Archive for January, 2015

This is a question I have often asked my book editors over the years.  Did your changes make my work better, or just different? Just different is always upsetting. Now I find myself asking the same question about changes in the way most of us receive information about the day’s events.

For example, when I follow my favorite reporters on Twitter I am getting observations about a variety of events all day long. But I also can go to the electronic or print version of their news publication or website, find their columns, and scan their best material. Granted, there might be a few more details embedded in their countless tweets, but at the end of the day did I really get more and better information? In other words, was “following” them  better, or just different?

Back in the day of the newspaper, if you had access to both a morning and evening newspaper, listened to a wrap-up on the radio in the car, and then watched the day’s summary on television, you could ask the same questions. Was it better? Or was it just different?

Conventional wisdom suggested that the digital world would provide information faster and more efficiently. And potentially it certainly can. But if you spend all day watching CNN; or tweeting, retweeting and following others on Twitter; or interacting with multiple followers on other digital media platforms; are you getting better informed, or are your methods just different?

I am convinced that somewhere in this deluge of media options there is a combination that can result in time saved and better information. But I am also convinced that few of us are managing our media engagement well enough for this to actually happen. In fact, I am betting that most of us are wasting too much time following too many people and organizations on too many media platforms. And then most of us proceed to make matters worse by choosing outlets that only reinforce our biases!

So when all is said and done, how are we really doing so far? Are we better informed… or is the digital world just different?

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The President has one opportunity each year to address all of Congress and the American people at the same time. But it is an almost impossible situation. This vast audience is made up of every ideology and opinion imaginable. And each person is hearing what he or she wants to hear. Changing minds is very unlikely.

Even so, on the whole Obama’s grade should be at least a B-plus, maybe even an A-minus. It was a good speech. But could it have been better? Or is there a better approach?

I have written in the past that these speeches end up containing far too much information. Half way through many of us are already wondering how all this will be financed, or thinking that there is simply no way to get all this accomplished. But presidents somehow still feel compelled to address every domestic and foreign policy issue that comes to mind.

This time the president began by seeming to indicate he would focus on a few themes  instead of a long list of issues. I was hopeful. But then he proceeded to work his way through  the same long list.

There were several moments when he sounded like he was about to conclude. But alas, more issues. There was one moment about ten minutes before he finally did conclude when he got very emotional and recommitted himself to continue to champion his “save the middle class” cause. This sounded like it came straight “from the heart,” was very sincere, and extremely convincing.

Was he finally going to step up and become the compelling full-of-passion leader that many people think he is capable of being? But then he quieted down… and reviewed more issues.

At best, I think these state of the union speeches are opportunities for presidents to activate their earned bully pulpit and simply restate precisely what they believe in with as much passion as possible. They would do better to avoid getting bogged down in long lists of problems. Rather this is an ideal opportunity to rally the well-intentioned troops both inside and outside Congress around a strong vision, and to do it with all the self-confidence they can muster.

The simple goal here would be to fire-up those who are already followers and to ask them to get out there and help convert the undecided. Then it might be possible through follow-up speeches and events to build an impressive momentum that overwhelms the opposition’s negative approach.

Long lists of issues tend to lead to confusion about what might be possible to accomplish. But rallying people around a compelling bold and exciting big idea can feel satisfying. And when people feel confident in a leader they tend to think less about problems. Rather they take comfort in thinking they are in competent hands and everything will eventually be alright.

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ISIS, Al-Qaeda, and more than 50 other extremist organizations have mastered the digital media world. Many have a simple message: “Do you have feelings of hopelessness? Are you looking for meaning in your life. If so, come fight with us. If you can’t get here grab whatever weapons you can and fight wherever you are!” They repeat that message over and over again in every way possible. And they utilize all internet and social media platforms with impressive professional sophistication.

The challenge now for nations around the world is to rise above the clutter of daily news, identify a simple counter-message of freedom, use all of these new media platforms with ongoing persistence, and repeat that simple message over and over again until it rises above the media clutter.

Simply put, the world is in a war of ideas. Intimidation and fear have already won some skirmishes. But make no mistake, constant fear mongering cannot win over a well orchestrated war. Such an ultimately hurtful message simply won’t survive a professionally designed, super-sophisticated, and relentlessly consistent internet and social media blitz with a promise of liberation.

