Archive for November, 2016

Is it possible for leaders to use new media technology such as Twitter to communicate directly with their constituents, and thereby ignore the news media?  The answer is yes, and no!

Since the digital technology revolution changed the world, strategic communicators have been using new media tools to communicate directly with their audiences with great success. These tools certainly mean that institutions and governments no longer have to rely on the press to connect with their constituents. It is indeed possible to send messages to audiences exactly as leaders shape them. The president-elect did not invent this idea… it’s been going on for a long time.

However, the need to have strong relationships with the press cannot go away. It is deadly to think otherwise:

First, those relationships are necessary because dealing effectively with issues and crises require it.  Otherwise, relentless investigative journalism will ultimately undermine a leader’s credibility. Leaders must look like they know what they are doing in a crisis, and they cannot do it without handling themselves confidently with reporters.

Second, 24/7 news media will be writing stories with or without the cooperation of leaders, and will be using the same technology tools to reach their constituents directly.

Third, third-party endorsements are powerful on those occasions when it is possible to get your  message to the public through the news media.

And fourth, there always will be huge numbers of people reacting negatively to leader “tweets” and thereby getting energized and mobilized by the digital and traditional media they follow. Special interest websites, cable channels with viewpoints, cause driven bloggers, and endless other issue-focused social media sites will be building and activating their own followers in opposition.

The fact that a president of the United States stays up all night “tweeting” to avoid talking to the press will not insulate him from the daily negative impact of endless messages generated by a relentless army of 24/7 journalists using the same technology.

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The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) recently released an extremely comprehensive report on countering violent extremism, titled Turning Point. It presents the results of international polling, assesses the current status of activity around the world, and makes some suggestions for a way forward.

Central to me was the observation that governments can do only so much, and that NGO’s, private corporations and other institutions must do more. But the barrier for greater civic involvement has been finding funding for all these potentially powerful non-governmental initiatives.

I have written posts in the past about a role for enlightened cities, universities and schools in making Muslims and other immigrants feel welcome. Many times what is seen as mostly an international problem actually resides right in the middle of neighborhoods in many of our great cities around the world.

Much effort has been spent to understand the motivation of young people who elect to join ISIS or other extremist causes. Many analysts think it’s basically a personal identity crisis. It’s a desire for a stronger sense of belonging and meaning than they are finding in their neighborhoods and cities. Religious fundamentalism and failed states in the Middle East certainly contribute to the problem, but this search for meaning seems to be the strongest motivator. Social media connect these dissatisfied young people around the world, establishes an emotional bond between them, and  eventually produces a compelling need to take violent action.

So what can schools do to help?  Here’s my partial list:

  1. Awareness. Accepting that the problem is local. Most schools have communication officers that communicate daily with the news media, parents, students, and community opinion leaders. Universities communicate regularly with similar audiences.
  2. Communication campaigns. Journalism and strategic communication students can design and launch information campaigns that educate citizens about the issues and initiatives.
  3. Research. Universities certainly have the capacity through research to learn more about the specific problems in individual cities and neighborhoods. What initiatives will actually make a difference here? Are outreach initiatives and educational opportunities already underway that can be enhanced or better promoted?
  4. Community projects.  Family counseling? College preparatory programs? Community dialogue groups?  Basic job training? After school activities?
  5. Internships. Some advanced students have experience with social service research projects, communication campaigns, individual counseling, and teaching fundamental courses.
  6. Special personal invitations. Citizen groups can invite struggling youth and families to  events in the city and on campuses. Sports. Parades. Celebrations. Fine Arts performances. Art exhibitions. Conferences. Lectures.
  7. Partnerships. Schools and universities partnering with city governments, associations, civic organizations, nonprofits, businesses, and other schools can launch powerful research and action projects that can make a big difference. A student that escaped a bad neighborhood situation once said to me: “I tried to get lost but my school wouldn’t let me!”

Hard power implies the use of use of the military and police to defeat terrorist groups. But soft power is what is needed to win the battle of ideas. For the most part hard power is well-funded. Soft power is not.

The CSIS Turning Point report makes a strong case for the major funding necessary to win the war of ideas. And with a share of that funding, universities and schools certainly can play a major role in improving the lives of many immigrant young people and families.

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This interminable and frustrating presidential campaign surprised almost everyone. Besides ending with participants and observers in a complete state of exhaustion, it’s now more clear than ever that many of our surprises were the result of how the digital technology revolution changed our most basic communication rules.

A central lesson is that never before have we experienced a situation where vicious personal attacks, vulgar and offensive language, steady streams of unrealistic promises, and constant aggressive personal and international threats, became accepted as the norm. A lingering question must be: Will this affect America’s leadership role in the world?

We also learned that most all the major polls were wrong, even though political pollsters have become more scientific and technical with each election. They are now licking their wounds. How so?  We are in a time where “big data” is touted as the problem-solving waive of the future. But experience over the years taught me that the more data I collected the more complicated it was for me to interpret it accurately. Changing communication dynamics often blurs complicated situations. As a result, whenever possible polls should be followed by carefully selected focus groups to assist with data interpretation.

