January 8, 2011

The Image game: Ronald Reagan

The storyline has to match reality, and when it didn’t, the game was lost. 

For so long, Ronald Reagan had been contradicting himself over and over again. Saying one thing and doing another. Yet he still continued to soar in the public polls - you have to admit that it is commendable. So commendable in fact the he was entitled the great communicator.

One such case when he made great use of his storyteller skills was when he was asked to make a game alive, to broadcast a football game. Piece of cake? Well maybe, but there was a catch, he was watching absolutely nothing! He had to tell a story from his imagination, and he loved it, he owned it. When asked if he wanted to broadcast sports live, “Oh no, you see the thing about doing it from the wire was that you could create the scene on your own” Reagan professed. At any rate, that’s also how he landed his first job as a sports announcer.

There was also a time when public disapproval for Reagan’s way of handling education had risen because of his budget cuts in federal aid to primary and secondary schools. Polls showed that people were disappointed. Still he was able to successfully change that by telling the public about his philosophies on tougher educational standards, discipline, basic courses, teacher accountability, etc. He never changed his education policy yet the public’s attitude changed. As if that’s the only time it happened. Once he returned from a presidential visit in China where he praised the so-called communists when in fact their ideologies have always been against his, still he was able to sell it.  And that wasn’t coincidence; that was Ronald Reagan.

Despite his skills, he isn’t a one man team, a lot of skilled people worked on building and sustaining his image. Carefully engineering events and managing perceptions. The tasks were very systematic, organized and carefully planned. It even had a hint of cunning for me. The team painstakingly scripted how everything will go, day in, day out; what the press will report, what the president will say, when he will say it, etc. The team used strategies like media jujitsu where they have to control the platform and not leave anything to chance, especially not letting the press edit the president so they decided that the president should use only a hundred words to say his piece- it worked; they also made use of spin in a formidable way- highlighting issues that would be advantageous while burying bad publicities, letting the president tell the good news and leaving the bad news for other agencies to handle which is a little cunning for me. It sends me a message of cowardice but hey, I’m not the President here.

Their focus on the significance of timing could also not have been anymore perfect. The White House conducted daily morning sessions with the press so that they could comment on previous evening news, allowing them to shape the Washington slant on the news before the Congress or any critics could react. Other times they release bad stories on Friday afternoon to lessen the ripples it will make. This is because the press will have little time to work on the story, so chances are it will be dumped on Saturday newspapers which are taken lightly at the time. There was a case when this move backfired, but it wasn’t because they have taken the issue of timing lightly, rather it was because some opponents of the President have guessed (correctly) what they will do.

The President was a skilled communicator that was surrounded with skilled tacticians. He was invincible, but when the story did not match reality, for the nth time, the game was lost. The people could only take so much before it’s over. Nevertheless, it was still a good story.

Images were downloaded from : http://www.boingboing.net/images/_2009_03_ronald-reagan1.jpg and http://tammybruce.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/12/reagan-239x300.jpg

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