Lesson From the Clint Eastwood Debacle: Control Your Speakers

Last night’s Clint Eastwood debacle at the Republican convention points to an imperative for anyone planning a conference or convention: control your message, control your speakers.

It’s a difficult job and the convention planners and Romney’s staff either didn’t take it seriously or tried and failed.

And it wasn’t just Eastwood that was a problem. Chris Christie’s performance was widely criticized as well. His was the keynote speech and his responsibility was to set the tone for the event and make the case for Romney. He may have done all right on the first one, but he botched the second.

To many it sounded instead like Christie was announcing his own campaign for 2016. It took him 17 minutes to even say the word “Romney.” He eventually name-checked Romney 7 times, but he said “I” 37 times.

Like I said, wrangling speakers is a tough job. I’ve worked on lots of conferences, and getting executives, CEOs and outside speakers all on the same page is tough work. Essentially, the whole event should be regarded as one big speech, with each presenter contributing a distinct part of the message.

That can be difficult when you’re dealing with big personalities and egos. These people don’t like to be “handled.” They’re deliberately hard to get ahold of in advance and when you do get some time with them and try to give them the big picture and help them understand their role in it, you can easily spot those who are just patronizing you — nodding their heads and saying, “Yeah, yeah — I got it.”

And good luck trying to get an advance copy of their remarks.

Even if you do all that, what’s to stop them from going off the reservation?

So those are the challenges the convention planners likely faced. And they’re daunting ones. But in the famous words of the candidate, Romney’s “running for president, for Pete’s sake.” If he wins, this is the guy facing off against Putin and Ahmadinejad.

Sometimes you have to use the authority of the person in charge to get what you want from your speakers. It may even mean going around staff andĀ getting the principals personally involved, sitting down face-to-face, with your guy saying, “This is important. Here’s what I need from you.”

Otherwise, your months of meticulous planning are all for naught. Because at these events, in the absence of a true knockout moment, it’s the unscripted flubs that people really remember. On CBS This Morning, Frank Luntz said, “By this weekend we won’t be hearing anything about Clint Eastwood.”

Yeah, good luck with that.

UPDATE:

Two interesting behind-the-scenes accounts that confirm the difficulty of pinning down VIP speakers. Also, another lesson: if you hire a maverick, be prepared to live with his mavericky tendencies.

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