Archive for September, 2013

A major address by a president or CEO can be a powerful brand clarification tactic if it is followed by a carefully crafted and coordinated strategic communication and integrated marketing plan.

I came to understand the power of the carefully prepared and orchestrated  presidential address over many years of practice, and it caused me to ask whether or not President Obama’s United Nations address this week has the potential to be the foundation of a long-awaited clarified U.S. Foreign policy.

Such a speech standing alone will not accomplish this goal.  But if that speech contains a limited number of differentiating themes that can be lifted and later reinforced over time, the goal of a clarified policy or brand identity can certainly be reached. But it takes coordination, repetition, and the realization that such clarification only happens over time. Later speeches must repeat these themes in different contexts, and related  department and agency heads and staff must do the same thing.  In fact, all official and daily communication should find ways to reference those themes.

I analyzed the printed transcript of Obama’s UN speech this week and came up with  five such differentiating themes, and one overall perspective.  Overall, he asserted that all nations must stop focusing of what they are against, and begin immediately to articulate what they are for. Then within that perspective, I found these themes:

(1) National security. All nations, including the U.S., will act first to protect the security of their citizens. This explains how and why awkward affiliations and partners can occur.

(2) Universal opportunity. The U.S. believes all people are created equal. Therefore, everyone on the planet should have an opportunity to achieve what they are capable of achieving.

(3) Preserving the planet. Circumstances require that all nations must immediately focus on solving food, water, disease, air quality, land use, and energy crises.

(4) End nuclear weapons. The world must quickly accomplish this together. We simply have no choice.

(5) World peace. We must learn to accommodate various forms of democracy, governance, cultures and religion. We are one interconnected planet.

Are these themes complete and differentiating enough to constitute an entire U.S. foreign policy? If we can agree this is feasible, then to make it work a highly experienced chief strategic communication officer will have to be fully engaged in all White House deliberations, and also have the authority and access necessary to  coordinate all foreign policy communication, and communicators.

In addition, the 24/7 news cycle must be fully accommodated so that all daily messages reinforce those themes, and all action decisions are made taking the speed of daily news demands into account. This also means that operations must be made efficient enough to prevent the leaks and uncoordinated messages that have been undermining the president’s credibility.

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In today’s 24/7 cable and social media dominated journalism, what establishes  credibility?  Is it production and performance value?  Is it arrogantly articulated  opinion?  Is it factual reporting?

It seems to me that many news producers today think that fast talking, stern sounding  anchors and reporters are the key to holding interest and preventing viewers from tuning away. And fast paced anchoring has led to abruptly interrupting expert guests, all in order to keep the program moving faster and faster.

My television interview coaches told me that my job was to focus audience attention on my guests… and not to constantly interrupt them. They argued that my credibility  was mostly established by asking the right basic questions, and then giving the guest a fair chance to fully answer those questions.

In addition, emphasis on speed leads to reporting events too quickly. And when initial reports prove wrong it’s now acceptable practice to get the story out first and correct it later. In the end, is this good modern journalism, or sloppy reporting?

When speed and entertainment become dominant objectives, attention shifts to grooming celebrity anchors and reporters. Increasing emphasis on the dramatic is the result, which leads to pitting glib guests with contrasting agendas against each other rather than having civilized conversations with subject matter experts.

As a strategic communication practitioner I often experienced celebrity reporters using the best of what I said as their introductory comments, and then showing me in a very short edited video clip selected out-of-context.

So in this new media world will anything restore news credibility? I submit that it will require a predominance of experienced anchors and reporters taking the time to sound and look authoritative at less than warp speed, selecting their interviewees based on established expertise. And oh yes, they will also let these highly qualified guests fully answer their carefully crafted questions.

Happily, I am noticing that many fast-talking anchors today are turning over quickly.  They are young and attractive, but under too much pressure to look like experts far too soon. And even if this emphasis on drama and style worked for a while, has it really served the public interest, or has it merely put the interests of the organization first… frustrating the public more and more each day?

Many of us are now observing that social media is beginning to take on a much more balanced perspective in our lives. If this is so, isn’t it time for 24/7 news to follow?

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The digital media revolution has created an entirely new set of communication realities. There was a time when news and information moved much slower. Criticisms and public attacks aimed at you or your institution could usually be ignored for a while… and many of them would just fade away.

But when you find yourself in an ideological conflict or a crisis in this 24/7 breaking news obsessed world, it can be extremely damaging to find yourself on the defensive.  And it can be even be down right deadly to find yourself on the defensive twice in a row.

Actually this might be how we professional communicators came to describe our profession as “strategic communication.” When issues get hot, getting to the public first with a well thought-out initiative, and immediately thinking ahead to a second and even third follow-up initiative, has become essential to achieving and keeping credibility in a wildly competitive and rapidly changing media circus.

Obama may have been the first to suggest to Russian President Putin that removing all poison gas from Syria could stop a military strike. But Putin picked a moment to take it public as if it originally was his idea. And Obama’s response, no matter what it was, was now going to sound defensive.

And when only several days later Mr. Putin put an Op Ed article in the New York Times  bold enough to make additional news headlines, he managed to seize the offensive yet a second time! And what’s more, the article actually espoused democratic ideals and connected with criticisms currently being levied inside the U.S. by some  Americans!

The arrogance of a former KGB spy and devout communist party leader preaching democracy to a nation of free people certainly will not ultimately win the ideology war. But the strategic initiative taken twice has put the U.S. president into a defensive and damaging loss of credibility situation.

Lesson learned: You must think quickly and strategically in this rapidly changing new media world. You must then seize the high ground by making your first public statement quickly, and you must hold the offensive by being prepared to do it again very soon.

If you have not read the Putin Op Ed, do it now! It will make you mad. But then, hard lessons always do.

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Crisis communication 101 teaches that you determine exactly what happened very quickly, develop a statement on what your organization is already doing about it, and then you contact as directly as you can the most affected parties. The news media would usually be third or fourth on an affected party list.

But what happens most often, however, is that the news media is the first to inform you about something horrible that just happened, and then you are under enormous pressure to assess the situation very quickly and make a public statement that you will very likely have to revise as you find out more.

But this kind of pressure filled situation is today’s professional strategic communicator’s reality. In a 24/7 news environment it is extremely difficult, and sometimes impossible, to get on top of the most volatile issues and events. And Syria certainly is one of those “all but impossible” situations.

By taking so long to go public with a firm statement on the use of poisoned gas, and then not following the statement they finally made with immediate action, the Obama administration enabled leaks about disagreements among the staff to confuse the public. And when asking for Congressional support appeared to be an afterthought, all of this obviously robbed the president of much-needed leadership credibility.

And what is additionally troublesome to me is that from healthcare reform, to the budget, to education initiatives, to the deficit, and now Syria, it is not apparent that there has been a steady influential professional strategic communication voice involved during the planning and implementation processes.

My take as an outside observer is that while the president eventually comes up with a feasible solution (whether or not you agree with it), all too often by the time he is ready to act the climate has already been poisoned with leaks about internal conflicts.  And such leaks inevitably lead to losses of credibility… and even doubts about basic competence.

One thing is certain: The road ahead regarding Syria will be bumpy, and it has been made even more bumpy in recent days. As a result, the effectiveness of Obama’s entire presidency will rest on whether or not he can somehow regain his credibility with this issue, as well as with those that lie ahead. And the only way to do that in this 24/7 media world, I believe, is with a strong professional, and fully integrated, strategic communication team completely engaged every day.

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