Failure Friday: Beware when being a contrarian

When I was 25 years old, I thought I knew it all. I was a hotshot young political operative in Washington who had been given far more responsibility than someone with so little experience should ever possess.

During the 1998 election cycle, I worked for an organization that sought to promote the Republican agenda as we headed toward a mid-term election.

One of my jobs was to garner media attention for our efforts. We weren’t one of the official party voices, so we needed to work a little harder to attract interest from reporters and columnists.

As the director of this project, I had one constituent: the chairman and founder of the group.

We were a small shop. I had a couple of folks who worked for me, but we were very much a team designed to punch above our weight.

A key theme we tried to push was economic success — and the role the GOP congress had played in achieving it.

One day I was sitting at my desk and CNN was obsessed with a dip in the stock market that morning. It was enough to generate media attention, but nothing drastic.

I hopped right on it, writing up a press release touting stock market gains since the 1994 election — despite that morning’s dip.

The idea was to get into the news cycle by playing the contrarian. With everyone jumping on the “woe is the Dow” bandwagon, I figured we might get a mention as the other perspective. That’s often an effective strategy, especially in politics where reporters typically feel compelled to show both sides (or at least they used to).

Release done, we blasted it out via email and fax (yes, we still used faxes back then).

Unfortunately, the stock market kept sliding in the meantime. It ended being a pretty bad day for equities.

It also ended up being a pretty bad day for me.

As the downward momentum gathered, my boss (the group’s founder and chair) called me up to ask me what the hell I was thinking.

What had looked like a slightly contrarian view in the morning had turned into a foolish, head-in-the-sand perspective by the afternoon.

I think we did end up with at least one passing media mention — but it wasn’t for balance and it wasn’t flattering.

A few lessons I took from this failure:

  • Newsjacking can backfire — especially when you’re being a contrarian. Think about how the story might develop — and how that impacts your pitch.
  • Tying political fortunes to the stock market carries great risk.
  • When you’re 25, you don’t really know everything. Heck, I’m almost 45 now, and I still don’t know everything.
  • When you screw up, just take the beating from your boss/client. (I foolishly tried to justify my decision to send the release.)
  • Most professional mistakes are a bigger deal to you than anyone else. Within a couple of days, I was the only person still beating me up for the misstep.

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