Archive for June, 2010

Some years ago a travel agent I was having dinner with in Rome told me: “You know, Larry, all my European friends love the idea of America, but so often they just don’t understand the behavior of your government.  It can seem contradictory to them, and it often makes them angry.”

This comment came echoing back to me this week in Washington as I was meeting with some very talented and energized folks who are deeply concerned about how to get the world to better understand this powerful “idea of America.” After all, everyday extremists and terrorists grab the headlines and set the daily news agenda. Even failing suicide bombers succeed in making news and speading fear. And to make the situation worse, everyone else winds up sounding defensive about what happened.

Are not compelling human stories about freedom and independence an effective form of counter-insurgency? Cannot those stories be told powerfully enough to blow past the headlines directly into the everyday lives of millions of people all over the world? Could not countless Americans be involved through people-to-people exchanges, or new and social media?

In pondering all this I remembered my graduate student days at American Unversity when a government agency known as the United States Information Agency (USIA) was in full force. It was charged to communicate the larger story of the American people and their values, a story that would go far beyond official foreign policy. Based mostly on people-to-people communication, I thought this agency was very effective.

But the USIA I knew was eliminated by the Clinton admnistration and replaced by a smaller strategic communication activity inside the state department… losing independence, not to mention important credibility with the rest of the world.

The people I met with this week have formed a taskforce of think-tank fellows, university professors, legislative staffers, legislators, and current and former civil servants. They are working on best strategic communication practices in this new media age. They are also considering organizational alternatives, which  include  a new government agency, a quasi-govermental organization, a public private nonprofit, a private foundation.

But we have no time to waste. Extremests and terrorists are already winning the war to dominate the public agenda. The United States therefore should quickly re-establish a highly visible strategic communication and public diplomacy organizaton. Then we must find and hire the best and most creative professionals in the land to run it. When you think about it, do we have a choice?

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My daughter and I were talking this week about the congressional hearings on the Gulf oil spill.  We discussed the consequences of how some leaders in a crisis get associated with a negative theme which is then repeated incessantly in the news media. The result is often a lingering impression of overall ineffectiveness. 

We concluded that such impressions are unfair to any leader while trying to deal with the urgency of a serious crisis moment, and are likely to be counterproductive to finding real solutions in this terribly complex world.

How can this happen?  Simply put, the opposition states an extreme and exagerated position over and over again, a well-known debating tactic that can be used to establish the impression of legitimacy for almost any idea.  And then the news media reports it repeatedly as “breaking news,” influenced by its tendency to simplify, polarize, and dramatize. 

Examples abound: “Obama just can’t get on top of this oil crisis!”  Or, Afghanistan is Obama’s war!”  Or, “Heathcare is being taken over by the federal government!”  All are repeated themes by both the political opposition and news media, and the result is to obscure the public’s ability to appreciate and understand the complexity any president or leader faces when trying to fix a terrible crisis. 

I think we all know that every serious problem is solved only by trial and error. We try one solution, and if it doesn’t work we try another.  We learn as we go. But in this new and highly competive media world our public discourse unfolds as if we don’t know any of this.  

And so my daughter concludes: “The media makes it so.”

So, what are the lessons communicators  must learn here?  (1) In this competitive 24/7 news media world any serious crisis is likely to have at least a short-term negative reputation impact. (2) Ongoing issues and crisis training for executives will help your whole organization look more competent as it deals with issues and crises over time. (3) Effective reputation building communication is a long-term process targeted to your most critical audiences and favors direct and interactive media. It must begin well before a given crisis happens and continue long after the news media moves on.

One final comment:  As a society we must come again to appreciate what it takes to solve complex problems and to give those that find themselves in leadership positions a realistic chance to perform, no matter their political party. There will be ample time later to evaluate.  And legislators must again come to understand that once elected they are expected to work together to solve problems.  Since nothing  short of this is acceptable, we must also have a news media that can help make this happen.

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As I looked out over my class of undergraduates in London this year I found myself thinking: “How many, if any, will go from here determined to make a real difference with their lives?

It’s common knowledge that many current college students come from families where their parents made success easy for them.  These so-called “helicopter parents” meant well as they helped their children excel with class assignments, sports competitions, social relationships, and even with getting into college.

But now, these kids are about to face the most complex and confusing economy, changing job market, and threatening social and international issues one can imagine.  So in this international setting I could not help but thinking: “Who among them will be both motivated and capable of stepping up to these challenges?”

I went on to tell them: “You will need to find and live your special personal strengths. You will need to persist and stay focused day and night. Yes, you can play hard and have a strong family life, but to make a difference in this complex world you will have to be able to carry a dream of achievement with you day and night.”

In the last two years I have been able to witness this kind of successful integration of professional and social life among the very smart and talented people in the Washington think-tank and association world. These are driven people, to be sure, but most also have strong families and know how to have fun!

So, I went on to suggest: “Find an enterprise or industry related to your strengths.  Make it your cause. Take on an innovative attitude. Embrace truly smart and creative people and put yourself around them. And learn to love the politics related to building support for your passion.”

Even so, as I said goodbye to head back to the USA, I was really worried that all of us, parents and professors, may be leaving them unprepared for real personal achievement, and for what it will truly take to make a significant difference in this complex and perplexing world.

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In revising the material for the course in international and intercultural communication I am teaching in London this summer, I was reminded once again that all international communication is really local.

Indeed all the analytical skills we use in integrated and strategic marketing and communication apply when working internationally. We must understand the specific needs, behaviors and social trends of our target markets; we must understand the media protocols and expectations of the region; we must know all relevant laws or regulations, we must identify the preferred media of each audience, we must take into account the controversies currently on the public agenda, and we must understand dramatically different customs and special cultural traits.

Indeed, in internatonal communication, cultural values and traditions are especially important.  But that is also true in every domestic communication situation.  Every organization, city, region, and country has distinct cultural characteristics that define its identity and communication parameters. The longer I do this work both at home and abroad the more I realize just how much these dynamic and emotional local intangibles defne success or failure.   

So what makes international communication different? For me, its mostly coming to grips with just how much local help I need when contemplating working in a totally “foreign” environment. It’s fully comprehending that a little knowlege about a country or culture can be dangerous. And it’s coming to a complete understanding of just how fast communication breaks down.

In the final analysis, studying international communication is an exercise in learning how much attention to local detail matters.  And it is also an exercise in experiencing how different those cultures can be, and therefore how important it is to know how to find those local people that can help you.

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