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Plumber Cracks

I was at a concert on Wednesday night when the third and final presidential debate transpired. I meant to record the event, but forgot and instead woke up a bit early on Thursday morning to read about it. Suddenly, I was flooded with stories about “Joe the Plumber.”

Samuel Joseph Wurzelbacher, or Joe, is a plumber in Holland, Ohio and the man of the hour at the moment. His 15 minutes of fame, however, may soon be up and it may end up costing him more than he ever imagined.

By now you’ve probably heard Joe’s story. He recently attended a rally for Senator Barack Obama and questioned the Democratic candidate about his tax plan. Joe said he wants to buy the business he works for and believes that Obama’s tax scheme would hurt him. Joe’s encounter with Obama was caught on video and is your typical “voter asks real question, candidate dances around the answer” exchange. During the debate, Senator John McCain repeatedly used Joe the Plumber as his poster child for attacking Obama’s tax strategy, turning Joe the Plumber into a campaign issue and a sought-after interviewee for the media.

There’s always more to the story, of course. Joe the Plumber owes the State of Ohio money for unpaid taxes. He’s also not licensed, something the Local 50 of the United Association of Plumbers, Steamfitters and Service Mechanics takes issue with (the union, by the way, supports Obama) and something that the City of Toledo, where Joe’s employer operates, likewise finds dismaying.

By the time the sun went down on Thursday, Joe the Plumber went from a small town guy trying to live the American dream to an unlicensed, non-union, non-tax-paying guy who drives a gas-guzzling SUV. In other words, Joe the Plumber is your typical American, regardless of which back story you find most appealing.

I certainly understand why McCain and his camp used the Joe the Plumber attack. Putting a name and face to an issue and throwing it back at your opponent is a tried and true campaign strategy (see Willie Horton and Michael Dukakis). Problems arise when the name and face don’t really match the story. This, in turn, can negate the positive impact of using that name and face. It also raises questions about the judgment of a candidate and his staff.

I’ve seen this happen before with a number of investor groups. They will publicly lobby for some sort of regulatory change or investigation, holding one or a few companies out as victims of hedge funds, the media or government bureaucracy. Nine times out of the ten the company ends up being a fraud, as financially unsteady as the critics say or deserving of regulators’ attention. The end result is that the group defending the company ends up losing all credibility.

Today’s 24/7 news cycle creates the Joe the Plumbers of the world. Joe the Plumber only exists because cameras were rolling when he spoke to Obama at the rally and that’s the only reason why the McCain campaign knew about the encounter. In earlier days, Joe the Plumber would have been hypothetical, or merely created by a campaign. In those days, when time moved slower, McCain’s campaign would have done its research and understood that you can’t champion someone who hasn’t paid his income tax bill.

The issues raised by McCain regarding the real and fictional Joe the Plumber are very important. Unfortunately, when you put a name and face to an issue and that person’s story doesn’t quite add up it can negate your argument. Whether that’s the end result of Joe the Plumber is yet to be seen, but in today’s media environment it’s just as likely people now know that Joe the Plumber owes taxes and is unlicensed as it is they know he may someday want to buy his employer’s business.

This article, written by Ben Silverman, originally appeared in PR Fuel (http://www.ereleases.com/prfuel), a free weekly newsletter from eReleases (http://www.ereleases.com), the online leader in affordable press release distribution. To subscribe to PR Fuel, visit: http://www.ereleases.com/prfuel/subscribe/.

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