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The Bailout Blow-Up One Year Later: Has Washington Learned?

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This week marks the one-year anniversary of the Capitol Hill blow-up of the financial bailout bill, one biggest political debacles in recent memory.

I know, I know. We'd all just as soon forget that imbroglio. But as we head into the thick of the increasingly ugly fights over health reform, Afghanistan troop levels and financial services regulation, there is much Washington can learn from that disastrous week of September 29 - October 3, 2008.

On Monday September 29th of last year, the bill pushed by former Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson, Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke and congressional leaders from both parties went down in flames in the House of Representatives. The stunning rebuke of the Washington Establishment shocked the world and sent the Dow Jones Industrial Average plummeting 778 points, nearly 7 percent.

By week's end, as it became clear that the world's economy was on the verge of collapse, the terrified leaders cobbled together an amended bill with enough goodies to pass both Houses by a wide margin, and total chaos had been narrowly avoided.

The failure to pass the legislation that fateful first day was due in large measure to a massive mismanagement of communications. Had the proponents of the policy simply done more thinking about how to craft, target and deliver their message and how to counter the inevitable opposing messages, much of this disaster might have been avoided.

For leaders who understand the value of well-executed strategic communications efforts, there are at least five key lessons to be learned:

Communications Lesson #1 -- To control the story, you've got to have a story. One of the biggest bungles of the bailout bill's proponents was the failure to tell a simple, compelling story of why their proposed action was necessary. While the bill's supporters fumbled around trying to explain LIBOR standards, collateralized debt obligations and mark-to-market accounting, the opponents repeated a simple mantra: No taxpayer-financed bailouts for the Wall Street fat cats who caused the crisis in the first place.

Communications Lesson #2 -- He who names the issue frames the issue. From the beginning, the proponents of the policy did themselves a huge disservice by allowing it to be universally tagged as a "bailout." Sure opponents were going to call it that, but there was an opportunity at the outset to cast the bill not as a bailout of Wall Street, but a rescue of Main Street.

Communications Lesson #3 -- The bully pulpit can only take so much bull. Given Secretary Paulson's impeccable Wall Street pedigree, the Administration concluded that the former Goldman Sachs honcho was the most credible person to lead this fight. But after so many successive weekend "emergency" actions wherein the Treasury and the Fed bailed out one institution after another, even Paulson's "trust me or all is lost" rhetoric wore thin. Even the most flush credibility account eventually becomes overdrawn from repeated withdrawals with no deposits.

Communications Lesson #4 -- When the guy holding the choke collar around your neck asks you to slow down, do it. Capitol Hill leaders from both parties were determined to ram through the legislation, but they failed a fundamental test of effective persuasion: anticipate, address and alleviate your audience's objections as early as possible.

Communications Lesson #5 -- When you get knocked down, get up immediately. By dwelling on the initial failure, the bill's supporters missed an important opportunity to position themselves for subsequent success. The vote failed on the morning of Friday Sept. 29. It would not have been easy, but there was enough time for lawmakers to put together a compromise to win the scant 12 additional votes needed to pass the bill that same day, saving themselves, the country and the global economy untold levels of strife.

To do so, however, proponents needed to immediately mount a communications campaign designed to show contrition for failing to build more support while simultaneously reinforcing the message that to fail to pass a compromise right away would be disastrous not just for Wall Street but for Main Street. Instead, the debate degenerated into the predictable spate of finger pointing and name-calling.

To be sure, tackling issues as complex, controversial and costly as health care, financial services and energy policy are tremendously difficult under the best of circumstances, let alone an economic and political environment like this one.

But these things need to get done for the good of our nation. And they won't get done if our leaders haven't learned these basic communications lessons.

Eddie Reeves is principal of the Reeves Strategy Group, a Dallas-based strategic communications consultancy that helps corporations, nonprofits and political campaigns win in the marketplace of ideas and persuasion.