Archive for March, 2015

Last week I discussed why government communication is destined to fail. People hear what they want to hear, adversaries are poised to attack. and the daily pressure of 24/7 journalism is relentless.

I  suggested that a simple message or theme repeated over and over again about individual freedom and opportunity might have a better chance of getting through. And in the long run, such a message might be the most important one.

This week I am suggesting that “public diplomacy” might be the best approach to this kind of “brand identity”communication. And nongovernmental organizations (NGO’s) are the best at doing it, especially if they are nonpolitical.

Public diplomacy is basically organized “people-to-people communication. People are brought together from different cultures to experience normal things. They come to appreciate their differences, their foods, and traditions. Even many kinds of international travel can accomplish this empathetic understanding.

Governments also conduct public diplomacy. But they cannot do it with the same credibility as NGO’s. Even so, they can add some legitimacy to their other foreign policy communication by sending academics, musicians, artists, writers, students, etc. abroad. In other words, Americans can convey “the idea of America, just by being “good Americans” in other countries.

My experience in international education has led me to also see international higher education as public diplomacy. In fact, it might be the purest form. Some prefer to call this soft power. But I believe the globalization of this industry has the potential to increase cultural understanding though student and faculty contacts and exchanges, while at the same time focusing research capabilities and expertise on solving the world’s most complex  problems.

Diplomacy is important. It is how governments deal with each other. But when it comes to genuine peace-making and real world problem-solving, I believe that effective soft power public diplomacy will be essential to saving our planet, and ourselves.

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Effective organizational communication requires the source to be credible, the message to be simple, and those doing the communicating to be working with a coordinated and simple  bureaucratic structure. If the source is not credible communication will fail. And if the structure is too complex messages will not come through consistently.

Governments face a special dilemma. They usually only have credibility with those audiences already in agreement with their policies. And they are often too complex bureaucratically to achieve consistently.

Messages must be simple and sent simultaneously to multiple audiences. Media platforms  must be selected based on each audience’s primary use preferences. Communicating complex issues simply and using different platforms for different audiences are significant challenges, indeed.

What makes matters even more complicated for governments are the relentless demands of 24/7 journalists for something to report all day long. If no news is forthcoming some reporters will write that the administration is not responsive, or that the staff is indecisive, or that the president is just too “professorial.” On the other hand, when statements are made under constant pressure the result can be widespread misunderstanding.

And to add even more complications, foreign audiences and political adversaries are ready every day to actively misunderstand. So even efficiently managed messages are likely to breakdown.

All that said, my experience with institutions and nonprofits would suggest that if there is a  simple message about core values which defines an attractive and compelling identity, it just might be possible to get that message through by relentlessly repeating it over time. And in the long run, getting that message through might be the most lasting communication success a government of goodwill can have.

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The presidential primary election season is underway and I have been reflecting again on just how much the game has changed in recent years. What does it take today to win a primary, and then a general election? And what role does new technology play?

When television became a dominant medium more than 50 years ago it literally changed the game in fundamental ways. Suddenly a candidate had to look good on television, be able to afford to buy time, and present the image of a confident leader able to make everything better. The Kennedy-Nixon debate was the classic example of how one candidate could hold his own on the issues, but still lose out to the one who looked more presidential on camera.

Now we are in the age of digital media. Looking presidential on television still counts, but even more critical is the capacity to build a highly motivated “community-of-interest” among like-minded individuals using two-way interactive media platforms. Such communities are not limited by geography and can be sustained over time.  And this same technology has the power to inspire them to attend rallies and vote on election day.

Election districts are also shaped differently in this new media age. Today, districts are clusters of like-minded people with their boundaries drawn by the most powerful party. Representatives are expected to champion their district’s thinking. This generally results in taking extreme positions on issues. And the situation keeps getting worse.

In presidential and gubernatorial primary elections this same kind of extreme thinking will take place. Confusion then develops when the winners must adjust and broaden their appeal in general elections. Candidates are often driven to say things they can’t sustain after elected. Then, their popularity fades and the political pendulum can easily swing from one party to the other.

The intensity of 24/7 news and ongoing community-of-interest building activities can keep these ideology-driven issues hot long after elections. This requires year-round fundraising which continues daily. More and more money is needed, and it only comes with clear voting expectations. This is what has put wealthy individuals and corporations fully in charge.

A new media world would seem to have the power to reduce the cost of campaigning. But the opposite has actually occurred. It takes huge amounts of money to sustain this constantly changing political game, including to pay for the last-minute negative attacks which many consultants believe win elections.

It’s amazing to think that it’s television imagery and community-of-interest building technology that enabled all these changes and contributed to this mess. Time heals, to be sure. But let’s hope it does not run out before another promising society collapses. Lessons of history can be sobering.

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This week Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu spoke to the US Congress at the invitation of the Speaker of the House without the concurrence of the President, breaking all established protocol for a state visit. This event had me thinking again about how the balance of power is supposed to work versus how media revolutions in the past have been able to significantly disrupt it. And the more I thought about it the more I could see media influences once again contributing to this disruption.

In the US we have a checks and balances system designed to balance the power between the legislative, judicial, and executive branches of government. But with each media revolution, from print to TV to digital and Internet technology, the balance of power has shifted in favor of those branches and individuals who understand and use the new dominant medium most effectively.

For example, among the 425 members of the House of Representatives and the 100 members of the Senate, only those who know how to use television and digital media effectively are able to attain widespread visibility and influence. The executive branch, by virtue of its administrative importance, has greater media access and so the president has the advantage of his powerful “bully pulpit.” And the judiciary’s “court of last resort” function tended to diminish its media access and influence, although recent hot constitutional issues might be changing all that… producing more balance disruption.

The appearance of Netanyahu before the US Congress is still another development in this changing media dynamic. Was the US speaker of the House’s invitation to speak to Congress without consulting the US President a pure Republican political move?  Was Netanyahu’s interest in coming primarily influenced by his impending bid for re-election back home? Was this just a dramatic  example of an inevitable permanent shift in the balance of power? Or was it a horrible blunder with negative consequences for the Speaker and/or the Prime Minister?

Whatever the motives, television and digital media and the ability to use it clearly made this event possible. And yes it could change the protocols for conducting foreign affairs in the future. Are we better off? Only time will tell. Change is difficult no matter how it comes, and this is still another example of what I mean when I argue that “media revolutions change everything!”





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