Archive for January, 2017

The new British Prime Minister, Theresa May, recently came to the US on a mission. Her first stop was the United Nations, and she came prepared. Her address was comprehensive, articulate, and carefully shaped to reveal the UK’s position on a wide range of international issues, from Russia to NATO to Syria. It was a major address, well crafted and effectively delivered. And it set her up for a visit the next day to the White House.

The purpose of her visit to the US was to lay the groundwork for a strong partnership with the new Trump administration. At home she will be managing the consequences of Britain pulling out of the EU, and she sees similarities with what happened in the American election. Both situations were driven by voters who felt left behind by globalization. Both voters saw their jobs being lost when companies moved operations abroad. And both voters were also fearing the impact of immigration and large numbers of refugees.

But can this Trump-May partnership work?  Can the earlier Thatcher-Reagan duo be their model?

From a communication perspective it was interesting to observe the difference in presence and body language between the two at the press conference following their White House meeting. She stood tall looking and sounding like a Prime Minister. She even demonstrated a little gamesmanship by noting that Trump offered his support for NATO in their private talks, thinking he would not mention it with reporters present. But what was most striking was that her remarks were about issues. And when Trump began to explain his position he suddenly seemed to be lost for words. Then he quickly uttered something like “it’s going to be really good,” and stopped talking.

What’s new in this fast-moving digital world is how a leader with real substance and solid experience on a wide range of issues may not win the day over one who simply conveys self-confidence and makes repeated bold assertions. May wants the US to be her partner. But at the end of the day who will be the lead partner… the one with substance or the one with endless daily tweets?

We could conclude that bold might win at first but substance will win the day. But the truth is we really don’t know. What we do know is that in the short run we will be living in a world where explaining well thought-out ideas and actions is on the decline, and creating confusing chaos with disruptive tweets is becoming the norm.

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A number of years ago the political parties formed Republican and Democratic districts all across the country.  This meant that elections would almost guarantee party victory and eliminate the honest discussion of competing ideas right at the outset.

Newly elected legislators would then arrive in Washington in the middle of a competitive partisan environment, discovering that huge amounts of time would be spent on political fighting, continuous fundraising, and there would be little if any time for governing or for cross-party socializing. The result was gridlock, and a situation where our representatives would not even know each other very well.

People all across America found this appalling. But somehow legislators missed or just ignored this growing discontent. Many of these people had real problems requiring solutions.  Companies had moved out of their towns creating high unemployment. Salaries were not keeping up with overall economic growth. Poverty was increasing. Drugs were destroying lives. Gangs were more violent, and problems with some police departments were not being addressed.

This opened the door for a Washington outsider like Donald Trump to gradually find these people and promise to solve their problems. It did not matter that he verbally attacked innocent people, made outrageous pronouncements, and even was vulgar. His promises to solve all these problems was enough to secure their support.

Now president, he is giving endless executive orders everyday that disrupt government operations and social programs. They target the promises he made, but disrupt more than they solve. And in addition he makes threats that serve as attention diversions, putting the press in a quandary about what and how to report. Even his own party has to ignore his daily rants in order to move its partisan priorities ahead. So polarization continues and both parties remain caught up in it.

What we have now is a self-perpetuating cycle that’s generating chaos at home and abroad. And the social and leadership communication dynamics of the situation may already have taken on a life of their own. In fact, it could be that this entire situation will have to self-destruct before a more rational system can emerge.

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Somewhere in the avalanche of pundit commentaries following the inaugural address I remember ‘hearing the words “Trump is more interested in America’s competitive interests than in our founding values.”  From my perspective as a communicator, that characterization rang true.

In fact, listening carefully to Trump’s actual content it seemed to me that he made “America first” his primary value, and possibly his only one. He asserted that coming together was important but there was no empathetic content or even tone there to support it.

He made firm promises to literally fix all of America’s infrastructure problems… from roads, to overpasses, to bridges, to tunnels, to organizations. All of them.  He also said all the problems of the inner cities… from poverty, to drugs, to police violence, and all that “carnage” will be fixed immediately. And he further asserted that beginning right now it will be “America first” in all dealings around the world.

Thinking as a communication analyst, experience teaches me that with speeches like this audiences will fall into at least three response categories: First, there are those who see these pronouncements as huge over statements; they don’t expect much of this to actually happen; but they are willing to hope that some improvements will be made. Second, there are those who are in really dire situations and actually do expect significant improvements in their personal lives. And finally, there are those who see all of this a pure theatre; they see the lies, personal attacks and vulgarities of the campaign as character traits, and therefore find that the tone of “America first” so aggressively stated to be a threat to the world order, and maybe even world peace.

If poles were completely reliable we could use audience research to see how many people are in each of these categories. We could then determine each category’s preferred media, and we could contact each of them… learning from and responding to interactive dialogue. In this way pragmatic problem solvers could try to work gradually at adjusting each overstatement to doable improvements.

But alas, the campaign proved that our polling is not yet accurate enough to accomplish this. And extreme polarization in congress currently continues without any hope of collaborative pragmatic planning. So from a communication perspective, we are beyond “calculated risk” well in to “high risk” territory.

