Archive for March, 2011

I just returned from spending an entire day with the trustees of a prestigious liberal arts university. In the recent past, several of those trustees had suggested that they change the institution’s name because they felt the name was geographically limiting. It was preventing it to be seen, they thought, as a leading “national” institution.  But after getting the results of research they commissioned, and much heated debate, they determined the best course of action was to keep the current name and allocate additional funds for marketing. The university then contacted me.

Frankly, my day there was the best day I spent in a long time.  The advancement committee was energized and ready to get on with discussing how the university they loved could step-up and step-out with new and significant recognition.  We talked all afternoon about brand clarification, and market segmentation, and new media, and research, and planning, and more. The passion in the room was contagious, and I could tell it was about to become a whole new day for this already high-quality institution. That evening, at a very inspirational dinner, the entire board became infected with this let’s “get-on-with-it” energy. 

As I reflected on all this, I remembered the number of times I facilitated the very same kind of meeting with other institutions, but this level of spark and passion was just not there.  Yes, these people would learn something, and some new things might eventually be tried, but it was abundantly clear that after I was gone very little would actually change.  There certainly was no institutional transformation in the wind!  The timing was not right.

It, therefore, became crystal clear to me this week that when the moment for change is right, change will happen with great passion.  But when the time is not right, very little real change will happen at all.  Discussions about needed change, or a crisis, or a serious institutional problem, must take place before I arrive.  Then, the meeting dynamic becomes totally different.  Participants don’t just sit there waiting for me to tell them what to do. They know what they need, and they draw it out of me. The experience for everyone becomes exciting, and being there at the right time is what makes this difference.

I had a similar experience recently with a major association.  In this case, I was  talking with a senior executive in his office about some education issues when the conversation shifted to the organization’s marketing program.  Knowing this was my field,  the executive started asking me questions.  He told me that what they needed was a total culture change, and that he was not the only one who thought so.  I talked with others and could see that this organization really was ready to change.  So by the time my visit was complete, I had agreed to do a marketing and communication staff seminar, as well as a comprehensive marketing audit!  The organization was ready to change, and I just happened to be there at the right time.  Had it been a few years earlier,  change would not have been possible.

My university won the rose bowl this year. Shortly afterwards, a  colleague mentioned that this win had taken the marketing pressure off of us for a while.  My instant response was:  “That is not true!”  The win opened a window, but now we will need to go through that window and tell the rest of our story. Events had created an emotionally charged moment in time, which also created the right time to motivate and orchestrate moving the institution ahead. 

Timing indeed makes the difference. When recent events and conversations have established a readiness to change, the timing is perfect for an expert to help produce  new and powerful marketing and communication initiatives.  This is when a whole new day becomes possible for institutions.

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Too often we send out position statements without explaining their context.  This is particularly important for political statements, especially if they are to have genuine credibility and legitimate social value.  

This week I have been especially mindful that virtually all the “solutions” I have been hearing about for solving our budget deficits lack any reference to meaningful context, especially to lessons of past societies.  Without including needed perspective, strategic communication is alarmingly incomplete.  

I observed in previous posts that today’s political communication often amounts to only one-sided propaganda.  Positions on issues are put forth over and over again with the assumption that repeating them often enough will make them true. But when context is missing, and needed, political viewpoints are  just not useful. 

For professional strategic communicators, I have argued that we always have the responsibility to make sure our political messages  are seen in as accurate a context as possible.  Only then will our audiences understand the essential historical and social factors that surround the situation, and can see how they have been taken into account when formulating our position.  Such a position, then, is worthy of serious consideration, and it is socially useful because we have established its’ credibility.

Much-needed context is missing in most of today’s political discourse. The result is dangerous polarization. A few respond to these extremes,  but too many just drop out.  And it is entirely possible that these dropouts will become the vast majority.

I asked my historian cousin to describe his “lessons learned” from studying similar situations over the course of time.  Just what are the consequences of this kind of extreme rhetoric, I asked?  His response was that when extreme political rhetoric (i.e. propaganda), based mostly on ideology, ends with the wealthy allowing the middle class to decline, and the poor to be ignored, the society will inevitably decline. In fact, this is how entire civilizations fall.  

We certainly are not hearing this kind of broader “historical context” addressed in today’s debates over how to manage deficits over time.  I believe, however,  that only  by seeing political positions in the context of established historical realities like this, will our arguments have  real credibility.  Otherwise, we are only simple-minded propagandists, and our society is certain to decline.

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The American Council on Education’s (ACE) annual meeting was held in Washington this week, and as you would expect, many of the speakers addressed the huge issues facing higher education, and the dilemmas we face in trying to address them.

I addressed this dilemma previously in Lesson 46, but I am driven again this week to talk about the senseless contradictions inherent these days in most of our political messaging:

Some give rousing speeches to motivate teachers to higher achievement,  and then turn around and make them hostile. 

Many make statements about reducing costs and restoring local responsibility, but then impose national standards and stiffer regulations…all of which, of course, increase costs!

Much rhetoric is about creating new jobs, but then these same folks propose immediate and draconian cuts…putting  people out of jobs by the thousands.

These “political communicators” operate on the premise that repeating the same extreme view over and over again will eventually make it effective.  But this is not true communication.  It is propaganda, pure and simple. 

The consequence of propaganda is that some will buy it, and others just stop participating . We end up with a polarized world, and no solutions.

Genuine political communication is about better understanding and  promoting  the greater good. It seeks to move audiences toward genuine solutions. It favors practical approaches and simple messages that improve social climate and enable democratic progress, one step at a time.

Propaganda, then, aims only to win big for a few. Communication, however,  expands understanding, accounts for differences, and offers reasonable solutions.

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I just returned from the Texas Legislature and am headed to Washington for the American Council on Education’s (ACE) annual conference.  All week I heard, “You make a good case for support, but we have no money.”  And I am likely to hear the same song again in Washington.

It may be much the same even inside your institution.  Your organization may have fallen on hard times too, and you are just told there is no money.  You may have a good case for moving forward, but it is dismissed. The only remark you hear is the one for which there is no argument. We are broke.

In a situation like this there seems to be little hope. No matter how good a case you make for increased support, the answer is the same. I have been in this situation many times, and so today I have been asking myself, “What are the lessons I learned?” 

In retrospect I realized that even in this legislative climate, by continuing to make my case, I have an opportunity to lay the groundwork with legislators for the day when the economy gets better.  If I was impressive today, they just might want to help me even more tomorrow. 

So the lessons I learned are these: 1. First, convey an empathetic understanding of the reality of the economic moment. 2. Then, continue to make your case for the social value of the support you need. 3. Look for changes in the situation over time that may allow some progress, no matter how little. 4. Make a reasonable compromise now, in exchange for a promise of support later.  When times get better, your organization will too.

Bad economic times can really be depressing. But if, in a situation like this, your communication initiatives are handled positively, professionally and with confidence, you will establish a foundation now that will bring you even  more success over time.  In a word: Onward!

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