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Digital technology and new media permanently changed the dynamics of international relationships. Here are some of the realities:

  • Suddenly anyone with a laptop could do business with anyone else in the world.
  • A global economy quickly evolved as a result of rapidly developing technology… revealing countries where labor is cheap.
  • Businesses began to plan their growth beyond their national borders.
  • Most industries that leave their towns will not find it economical to return.
  • Thus, people lost their jobs. Globalization failed them. And they were also forgotten in Washington.
  • Trump promised them jobs, healthcare, and more. So they became his base.
  • But his promises cannot be kept. Updated training and education are the only solutions.
  • Many corporations have been operating beyond national borders for years. They see themselves as above any one government.
  • Thus, nations now shape their foreign policies to operate in an already interconnected global economy.
  • Clear national identities require constantly repeated simple messages. But in the final analysis, a nation’s identity is what is perceived by other nations and people.
  • And the behavior of partners and allies either reinforce or undermine that identity.
  • Foreign policy understanding requires government officials to speak from the same page. The larger the government, the more complicated this becomes.
  • Diplomacy is defined as nation-to-nation communication and is conducted by departments of state through embassies.
  • Public diplomacy is defined as people-to-people and government-to-people communication and is conducted by departments of state, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), various associations, educational institutions, and citizen travelers.
  • Digital technology and new media could enhance global understanding. But so far they have mostly magnified differences. Anger around the world seems to be increasing.
  • Question One: Can the current rapid expansion of international education, cross-cultural people exchanges, and overall foreign travel, eventually produce a more peaceful world?
  • Question Two: Is there a leader somewhere out there capable of bringing the heads of influential nations together under one common cause… freedom and justice?
  • Question Three: Maybe the next American president?

Was the funeral service for Bush 41 in Washington the relic of a time gone by, or was it a reminder of the complexities and necessities of true public service leadership?

In other words, will our current president still think he was elected to change all of this by any means possible? Or, did seating him next to the other four living presidents make a statement that could lead to constructive change?

We now live in a politically polarized and divided nation. Even as this evolved, Bush 41 clearly preferred bipartisan problem-solving. Newt Gingrich was railroading Republicans into a totally partisan, hard-line conservative, combative, party. His aggression eventually morphed into Tea Party extremism, which laid the foundation for Trump’s victory. But even in a polarized environment, Bush was able to pass clean air, disability, civil rights, and other domestic legislation. Gingrich’s idea was to focus mostly on defeating the democrats. Bush’s was to find constructive ways to get things done.

Bush’s view of “America first” meant putting world peace first too. He combined quiet persistence with skillful diplomacy to negotiate the end of the cold war and the reunification of Germany. Both easily could have backfired into chaos. Pulling it off was a huge achievement. But he never bragged about it. He was not an “it’s about me” leader. He gave credit to others. For him, it was the American people who won the cold war.

Bush wanted everyone to think public service. He coined the phrase “1000 points of light,” setting the stage for an organization of volunteers serving others. Bush 43 later tried to float the idea of “compassionate conservatism” in his campaign. It didn’t stick. But it did stick as a theme for the entire Bush family.

I have been teaching a class about media and social change, and this week we discussed institutional leadership. I asked for thoughts about lessons they learned from Bush. They all agreed: Lead with a good measure of humility. Recruit a staff of highly experienced experts. Listen actively, and do things to make sure they enjoy working together.

It’s interesting that the deaths of John McCain and Bush 41, both Republicans, came so close together. Both showed courage in war. Both were competitive campaigners. Both preferred bipartisanship to gridlock. Both were remembered as compassionate. And both were contrasts to the Trump administration.

Morning Joe co-host Joe Scarborough noted that, unlike others, Bush 41 felt no need to write a book about his presidency. He was simply content to have historians judge his value. My bet is that Bush will do well with historians… and will also become our “back to the future,” road map for electing only experienced, informed, decent, truthful, and public service-minded politicians.

Recent media revolutions gave leaders powerful new media tools. Businesses, social services, NGOs, museums, arts organizations, universities, schools, governments, and causes everywhere, all can now reach their audiences directly and powerfully. But these same revolutions also changed how their audiences receive information, making successful communication even more complicated.

