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Engage: A Lesson from a Heckler

November 26, 2013

Jeff Weintraub

DURING A SPEECH yesterday in San Francisco, President Obama encountered something that most politicians and their advance people (who are responsible for the careful stagecraft of such an event) dread: a heckler. In this case, it was not from the distant reaches of a cavernous auditorium but from only a few feet away. It came from one of those human props who stand behind politicians, usually smiling and nodding, a wallpaper of broad and chirpy support.

Awkward as the moment might have been for the President and his handlers, what he did with the situation was an instructive example of engagement.

He spoke about immigration reform, which had picked up momentum over the past year but has since disappeared from the national policy conversation. Immigration reform advocates are understandably exasperated that the nation seems as far from passing this long-overdue reform today as a year ago.

While he spoke, the President was suddenly interrupted by a young man behind him. Here’s the transcript from the White House website:

AUDIENCE MEMBER:  Mr. Obama —

THE PRESIDENT:  — most importantly, we will live up —

AUDIENCE MEMBER:  — my family has been separated for 19 months now —

THE PRESIDENT:  — most importantly, we will live up to our character as a nation.

AUDIENCE MEMBER:  I’ve not seen my family.  Our families are separated.  I need your help.  There are thousands of people —

THE PRESDIENT:  That’s exactly what we’re talking about.

AUDIENCE MEMBER:  — are torn apart every single day. 

THE PRESIDENT:  That’s why we’re here.

AUDIENCE MEMBER:  Mr. President, please use your executive order to halt deportations for all 11.5 undocumented immigrants in this country right now. 

THE PRESIDENT:  What we’re trying —

AUDIENCE MEMBER:  Do you agree

AUDIENCE:  Obama!  Obama!  Obama!

AUDIENCE MEMBER:  — that we need to pass comprehensive immigration reform at the same time we — you have a power to stop deportation for all undocumented immigrants in this country. 

THE PRESIDENT:  Actually I don’t.  And that’s why we’re here.

AUDIENCE MEMBER:  So, please, I need your help. 

When people off camera were apparently moving to remove the heckler, the President said,

THE PRESIDENT:  These guys don’t need to go.  Let me finish. No, no, no, he can stay there.  Hold on a second.  (Applause.)  Hold on a second. 

So I respect the passion of these young people because they feel deeply about the concerns for their families.  Now, what you need to know, when I’m speaking as President of the United States and I come to this community, is that if, in fact, I could solve all these problems without passing laws in Congress, then I would do so.

And then he went on to make his point about immigration reform.

The lesson here is not terribly profound, but worth noting.

In a moment like this, many communications people and their clients freak out. They think that we must have total control. Nothing must adulterate the plans we spent countless hours drafting and getting approved, much less potentially humiliate our client.

Most of the time, I’d say they’re right. You don’t want to leave anything to surprise. But there are times when it’s okay to let things happen, so long as you have a skilled communicator who can ride the unpredictable wave and, as Obama did, use it to underscore his point.

What’s more, it’s even more humiliating and damaging to a client (in this case the President) to appear to be squelching dissent. If the President’s people had dragged the heckler away, it would have been a disaster for him. And it’s to the White House’s credit that they left the exchange in the transcript and posted it on the White House website. No hiding or backing away from it.

This is the age of engagement. Particularly via the tools of social media, no one can count on having full control over a conversation. Gone are the days of one-way communications when a leader or an organization can simply send out a release and assume that it will get attention without any realtime flack from detractors. Gone are the days of two-way communications, for that matter. Now communications is a multi-lateral exercise, a conversation in which you must participate without the expectation of controlling its direction and content.

True engagement means going into a communications interaction ready not just to speak, but to listen and respond, too. That would have been unthinkable 10 or 15 years ago. Today, it’s unthinkable to assume you can lob your message out there and that all will then be well.

I’m not saying that every unexpected twist in communications can or will go as well as it did for the President in this case. But good for him for having the presence of mind to turned what could have been bad news into an opportunity for, shall we say, a teachable moment. Having been interrupted and yelled at often during his tenure, he’s had a lot of good practice.

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