Archive for November, 2012

When television became the dominant medium during the 1950’s it pretty much set the criteria for who could be successful in politics. Today, the digital Internet revolution has added still more criteria.

Performing well on television is important to winning elections and maintaining a leadership persona in the legislature. But it is more than being physically attractive.  This is why film directors do screen tests. Some people actually look better on television. But looking good is only part of being comfortable talking to a camera. Even effective speakers can become awkward when there is no audience there to respond.

Once elected, standing out in the legislative crowd requires knowing the issues currently in the news, having the ability to address them simply and confidently, and knowing the right audiences to please. In other words, strategic communication expertise becomes essential.  It is no longer only about having political convictions. Now, it is also about knowing how and when to perform. And all of this has been shaped by television.

Television has also become a major cost factor. The success of political advertising in various media, especially television, has made it even more so. Consultants discovered sometime ago that finding out something negative about the opponent, making a fast-paced and emotional TV ad, and then repeating it over and over, can be a very effective political tool. And so the ever escalating use of these ads inflates overall costs enormously. 

In addition to television, the digital revolution has added new complexity to the campaign horserace.  Websites are used as portals to more information about the candidate. Position papers appear on them to address the issues. And they also become on-line interactive vehicles for raising money.  Twitter keeps followers informed about the candidates’ minute-to-minute activities, and urges attendance at staged political events.  Facebook is a way the campaign can request individuals to influence the behavior of their “friends.” And electronic zip code analysis provides campaigns with consumer preference information that allows them to match buying behavior with political interests. Analysts also help determine the most popular retail and other locations for events and promotions.

As in other situations, what works best on television and digital technology influences the nature and complexity of the messages.  For the most part that means messaging is simple and focused on broad emotional themes, such as jobs and the economy. Polls are used to determine those themes and preferences, and often result in making extreme statements, each one customized for each zip code.

Political reporting is effected too. Characterizing candidates in this kind of environment usually will lead to reinforcing polarization and extreme rhetoric. This makes great news copy, and  24/7 cable channels, talk radio hosts, and bloggers with a political bias, thrive on it.  All of  this, however, is creating an ongoing, ever polarizing, political dynamic with few clues about how to do better.

And so proficiency with media in many ways determines who can be successful in politics today, and there are both good and alarming consequences.

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Writing in the Boston Globe, Joseph E. Aoun, President of Northeastern University, recently asserted that massive open online courses, referred to as MOOCs, could mean “the end of higher education as we know it.” Start-up companies such as Coursera and Udacity are aggregating courses from various universities and offering them online. Some of the top universities in the U.S. are contributing courses. Anyone can enroll. Most courses are free. Millions have already signed up.

MOOCs promise greater access to large numbers of people, many of whom have no other way to enroll in college. The best professors and the most sophisticated technology can be featured, and so the American Council on Education (ACE) is investigating the feasibility of offering credit. For many pioneering universities it can also be a brilliant international marketing initiative. Offering these courses tells the world that no matter where you are you can have access to the most prestigious institutions in the world, and you can have it for free!  In an industry that is rapidly becoming global this kind of visibility and recognition is priceless worldwide brand reinforcement.

Some see these new organizations, or aggregators, eventually becoming degree granting organizations. They also view this development as primarily opening up various types of credentialing, from degrees to certificates, not just to aggregators, but to associations and governments as well. But others still persist in thinking that these courses will merely function as easy entry points into more traditional institutions. These people continue to believe that a complete education requires a signficant amount of actual face-to-face interaction. But whatever the result, MOOCs are likely to be significant game-changers for traditional universities.

Up to now on-line education has had somewhat of a different focus. Both for-profit companies and universities have been developing online degrees and certificates, but mostly for adults and nontraditional students, and mostly part-time.  This market has been largely driven by the need for convenience. For many people work and family obligations make enrolling in traditional residential or commuter institutions very difficult. 

