The 94 Democrats and 134 Republicans in the House of Representatives who shot down the proposed bailout bill earlier this week weren't the only ones who didn't like the looks of the thing. Indeed, they did so because their constituents -- all those voters living on "Main Street" -- hadn't been convinced that the package was anything more than a sop for the same Wall Street players who had created the mess in the first place.
Failure to communicate
A number of communications specialists believe the powers that be, more specifically Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and President Bush, did a poor job of communicating the impact the crisis and the bill would have on the average consumer's life.
And while nearly all of the PR professionals we spoke to believe something has to be done, some aren't sure a $700 billion bailout is the answer.
John Marino, managing partner at Dan Klores Communications, who believes "something is clearly necessary" but doesn't know if it has to be a $700 billion bailout, said the wording everyone was using from the start was wrong.
"They not only didn't use the right language, they didn't explain to the public what this was all about," said Mr. Marino, who has a background in politics and spent some time working on Wall Street. "They should have said, 'This is a problem for all Americans and potentially the most devastating crisis we have faced since the Depression, and let me explain why.' Or, 'This is going to impact you, and it's logical that at some point it will impact you.' Banks were going to stop lending to small businesses and consumers, and they never talked about it in those terms. It was laid out as a Wall Street bailout."
Mr. Marino lays the blame directly at the feet of the administration. "The administration blew it, and I actually empathize with the House, Senate, Republicans and Democrats," he said. "The administration put up a red light here before a yellow flashing light, and that was a jolt to the political establishment and the public."
Andrew Benett, CEO of Euro RSCG New York, wrote in a column released this week that this was a catastrophic failure of branding. Mr. Benett describes the current state of affairs as a highly complicated situation that no one has taken the time to explain or simplify for the American people. And like Mr. Marino he thinks the proper wording would have made a big difference.
"'Bailout' connotes failure, and Americans hate failure," Mr. Benett said. "There is nothing redemptive about a bailout. What if this had been called a 'rescue' from the beginning? Or the 'Save Our Homes Act'? Supporting a 'rescue' is a bear of an entirely different species. It is not only a redemptive act, restoring things to their rightful order -- it is heroic."
Lance Morgan, chief communications strategist at Powell Tate, the public affairs division of Interpublic Group of Cos.' Weber Shandwick, said those involved simply weren't prepared to handle the time constraints created by the crisis.
Haste fueled confusion
"There is a need in the time of a crisis for the political leadership of the parties to appear to be solving the problem, and therefore it is necessary that they do something," Mr. Morgan said. "But clearly they didn't have enough time to think through the messaging. They were in a rush to come up with something and didn't think about how to present it to the American people in a way that would generate support. That's not faulting them [but it's] what led to the backlash that now seems to be in the process of being corrected. You can't communicate everything all the time, but they are finally getting it right [now] because they have a little bit more time to explain."
Not effectively communicating the impact this growing crisis and bill would have on Main Street left millions of people wondering why the bailout was necessary, said Mr. Morgan, who said his agency does not work with any political parties or lobbying groups.
"They didn't adjust to take the argument from Wall Street to Main Street," he said. "People don't see the effect but they have to be made to believe that it's going to come, and that's what the executive and legislative branches haven't done a particularly good job on yet."
While complimenting Mr. Paulson on his sense of urgency, Nick Ragone, senior VP-director of client development at Omnicom's Ketchum, believes the Treasury secretary, who has been interviewed and featured in nearly every media outlet over the past two weeks, could have been more effective in selling the plan's benefits for Main Street.
"Clearly he did a good job on highlighting the impact that not taking action would have on the financial markets," Mr. Ragone said. "He could have done a much better job at explaining how this was going to impact small-business owners, people with student loans and auto loans. He didn't do a good enough job of selling it that way, and that was the biggest shortcoming of it."
Tide could be turning
But with dramatic swings in the market this week, Mr. Ragone said the connection is becoming more obvious to Americans, creating stronger support for the bill.
"The tide is turning on grass-roots support," Mr. Ragone said. "Initially, there was little support because Paulson did a poor job at communicating the risk to Main Street if the financial system collapsed. But since the House vote on Monday, and the market's violent reaction to it, ordinary Americans are beginning to feel the impact on their everyday lives."
Of course, one day after the 777-point drop, the market regained much of that -- without the benefit of a bailout plan.
Rich Masters, a partner at Qorvis who has worked as a Democratic strategist in the past, said the problem with the communications surrounding the bailout plan is that there wasn't anyone the administration or Congress could put out front that Americans would have viewed as credible.
"People feel they have been lied to about so many things over the last several years, so the president and members of Congress don't have any credibility," Mr. Masters said. "The problem with this White House and Congress in general, is that they are like the little boy who cried wolf one too many times. The first rule of any PR campaign is to find the most credible voices you can to be your message deliverers. But unfortunately right now there is absolutely, positively no credible message delivery system at all."
Partial to Paulson
Despite that point of view, Mr. Masters said Mr. Paulson was a good choice as spokesman because "he's well respected on both sides of the aisle and on Wall Street."
Mr. Masters said the non-verbal cues like Congress declaring a crisis and then taking two days off and the president not saying anything on the matter for a week caused and are still causing some confusion for Americans.