“We don’t have a strategy yet.” Those six words may define the Obama presidency more than the Affordable Health Care Act, more than the economy or anything else the President has said or may do and say while in office. That soundbite reinforced and may have cemented the public perception that has formed that his Administration is rudderless and lacks any strategy on a host of problems. This was also a case study on how a soundbite or in this social media age, a tweet can define a brand, celebrity, CEO, or politician.
Soundbites and phrases defining a public persona or a brand is nothing new. Often, a catchy phrase or soundbite cements the exalted image the public already has of the person or brand. Abraham Lincoln is recalled for his “with malice towards none” phrase that reinforces the perception of strength with gentleness. Franklin Delano Roosevelt is remembered for his “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself” that led generations to consider him a fearless peacetime and wartime leader. John F. Kennedy is fondly memorialized for his “Ich bin ein Berliner” that was a testament of his eloquence and fearlessness during the height of the Cold War. And Ronald Reagan is immortalized with his “Mr. Gorbachev tear down this wall” that reinforced the image of his strength and the West’s triumph in the Cold War. Even Donald Trump is forever fondly immortalized for his trademark “You’re fired” from the Apprentice.
Just as phrases can celebrate a person for good, they can cement a negative perception that never goes away. Richard Nixon during the height of Watergate uttered the infamous “I am not a crook” that put in concrete the image of crookedness and sleaze that many had come to feel about Nixon. Bill Clinton will always be remembered for his “I did not have sex with that woman, Miss Lewinsky.” Or on the corporate side, there is Bank of America’s CEO Brian Moynihan defending a $5 fee on debit cards by saying, “we have a right to make a profit” that too many defined all that have come to dislike about the banking industry.
In this age of Twitter, a soundbite takes on an even greater meaning. Not only can an ill-conceived remark reach the public via the media, it is carried to a larger audience through Twitter and other social media platforms.
Often as in the case of President Obama, comments are made without thinking of the long term consequences that the remark may have. For brands, celebrities, and CEOs, just as with politicians this is important to remember. Long after a crisis or event has passed the remark made will still be recalled by the public. Regardless of years of good service, a poorly chosen remark will be remembered more than anything else. That is why I always tell clients that words matter and think before saying anything because one remark may define you forever.