But a large drop-out rate has been seen in almost all on-line programs. Analysts cite the lack of social and face-to-face interaction as one big reason. So digital specialists are working on innovative ways of addressing this problem online. But the lack of  real life interaction is partly why my university has gone ahead and made a big investment in the belief that there will always be a significant market for a collegiate, residential, total university experience.  Online at TCU will function mostly as a supplement. Digital media will certainly change the way professors teach. It will enhance the efficiency and quality of many subjects. And it will bring in experts and experiences from all parts the world, and keep students and faculty interconnected no matter where they travel.

Google searches alone have already transformed research, student preparation, and even term paper writing. We are indeed in the early stages of a dramatic sea change in all of education. President’s Aoun’s suggestion that all this in the end will “change higher education as we know it” is no doubt accurate. Not only is this industry rapidly becoming global, but new media will also continue to change every aspect of the game. 

In the final analysis, media technology will bring many more revolutionary improvements to education than we can envision. And it’s indeed exciting to imagine all the possibilities. But, also experiencing the world of discovery face-to-face with inspired  teachers and committed fellow students will always be at the heart of a truly meaningful education for many of us. To know people only online is not to really know them at all. That special connection between teacher and student is what makes the real difference. And that’s what you remember for a lifetime.

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It’s interesting to explore the reasons why one denomination or religion might use media more effectively than another.  Is it a matter money?  Or is it a matter of the skills and interests of those in charge?  Or is it something more illusive?  In short, why does one group use television to spread the word far and wide, and another continue to worship almost exclusively in buildings.

I explored these questions many years ago when television was new. But today the media landscape has broadened to include the Internet, websites, email, cell phones, texting, Facebook, Twitter, and more. 

So what does determine which groups choose to use media, and which ones don’t?  I have found that looking at the basic nature of each medium, and comparing  those characteristics to how each group approaches its fundamental religious  subject matter, can give us very important clues, if not answers.

Electronic media tend to favor very simple content. Its use normally requires reducing complex ideas to simple message points. For example, too much factual information on television can quickly become boring. Facebook is a vehicle primarily for maintaining relationships and is not an effective communicator of complex ideas.  Twitter requires messages to be conveyed in only 140 characters and is a tool that is mostly effective when mobilizing action. Email can inform in short paragraphs. Texting is best at connecting. Cell phones allow talking on the go.  

Television is especially interesting because it effectively combines simple messaging with dramatic and emotional experiences. Cameras, editing, scenery, music, pacing and impassioned performance are naturals for television, and denominations and churches that can combine a simple message with these to produce a religious experience find it a natural, and in some cases a primary, medium.

So denominations that see their content in terms of simple clear messages, and find it natural to translate that into more emotional religious experiences, seem to be much more at home with television and other forms of new media.  On the other hand, those that see their content as requiring  study and interpretation are more likely to find  television unsuited to their fundamental nature and approach.

So how does all this relate to extremist religions? Many of these movements use the emotional power of satellite television effectively. All use Facebook and Twitter to build and sustain relationships, and to mobilize action across borders.  These are really communities of interests, or subcultures, and they are effectively held together across the globe using social media. And for the most part their content is simple and uncomplicated.

TCU has a religion department and is also affiliated with a divinity school with scholars who study these issues. Recently the divinity school launched a strategic planning process with the underlying theme that the seminary of tomorrow will not look like the seminary today. It will be interesting to see  how the use of new media will influence the plan and the future of seminary education.  

Religion and media is also a topic for our Honors College Colloquium this fall.  We all know that in one way or another our religious beliefs influence everything we think and do.  Even though church and state in our country are constitutionally separated, religion  finds its way into virtually all matters of our politics and society, and it certainly is at the heart of much international conflict. What role media plays in all this is clearly a central concern for society, and is worthy of our ongoing consideration.

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I often recall a dinner conversation I had in Rome some years ago with the travel agent that helped one of my colleagues with study abroad logistics. He said bluntly, “Everyone I know loves their ‘idea of America,” but they don’t understand much of what your government does.”  Ever since then I have been grappling with the issue of communicating government administrative policy to many complicated domestic and foreign audiences vs. just getting a simple “idea of America” understood.

