The Iowa Caucuses: A Catastrophic Communications Failure

By Greg Beuerman | Partner/Owner at BMF

We’ve said it before but just to be consistent (and show we’re right), most incidents are not remembered for how they were handled, but for how they were communicated.  Monday’s ill-fated Iowa caucuses are a startling case in point.

Don’t get me wrong.  I love the Iowa caucuses.  Politics is in my DNA and I grew up in a political world where watching both the Democrats and the Republicans slug it out in the nation’s first-of-the-cycle Presidential election contests still holds my attention.  But what we witnessed in the Hawkeye state for nearly 24 painful, stressful and yet comical hours sets a new standard for making a bad situation even worse by failing to admit to reality and speak the truth.  If this is what the American people have to look forward to for the next 10 months, close your eyes, hold on tight and enjoy the exhilarating ride.

It’s been said that you can’t put lipstick on a pig.  More optimistically,  it’s been said that if you’re given lemons you can still make lemonade.  Somehow overnight, deep in the bowels of the Iowa Democratic Party, darkness seems to have impaired party leaders’ vision, allowing them through obfuscating and misinformation, to mix the two metaphors completely and end up with lemonade on their pig.

As this debacle has played itself out publicly, several things have become apparent, virtually none of which party spokespersons seemed inclined to admit to until every other excuse failed to satisfy or served to undercut the validity of their previous comments.  While the specifics of their efforts to deflect and play hide the proverbial ball aren’t really important to this post, what is important are the lessons corporations, public institutions and even political parties can learn from this communications failure of epic proportions.  Here are a few to consider:

  1. The truth has a funny and oddly inconvenient way of making its presence known (especially when the world is watching). Thinking that well-crafted sound bites alone can obscure the facts under intense public and media scrutiny probably isn’t a winning strategy (although that may provide a good excuse to start looking for a new job).
  2. While it’s been said that “the masses are asses”, that doesn’t really mean that people are stupid.  They’ll catch on eventually  and ultimately make those who seek to deflect or deceive look even more stupid in the process.
  3. Speculation isn’t a substitute for the facts.
  4. A little humility goes a long way. Give people (and the press) credit where credit is due.  They understand that bad things happen to good people with good intentions. Suck it up, tell the truth and take your lumps.
  5. Say you’re sorry and really mean it.  In this instance in particular, there’s more at stake than inconveniencing political junkies who stayed up all night waiting for results that never came in, or hacking off candidates whose travel schedules to the next delegate hunting ground might be delayed. There’s the credibility of the entire Iowa caucus process and the validity of the outcome to consider, two not insignificant factors in light of the already heightened levels of voter dissatisfaction and cynicism.  
  6. Learn from your battle scars and hard won lessons and commit to making them part of your communications culture inside and outside your organization day in and day out (and not just when the world may be watching).