Archive for October, 2016

The release of the FBI letter reopening the Clinton email investigation sent journalists scrambling over the weekend for how to respond. They had to write something just because their competitors would.

The problem is that the letter was a totally substance-free announcement without explanation. It provided virtually nothing to write about, and yet something would have to be written. It’s situations like this that lead to speculation and innuendo… two disruptive communication poisons.

I appreciate the dilemma because I remember when journalists would call me for a statement about a situation I knew had no substance.  But I would still often hear: “My editor is pushing me and I have to write something!”

The problem is that under competitive pressure when there is no substance reporters are likely to  revert to speculation. “What it could be is…”  “It might be nothing, but then if it is…”  “If it turns out there is something she likely will go to prison.” That’s pure poison.

Under pressure to respond, campaigns are likely to revert to persuasive innuendo. Trump will be saying something like: “You just know the FBI  has something.”

And betting the FBI would have released anything it could, Clinton will be saying something like: “I think the FBI should release whatever it has.”

As a voter you no doubt are already leaning in one direction or the other. So you nod in the direction of your preferred innuendo: “Yea, I bet you’re right!”  And if you are still undecided, speculation and innuendo are certain pathways to disillusionment.

The fact is that “no story at all” becomes any story you want it to be. That is why speculation and innuendo are poisons. This campaign has been full of both… “journalism noise” on the one hand, and “smoke and mirrors” on the other.


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Many felt the third presidential debate had more substance than the first two. Different people will judge that differently based on how much substance they require to have confidence in the belief that a policy topic can or will be turned into action.

But it’s also essential to ask just how important is the tone of leadership rhetoric when it comes to getting things done?  What is the effect of persistent and consistent rants about what and who is wrong as the tone for your leadership rhetoric versus persistent and consistent remarks about what’s right, accompanied by visionary statements about what’s possible.

In my experience communication tone can be a surprisingly strong and important message. It’s easy to see how consistent tone over time becomes contagious and powerful. It attracts audiences like a magnet based on their own life circumstance and orientation. Those who are upset with what they see around them and can’t see exciting possibilities ahead will be attracted to an angry and attacking leader. And those inclined to be positive people on the whole will very likely be energized by remarks about why this moment in time is perfect to achieve new possibilities. A clear and believable  vision for what is possible is a strong action enabler.

When significant numbers of people are responding to angry rhetoric it must be a wake up call for the surrounding community or nation. And when any leader cannot inspire change with a positive and believable visionary tone there will be a very rocky road ahead.

Bottom line: There is truth to the concept of “self-fulfilling prophesy.” Communities, nations and organizations only move ahead with positive talking leaders who aim high.

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A communication analysis of Mr. Trump’s ability to attract a large following reveals how the needs of significant audiences can go mostly unnoticed for long periods of time, and the degree to which  festering anger can be awakened with autocratic, “rally the troupes” style rhetoric.

This situation has been made even worse in the presidential campaign by a major breakdown in the American political system. Relentless mean-spirited politics not only polarized Washington, but it was spilling across the nation and gradually angering huge numbers of people in economic decline. If legislators in Washington thought their ideology-produced gridlock had widespread national support they were totally missing large numbers of underserved people who soon would produce a protest loud enough to threaten the entire political system.

The result is that now there are even larger numbers of Americans disgusted with the entire presidential campaign. One candidate is looking more and more like a dictator threatening to jail his opponent, fire the generals he doesn’t like, and nuke his enemies. And troublesome skeletons just keep rolling out of the closet of the other. Many of us just can’t wait for the whole thing to be over.

So what will all this look like after the election? Even if Mr. Trump loses, his communication opportunities and followers will not likely go away. Bernie Sanders and his followers are not likely to disappear either. Others with special interest agendas will be encouraged to launch new political movements, and so processing information overload will continue to be a major challenge.

The gridlock in Washington will also likely continue, at least for a while. The U.S. will face a real struggle to recapture its role as leader of the free world. The Republican Party will have to rethink its divisive premises and find ways to collaborate. And even if the Democrats win, they will have to  overcome doing so with a very unpopular candidate.

Instant news and social media technology have been the enablers of this mess. Communication rules and processes are now all new. Policies and action plans are too complicated for 24/7 cable. The loud and the dramatic voices will continue to achieve the most visibility. And entertainment values will  continue to be used by news organizations in search of competitive advantage.

