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From “What’s a Uighur?” to “Not my job,” the need for

Communications training is more pressing than ever

Maybe Francis Suarez was never going to be a legitimate presidential candidate. His candidacy, in fact, flickered and died after a few uneventful weeks. Well, not entirely uneventful. His brief foray into national electoral politics was marked by a classic gaffe that was breathtaking in its cluelessness. When asked by Hugh Hewitt, live on a podcast heard nationwide, if he’d be talking about the Uighurs during his campaign, Suarez cocked his head like a curious puppy and asked, “what’s a Uighur?” then followed up by asking for clarification with “what did you call them, weebles?”

The obvious problem is that anyone running for President of the United States needs to know about the plight of the Uighurs, a group of ethnic-minority Muslims routinely subjected to human rights abuses in their homeland in China. But Suarez’s bumble highlights the desperate, and largely unrecognized, need for proper communications training and how to mitigate the situations when faced with a question, in a live setting, that you have no idea how to answer.

Off the top of my head, how about this: “I will be talking about that, Hugh, but I’m going to give you some honesty first, something a lot of candidates don’t have the courage to do. I’m not well-versed enough at this point to speak intelligently on that subject. I have some homework to do, and I’m not going to risk misspeaking until I’ve adequately familiarized myself with the history and background there. In the meantime, I will be talking about what Americans families are talking about at their dinner tables every night. The prospects for good jobs, quality education for their kids, reliable healthcare and safe communities...” Not an ideal answer but there is no ideal answer when caught off guard and unprepared. It’s certainly light years better than “what’s a Uighur?”

Closer to home, I found myself at a networking lunch not long ago, seated next to a candidate for federal office here in Nevada. I decided to test him. “Let me ask you,” I said, “Where are you on education? I have a twelve-year old son in school in Las Vegas and I’m concerned about the education landscape here.” The candidate was very friendly, engaging, thanked me for my interest, and said “Well, I’m running for federal office and that’s not where education policy is made. You’d have to talk to your state representative.” Really?

Technically, he’s correct. Not the point, from a communications perspective. He had a curious voter in front of him, asking about an issue of personal importance, and the candidate replied, basically, “that’s not my job.” I ask again...really? How about at least stating your personal principles on the subject? “I’ll tell you this, we’ve got to restore discipline in the classroom, expand choices for parents, and reign in the teachers’ union. Now, I won’t be in a position to directly impact state education policy, but I can sure make my voice heard when I’m in office and those are the things I’ll be talking about.” Light years better than “not my job.”

The vast majority of political candidates put media training, speech coaching, and presentation training pretty low on their list of campaign priorities. Their loss. A well-trained candidate is far

less likely to be caught off guard and make a costly flub in front of a large crowd, a member of the media, or a single constituent approaching them in line at Starbucks. Proper training and communications strategy can make all the difference. Too bad more candidates don’t see it.