Last week’s blog addressed the challenges faced by the White House as new and returning presidents face communicating their policies to audiences that will hear what they want to hear no matter what is said. The reality is that communication will be breaking down all the time.  Audiences must be prioritized, traditional and new media tactics selected for each, and many separate initiatives must be undertaken over time in order to achieve minimal progress.  And no matter what is said, enemies and competitors will fire back with their own set of strategically planned initiatives. 

Is it possible for a government to articulate a simple idea about values and culture with credibility?  Can the simple  “idea of America” come through in the same way that the travel agent in Rome described?

Some have concluded that government policy always must be shaped around economic and security realities, and that a government’s communication will always be with mixed and uncertain success.  Those people and countries threatened by this will always retaliate in some way. There will be allies and enemies, advocates and critics. And so many strategic communicators have come to think that the best way to get the fundamental “idea of America” across is to organize ordinary Americans to meet with people in other cultures. This way our basic values of individual freedom and justice can be experienced first hand.

And so several efforts have been made in recent years to explore the feasibility of establishing a non-governmental, or in some cases a quasi-governmental, organization to operate totally independent of government to establish citizen-to-citizen exchanges and programs with the simple purpose of demonstrating how ordinary free and independent Americans look and act. One of these was undertaken by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.  Known as the SAGE project, the result was a business plan to establish a non-profit, non-governmental organization to stimulate and finance projects that will bring about a better understanding of Americans of all types.  Currently, a former assistant secretary of state for public diplomacy is seeking the funding and other support necessary to bring this organization into existence.

My TCU Honors College students are discussing these issues.  Last week we imagined what a new or second term president faces on “day one” trying to communicate administrative policy in light of what was said during the campaign and the realities of the existing friendly and hostile audiences all over the world!  This week we will look at the potential of citizen-to-citizen public diplomacy, and the role international higher education and new media might play in it. 

On a given day communication is breaking down all around us.  But then each day is a new day, and the determined among us keep trying.  One step at a time is the name of the game.

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During every presidential election I think about the communication challenge ahead for either winner.  During the campaign, candidates tend to talk about what they will do on “day one.” And when you think about it, the communication challenges for either one will be enormous: How can all those varied “publics,” domestic and foreign, be reached efficiently, effectively and positively?

Basically I am a free enterprize advocate and believe in maximum freedom for individuals. However, my writings also reveal that I see a strong role for government in curbing mindless greed and maintaining a fair, just and safe society. But from a communication perspective, I wonder if even the kind of lean and focused government I support can ever effectively communicate clear policy and plans? Just think about the challenges ahead for our president.

When it comes to domestic issues, how does a president communicate his or her policies effectively to extremely polarized audiences?  No matter who wins, “here is how I am going to work with you,” might be the most  important message of all.

When it comes to foreign policy the communication challenge can even be more difficult because there are several departments of government that need to be engaged and coordinated.  For example, the White House will be sending messages. The state department will be addressing foreign governments and their publics. The defense department will do the same from their perspective. The commerce department will too. The CIA, the FBI, and so on… all have communication responsibilities.  And each will interpret revised and/or completely new messages to its audiences. With all this organizational complexity, here again the most important message might be one of a clear leadership style and approach.

All of these entities will certainly have a huge tool box full of communication tactics. They range from face-to-face contact and meetings, to traditional print media, to mass media, to new digital and social media.  And when they all converge, and the messages are complex, the result can be more mass confusion than enlightenment.  People get frustrated and confused in an information cluttered world. “We no longer know what we know, and we don’t like that feeling!” 

In today’s polarized climate, it could be that people will mostly just want to know simply what kind of person will be leading this country, and how serious problem-solving will be approached.  It seems that more and more people and governments are not responding to ideology-driven initiatives, threats and arguments. Rather, many seem to be longing for a more pragmatic-minded world. Certainly there are many individual and government exceptions. But a world based on integrated strategic communication tactics… that is a single voice with simple messages about practical objectives and effective problem-solving processes… just might win the day with what might actually turn out to be a truly vast silent majority!

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