Dapper and distinguished with more gray at the temples than when he was on the national stage as chairman of the Republican National Committee, Michael Steele warned of internecine battles and the GOP still missing the point on inclusion. He's resolved his hurt over being summarily dismissed by his own party; but he still seemed a little wistful last weekend.
"If Republicans cannot redefine the way they communicate, they (the party) will not be viable within the next five years," said Steele, an African American who served as both former head of the RNC and Lieutenant Governor of the State of Maryland.
"Are the Republicans ready to do that -- include everyone? They have maturing to do in terms of people who walk like me, talk like me and have my color," Steele said to a crowd of about 500 public relations professionals, college professors and non-profit communicators. "I am a Lincoln Republican -- I believe in empowering all free people."
Steele was on-hand at the Public Relations Society of America's international conference to handicap last week's Presidential Debate (many of his predictions came true!). He also gave an incredibly insightful speech on messaging, creating one's own brand and how to avoid being defined by your opponent. Lessons learned the hard way by the once rising star of the Republican Party and now political pundit on MSNBC and other networks like Fox.
Steele says of his time as party chairman, "they got rid of me quick. They saw this brother making changes, and said 'oh no, no!'"
"I know about being transitioned-out."
In sharing his own life lessons, Steele says, "you cannot please everyone but you can certainly piss them all off at same time."
He encouraged the message doctors to "do your own thing, push through and you will get it done. You need to define yourself. How do you convey a feeling, an emotion, an idea. You cannot let your opponent define you."
Messaging is critical in politics. It is the lifeblood of the political campaign as we all know.
He wondered if either campaign really had the ability to create a sense of the candidate. "Allowing the opponent to define him took the (Gov. Mitt) Romney campaign off the mark," said Steele.
Steele called it the "summer that wasn't for Mitt Romney."
"The president had the message, the organization, and the Romney team struggled against the noise," he said. The Romney team did not battle back from that imposed image of a "rich white guy" until now.
"What goes around comes around," said Steele." A couple chickens came home to roost. They did not expect Romney to be as effective one-on-one with the president" in the first debate.
Why Messaging and Personal Branding Matter
Mike Steele came to teach the PRSA people a lesson in translating the political hardball he plays into everyday product marketing, issues management or corporate image-making.
"When you are able to personalize it or redefine the landscape," you can win. "How do you prepare a climate or a candidate to be his or her own PR? It is incredibly important. Say what you want about Mitt Romney's awkwardness, and he is not warm and fuzzy; but he had the ability to redefine the landscape. Now he can define who he is and what he will do."
The PR moment of truth came in the first 30 minutes of the first debate, said Steele as he watched. In my view, it was all over with the crying in the first 15 minutes.
"Chris Matthews blew his top," said Steele. "Rachel Maddow went mute. I am sitting in the Green Room laughing my behind off. It was a real moment in the campaign when (Romney) undid all the definitions that had been laid on him."
Steele was talking about the power of personality and encouraging the individual to be his or her own PR machine. I personally think Tagg and Ann Romney probably saved his campaign, not his campaigners. Diane Sawyer of ABC News asked President Obama last week if he thought he handed the presidency over to his opponent in the wake of that disaster.
Mitt Romney won the first debate in the first thirty minutes. He might also have won the second debate by refusing to be typecast, to be pigeon-holed, to be kept on the ropes.
People will see a continuing narrative about Romney and his humanity, predicts Steele.
"Obama will not over-reach and come-out too aggressively. If you are trying to make a brand, you don't come out with a new formula," Steele handicapped. Did the president over-reach this week? (yes).
There have been over 73,000 political commercials fired in Las Vegas alone as salvos between Obama and Romney campaign. Steele said after all the billions that have been spent, it has not moved the vote.
"The voters got it and they got it early," said Steele. "They are not persuaded or dissuaded by what they see on TV. They made up their minds early and have not deviated much. So all the commercial money is not having impact." But the image and the positioning of the candidates' brands may well presage the outcome.
Suggesting there still may be some swing votes to move, Steele said: "Voters are not locked in with the Democrats. The voters are looking for leadership and for something that they want personally -- not the politics. If someone can tap in to that feeling, they will win."