By Chad McLeod
Bickering, sniping and contempt for each other aside, there were several moments in last night’s Democratic presidential debate in Nevada that offered lessons for communicators, particularly when it comes to answering questions about a mistake, slip of the tongue or accusation from your past.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, for example, was asked about her recent interview where she couldn’t name the president of Mexico. Trying to prove that the slip-up wasn’t a reflection of her foreign policy cred, she cited the number of members in the Israeli Knesset and other random facts while trying to say that she simply forgot President Lopez Obrador’s name.
Mayor Mike Bloomberg similarly struggled when asked about the accusations of his treatment of women and comments he allegedly made to his employees. He led off by saying he had no tolerance for the type of behavior uncovered by the #MeToo movement. He appeared to be setting the stage for more depth — more explanation — to address the questions and skepticism of his record. Instead, Bloomberg cited the number of women in leadership positions under his administration, followed by a defense of the non-disclosure agreements signed by employees of his company. His answers fell flat, felt inadequate and led to fiery criticism from Sen. Warren.
Debates like these are tough for any candidate to get through completely unscathed. It’s particularly difficult when other candidates are in the wings ready to pounce on whatever you say. However, there are lessons we can learn from these exchanges that can help political candidates, company spokespersons and others who find themselves faced with tough questions.
I can’t emphasize this enough. If there’s a controversial issue in your or your organization’s past, be prepared to address it. Ignoring the issue or trying to speak past it will only open yourself up to more questions and criticisms. I’m curious if anyone on Bloomberg’s debate prep team heard his answer beforehand about the harassment allegations. Pointing out that he places women in high-level positions could have fit into his answer somewhere, but by ignoring the allegations, he created an opening for his competitors — see Sen. Warren’s response — and left the audience with doubts about his record.
Treat threatening questions as an opportunity
Just because you receive a question that puts you on the defensive doesn’t mean you have to stay that way. Instead of trying to showcase her knowledge of the globe, Sen. Klobuchar could have simply admitted that it wasn’t her best interview moment and then turned her response to her vision for U.S-Latin American relations. Something to the effect of, “I regret that I was unable to recall President Lopez Obrador’s name during that interview, but let me tell you about what I envision for our country’s relationship with Mexico and other Latin American countries.” The best debaters take each question as an opportunity to pivot to their most important messages — messages that resonate with the audience and stand out in the middle of all the noise.
Remember to relate
There’s often a pressure for politicians, organizations and, well, everyone to appear perfect. We’re not, and the majority of people understand that. I’m pretty sure I’ve forgotten my kids’ names before, so is it the end of Sen. Klobuchar’s presidential hopes because she couldn’t remember Lopez Obrador’s name? No. She probably could have injected some humor into her response by relating to the fact that we all forget things from time to time that we shouldn’t. Great communicators seize moments that allow them to relate to what their audience is thinking and feeling.
Chad McLeod, APR, is the co-host of PR & Politics podcast and the owner of McLeod Communications in Lakeland, Florida.