So with chaos and division continuing in American society, I decided it is time to review some of the communication challenges today’s leaders are facing:

  • Communication break down is inevitable. People simply hear what they want.
  • There are new and powerful media tools available, but choosing the best ones for each audience is complicated, and requires constant feedback.
  • At the same time, consumers are learning that many of these tools are proving to be time wasters, potentially isolating, and sometimes even psychologically harmful.
  • So speaking to public groups and appearing on television continues to be important. And each has its own performance requirement.
  • Speaking in public requires projecting vitality. Talking on television requires a more conversational tone. And social media platforms require clear and concise writing.
  • To get through to overloaded audiences, messages must be simple… and examples must be emotionally compelling.
  • And the deluge of messages, news stories, and competitor attacks, tends to give charges of “fake news” an air of credibility.
  • Therefore, issues and crises become difficult to manage. Getting facts out quickly and repeating them often, is a must.
  • A reputation-defining institutional identity must become an often repeated central message.
  • Innovation and bold creative initiatives help achieve visibility.
  • Today’s audiences want their hope restored. Forward-looking ideas and values are essential.
  • Good relationships with key journalists are important, especially when dealing with issues and crises.
  • Managing groups skillfully is necessary to get everyone “on the same page.” Word-of-mouth support still makes all the difference.
  • Partnerships and allies with shared interests are powerful forces for rebuilding credibility.
  • Dealing with internal politics to build team support is mandatory… especially now.

Media revolutions change everything. From families to politics, they change how society works, how individuals behave, and even how the news is reported. In fact, the entire profession of journalism has been permanently changed by the television and digital technology revolutions.

Here are some of the changes:

  • The television and social media revolutions created a media ecosystem of endless, mind-boggling information clutter. The entire journalism profession is struggling to adjust.
  • Growing numbers of TV channels and social media platforms resulted in more emotional content, fewer details, less fact checking, and a lot more consumer confusion.
  • Local newspapers lost significant income and readership when social media took over classified advertising… many local papers closed, and all of them reduced staff and local coverage.
  • “Multitasking” became standard procedure. Each day every surviving reporter had to learn to write website posts, develop stories for the main newspaper, do TV and radio interviews, research complicated issues, cultivate news-maker contacts, and then interview them.
  • 24/7 cable news channels multiplied quickly, focused on breaking news, developed political biases, and promised frequent updates to keep audiences watching.
  • Outrageous claims, unrealistic promises, and personal attacks resulted in headlines, added an entertainment dimension to news, and produced talk show and cable celebrities.
  • Rather than educate, on camera two-way debates resulted in mindless shouting and extreme polarization.
  • Social media platforms, email newsletters, bloggers, websites, and podcasts gradually multiplied, offering special-interest content and advertising that attracted loyal audiences.
  • More aggressive reporting, attacks by political opponents and foreign governments, and overall information overload, gave an air of credibility to charges of fake news.
  • Consumers began to rely on mainstream TV and cable for crisis reporting, and competition for audience among the networks led to non-stop, 24 hour coverage of riots and shootings.
  • Television coverage of events looks real, but TV news can be very deceptive.
  • Communicating with images resulted in a whole new visual language… wide shots define the story’s boundaries, medium shots focus attention on the action, close-ups add intimacy, editing manipulates time and space, special effects add surprise, and moving cameras allow viewers to ride along with the action… and all this comes together to make news into exciting drama.
  • Responding to market forces, talented anchors and reporters change their tone, content, and style to increase audience interest, thereby making news programs even more entertaining.
  • So, can today’s journalists bring us factual clarity in the midst of this new media ecosystem? Probably not. Only widespread media literacy and civics education, coupled with right-thinking leaders in media and politics, can do that.

Presidents everywhere find many reasons to get upset with journalists. They all would prefer to explain what they are doing as they see it, and simply have that described accurately.

However, when the framers of the Constitution guaranteed “freedom of the press” their idea was that the primary role for reporters would be to ask probing questions. The press was expected to look behind what was said, and expose any wrongdoing.  Over the years most presidents found ways to work with this constructively. Some even enjoyed the challenge. After all, it sharpened their thinking and provided easy opportunities to reinforce their goals.

Mr. Trump and his administration, however, expect reporters to simply report the president’s schedule and accomplishments. As a result, the president began labeling unfavorable reporting as fake news, and has often gone so far as to call mainstream media “the enemy of the people!”

The result is an unhealthy division between the press and the White House. And the “enemy of the people” label adds a seriously dangerous dimension. Deranged individuals can take this statement as permission to bring real harm to journalists and their organizations… including correspondents working in danger spots around the world.

