Howard Dean's Screaming TV Blunder

Originally posted on CompleteCampaigns.com and written by Gail Hogan

In many Presidential campaigns, there is one major blunder that is hammered home by the media, and that incident often ends that person’s presidential bid.  Some classics: Governor Dukakis wearing a helmet and riding the tank;  Senator Muskie crying at a news conference after a newspaper printed derogatory statements about his wife, and the classic, Senator Gary Hart and his playboy antics on that aptly named boat, “The Monkey Business.”   This year it was the Howard Dean Iowa pep rally, now dubbed the “I Have a Scream” speech. 

Whether you believe Howard Dean was indeed rallying the troops, or proving he has a short fuse, the one-time front runner in the Democratic presidential campaign found this the defining moment in his run for the White House.  His battle cry to supporters found its way to network and cable TV — and it stayed there.

Dean and his spin doctors couldn’t stop the relentless playing and re-playing of the screaming Dean…it aired 633 times in the 4 days following the speech.

The Hotline, a newsletter based in Washington D.C., actually counted.  They found Dean’s tirade showed up on network and cable news, on talk shows and late night comedy shows. “The Scream” was everywhere. Many people don’t know much about Dean and his presidential platform, but most know about “The Scream.”

This is a classic example of how the media can take a simple story, and bite down like a pit bull.  This had all the elements that TV news looks for — great video, big impact and under 10 seconds!

With viewers seeing this piece of video tape over and over, it only re-enforced the idea that maybe Dean didn’t have the temperament to be President.  There was a crack in his veneer, and continuous coverage turned it into a crater.

There are lessons here for everyone who might find themselves in front of a microphone.  First, what perception am I leaving with the public?  What people hear is sometimes distorted, or not the true meaning of the message.  I know from experience how many times viewers “think” they heard something, but got the facts out of order, or just plain wrong.  In Dean’s case, he forgot he wasn’t just talking to his supporters at a pep rally.  He was talking to the world through the media.

Dean’s camp blames the problem on a directional microphone, one that only picked up his voice with little sound of the cheering audience. In the end, viewers only heard and saw a screaming Dean.  His supporters relished his wild enthusiasm, while everyone else heard a different message — a man out of control.

This can happen even to people who are familiar with being in front of the media at the highest levels of business and government .  Here are a few things to remember when you’re speaking into a microphone and appearing in front of a camera:

• Perception is reality.  How do you want to be perceived?
• Know your message and be prepared.  If you don’t have a plan, and “wing it,” your thoughts and emotions can get away from you.
• Remember who you are talking to.  The sight of any camera should clue you in— your face can show up anywhere.
• It’s foolish to go in front of any news camera without media training, and without knowing how to respond in a controlled, confident and positive manner.

Here’s another lesson that can be learned from the Dean debacle: TV is larger than life.  What you say and how you say it are magnified.  The old saying goes, (and I know from experience this is true), TV adds 10 pounds.  It also makes everything else 10 times bigger, including your expressions, gestures and demeanor.  So while Dean’s facial expressions and body language may have seemed upbeat to his supporters who were in the room, those same movements took on a different look to people watching TV — a  perception that made many question Dean’s ability to lead.

Being on the campaign trail, and continually followed by reporters, Dean should have known the rules of the game.  If you don’t know the rules, learn them.  You never know when you will find yourself face to face with the media.  When that day comes, who will be in control?


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