For two years, Sarah Palin has built the country’s leading political brand using YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Fox News and reality TV.
On Wednesday, Brand Palin took a hit.
In a video statement meant to express sympathy over the shooting of Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, the former Alaska governor misstepped badly — and uncharacteristically — accusing journalists and pundits of manufacturing “a blood libel that only serves only to incite the very hatred and violence they purport to condemn.”
The video statement – with tens of thousands of views on YouTube — set off a firestorm of criticism from those who who labeled Palin everything from "irresponsible" to "anti-Semitic."
It was a rare misfire from one of the savviest figures on the media or political landscape.
Indeed, crisis management and brand experts said that instead of coming across as a genuine expression of concern and shock, Palin’s seven-and a-half-minute address was a political barnstormer that could turn off a broad segment of the electorate.
“I would give it a C-minus,” Bruce Bonafede, a consultant with Bernstein Crisis Management, told TheWrap. “She took what should have been an expression of empathy and turned it into an opportunity to grandstand.”
Facing an avalanche of bad publicity in the wake of Giffords’ shooting, Palin tried to shift the conversation from a debate over fiery political rhetoric that had created an atmosphere of violence to her own treatment by the big bad “media elite.”
Sadly for the putative head of Tea Party America, her video was a public-relations disaster on almost every level.
At risk is not only the former Alaska governor’s presidential aspirations, but also the multi-million-dollar industry she has established around her “Mama Grizzly” persona. A one-woman media empire that rests on a lucrative web of book deals, speaking engagements and TV appearances.
Until now, she has been "one of the smartest brands in the political arena,” Laurence Barton, author of “Crisis Leadership Now,” told TheWrap. A best-selling author, the star of her own TLC show, she has, Barton said, "played the news media like a violin.”
And not just the news media.
With an eye toward charming the broad swath of the country still immune to her folksy appeal, Palin has of late successfully softened her once attack-dog image.
The former governor has shifted the emphasis from hot-button political issues to scenes of her brood traipsing though the Alaskan wilderness. She has popped up nearly as frequently in the audience of “Dancing With the Stars” — where she cheered on daughter Bristol — as she has at Tea Party rallies.
Even the title of her latest book “America by Heart” and the gauzy head shot on its cover, represents a less confrontational Sarah than the one used to hawk “Going Rogue.”
Those efforts took a hit in the uproar over Wednesday’s statement.
“There are two brands when it comes to Sarah Palin — one for her base and one for the rest of the country. The one for the rest of the country is hopelessly compromised, and this just seals that,” Raphael Sonenshein, professor of political science at California State University, Fullerton, told TheWrap.
Never mind her still hazy political aspirations, the cost of getting it wrong could be millions of dollars in lost book sales and speaking gigs. At mid-point of last year, conservative estimates put Palin’s earnings at $12 million since she resigned as Alaska governor in July 2009.
She pulls in a reported $250,000 for every episode of her highly rated TLC series “Sarah Palin’s Alaska” and charges as much as $100,000 a political speech. Add to that, the $7 million check she received for “Going Rogue” and Palin comes off less as a political pundit than a one-woman media empire.
And the money has only continued to pile up. Left out of that $12 million figure is Palin’s paycheck for her second book “America By Heart” and her salary as a consultant for Fox News.
True, Palin loyalists aren’t going anywhere. “That 20 to 25 percent of the electorate that is behind her, they’ll stick with her no matter what happens to the brand,” Lynn Vavreck, a professor of political science at University of California, Los Angeles, told TheWrap.
And it might not have been fair to cast blame for Giffords' shooting on Palin’s use of crosshairs in a campaign graphic or her exhortations that supporters should “regroup and reload.”
That said, Palin’s effort to shift the focus to the media coverage of her struck many commentators as lead-footed and overly combative.
“As a leading political figure, she can express concern, but she has to be careful that she doesn’t validate the criticism that her type of politics contributed to this,” Barton said.
Palin’s speech also managed to introduce a new source of controversy over her use of the term “blood libel” — a phrase that has been connected to anti-Semitism.
“When something of this level of tragedy occurs, the audience is not looking for provocative language such as the use of the term 'blood libel,'” Bonafede said. “Any speechwriter worth his salt could tell her that was going to provoke. It was foolish and counterproductive, and accomplished exactly the opposite of what it needed to.”
In the wake of the latest media firestorm, many political analysts were questioning if Palin shouldn’t have simply stuck to the tweets and her website's generic statement of shock over the Arizona shooting.
“She should let others defend her and keep quiet for a while,” John Feehery, a Republican political consultant and the president of Quinn Gillespie Communications, wrote in an email message to TheWrap.
Part of the problem was that her defensiveness — a character trait that could also be detected in her charges that her disastrous prime-time interview with Katie Couric was not a case of flop sweat, but evidence of liberal media bias — was not the mark of a true leader.
Even more worrisome, both the Arizona murders and Palin’s reaction to the tragedy, seemed to expose the darker side of her brand’s appeal to anti-Establishment factions of the country.
“She does embody that unrest, and the problem is that you can’t always control where that goes,” Michael Kassan, a brand and media expert and the chief executive officer of Medialink, told TheWrap.
“The negativity she espouses and the manner in which she does that, the way others manifest, that is the problem.”