The White House “daily” briefing has simply become too combative and unproductive. Maybe in such a setting journalists should do little more than take notes. Later they can add more information gathered from off-the-record conversations and interviews with inside contacts… offering their professional observations where appropriate. After all, the best investigative reporters have always worked this way.

Eliminating angry confrontations between the administration and the press is critically important, especially right now. We know that unstable people can do stupid things, and we already have too many instances of attempted violence and shootings.

What’s more, when any leader of any country is informed enough on relevant issues, has a well thought out vision for the future, and is capable of a substantive conversation, an experienced journalist will always write an accurate story. But when that leader has no clear plan, is not educated on the issues, and angrily attacks people and situations, the attacks and divisions are what become the headlines.

Of course, there is always the occasional reporter who is arrogant and irritating enough for a president to call a managing editor and ask for a different one. But reporters like that are clearly the exception. On the contrary, professional journalism is precisely what the founders promised us: (1) watch over the health of our democratic republic, and (2) expose the scoundrels.

After this crazy midterm election, and looking forward to 2020, this seems to be the perfect time to review the basics of media as they very likely will shape the days ahead in politics.

  • Strong television presence is now required to run for most important political offices.
  • Media will continue as weapons… used by partisan competitors and foreign governments.
  • The cost of campaigning will continue to limit who can run for office.
  • The dominance of images and drama has permanently changed news reporting.
  • Commercial judgments will influence story selection even more as journalists become celebrities.
  • The overall 24/7 news deluge, media used by opponents as weapons, and media assaults by foreign governments, will all contribute to “fake news” confusion.
  • TV’s preference for drama will continue to give the presidency access at will, upsetting the balance of power.
  • Those in Congress who perform well on camera will have greater access to news coverage.
  • Newspapers will still be looking for ways to generate revenue, and being competitive. It can affect news judgments.
  • Talk radio will continue to be a force, especially for extremists.
  • Consumers will continue to choose media that reinforce their biases.
  • TV and social media will continue to rob families of bonding time, with various consequences.
  • Evangelicals will continue to use media’s dramatic potential, and mainstream denominations will continue to struggle with media’s behavior consequences.
  • Education will continue to incorporate new media and digital technology, with varied results.
  • Technology made the world smaller, but instead of building unity it magnified our differences.
  • Managing foreign policy is now more difficult as news instantly swirls around the world.
  • Midterm election results have made the White House even more anxious and unstable.
  • Media literacy and civic education as a part of public education will become even more important.

When social media and digital technology connected with the imagery and emotion of television, an entirely new and confusing media ecosystem emerged. Dealing with its consequences will remain a huge challenge in the months and years ahead.

Democrats won the House and Republicans retained the Senate… a virtual tie.

However, the president held a press conference where he declared victory for himself, offered the possibility of working with Democrats in the House, but quickly followed by reprimanding fellow Republicans by name who asked that he not help them, and warned Democrats that if they launched investigations he would retaliate. Later in the day he fired his Attorney General and replaced him with a political supporter inclined to limit or end Robert Mueller’s investigation.

So is a unified legislature and country even possible? From a communication perspective unity requires ongoing interaction. The problem with Congress is that legislators no longer care about getting to know each other. They aim to win, not to govern as nonpartisan statesmen. As a result, they generally travel home on Thursdays to avoid each other, and no longer move their families to Washington.

Unity requires a business-like openness to new and innovative ideas. It requires respect for each other’s backgrounds and an honest curiosity about what different cultural experiences can bring to the discussion. What works best is a pattern similar to many conferences… work hard in meetings, consider everyone’s ideas, and then adjourn to social receptions and dinners. A combination of business and social interaction that often included family members, is what legislative life was like in Washington in the past.

And when it comes to the news media, a similar pattern of business combined with mutual respect and occasional “get to know each other” events and meetings works best. But when politicians simply label the press fake news for their own combative benefit, and reporters respond with tougher and tougher questions, division is magnified and any possibility of mutual understanding is undermined.

In the real world peace maintenance requires finding at least a semblance of win-win solutions. And a genuine desire for stability is necessary in diplomacy. But when one side declares war, communication strategy shifts from finding common ground to winning at any cost. Media become weapons, divisions become permanent, and winners take all. My fear is that the president has already set up the inevitably of two more years of political warfare and dangerous division.