Monday, March 26, 2012

The Romney Take on "Etch a Sketch"

I was called the other day by a Forbes reporter who asked my opinion (and ultimately quoted me) about how Mitt Romney should have handled the "Etch A Sketch" remark made about him by Eric Fehrnstrom, one of his longtime advisors, and whether I thought Romney should have fired the aide. Further, how would this particular situation have been handled in the corporate world?

According to the press, when asked about the switch from the primaries to a potential Romney matchup with Obama (and how the candidate would appeal to moderate swing voters), the advisor said: "Everything changes. It's almost like an Etch A Sketch. You can kind of shake it up and restart all over again."

A classic children’s toy, Etch A Sketch is a tablet on which a person draws something and then erases it by turning the toy upside down and shaking it. Romney has been widely cited by constituencies in both parties for changing positions on major policies rapidly ... which accounts for the analogy.

The publicity around the remark was huge because “flip-flop” accusations have dogged Romney since his campaign began.

How did the candidate respond? According to the media I read, Romney first tried to dismiss the comment, but then interpreted the remark to the press as referring to changing processes — such as itineraries or logistics. He also said he would continue to run on the same issues. He said nothing about terminating his aide.

How should Romney have handled it? I would have advised Romney to emphasize that his views as a politician have matured over the years, which accounts for his policy changes — only because the "process" approach he used is really not believable. Changing processes has never been an issue in the campaign. Preferably, I would have asked the advisor to issue a media statement (or have Romney do it) clarifying his response — that the slate is always wiped clean when you move from the primaries to the main event ... the dynamic changes, and the Etch A Sketch point had nothing to do with Romney's position on issues. Fehrnstrom eventually did issue an email.

I would not have fired the aide, as it would only have brought more attention to the matter and suggested Romney's "guilt." At this juncture, I would let the matter drop.

Hopefully, for Romney's sake, the whole issue will get lost in the tsunami of messages that are sent out by his campaign and others, every minute of every day. The tidal wave of information is actually an advantage that national politicians have that is generally not available to corporate titans. An aide to the CEO or a high-ranking officer of a company who is caught in a disloyal act or having made an unflattering statement, which is broadly communicated, is often fired or demoted from the front lines. Obviously, circumstances always must be taken into account.

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