So these questions remain: What will the next four years look like in Washington with continuing political chaos and relentless all day news appetites? Will the Republican Party regroup and survive? Will special interest political parties form. Is the two-party system doomed? Even if Hillary wins, how will she and her party function when so many people in the U.S. and abroad don’t trust her? Is it even possible for the middle class to get turned around? Can we actually get organized to effectively address poverty, racism and violence in the nation’s neighborhoods? And can we reestablish the importance of moral character and integrity in leadership?

History shows how great civilizations decline and die. Early Greeks talked about how democracies are very capable of self-destruction. With this in mind, this campaign should be a loud wake-up call for all of us.



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OK I confess. I recently made an attempt to understand Mr. Trumps’ appeal in spite of his offensive language and incessant attacks on individuals and entire groups. I suggested that in this age of instant communication and 24/7 news saturation maybe all this crudeness could eventually come to represent a kind of appealing toughness to his supporters. I reasoned that as globalization sent jobs abroad and middle incomes declined these people believed their depressed condition had been overlooked in Washington and that maybe this tough guy could really deliver results for them.

But before I continue we must remember that communication dynamics in Washington had a lot to do with bringing about this mess. The political decision to block anything the current president wanted to accomplish setup an eight year assault which totally grid-locked Congress. Problems were left unsolved. Mean-spirited attacks became the norm. Nationwide, political districts became polarized. And so the under-employed and declining middle class became angry and chose this presidential election to no longer remain silent. The “stop Obama at all cost” strategy backfired.

This is why we must try to understand communication and media dynamics in order to fully comprehend what is happening to us in politics. Actual problem-solving is something very different from arguing ideology. Statesmanship requires a completely different and higher level style of leadership behavior than winning ratings on a reality TV show. And when it comes to addressing the problems of an entire country and representing it abroad it’s not a matter of winning debate points. What we need is a savvy, sophisticated, and informed president capable of bi-partisan strategic problem-solving and thoughtful, courageous statesmanship.

It’s tempting to ask committed conservatives why they didn’t disqualify their “offensive and crude” candidate and find a more experienced one long ago? It’s also tempting to ask why cable television gave free rally coverage and publicity merely in anticipation of headline producing “crude” remarks?

As a consequence of all this, these debates have now become pointless. And we still have an eleventh-hour mess.

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This depressing presidential campaign is making it imperative that we commit to the preparation of leaders that are both ethical and capable of serious bi-partisan domestic and international problem-solving. In short, we need practical approaches beyond politics to help cities losing jobs to globalization and drowning in poverty. And we need fresh talent and ideas to address the threats of terrorism and rebuild countries from the ravages of war.

On the domestic front, many universities are already engaged in widespread community service. But the lesson of this campaign is that our focus must now be on ethics (i.e. lead in water, hidden poverty, etc.), priority problems (i.e. small business development, helping displaced immigrants, ending gun violence, etc.), and educating leadership for a smaller world (bi-partisan and pragmatic).

On the foreign front, higher education is on its way to becoming a truly global industry with incredible potential for international problem-solving. For example, former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta recently suggested on CNN’s Fareed Zakaria’s Global Public Square that the U.S. has the military capability to defeat ISIS in the Middle East but not the ability to rebuild the institutions and structures essential for governing. Is this an area where universities can help?

Universities certainly cannot do it alone, but many do have the research and consulting capability needed for engaging in problem-solving partnerships at home and abroad. Here are some interesting factors:

1. Most institutions are already heavily engaged in leadership development and are now testing innovative internship and apprenticeship-style approaches. This suggests that the pool of bright people capable of dealing with domestic and global problem-solving could be increasing very soon.

2. New and more flexible formats for study include deep immersion in other cultures both at home and abroad. This includes appreciating diverse foods, religions, traditions, values, and politics.

3. Globalization means that researchers in every field will be looking more broadly for projects and funding at home and abroad. Areas of interest should naturally include public health, water, food, poverty, energy, global warming, politics, urban studies, etc.

4. There are also academic experts with experience in strategic planning, city management, institutional development, non-profit agency advancement, small business development, entrepreneurial initiatives, and more.

5. Increasing numbers of citizens are learning how to simply demonstrate by example how the fundamental “idea of America” (individual freedom and opportunity, equal justice, democratic processes, etc.) can improve understanding between cultures in neighborhoods and foreign countries. And higher education certainly can be an extremely powerful force for soft power and citizen diplomacy.

It is not too much of a stretch to see that needed expertise for domestic and international problem-solving already exits in many of the world’s universities. It’s just a matter of identifying those experts… and nurturing them along.

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