would be at her followers, if she were somehow to make the devastating transition from losing candidate to spoiler.

But even here she cannot make the point successfully unless she makes it empathically. She must acknowledge that she also feels the unworthy temptation to be a spoiler; then assert that she will resist that temptation; and then demand that her followers resist it too.

My worst possible legacy would be to lead my most dedicated followers into a blind alley of anger, disappointment, and petty revenge. I will not lead you there. And I will not follow you there.

Is there a private, petty part of me that would be secretly pleased if Sen. McCain beat Sen. Obama? I’m human. I have that small, childish, nasty side. “See?” that petty Hillary Clinton could crow. “If you’d nominated me you wouldn’t have this problem.”

But let me tell you: There isn’t even a tiny corner of me that wants that actually to happen, even in my most disappointed private moments. As if health care and education and Iraq and the rest weren’t enough reason for me to want Barack Obama in the White House instead of John McCain, let me give you another reason.

There have been hard-fought primaries before, primaries a lot nastier than this one ever was, and when they were over the party routinely united behind the winners. It would be horrible – horrible – if one of the few times when the party failed to reunite was the first time a woman came close and then lost.

I don’t want anyone, ever, to suggest that the kind of support a woman gets tears the party apart if she doesn’t win. I don’t want anyone, ever, to suggest that the kind of support Hillary Clinton gets tears the party apart if she doesn’t win.

If our party fails to unite behind Barack Obama, I will feel like it is my failure more than Barack’s. I beg my followers not to do that to me. I beg them not to do that to the Democratic Party. I beg them not to do that to our country.

Expressing Optimism – but Not Confidence

Sen. Clinton’s speech on Saturday should not sound like she’s convinced her followers will ignore her appeal and derail the party. Nor should she sound like she’s convinced her followers will line up obediently behind the Obama campaign.

The former would be condescending and pessimistic. The latter would be condescending and overconfident.

She needs to sound like she believes her followers will make the right call. In fact, she should sound like she believes they probably would have done so even without Saturday’s appeal. But she’s not sure. She’s not taking them for granted. They’re going to do what they think best. She’s asking, not telling.

Conceding the Exceptions

Somewhere along the line, Sen. Clinton needs to concede that some of her followers may actually switch their votes to John McCain for substantive reasons. But even as she acknowledges this possibility, she should express her conviction that it makes no sense.

Look, if some people flat-out prefer my policies to McCain’s, and also prefer McCain’s policies to Obama’s, they should of course vote their views. But frankly, I find that combination of preferences incomprehensible. I understand liking McCain better than Clinton and Obama; that’s called being a conservative. And I certainly understand liking Clinton and Obama better than McCain! But what set of policy views would lead someone to vote for McCain because Clinton isn’t going to be the Democratic nominee?

If you supported me because of my policies, I certainly hope you will now support Sen. Obama. His policies and mine are close – so close we sometimes had to quibble over minor details to get some energy going during our debates. And our policies may get closer still, as I and other Democrats continue to talk things through with President Obama.

And there’s another exception, another minority of her followers that Sen. Clinton must acknowledge: those who believe the nomination was “stolen” from her by illegitimate means, such as refusing to seat the Florida and Michigan delegates chosen in those primaries.

We assume Clinton does not share this belief; if she did, she would have grave difficulty supporting Obama’s candidacy. So we think she has an obligation to say unequivocally that she does not share this belief – but again she should try to do it empathically. Empathy here means at least two things: expressing her understanding and acceptance that those who do feel the race was fixed will probably be lost to the Obama campaign; and expressing her hope that they will eventually change their minds and return to the fold. For the sake of empathy with the rest of us, she might also express her relief that this remains a minority opinion among her followers.

Clinching the Sale

Clinton should also acknowledge that style differences, more than substantive issues, divide some of her supporters from Obama’s supporters. She can use this point to segue to her most fundamental contention: that uniting the party is her job now.

A lot of people who admire the policies Sen. Obama and I share like his personal style more than mine. That’s a big piece of why he won the nomination! But to the people who like my style better, I say this: Sen. Obama is twice the orator I’ve ever been, and he has a knack for pulling people together that I admire and envy. He will be trying to pull the Democratic Party together now.

But frankly it is a large part of my job, as the losing candidate, to pull the party together behind Sen. Obama. It will be my failure if my followers don’t pull strongly for him.

The question is only partly: Can he attract you. It is also: Can I release you – release you from the bonds of your loyalty to me, and from your feelings of anger and disappointment on my behalf. I promise you that I will never forget your loyalty. But today I hope you will begin the process of transferring that loyalty to the candidate who deserves and needs your wholehearted support – to Barack Obama, the next President of the United States.

Copyright © 2008 by Peter M. Sandman and Jody Lanard

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