Communication lessons from John McCain, an American ‘maverick’

PR pros can draw insights from the U.S. senator and Vietnam War veteran, who died Saturday. His laconic style made him a formidable political foe, but his words could inspire, too.

Comms lessons from John McCain

Mourners might not remember John McCain primarily as a communicator.

He was a loyal public servant, the 2008 Republican nominee for president, a six-term senator for Arizona, a fighter pilot who spent more than five years as a POW in North Vietnam, and a “maverick” of American politics.

He wasn’t a renowned orator like Presidents John Kennedy and Barack Obama, nor friendly and folksy, like Presidents George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan.

His was the laconic speech of warriors, a prickly delivery that could be humorous and biting—and highly effective.

Here are some lessons for communicators from a singular American leader:

1. Show respect for your opponents.

McCain was careful to avoid the more toxic rhetoric surrounding Obama, his Democratic opponent in the 2008 presidential campaign. McCain famously rebuffed a woman at a town hall event when she called the democratic hopeful an “Arab” and described him as untrustworthy.

NPR remembered:

McCain started shaking his head before she even finished her question, taking the microphone and pushing back emphatically on her incorrect statement.”No ma’am,” McCain said. “He’s a decent family man, citizen, that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues, and that’s what this campaign is all about. He’s not.”

On Twitter, some remembered the warm words he had for his political rival:

Communicators can take note: Even if you disagree with someone, that doesn’t mean you should disparage them. Amid what many see as a uniquely divided time in U.S. politics, many are remembering the senator’s bipartisanship with fondness and admiration.

2. A few words can suffice.

McCain was one of the last true masters of the understatement, the ability to paint a vivid picture with words left unsaid as much as the few that tumbled out. Friends and colleagues remembered their interactions with the man of action and noted his often terse phrasing.

Longtime aide Mark Salter remembered in The Washington Post:

When he said to the Myanmar political prisoner, or the harassed Belarusan dissident, or the Ukrainian captive, “I know a little of what you’ve suffered,” it needed no elaboration. He was in league with them — united by suffering, endurance and the knowledge that the most marvelous of human achievements is to not lose hope when experience has taught you hope is for fools.

On Twitter, those who had worked with him remembered his fiery rhetoric:

3. Be honest about your shortcomings.

McCain earned a reputation for “straight talk” by speaking plainly about his failures and admitting his mistakes. In hindsight he would describe some of his political moves as detrimental or wrongheaded.

The New York Times remembered this moment from the 2000 Republican presidential primary:

Mr. McCain later said he regretted calling a Confederate flag on the State Capitol in Columbia a “symbol of heritage.” Civil rights groups had denounced it as a symbol of slavery and oppression of African-Americans. “I feared that if I answered honestly, I could not win the South Carolina primary,” Mr. McCain admitted.Mr. Bush won the primary and the nomination, and narrowly defeated the Democrat, Vice President Gore, in the general election.

4. Don’t attack members of the press.

Despite others’ willingness in U.S. politics to lash out at journalists, McCain refrained from attacking media outlets or individual reporters.

NPR wrote:

McCain never really slammed the press in the way that Trump revels in. Sure, he may have given plenty of reporters a hard time, but in the wake of his death, countless journalists recalled how he would still gladly speak to them, give a quote and even sometimes apologize if he had hassled them wrongly about a story.McCain may have been one of the last presidential candidates to give reporters largely unfettered access to him with regularity. There were no cries of “fake news” or “enemy of the people.”

In a February 2017 interview on NBC’s Meet The Press, less than a month after Trump was sworn in and was hurling invectives at reporters on Twitter, McCain told host Chuck Todd, with a glint in his eye, “I hate the press. I hate you, especially, but the fact is we need you. We need a free press.”

5. Honor your duty.

In his commencement address to the U.S. Naval Academy Class of 1993, McCain spoke about heroism and honor. His poignant and stirring final words were about duty.

The New York Times reported:

“I have spent time in the company of heroes,” he said. “I have watched men suffer the anguish of imprisonment, defy appalling cruelty until further resistance is impossible, break for a moment, then recover inhuman strength to defy their enemies once more. All these things and more I have seen. And so will you. I will go to my grave in gratitude to my Creator for allowing me to stand witness to such courage and honor. And so will you.“My time is slipping by. Yours is fast approaching. You will know where your duty lies. You will know.”

What do you remember about the late senator and American hero?

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