Trump’s book “The Art of the Deal” argues that keeping the other guys guessing is good. But the entire history of foreign policy, diplomacy, and at least two world wars would warn that this approach could result in international chaos, or even worse.



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Will the “repeated lies sound true, vicious attacks are OK, and vulgarities are common place” dynamics of the recent presidential campaign influence strategic communication practices in the days ahead?  Only time will tell. We all need to become analysts. And we must be prepared to adjust.

For institutions, name visibility and authentic brand identity will be more important than ever.  Mr. Trump’s name is his brand, and also his primary business asset. But his asset will come under intense scrutiny, and therefore will be vulnerable. What about your institution’s brand?

In this environment institutional leaders must be prepared for their institution’s brand authenticity to be tested. Effectiveness in today’s world will require cutting though messy clutter with simple, clear and consistent messages, and by staying focused on priority market segments… using their preferred multi-media platforms and tactics.

In these cluttered and confusing times I also suggest forming educational and non-profit/NGO partnerships, but doing it carefully. I am recalling how a small private university in the east formed a partnership with the United Nations Association which instantly lifted the visibility and credibility of its new international studies program. I believe the same result can be achieved in other creative ways with the right non-profits, NGOs, or associations.

It’s especially important now to understand that “everything communicates,” institutional name, leadership behavior, message, tone, and even the right partnerships. Trump’s future success will be determined by an evolving landscape. Yours may be too. But you should have better odds for success because of the authenticity of your brand, and your understanding of how to use multi-media platforms and tactics effectively.

One final thought. You may need to make adjustments as you monitor this changing landscape. This reminds me of the work of MIT Professor Peter Senge and his thoughts about becoming a learning organization. Processes that keep your organization learning about critical changes in its business and markets are especially important right now. I recommend that you google, Peter Senge!

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During this pre-inauguration period I have become consumed with concerns about our American political system. What just happened to us?  Could this be our future?

In chess you simply win or lose. Strategy is a matter of anticipating, blocking, and responding with another move. You win purely by out-maneuvering your opponent. Is this what politics has become… game of chess? A horserace?

I wish I could assume that everyone who goes into politics does so because they have a set of sincere beliefs and thoughtful solutions for social problems. I would like to know they understood that clarity of thinking about content, consistency of message, ability to connect with a wide variety of audiences, basic American values, and commitment to truth, all are required. I’d like to know that they understood their biggest challenge will be to communicate their bold ideas more effectively than their opponent. And I wish the entire political system was structured so that winning would only happen if and when they convinced enough people to agree with them.

But alas, I am afraid the Chess game/horserace approach is what we had in this presidential election.  Political strategy was primarily calculating and anticipating the moves of opponents. Keeping adversaries off-balance and centering all attention on the candidates’ personalities was everything.  Doing this with lies and false news became acceptable because it all began to sound true when repeated often enough. Simply naming topics dramatically, making outrageous claims, launching personal attacks, engaging in bullying, and promising to fix everything intensified the drama and resulted in celebrity. Once the campaign rally as entertainment got rolling, too much detail interrupted that drama. Afterwards, when handlers and staffers explained outlandish and unclear remarks by using situation blurring weasel words, conditions reset themselves for the next big show.

Sadly, this is how our presidential campaign degenerated. Can we even bear to go through it again?

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The one thing that characterized 2016 more than anything was a complete breakdown in political communication. Cool Hand Luke’s famous line “What we have here is a failure to communicate” was a reality every day in every way.

While communication always breaks down initially, some understanding is possible over time with clarity, consistency and persistence. Between a constant flow of lies, fake news, 24/7 breaking news clutter, and politician initiated miscommunication, the citizen consumer had no frame of reference  from which to understand much of anything.

Responding to the belief that Americans are tired of assuming the burden of other countries’ wars, Obama began a policy of seeking to form coalitions of countries to assume the responsibility. When that was not working well enough many pundits criticized, and then later suggested much the same thing.

Mr. Trump was one of those critics, yet much of his attacks amounted to a series of daily contradictions. CNN defended its out-of-balance coverage of the Trump “rallies” by arguing that his outrageous comments were always news and had to be covered and fact-checked. But we quickly learned in 2016 that after the rally fact-checking never gets back into the news strong enough to correct the situation.

Reporting remarks about building a wall between the US and Mexico, immediately eliminating ISIS, fixing inner city problems, belittling the UN, threatening NATO support, etc. without explaining implications and contradictions suggests the need for a whole new approach to journalism.

For example, is it responsible to give Mr. Putin credit for achieving a ceasefire in Syria as if it’s a victory over the US when he authorized air strikes in Syria that killed thousands of innocent civilians and children to achieve it?  Too many reports had a dramatic tone of declaring a winner who sidelined the US, rather than communicating the complexity and contradictions of the total situation. One analyst reinforced this misleading tone by suggesting that Putin will continue hacking because he is winning and outscoring the US.

In the past, balanced television reporting was simply putting both sides on camera and letting them argue. In the digital age, however, this has only led to extreme polarization, outrageous remarks, lies, and consumer confusion.

2017 will require the news media to think beyond the headline potential of outrageous remarks and tweets. The main lesson of 2016 teaches us that politics and policy can no longer just be about star making and personality contests. We must now focus on evaluating the substance of ideas… and we will need the help of very smart journalists to do it.


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