by Jerry Weissman
In 2007, Ryan Lizza, the Washington correspondent for New Yorker magazine, wrote a comprehensive profile of Barack Obama when he was an up and coming Illinois state legislator, called “Can Barack Obama Catch Hillary Clinton?”
In 2008, Barack Obama caught Hillary Clinton and kept running—all the way to the Oval Office.
In the August 6, 2012 issue of The New Yorker, Mr. Lizza wrote a comprehensive profile of up and coming Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan.
Five days later, on August 11, 2012, Mitt Romney, the Republican candidate for president, announced that Mr. Ryan was his choice for his vice-presidential candidate.
Has Mr. Lizza picked another winner? Only the Election Day will tell, but both of Mr. Lizza’s choices for in-depth profiling have parallel communication qualities:
- Speechmaking: In 2004, Mr. Obama wrote and delivered a Cinderella speech that took him from obscurity to rock stardom. In 1993, Mr. Ryan did his political internship as a speechwriter for former football hero Jack Kemp who, three years later, went on to become Bob Dole’s vice-presidential candidate.
- Positive messaging: In 2008, Mr. Obama’s famous campaign slogan was “Yes we can!” In 2012, Mr. Ryan told Mr. Lizza:
If you’re going to criticize, then you should propose…People like me who are reform-minded ignore the people who say, “Just criticize and don’t do anything and let’s win by default.” That’s ridiculous…They don’t want to produce alternatives? That’s not going to stop me from producing an alternative.2
“Criticize and propose” represents an unusual positive strategy in a campaign that, until now, has been as negative as it gets; characterized by the New York Times as “sliding back down the banister.” Mr. Obama’s “Yes we can” has vanished—replaced with a welter of critical ads and speeches. Mr. Romney, who battled his way to the Republican candidacy by attacking and counterattacking his opponents in the primaries, has continued in the same antagonistic mode against his Democratic opponent.
Mr. Ryan’s positive strategy, if he can stay with it, in the face what looks like an unrelievedly contentious campaign, provides a lesson for any communicator.
Business people cannot make their own case at the expense of the competition because it not only casts a negative pall on the whole market; it also boomerangs back onto the naysayer. Bashing sounds defensive. The lady doth protest too much, methinks. It is far better to look at all the players in the competitive landscape and position them within that larger context.
One way to do that is with the classic comparison matrix, originated by the Boston Consulting Group, of four quadrants, charting values along the x- and y-axes. Here’s how the BCG website describes it: “This framework categorizes products within a company's portfolio as stars, cash cows, dogs, or question marks according to growth rate, market share, and positive or negative cash flow.”
Another comparison table shows all the players on one axis and how they compare in several key features along the other axis, and grades them with checks and crosses, or plusses and minuses, or what is known as Harvey Balls, in which filled circles represent full value, empty circles, no value, and partially-filled circles represent partial value:
Just imagine if, in the upcoming October debates that will pit Mr. Ryan against Mr. Biden, and Mr. Romney against Mr. Obama, the candidates were to compare and contrast each other along the lines of one of these charts. We might just have a campaign that focuses on issues rather than charges; alternatives rather than criticism.