Every August, millions of Americans take vacations. And every year, the most powerful of them, their president, takes a lot of heat just for taking his—and also for where he goes. Powerful business executives, too, take hits for their choice and length of retreat.
The American model of employment has vacations built in (generally two weeks, which much of the world can’t believe is so stingy, although senior leaders get more, which we rarely take and consider that business as usual—because how could we with so much going on and no place to hide in our entirely transparent working lives?). Countless studies have proved the health and productivity benefits of time off, but it doesn’t change the pressures surrounding any of us in an always-on culture.
Take the most scrutinized man on the planet. People still believe that the American president should never take a break to recharge or spend time with his family. Never mind that even when President Obama goes on vacation, he remains connected to world affairs, briefed by aides and able to respond if needed—even returning to Washington this summer for a day and a half of meetings. There’s an expectation that he remain physically in the office, in full work mode, trying to solve crises that are far bigger than any one person.
His choice of destination, though, has been detrimental to his brand. Unlike most Americans, he can go to Hawaii while avoiding accusations of snobbery because he’s just visiting his childhood home. But his usual summer escape, the wealthy, exclusive island of Martha’s Vineyard, has had a harmful impact on his brand.
Yet he keeps going, even though the damage has only been getting worse since Politico called him out on it three years ago, quoting a Republican strategist who said, “Images of Obama fundraising, golfing and on vacation—especially in such a well-heeled location—undercut his message that the economy is his ‘singular focus.’… Even The Washington Post’s liberal opinion writer Colbert I. King opined last weekend that ‘this is no time for a president to dwell in splendid seclusion among the rich and famous. No, Mr. President, Martha’s Vineyard is the last place in the world you should visit next week.’”
The Obamas have persisted in their Vineyard tradition, even while opening their brand to more and more scorn. The New York Times’ Maureen Dowd was especially vicious during his trip this month, in a satirical “Golf Address” written mockingly in the president’s voice. It began:
FORE! Score? And seven trillion rounds ago, our forecaddies brought forth on this continent a new playground, conceived by Robert Trent Jones, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal when it comes to spending as much time on the links as possible—even when it seems totally inappropriate, like moments after making a solemn statement condemning the grisly murder of a 40-year-old American journalist beheaded by ISIL.
From there it went only downhill, saying, “Hillary and I agreed when we partied with Vernon Jordan up here, hanging out with celebrities and rich folks is fun.” It said the reason he hasn’t traveled to Ferguson, Mo., is the town’s lack of a golf course. And it had the president asking, “So how can you blame me for wanting to unwind on the course or for five hours at dinner with my former assistant chef? He’s a great organic cook, and he’s got a gluten-free backyard putting green.”
The column elicited the usual response from the Dowd haters and the Obama haters, but several of the 1,000-plus comments offered real insight into the collateral damage to Brand Obama.
Wrote one reader: “Obama doesn’t seem to care about the image he is projecting. It seems that he has given up, that all the problems in the world are distractions in the way of what he likes to do, which is fundraise, delegate responsibilities and schmooze with people he likes.”
Another revoiced the Politico out-of-touch argument: “I just really wish the president would find another place to vacation that hedge funders haven’t grabbed away from the middle class like they did Martha’s Vineyard. Go someplace else to golf, somewhere that isn’t riddled with rich people. A place where he could meet ‘ordinary folks’ that he’s supposed to be representing.”
Even Obama supporters chimed in (yes, the column was tongue in cheek, but it still ended up reposted on good liberal Facebook pages everywhere). Some suggested that if the president doesn’t want to give up going to the Vineyard, maybe at least he could invite our soldiers to share some respite.
Of course, for plenty of others—those hedge funders, for example, and families who want to show off their pedigree—that same vacation could be a brand enhancer. The truth is, we judge each other on where we go. The bragging rights (or ability) to get away to a particular destination, say, the Hamptons or St. Barts, help build a brand and cement a status.
You prove you’ve made it by taking vacations (conversely, going nowhere for vacation can translate to being seen going nowhere in life). But you also expose your proclivities and open yourself up to criticism from people who don’t share your affinity for your vacation choice, whether it’s seen as too close to home or overly lavish or adventurous. Richard Branson’s brand appeal revolves around his bankrolling luxurious adventures for himself, but for many others it’s dangerous.
The New York Times recently ran a less-than-complimentary trend piece about Silicon Valley billionaires—Page, Brin, Bezos, Zuckerberg, et al—overtaking the notoriously hippie-ish Burning Man every August in the Nevada desert. It has become, the Times wrote, “the annual getaway for a new crop of millionaire and billionaire technology moguls, many of whom are one-upping one another in a secret game of I-can-spend-more-money-than-you-can and, some say, ruining it for everyone else.”
No wonder many other high-level executives in less flamboyant fields don’t want to be seen on vacation at all. Last week, The Wall Street Journal set out to explain “Why CEOs Loathe Vacation.” It said: “Though a few CEOs praise the restorative effects of a few days off the grid, many would sooner cancel a planned getaway than risk appearing out of touch.”
Its examples included April Todd-Malmlov, the former head of Minnesota’s health-insurance exchange. She resigned last December after political opponents chastised her for taking a long-planned two-week trip to Costa Rica (even though her staff said they were prepared), saying, in the words of The Journal, “it was irresponsible of her to take a vacation as technical issues roiled the website.” Another example: Richard Torrenzano, CEO of crisis-communications consultancy the Torrenzano Group, who has made such a point of appearing available to clients like MetLife and Morgan Stanley that he outfitted his 60-foot sailboat with a special antenna to make sure he stays connected to his New York office. He even once put a plastic bag over his iPhone in eight-foot storm swells to make sure the water didn’t shut down his call.
That sounds like good branding for someone in crisis communications: mastering an unpredictable and dangerous sport, showing a low taste for luxury, and going above and beyond to stay connected no matter what happens. For those of us in less daredevil fields, the rules of vacation branding are far less clear.
But one thing I do know is that I made a deal a long time ago to enjoy the fruits of always-on. With that deal comes a pact to never lose cell reception. So if you send me an email or call me even when I’m off, I’m likely to be back at you in a blink and a half, because vacation means better scenery but no rest for the weary. Welcome to the new normal, I guess.