This was also a time for more people to observe how the news media actually works. For example, when Mr. Trump’s rallies promised outrageous headlines 24/7 cable television could not resist covering them, usually live. This translated into free publicity. Even when press comments became negative, the star-building power of live TV coverage continued. And since the business of media requires news stories to deliver audiences to commercials we learned just how much entertainment values influenced the election coverage.

We also learned about several additional digital media influences. One was the effective use of Twitter by a candidate to reach specific audiences over the heads of news reporters. Another was how the digital media work schedule of newspaper reporters affected story content. For example, most reporters write a concise story each day for the newspaper’s website, make “tweets” during the day, contribute to other social media outlets, are available for TV interviews, and also write pieces for a much “thinner” daily newspaper. The result is much less content, less “street” reporting, less talking with contacts face-to-face, less time reaching key experts by phone, less daily conversations with “insiders,” and less in-depth story research. All this contributes to a news industry that is more focused on “breaking news” than on in-depth issues analysis.

One morning show host ranted about how the New York Times totally missed the boat. He said it was shoddy journalism that caused its reporters to miss recognizing that Trump could win. But maybe the Times was thinking deeper than the horse race. Maybe its reporters were concerned about whether past and current behaviors would give their audience clues about a future Trump presidency: Will he actually do what he was promising… the good and the bad? Will he actually attack the people and places he said he will? And will his international business deals turn out to be serious conflicts? Now only time will tell.

We learned hard lessons about communication and leadership during this campaign. Let’s hope we never have to go through it again.

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Ignoring for now the communication credibility and potential global consequences of what our new President said he would do and to whom he would do it, I find myself thinking mostly today about what it really means to be an American.

Over this past weekend I attended a philosophy symposium addressing the question: What does it mean to be human? Listening to brilliant thinkers address this question, I thought: “This is the most fundamental question this election raised for us, as individuals… and as a nation.”

One speaker defined wisdom as: “Being able to see what should be carried forward, and what should be left behind.” Today its more clear than ever that our US political system is in desperate need of wisdom, coupled with some deeper thinking about what it means to be a truly human American.

Are not trust, dignity, and truth values that are embedded in the very idea of what it means to be an American?” Is not civility in human discourse and language basic to essential democratic processes? If so, then the name calling, personal attacks, and vulgar language of this election clearly degraded and disgraced who we are at the core.

It all began with mean-spirited ideology polarization and politics in both the congress and the election. It did our entire country a huge disservice. And it seems apparent to me that this was the fundamental cause of our becoming blind to the fact that so many of our families were being left behind.

So, maybe we need a whole new radical approach to preparing our families, children and politicians to behave first as productive Americans. Here’s an idea:

In public school, are we focusing too soon on memorizing academic subject-matter? Are teachers forced too soon to focus on improving student test scores? Are we missing the boat when it comes to cultural values? Would it not be better if children learned much sooner and in some depth how to think and solve human problems in a civil society?

In college, should studying what it means to be human be an early part of the curriculum? And should we also be teaching more about the characteristics of values-based leadership?

And when it comes to politics, should the parties require their candidates to sign-off on firm standards about speaking truthfully, demonstrating respect for opponents, and upholding basic American values in all public discourse?

In other words, should we be teaching young people, college students and politicians alike more about what it means to be a fully human American?

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Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle, by Pulitzer Prize winning author, Chris Hedges, offers a compelling analysis of the success of professional wrestling. In brief, he suggests that the audiences are far larger than many of us realize, the spectacle of it is a compelling escape from reality, and a dramatic “suspension of disbelief” is in full force. In other words, there is a willingness to overlook the staging and somehow believe in its legitimacy, much the same as we do in a make-believe play.

Is that what has been going on in this presidential campaign? Both candidates have little or no credibility. So in order to vote many of us will suspend our disbelief, close our eyes, and hope for the best?

Most Trump attacks, crude remarks and misstatements have no grounding in truth or reality. Certainly everyone knows that. But somehow, many of those followers must be suspending their disbelief and hoping against hope that he can fix what is hurting them.

And with Mrs. Clinton, an aura of secrecy has built up over a long period of time… no doubt originating with her past personal crises. And so poll after poll tells us people just don’t trust her to tell the truth.

The lesson we are learning is that when candidates lose credibility their events become little more than spectacle. Then, their followers have no choice but to suspend disbelief, and replace trust with blind hope.

In this new media world the hourly nonstop implosion of misrepresentation fogs our ability to be rational, creates an acceptance of the outrageous as commonplace, and compels everyone to replace credible information with hope.

It’s impossible to be certain of the long-term psychic and social consequences of what we have been through. My “hope” is that with the benefit of hindsight we will finally come to our senses and once again affirm the importance of “source credibility” as the first principle of effective leadership.

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