Can Harold Ford Jr. Overcome His Bad First Impression?

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Photo: Chris Hondros/Getty Images

Harold Ford Jr. was a virtual unknown to New Yorkers before his pseudo-campaign began in early January, which means the voting citizens of New York have been forming their first impressions of him over these past six or so weeks. As everyone knows, first impressions are vital in determining how a person is viewed, something studies have confirmed. "If you get off on the wrong foot, the relationship may never be completely right again," researcher Robert Lount of Ohio State University's Fisher College of Business said in 2009 after conducting a study on bad first impressions. After a negative first impression, "a lot of times people end up writing people off." That's not good news for Ford, who’s faced media scrutiny that portrays him, variously, as a carpetbagger from Tennessee, a wealthy elitist, and a man with fluid positions on gay marriage and abortion. So as his deadline for finally making a decision about whether to run fast approaches (Sunday! Supposedly!), we wonder: Is it already too late for him? What can he do to make a new impression?

For this, we turned to Dr. Ann Demarais, who, quite appropriately for the purposes of this piece, is the founder and president of First Impressions, an executive coaching agency, and the author of the book First Impressions: What You Don’t Know About How Others See You. In other words, she knows a lot about first impressions.

It'll be a "challenge" for Ford to overcome what was a "pretty bad impression," Demarias says. But Ford is, in fact, already working on some of the things Demarias suggests for him. To rebut the flip-flopper charge, Ford has been explaining why and how his positions have evolved — on gay marriage, for example. To counteract accusations of carpetbaggery, he's been traveling around the state and attempting to show real concern for New York issues.

In other areas, however, Ford has been lacking so far. He could especially use some flashes of humility to thwart his reputation as a snooty bank executive (not easy when you're making at least $2 million a year at Merrill Lynch). "What Ford could do is show some kind of crafted modesty, admit some small foibles, or have some kind of self-deprecation," Demarias says. "It’s more humanizing."

Overall, he also needs to work harder to get more positive coverage for himself, which will, over time, "tip the scales" away from the poor first impression he gave New Yorkers. Unfortunately, that may not be easy, since people have a bias for negative news, especially for someone they already have a negative impression of. A disastrous appearance with the Stonewall Democrats, for example, gets more attention than one of his many entirely pleasant "listening stops" at upstate dining establishments. "He has to have something that’s powerful going on up there that actually gets some press, more than just some ordinary ho-hum event," she says.

So, all in all, Ford has the ability to mount an image makeover? "I’m personally not convinced that he’ll be able to," Demarias says.

The third paragraph has been updated for clarity.