Archive for February, 2017

There are endless horrible images of the ravages of war on television. Do they compel people to act?  Do they horrify, but just leave us feeling helpless?  Or, do most of us just quickly dismiss them with mumbles about a world that’s coming apart?

The Vietnam war was reported every day on television. I remember that my first exposure to real war on the tube was horrifying. But gradually as those images became daily experiences they lost much of their early shock. People I interviewed admitted that eventually these reports started to look more like a movie to them. And those early feelings of real horror would only return when they reminded themselves that this was actually real war.

War reporting on television is our daily reminder that a steady diet of most anything on this medium eventually can become accepted as commonplace. We learned that surprising lesson in our recent presidential election. Flat-out lies, personal attacks, and vulgarities became commonplace all too quickly. And I fear that the horrible daily images of bombed-out buildings with desperate families and dying children are becoming all too commonplace as well.

But once in a while there is an image so powerful that it sticks in the mind and won’t let go. We all are haunted by that one image of that lone little child, fully dressed, curled-up, so innocent-looking, washed up on that beach– even though we deep down also knew that there were countless others just like him.

Now, much to my dismay, the other day I saw one more such horribly haunting image.

A bomb had just exploded and people were running away from the rubble for their life. In the middle of the chaos and devastation there was one lone child sitting there with only two bloody stumps remaining for his legs. His father was running aimlessly and yelling desperately for help. And with his arms both stretched upward toward the sky this ravaged little child simply said,” Daddy, please pick me up!”

This one will leave me crying for a lifetime.


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Delegitimatizing is a new and questionable tactic in our 24/7 digital world. It is relentlessly attacking institutions or people by raising questions about their fundamental legitimacy.  And it sadly can cut through the clutter of information overload because the attacks are both outrageous and dramatic.

For example, Mr. Trump declared the news media to be the enemy. He claimed that mainstream media never report the truth. He declared what they do to be fake news. For example, he recently asserted that mainstream media never report terrorism. He followed by having his staff release a list of more than 70 instances. But every event on this list was covered, and many were covered exhaustively. But delegitimatizing does not require truth. It just must be outrageous and dramatic.

During the campaign Mr Trump attacked Mrs Clinton by declaring her a criminal, and then relentlessly reinforced his charge by leading the chant “lock her up.” What complicates matters is that all of us have vulnerabilities that can make us reluctant to defend ourselves. There may be a small grain of truth in the charge, or we may fear being drawn into a shouting contest that is just not our style. For example, in the case of terrorism news coverage the opposite criticism might have been more appropriate, i.e. covering terrorism gives terrorists the publicity they seek. Or a charge that entertainment values and industry competition are influencing too many news decisions might have had some legitimacy.

Nonetheless, relentless attacking to delegitimatize the opposition is joining mindless lying, vulgarity, and fake news as factors that are tearing our society apart. No matter our political preferences, more and more of us are awaking every morning with a nagging anxiety wondering what the hell will happen next. This is not about our political ideology. It is the consequence of a 24/7 out-of-control digital media produced fog.


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For most of the 20 or more years I was responsible for university communication I was also responsible for the institution’s legislative relations… first the state legislature and later the national legislature as well. In both cases I experienced a gradual polarization of political ideology, eventually to the point where very little was getting accomplished.

My recourse was to try to focus on influencing higher education policy, no matter the party. This meant I would have to formulate our position on higher education issues and work hard to demonstrate the advantages for both parties.  In time I came to see my issue agenda as essentially bipartisan, and described myself as an independent with no party affiliation.

Of course, this meant that I didn’t support any politicians financially or otherwise at election time, thereby diminishing my capacity to influence them. My frustration accelerated as I came to realize that while many legislators’ staffs responded positively to my positions, this success had virtually no influence on how the legislator would vote, or what he or she said in public. I was in a world where there was no compromise, and where as a non-donor I had no influence.

Looking back I now think that nonprofit institutions need to influence government policy outside the legislative process. They must plan aggressive and collaborative marketing and strategic communication  initiatives  aimed at asking those who do make political contributions for their help… trustees, alumni, community leaders, corporate heads, faculty, staff, voting age students, the news media, etc.

Political debate tends to reinforce polarization. Extreme polarization leads to gridlock. Gridlock only unlocks in those very specific places where donors have influence. Institutional communicators therefore must learn how to use both new and traditional communication technology to ask major constituents who are also political donors for help in championing their cause.




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