In case you missed it, a lot of news organizations got spun up over the past couple days by remarks the presidential candidate made recently in which he appeared to go gaga over what wonderful places Wawa convenience stores are because of the nifty way you can order sandwiches there.
The candidate’s comments were cited to confirm a preconceived notion that Romney is unfamiliar with the lives of average Americans.
When first reported on MSNBC, it was suggested that this was a “supermarket scanner” moment for Romney –harkening back to an incident in 1992 when then-president George H.W. Bush visited a grocer’s convention and was reported to be amazed by a common bar code scanner.
In some ways the two incidents were similar in that both were good examples of bad reporting. In Bush’s case — a New York Times reporter who wasn’t present took a pool report and came to conclusions that no one who WAS present observed. According to the urban myth investigation site Snopes, Bush was shown a newfangled scanner that could “weigh groceries and read mangled and torn bar codes.” Others who saw videotape of the encounter thought Bush was polite but if anything, bored. But the incorrect image of a baffled Bush lives on twenty years after the incident didn’t happen.
In Romney’s case, a full airing of his remarks would have shown that he was trying to compare the inefficiency of government with the innovation and efficiency of private sector places like Wawa. The reporting edited out all the context.
There are several lessons in this for those who deal with the media. First, it appears that the rhetorical device Romney was using in making the comparison was irony. Ironically, irony is almost always lost on the media.
Second, there are always well-known negative images of people and organizations. Fair or not, it behooves you not to play into those images or say or do anything which will allow your opponents to seize on it to prove their point. For example, to keep with the political theme here, that means Bill Clinton has to stay away from anything which would make it sound like he is a womanizer, Romney needs to stay away from anything which (fairly or not) sends a message that he is a clueless millionaire. You have to go into events thinking to yourself: “How can my remarks be taken out of context?” and guard against it.
You also have to watch out for images just as much as words. Remember Senator John Kerry (who also was criticized for being a wealthy elitist) allowing pictures of himself windsurfing off Nantucket or Richard Nixon (criticized for being stiff) walking on a beach while wearing his dress shoes.
Finally, the lesson we draw from this incident is the importance of pushing back hard and immediately when your words or actions have been misconstrued.
Many of the media who were quick to report Romney’s remarks as a gaffe still haven’t reported the full context. The campaign should have been hammering those outlets immediately to obtain a more fair account. On the second day of the story MSNBC aired the full context but failed to offer any explanation or apology of leaving out the government efficiency comparison in the first place.
The airing of Romney’s remarks takes about three minutes. You don’t have that much time to make your point. Ramble on and the media quite likely will edit your remarks down to a much more soundbite-sized amount and you may well find the resulting product inedible.