Optics And Perception

By: Margaret Mulvihill

September 17, 2014

One of the more enjoyable parts of my job is skimming the newspapers and checking the online media outlets for any news that might give my clients the edge. A headline flashed by recently about President Obama not understanding how damning appearances can be. It stuck in my mind for some reason, maybe because one would assume that the President is ‘packaged’ by the ultimate public/media relations team.

The O’Reilly Factor has a segment called ‘Washington Insider.’ (Fox News, “The O’Reilly Factor” weeknights at 8 p.m. and 11 p.m.) The August 26th segment was dedicated to ‘Will President Obama Change His Image’.

It was and it is a valid question. Earlier, the President had interrupted his vacation on Martha’s Vineyard to comment publicly on the savage beheading of American journalist James Foley by ISIL terrorists. Immediately following his public condemnation of the act of terror, the President returned to the golf course to continue his vacation.

The President, as O’Reilly accurately stated ‘got hammered.’

I rarely agree with O’Reilly, but in this instance, it is inconceivable that the President’s public/media relations team did not anticipate this. If you make a serious, somber statement to the American people about an act of terror committed on an American citizen, you do not return to the golf course. You go home to your family and you spend the rest of that day in seclusion. Straight up, this was not merely poor public/media relations. This was a disaster of epic proportions. It must have caused pain to the immediate family of James Foley, and to his closest friends.

In his recent September 8th interview with Chuck Todd on NBC’s ‘Meet the Press’, the President admits that he ‘should’ve anticipated the optics.’  Does this mean that the White House is finally acknowledging the huge role played by media relations at the highest level in global politics? I am adopting a wait and see – change doesn’t come that rapidly.

During the course of the Todd interview, the President acknowledged the error in perception. A good first step, you say. Not so fast. He then continued on to discuss the ‘theatrics’ of the presidency, appearing to blame the press for aggressive reporting. Reporting is more aggressive these days, and the perceived lack of transparency within the Obama administration is a root cause of this.

As a public/media relations practitioner in the Washington, DC political arena, I do not blame President Obama. He is a politician, a head of State. He is not a public relations maven. Although hesitant to assign blame, any media relations failure on this scale rests on the shoulders of the President’s Chief of Staff, Denis McDonough, who manages the White House media relations team.