Not enough fertilizer could help that campaign news conference

Closeup of shovel in dirt

Frankly, I didn’t think I had to write a blog about a train wreck news conference. I didn’t think I needed to remind public relations professionals of the basic fundamentals of event planning. But of course, this is 2020, so…

Implausibly, inexplicably, inconceivably, there it was. In broad daylight. A press conference of such colossal consequence that it held the potential to upend the unyielding march toward determining the next president of the United States.

With so much on the line, and with a campaign’s credibility hanging in the balance, the national media was summoned to 7347 State Street in northeast Philadelphia.

Regrettably, it was not the address of, say, Independence Hall, the hallowed venue where our democracy was born. That might have been appropriate, there in the shadow of the Liberty Bell where paradoxes could have been laid bare that exposed systemic shenanigans in the election.

Instead, the address belonged to the Four Seasons – no, wait, not THAT Four Seasons of posh hotel fame – but Four Seasons Total Landscaping – just nine miles north of Independence Hall (take exit 30 off I-95).

There in the nondescript parking lot – down the block from the Fantasy Island Adult Book Store (which proports to be following COVID-19 protocols) and across the street (perhaps not ironically) from the Delaware Valley Cremation Center, which, according to its web site, has been helping the bereaved make informed decisions since 1991. You see where I’m going there?

Someday when the post-mortems are written on this election and its indissoluble aftermath, we may hear the mea culpas surrounding the planning of this event. If we gawk at it charitably, we can assume that an advance team that was overburdened with responsibilities had reached its tipping point, perhaps operating on even less sleep than Steve Kornacki. Indulge me for a minute, but I am imagining the phone call into Four Seasons.

Four Seasons: Yello, Four Seasons, this is Jerry.

Campaign: Hi Jerry, I’m calling to make arrangements for a national news conference at the Four Seasons. Do you have any outside space that could hold about 50 people tomorrow afternoon? Apologize for the short notice.

Four Seasons: A press conference? Here?  (Pause.) Um, I guess we could do that. Yeah, we can make some space outside.

Campaign: Fantastic. Our folks will come by to help set up about an hour ahead of time.

Four Seasons: Will you be needing any shrubbery? Or how about some killer chrysanthemums?

Campaign: Gotta go! Will let you know tomorrow. And thanks!

I’ve already belabored the point, but event planning is a critical component of public relations work. And the site of your event requires more than a passing inquiry. You must ask yourself such questions as:

  • Is the venue the right size? Too small, and the problems are obvious, but you also don’t want too big or you’ll give the impression you were expecting a larger crowd.
  • Is it convenient? Can attendees get there easily, and once they do, is there adequate parking?
  • Is it secure? Can you limit access to folks who could be disruptive or at least keep them far enough away so that the focus stays on your message?
  • Does the venue help underscore your messaging? Is there a backdrop that is consistent with the core message that you are communicating?
  • Have you developed a “run of show” that is efficient and involves the appropriate people?

On that last question, the advance team did the campaign no favor on that front as well. Reports indicate that the first person whom the former New York City mayor asked to join him at the podium was a convicted sex offender. Presumably, the requirement that he let his neighbors know about his sordid past did not extend to his political allies.

This brief episode likely will have little consequence on the outcome of the election, nor perhaps even be chronicled by presidential historians. On the scale of screwups, it’s much further down the scale than the staffer who thought it would be a good idea for Dukakis to ride around in an M1 Abrams tank, or when Admiral Stockdale forgot to turn on his hearing aid, for example. But in our business, we know that words matter. Suffice it to say, images do as well.

And as a general rule, chrysanthemums won’t help.

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Josh Dare

Josh’s career in communications spans more than four decades. In addition to providing strategic counsel and crisis communications direction to clients, he is the resident Writer-In-Chief, regularly writing op-eds and bylines on behalf of clients that have been published in The Washington Post, The Richmond Times-Dispatch, The Philadelphia Inquirer and Huffington Post, among others.

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