Message Management 101: Is Any Event Truly Private?

You may have heard that Mitt Romney ran into a big PR problem this week. More accurately: someone recorded the presidential nominee at a private fund-raiser in May saying things that his campaign managers would never, under any circumstances, allow him to say in public–and eventually released it to an editor at Mother Jones, a storied opposition magazine. We wonder if his PR team could have prevented this blunder.

Romney’s thought crime? Expressing contempt for those who receive government assistance in any form and/or pay no federal income taxes. Romney told donors that said individuals are essentially moochers who will never “take personal responsibility” for their own lives. (We should note that this group includes nearly half the citizens of this country and many of the Americans who will vote for him in November.)

Despite the fact that Romney clearly believes what he said, his words were never meant for public consumption; the incident is somewhat similar to then-candidate Obama’s notorious 2008 statement about working-class Pennsylvania voters “clinging” to the safety of guns and religion, but it’s also larger in scale—and it reveals a key challenge for PR professionals representing public figures like Romney. The question: Is any event truly “secure”, or must a client always carefully watch what he or she says to avoid slip-ups like this one?

We will disregard the fact that a large portion of Romney’s scapegoat demographic (the 46% of Americans who pay no federal income taxes) is old and poor and that many of them do not pay income taxes because they are retirees living on social security benefits and therefore have no taxable income. We will also disregard the fact that quite a few millionaires in this country pay no federal income taxes since their revenues are treated as capital gains.

We’re more concerned about the fact that this video was made at all—and that the person who recorded it saw fit to deliver it to publications that are not ideologically aligned with Romney. This event was a fundraiser held at the private residence of a Romney donor. Its attendance list was small and only included individuals who had donated significant funds to the Romney campaign–or so we thought. Romney made a quote earlier this year about how income inequality should only be discussed “in quiet rooms“; any room that includes a video camera is no longer quiet.

The message seems to be this: In politics, big business and other fields that concern the public, clients and candidates should ALWAYS assume that they are being recorded and manage the message accordingly.

Our question: Is any event safe anymore? What could Mitt Romney’s PR team have done to prevent this extremely damaging leak from occurring in the first place?