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  • Writer's pictureBen Finzel

Communications Lessons from the Rise and Fall of Aaron Schock

Note: This post, written by Ben Finzel, originally appeared on PR Newser on March 18, 2015.

Separating the politics of the situation for a moment, let’s consider the communications lessons from the stunning rise and shattering fall of Congressman Aaron Schock. The fourth-term Congressman from Peoria (literally – you can’t make this stuff up) yesterday announced his resignation from Congress (effective March 31) after a six-week news cycle that churned out revelation after revelation about his allegedly profligate spending and suspect expense and reimbursement practices. The man once seen as an important part of the future of the Republican party was brought down to earth – much like the character Icarus of Greek mythology (to whom many, including my friend Jimmy Williams of Blue Nation Review, are comparing him) – by a combination of ego, vanity and cluelessness compounded by poor communications.

Understanding the role effective communications could have played in avoiding – or at least addressing – this imbroglio is helpful to considering other kinds of communications challenges. As with nearly everything in life, there are lessons to be learned from this rapid turnabout of events. For communicators and those who work with them, there are at least three lessons to consider: Substance matters. Clarity counts. Partnerships protect.

Here’s what I mean by that:

1) Substance matters. The news story – and it was a news story – that started the most recent chain of events was a Washington Post Style section profile of the Congressman’s new “Downton Abbey-“ themed office in Washington. For a young Congressman eager to make his mark, a profile piece in the Washington Post can be a huge boon. But only if it’s focused on substance – in this case, the whole piece focused on the rather odd fascination with a PBS television series and the use of taxpayer funds to decorate his congressional office. No substance on his legislative accomplishments, nothing about his views on the unique needs of constituents in his district. Just lots of column inches about red walls and ostrich feathers. For communicators, the lesson here is to focus on the substance of your communications, not the flash. (And I didn’t even mention the countless stories about the Congressman’s exotic travels and magazine-worthy physique).

2) Clarity counts. A clear message – based on truth and transparency – trumps almost everything. The Post reporter who penned the office redecoration story, Ben Terris, tweeted yesterday that he entered the office not wanting to write about it and left feeling that he had to write a story. The actors in this tragic play handed him the pen and gave him the poisoned words to write with it (including a series of offensive social media posts by the Congressman’s former Communications Director). Absent a clear, defined point of view about the office and their broader mission, the story became one of excess and profligacy. That doesn’t play well in Peoria, or anywhere else for that matter. For communicators, the lesson here is to develop a clear, consistent, truthful, transparent message that defines you and your point of view – and to stick to it.

3) Partnerships protect. John Dunne famously opined that “no man is an island.” That applies to communications as well. In the 21st century, we are all interconnected like never before. To be successful, we need to work with and for others – it’s not all about us. Rather, it’s about our engagement with the world around us, what we do for and with others, and how we collaborate and coexist. While it may be tempting to think that it’s easier to “go it alone” or will cause less commotion if we “stick to our knitting,” the best route is always the one that involves bringing others along with you and going along with them. While Schock was certainly well known – thanks to his now-famous Instagram account and numerous magazine covers and profile stories – he wasn’t really regarded as a leader or key player in legislative or policy initiatives. He spent more time burnishing his youthful “not a crusty old white guy” credentials than he did demonstrating his interest in effective legislative partnerships that produce real results for constituents. The lesson for communicators here is to spend the time and effort to develop genuine partnerships that can help keep you focused and that can do your talking for you: if you’re the only one with anything substantive to say about yourself, chances are that when you stumble, there will be no one there to catch you.

Effective communications isn’t always easy, but you can make it far simpler if you focus on the basic principles of communications: truth, clarity, engagement and collaboration. In the words of the African proverb “to go quickly, go alone; to go far, go together.” For his sake, let’s hope Mr. Schock learns these lessons and moves forward in a positive direction for his future. For everyone else, watch and learn.


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