Reputation Management Lessons from You Didn’t Build That

On July 13, in making the point that other people contribute to our success, President Obama uttered the phrase “You didn’t build that.”

It was immediately clear that the Republicans would – fairly or unfairly – attempt to build their central narrative around those words.

InTrade and Nate Silver project that the president will win re-election. If he doesn’t, we may be wondering whether or not his reaction to the Republican “We did build that” response cost him the election.

Here are the keys to recovering from a reputation management crisis.

Understand the other side

Even if we’re to accept that Republicans are just evil and dishonest people looking to spin the president’s words against him because they’re racists, the president needs to stop and consider what some people might be hearing.

Here are the two paragraphs that Republicans kept replaying [emphasis mine]:

“Look, if you’ve been successful, you didn’t get there on your own. [Audience: Right!] You didn’t get there on your own. I’m always struck by people who think, well, it must be because I was just so smart. [Derisive laughter] There are a lot of smart people out there. It must be because I worked harder than everybody else. Let me tell you something — there are a whole bunch of hardworking people out there. [Applause]

“If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that. [Audience: Right!] Somebody else made that happen.

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What many people heard is that the president:

  • Is derisive towards those who succeed and think it’s at least partially because of their own talent and hard work.
  • Is rallying up a base of angry people who resent my success and think they’re the rightful owners of whatever I have.
  • Doesn’t even recognize that the “somebody” who invested in roads and bridges are the very same people who built their businesses and pay most of the country’s taxes.

It felt to some that the president was building a narrative of two Americas:

  • The public sector and the angry crowd that builds roads and bridges.
  • A separate group of business people that exploits good people’s efforts and keeps all the money.

Take responsibility and address the key issues

The president could have said the following:

“I misspoke yesterday, and I’m sorry. Of course Americans build their own businesses … “

At most I would have included a subtle reminder of the central point, by saying something like we’re in this together. But no more, because the goal is put the episode behind us, not engage in debate. The unfortunate phrase, video, and transcript are not in the president’s favor.

This should have been an easy apology, because he didn’t have to apologize for policy. He could just apologize for misspeaking. Supporters could think the apology is only for saying “that” to refer to the business instead of “those” to refer to roads and bridges. Others may think the apology is for the whole mocking tone. He didn’t have to specify. Just apologize for misspeaking, celebrate business people, and move on.

Instead the president did this.

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The middle part was good. The rest wasn’t:

The worst parts were:

  • Those ads, taking my words about small business out of context, they’re flat out wrong.
  • What I said was, that we need to stand behind them.”

What?! “When did he say we need to stand behind them?!”

Blaming this all on those evil people who took his words out of context was another mistake. It just invited Republicans to put out more ads with more context, which was not helpful for the president.

It also reinforced the Republican narrative that the president is incapable of taking responsibility for his own actions. It made every other time he blamed his opponents less credible.

Make the issue go away

An additional mistake in the above video was continuing the original argument about government and the private sector. The president’s goal here was to make the issue go away, not to engage in debate.

In such a case, do NOT say or do anything that invites a response.

Instead he added fuel to the fire, inviting responses by:

  • Accusing the other side of taking his words out of context.
  • Asserting that he said something that he didn’t.
  • Continuing his original point (businesses need to pay a lot of taxes so that government can do things for them).

The president lobbed his own head as a softball and invited his opponents to swing away. Accusing them of taking his words out of context allowed them to get more attention by showing his words in the context of a derisive attack on successful people. This did not help the president.

The Other POV

It’s possible that this was all calculated, and that the president can win by keeping this meme alive. The president is painting the Republicans as people who think successful people deserve all the credit for their own success, while the Democrats believe that we’re in this together.

Perhaps under other circumstances the Democrats could score points in this debate.

But I find it unlikely that they can win that debate in this context. “If you have a business — you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen” is too devastating, whether or not it’s out of context. The video with the preceding paragraphs — which the president asks people to watch by claiming he was quoted out of context — makes things even worse. And the Republicans are intelligently using the phrase “We built this,” not “I built this,” which weakens their vulnerability to the Democrats’ charging them with arrogance and egomania.

Summary

When you say something that you probably shouldn’t have, you need to quickly respond in a manner that:

  • Shows regret.
  • Clearly states appreciation for the people you are alleged to have offended.
  • Doesn’t blame others.
  • Puts the issue to bed.

If possible, move on to a new and more exciting issue shortly after the apology.

Do not:

  • Avoid responsibility.
  • Blame others.
  • Give your opponents something to reply to.

Maybe the president will win anyway, or would have lost anyway. We’ll never really know how this affected the race. But when you have your next reputation management crisis, I recommend not following the president’s example.