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Terry Prone: Where it all went wrong

Today is the beginning of the rest of David Norris's life. A life surrounded by fewer microphones, but greater sympathy.

Because that's what happens when someone has been forced to abandon a dream and beat a public retreat: people reach out to give them a hand up and tell them they didn't deserve it. Not really.

The fact is that Norris's hopes have come to a sad, if dignified, end, not just because of a letter he should never have written, but also because of a series of critical communications errors made from the beginning of his campaign.

1: He believed in his own publicity

It wasn't hard. He was in much demand. Always. For good reasons.

Every PR company doing a charity photo opportunity wanted him and most of them got him, because his commitment to charity was enormous.

He'd bring the boater hat if asked, swing from the rafters if instructed. He was in constant demand as an after-dinner speaker.

A radio station gave him his own programme. It must have felt wonderful. But what Norris never realised is that Ireland always has a pet maverick, and he was top of that list.

However, while it's easy to love an over-the-top personality who doesn't fit in the mainstream, it's not easy to elect him to the most constrained role in Irish public life.

2: He picked a team of like-minded people

Easy but bad mistake. He needed sceptics. People who could anticipate and cope with attack.

3: The 'No Surprises' rule was broken

Campaigns come adrift because someone produces a stinker the candidate had forgotten or hoped nobody knew about.

That's why a crucial early step in the Norris campaign should have been digging for dirt. Finding skeletons in cupboards. Identifying the worst thing that can be thrown in the campaign before it gets thrown.

It would have made sense, for example, to find a retired detective garda, ideally one who'd been involved in the vetting of people for employment, and get him to probe the candidate's past for anything and everything that might be thrown in the course of the campaign.

Once you know the worst, you can assess whether your candidacy can survive it. If you believe it can, you take the sting out of the bee early on, by outing everything negative and removing the possibility of negative surprises.

4: Talking too much

Norris is a great talker. But anybody seeking high office needs two other communication skills. The capacity to be silent. The capacity to listen. This candidate's campaign was holed below the waterline 10 years before it started, when he had dinner with Helen Lucy Burke.

If he had listened to the topics he now says were raised by her, he would have decided that these topics stereotyped him into a man defined by his sexuality and scholarship.

Instead, he talked and talked.

5: Managing the Esra Letter

If, as has been claimed, the Norris campaign was modelled on that of Barack Obama, one of his team, trawling Twitter, political websites and blogs, would have picked up on the fact that someone had knowledge of the letter and was prepared to share that knowledge. In which case Norris could have come out, all guns blazing, apologising for the letter, stating (as he did yesterday) that his former partner had committed a crime. He could have alerted supporters and potential supporters in advance of it being published.

None of this was done, and the controversy uncurled like a boa constrictor, wrapped itself around him, and crushed his dream.


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