Archive for August, 2014

One of today’s most vicious and destructive political communication tactics is the practice of defining the opposition in more extreme terms than it warrants… and then demonizing its intentions.

On weekends I often watch Book-TV. I recently watched and listened to an angry young author define the president of the United States and his entire administration as criminals, and that they all should be put in jail. He then went on with even more vicious and angry charges. And then he followed those by generalizing his charges to include “all liberals,” each minute struggling to intensify the anger in his rhetoric.

Freedom of speech in our country insures his right to speak. And I defend his right to do so. But the tone and anger in his approach destroyed any possibility of finding any way to heal this already seriously divided country.

I have no political agenda. I write solely from a communication dynamic perspective. Politically I have come to think of myself  as a pragmatic independent who is desperately seeking solutions to this destructive polarization.

There are constructive approaches he could have used. There are words he could have chosen to harshly criticize the administration, but do it more constructively. There is a tone he could have used that would have enabled helpful conversations. Debate can be healthy. Uncompromising angry debate is not.

When extremists leave no room for holding a country together, their logic leads to collapse. This has been the consequence of a thousand years of extreme and vicious tribal conflict in the Middle East, and to follow their logic is to head down the same road.

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Much of what is reported about the world today is influenced, and many times actually shaped, by the compelling appeal of cameras and images. And more and more people every day get all of their news from the Internet, which is loaded with dramatic and abbreviated visual accounts of complex events.

Even the “look” of newspapers has changed because of the compelling power of television and other visual imagery. Large dramatic pictures and links to fast-paced video clips are appearing on or near front pages. And this has led to abbreviated and more dramatic styles of writing.

But when news is driven so consistently by imagery, how much can come through as straight reporting? Stop and think about it. When a camera frames a scene, nothing outside that frame exists to the audience. Close-ups direct attention to what the producer/reporter wants audiences to see, not what they might look around and see if they were there. Editing adds drama. Cameras follow or “track” events as they unfold,  adding more drama. And creating “montages” out of selected separate images produces a truly unique, “cinema only” reality.

Films and videos always give people the feeling that they “saw it with their own eyes,” and therefore it must be true. But a small riot often looks like an entire city is coming apart. And neighborhood  disturbances can look like an entire country is in revolt. News events become a producer’s  cinematic version of the situation, and often will not convey events as their audiences would see them. It is not uncommon for people to report that a video story they saw about an event they actually attended did not accurately depict that event at all!

Endless daily dramatic imagery edited to compete for attention can lead to confusion and even misunderstanding. Thus, in today’s digital world people must first become their own editors, and then take all these cinematic influences into account as they strive to understand what’s really going on.

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This week I have been at Chautauqua in upstate New York listening to speakers on the state of foreign affairs. Different parts of the world were discussed, but one theme emerged loud and clear: The current hostilities, from Ukraine to Gaza to Iraq, are the result of a thousand years of conflict between rival groups… and there will be no quick solutions.

In past blogs I have argued that the problem we face understanding each day’s events is that we lack knowing their “contexts.” This is especially true in our 24/7 breaking news world. The more complex the situations the more we need to know their context in order to fully understand them. And so daily statements from the White House (or anywhere else) offer little insight into what is really going on.

I wish everyone could spend at least a week every year at a place like Chautauqua. Providing context for complex problems and issues is what this place does best.

Imagine a small village with an extremely diverse population where everyone was interested in ideas. Each week during the summer a different theme is examined, and gaining a broad understanding of the history and background of that theme is generally what happens by week’s end.

And Chautauqua also surrounds this experience with enrichment for the whole family. There are concerts, theatre performances, films, short courses, and special interest events. There are recreation facilities and programs, including plenty of activities for children and teenagers. And many religious faiths also provide programming and housing for those who want them. You can do all of this… or as little as you wish.

So at this week’s end here are my foreign affairs conclusions: Little insight can come from “official” government statements about  each day’s events in the Middle East or Ukraine. These problems are hopelessly rooted in ancient history and won’t go away soon. Periodic U.S. interventions are not likely to solve much of anything either. So explaining these hard lessons of history might be the better approach, along with repeated reminders of what America really stands for.

Oh, and we must also try our best to avoid making things worse!


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“Herding” is what many critics call the tendency of the international news media to rush to the next big crisis… each one seeking a competitive advantage. One day Iraq is the big story, and the next day the gang moves to Cairo. Then a big story breaks in Ukraine, only to be trumped by a horrible crisis in Israel and Gaza.

In the meantime, chaos continues in Iraq, Libya, Egypt, Syria, parts of Africa, and more. And what about Iran and Turkey? Each one is a separate story with distinct characteristics. As the news media struggles to explain what is happening in each place, the result for most consumers is total confusion. And as  governments struggle to deal with each separate situation, the result is the impression that most are inept at handling anything.

An interview with a Libyan government official this week reminded me that while it is natural to get bogged down in the details of each event, there is an important central message that is getting lost. He said Libya desperately needs the world’s help to rebuild essential institutions and to defeat disrupting extremists.

As I listened I was reminded that there is a central message of justice, opportunity, freedom, and democratic process that has gotten lost in the details of chaos. And that staying on this message  relentlessly every day might have turned that message into a truly self-fulfilling prophesy. Experience has taught me that this can be the potential power of well-orchestrated strategic communication.

Lesson learned: Too many detailed messages turn to clutter. Staying on central messages can lead to self-fulfilling prophecies.

And for the USA:  Daily responses to crises have resulted in clutter and negative impressions. Simply explaining the idea of America always produces positive outcomes.


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When must a leader be present to lead?  And what actually constitutes “presence” in this age of digital technology?

President Obama has been criticized for appearing at so many fund-raising events around the country when there are multiple crises that need to be addressed. His defenders explain that with the technology on his airplane, and his advisors around him, he is on top of world events no matter where he goes.

But even in this age of imagery does “take charge” leadership really work that way?  I suggest that in many circumstances it does not.

My experience over the years would argue that there are many crisis situations where it is essential for a leader to be physically “seen” as present, engaged and performing as the leader. Technology can maintain connections very efficiently between critical meetings, but nothing substitutes for “showing up and taking charge.” In the case of presidential leadership, it might also mean that when he is not attending a critical meeting he should be seen as physically present in his established command post directing operations.

Exceptions would be largely ceremonial events where a representative clearly is an adequate symbol of a country’s or institution’s presence. Or when the top person has a clearly more important event that conflicts with this one.  Or when an adversary has orchestrated a “photo-op” style event designed to put this leader on the defensive  Even in this situation, however, it might be possible to still show up and strategically take charge, or to create another similar event where taking charge is designed into the situation. For example, when the Texas governor tried to get the president to go to the U.S. Mexico border with him, the president might have declined based on schedule, but then travel there later with his own “take charge” agenda.

Attending fund-raisers and playing golf in times of crisis makes too much potentially negative news, no matter the justification. Incessant daily questions and criticisms begin to sound credible, and repeated explanations appear defensive. They make leaders of both countries and organizations sound and look weak… and even out of touch.

Even in these times of instant digital technology, actually showing up and visibly taking charge is essential when institutions and worlds seem to be coming apart.

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