On September 11th, Hillary Clinton, her Republican opponent Donald Trump, President Obama and a host of other dignitaries were in downtown New York at the site of where the World Trade Center once stood to commemorate the 15th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Depending on who (and whose campaign) you ask, early in the ceremony, Clinton felt ill and woozy and decided to forgo the rest of the observance and convalesce at home. She and her staff eased out of the ceremony and waited for her assigned vehicle to whisk her off to someplace where she could lie down for a bit and recoup.
The remainder of this story is probably going to be studied in political science and communications classes for generations to come...
When Clinton and her team left the 9/11 ceremony, they left the press in the dust and in the dark. For over 90 minutes, the press had no idea what happened, where she was or where she was going. For a group of journalists whose sole professional purpose for the next two months is to know exactly what is happening with the candidate they are assigned to, where they are and where they are going, this was panic time. This was not just an issue of prying eyes, for reporters this was the ultimate job performance evaluation. And they could not fail this close to one of the most jaw-droppingly watchable and bizarre elections in recent American memory.
Once Clinton’s vehicle pulled up, she woozily struggled to get from the curb into the car, appearing to collapse before her team pulled her into the car before hastily closing the doors and whisking her off to an undisclosed destination.
For the Clinton PR team this was an optics crisis. They could not have the first female nominee for President of a major party looking weak and unable to stand up to the rigors of campaigning―-or the presidency. They had to get her out of there, quickly and with as few people outside of the Clintonian bubble knowing or worse, seeing what was going on.
Clinton’s PR campaign team went into overdrive, erring on the side of misinformation to assure the public that nothing was wrong. Nick Merrill, a Clinton campaign representative said that Clinton was simply “overheated” in the hot weather. There was only one problem with that statement. It wasn’t that hot. Ironically, after a stifling heatwave that lasted weeks, September 11th was the first day of sub-80 degree temperature. The humidity was low as well that day, and there was an 11 mph breeze.
Something wasn’t adding up. And things were about to get worse. Much worse.
Besides this very bizarre explanation that could not stand up to the 11 mph breeze they had failed to consider when they crafted this sea yarn, the Clinton team failed to consider that in this day and age, literally everyone is a potential reporter. Every single, solitary person with a smartphone, tablet or the ability to borrow one has to the potential to break a story and break a campaign. A bystander captured the whole episode on his mobile phone featuring an unwell Clinton leaning on a barrier for support and then taking the few beleaguered steps to the vehicle before she collapsed into the arms of her handlers.
With the press already worked up into a frustrated lather because of 90-plus minutes without access to the candidate or any knowledge of her whereabouts, the story skyrocketed into what could only be described as a feeding frenzy. The sad video played over and over on every channel. The mainstream press, still fuming that the Clinton campaign had had them in an unexplained information blackout, were not feeling generous enough to provide her with cover. They were learning about the story at the same time as the rest of us, and in some cases, hours after.
Suddenly, everyone with an internet connection was a self-appointed neurologist diagnosing Clinton from the 20 second video. There had been longtime rumors about Clinton’s health, picking up steam in recent weeks due to some protracted coughing fits on the campaign trail. Most of the mainstream press dismissed these concerns as rumors steeped in sexism. This incident only served to confirm two main suspicions that many voters already had: (a) Clinton was secretly gravely ill with a disease that should disqualify her from the presidency and/or (b) the press has been covering it up and demonizing everyone who raised questions about her health because they’re in the tank for her.
A few hours after the incident, a fresh Clinton emerged from her daughter Chelsea’s Manhattan apartment appearing none the worse for wear, brightly declaring that it was “a beautiful day in New York!” There was even a staged photo op with a young girl who ran up to Clinton and gave her a hug. Clinton then, on her own steam, got into her vehicle and headed to her home in Chappaqua, New York to convalesce for the next few days.
