“We’re gonna win the game. I guarantee it.” – Joe Namath, Miami Touchdown Club, January 9, 1969

“Broadway Joe” either had stones or as reported, he was intoxicated.

namath

His New York Jets were an 18-point underdog to the then-Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III.  According to conventional wisdom, an upstart AFL team could not beat the NFL champions. That perception obviously did not stop Namath from making his brash pronouncement. His coach Weeb Ewbank was less than pleased.

Three days later, Namath backed up his pronouncement with the game of his life as the Jets pulled off one of the biggest upsets, 16-7, in sports history. Namath was either lucky, good or both.

For mere public relations mortals representing sports teams, publicly traded companies and campaigning politicians, managing public expectations is a tricky inexact science. It requires the skillful and measured practice of public relations/investor relations particularly in the face of baiting reporters, editors and analysts who want to create an expectation that translates into juicy stories…particularly those on embarrassing projections that simply fail to match reality.

The day after President Barack Obama’s acceptance speech to the Democratic National Convention there seemed to be a letdown. For some reason the address did not meet Obamesque expectations. It was a solid speech, skillfully delivered and the audience urged him on. Many pundits were disappointed.

And yet…there was the anticipated post-convention bounce.

Is it time for President Obama to do his best Joe Namath imitation, be brash, be bold and guarantee a victory on November 6? He knows better, and his “handlers” know better. There is a political lifetime between now and then, including three presidential and one vice presidential debates.

The biggest hurdle is the management of expectations for these encounters. There is little dissent on the notion that the debates played a huge role in John F. Kennedy winning the presidency in 1960 and the one presidential encounter, “There you go again” and “Are you better off than you were four years ago?,”paved the way for the Ronald Reagan landslide 20 years later.

Twelve years ago, the political community was having a grand time making fun of George W. Bush’s “single-digit IQ.” Bush’s advisers were publicly laughing along with them, and at the same time praising the “carefully schooled and trained technique” of then-Vice President Al Gore.

George W. Bush, Al Gore

How could Bush possibly win? After all, Gore had debated 35 times during the past 12 years (e.g., Ross Perot). There was no contest, until there was a contest.

Bush’s team played down the governor’s abilities, while they lauded the vice president’s rhetorical skills. The goal in the expectations game was to lower the bar for Bush and make the same bar way too high for Gore.

If yours truly was advising Romney, I would counsel him to follow the George W. Bush “aw shucks” playbook (without saying “aw shucks”). Romney is seen as wooden and corporate. He should use this less-than-flattering perception to his advantage.

Conversely, Obama is regarded with good reason as a great orator and a superb debater. Romney is the underdog. Americans love to root for the underdog. Instead of “Rudy,” the Republicans will portray “Romney” on October 3. One trusts that Obama knows a trap when he sees one. Watch for his team to offer a modicum of respect to Romney’s presentation skills, citing the plethora of Republican debates in 2011 and earlier this year.

Playing the expectations game does not just apply to Super Bowls or presidential debates, it also manifests itself in setting the table for investors, analysts and employees. How many times have you witnessed publicly traded companies exceed Wall Street profitability expectations by just one-cent per share? For the longest time, CEO John Chambers of networking gear supplier Cisco Systems exceeded the Street for a series of one-cent bottom line victories quarter-after-quarter.

This success did not occur by magic or accident. Company public relations gurus spend twice as much time setting expectations in a company’s “business outlook” section of a 10Q quarterly earnings release as they do in preparing the actual quarterly results. Think of it this way, meeting and (better yet) exceeding the expectations of Wall Street is a “good thing” in the words of Martha Stewart. Undercutting the expectations of the sell-side analyst types is the PR equivalent of stepping on a rattlesnake: the fangs strike the body and the poison is injected in the form of an almost certain downgrade and stock sell off.

Joe Namath would have looked downright foolish, if the Colts had blown out the Jets in Super Bowl III. It all worked out for Broadway Joe. Sometimes you can win in Las Vegas by betting big. Most of the time you just lose the shirt off your back for failing at the expectations game.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Super_Bowl_III

http://thehill.com/homenews/campaign/248373-debates-obama-romney-face-to-face-seeking-knockout-blow

http://www.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,56496,00.html

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