However, establishing credibility for this promise will be absolutely essential. And it must be established at the outset, and remain anchored in reality.

It therefore seems to me that the best way to do this would be for assimilation plans to be developed for current immigrant residents in major cities around the world. Their mayors and city managers could meet to address these “planning issues” as practical problems, rather than as political or religious issues. And because of the magnitude of our current crisis, national leaders could be urged to support the outcomes of these meetings as a way to side-step dealing with party politics and never-ending national identity debates.

Extraordinary times require bold new initiatives. Relying on cities for international problem-solving admittedly is bold.  But what other choices do we have?  The next world war is one of ideas, and has already begun. Its battleground is the Internet. The weapons are new and social media platforms and tactics. And our cities are the most threatened. The West needs to mobilize quickly… and plan for a very long fight.

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I am British, But, is a film my honors students viewed at the British Film Institute (BFI) during a trip to London last spring.  The film depicts how many second and third generation immigrants are struggling with their personal identities.

Pakistani, Indian, Moroccan, and other immigrants in the film sound totally British but clearly look like natives of their family’s original country. And they often end up living  together in poor neighborhoods in London with little opportunities for jobs, and strong feelings of  hopelessness. And today’s social media and radical websites are very effective in attracting many of these disenfranchised young people to exciting revolutionary ideologies. Promises of hope and a new sense of purpose are quite compelling to those with little or no future.

The situation in Paris is even more explosive. The terrorist assassinations this week are a serious wake-up call for all freedom-loving people around the world. There are extremely poor neighborhoods on the fringes of Paris with many immigrants who by birth are French citizens but live in hopeless poverty with no future opportunities. It is not surprising that many will act out their negative feelings. Many will also buy into any radical ideologies that offer meaning, and will accept violence as the means for advancing them.

There might not be a short-term solution to this pervasive international problem. And a long-term solution will require those with means to help facilitate cultural assimilation, make many more jobs available, and establish a climate of progress and hope. In short, Cities will need assimilation plans, and leaders capable of generating excitement about implementing them.

Similar situations to London and Paris exist in the US. But historically the US is one of the best assimilation success stories we have in the world. Therefore, it is more important now than ever to make sure that current immigration issues do not threaten the nation’s historical melting-pot identity.

In the short-term, the challenge for all nations will be to prepare for additional attacks, defeat radical extremism wherever it exists, and deal as quickly as possible with their immigration issues thoughtfully and compassionately.

The challenge for communicators will be to carve out several simple messages: Explanations of how immigrant disillusion develops. Short-term advice about providing for personal safety. And more US melting-pot assimilation stories that can provide models to emulate.

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With the proliferation of college bowl games and talk of a national championship I found myself reflecting once again on the pros and cons of the current state of intercollegiate athletics. The games have certainly been exciting and the visibility benefit for many of the institutions is obvious.

As the marketing and communication vice-chancellor for a major private institution I was involved in explaining the many benefits of intercollegiate athletics… even overseeing athletic marketing for some years. At its best, athletic participation teaches leadership, the importance of discipline in achieving goals, the power of effective teamwork, the importance of maintaining strong values, and how to never give up striving for one’s best possible performance. And strong programs provide socialization opportunities that bring vitality and a good measure of positive fun to an academic community. When it all works right, the “sound mind in a sound body” philosophy is certainly compatible with most academic missions.

However, when the game becomes controlled by big money, institutions become stretched beyond their economy of scale, winning at any cost becomes the goal, exorbitant coaching and staff salaries soar beyond reason, players are pushed to play through dangerous injuries, conferences change membership annually based on politics and money, academic budgets are inadvertently and sometimes directly affected, television scheduling forces awkward game times, athletes are over-tutored, and bowl costs exceed revenues, one must ask: Is all this spinning toward  some kind of self-destructive end?

Like everything else today, Athletics issues have become hopelessly polarized. It’s either full speed ahead, or the whole thing is bad news and will destroy the academy. My experience suggests that intercollegiate athletics are too embedded in the fabric of most institutions to give up, and yet my analysis suggests that the issues are too important to ignore.

The ultimate answer awaits rational people to get engaged in meaningful dialogue aimed toward seeking rational solutions. Make no mistake, history teaches that self-destruction is certainly possible!

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