Later that same day when the video of Clinton’s fall and the illness theorists threatened to break the internet and the airwaves, the Clinton team came out with another explanation for episode. Her doctor said Clinton had been diagnosed with pneumonia a few days earlier and the illness and fainting were the result of her gamely trying to “power through” her illness.
But the damage was done. After the inconsistencies about the weather, her illness and the odd phenomenon of Clinton not going to a hospital after such an alarming medical emergency, it only served to fuel the rumors. It also took the onus off of Trump and his everything-phobic campaign. And in a final cruel ironic twist, Trump wished her well and stayed out of the fray. Nary a tweet. Very odd and for tweet-happy Trump and his team. It’s the only time that Trump has had the discipline to stay on message, and unfortunately for Clinton and her team, his maturation as a candidate happened at precisely the worst time.
Four days later, the main news story in the country is still that awful video.
How did Clinton’s team walk into this one? Backward no less?
Firstly, for a candidate like Clinton whose main problem with voters is trustworthiness, lying to potential voters who might have been on the fence only served to turn them off. It baked in what was already voters’ primary concern about her. A recent CNN/ORC poll found that only 35 percent of voters think Clinton is trustworthy, compared with 50 percent that believe Trump is trustworthy. That is a whopping 15-point difference.
Who hasn’t lied about feeling well, especially when the stakes are this high? But when you’ve got a candidate who struggles in precisely in the area of perceived trustworthiness, Clinton’s team would have done better to get out in front with a more believable story rather than one about heat exhaustion on a breezy day at 9:30 am, long before the sun has made a full appearance. Not only is the story untrue, but more importantly for the campaign, it’s obviously untrue. Moreover, it’s an insult to voters’ intelligence, and two things American voters do NOT like is to be lied to or treated as if they are “less than” by the political elite, especially when it comes to intelligence. Clinton’s team, in one ill-advised statement about “heat” felling Clinton on a day that wasn’t hot at all managed to do both. The cringeworthy, cynical photo op with the young girl didn’t help either.
Secondly, the Clinton campaign, though replete with young, bright eyed millennials, approached the “press management” part of this crisis as if was 1996 rather than 2016. In 1996, when Bill Clinton was running for his second term, he didn’t have millions of citizens who were armed with smartphones and a Twitter account looking for any opportunity to post something scathing, embarrassing, revealing or all three. From the crafting and delivery of the official statements concerning Hillary’s health from the Clinton team, it’s clear they were, at least in this case, operating on an old model where cultivating relationships with media elites and transmitting messages through them were enough to quell public concern and interest about a bubbling story. They did not adequately consider that there is the “traditional media’ and then there is “social media.” And in this election, especially for breaking stories like this one, social media is infinitely more persuasive, judgmental and dangerous. Hillary’s team should have assumed someone would have caught this on video, or at least operate as if that was the case. If not, great, the fates smiled down on the campaign, but if so, at the very least be prepared.
So now, the internet conspiracy theorists, self-styled neurologists and “sickologists” are vindicated and in full flight. To them, the press was complicit in, up until September 11th when video evidence forced otherwise, hiding what is a grave disease that precludes Hillary Clinton from serving as President. The latest and most far-fetched story is that she using a body double for public appearances while she’s hospitalized.
To moderates already unsure about their Clinton vote, they’ve got a recent and very public example of why she is not trustworthy. The story is now about Clinton being both morally and physically unfit, more than it is about Trump being reckless, offensive and a menace to world peace. The stumbles of the Clinton PR team have given these stories staying power and “sicknificance.” That’s not a winning situation for her.
Is this irreparable? I don’t think so, but I dare not prognosticate, because nothing about this election cycle has been predictable. But I do think it sticks in the minds of voters until something else happens to dislodge it. But what I do know is that the Clinton team should never let this kind of PR nightmare spiral out of their control again or they’ll certainly be eating unsalted crow this November.
Dr.Tricia Callender, Ph.D is the President and CEO of Spanner Strategies, LLC, a digital campaign strategy firm with offices in New York and Johannesburg, South Africa. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.