Archive for March, 2017

When a support base is extremely partisan or narrowly segmented appealing only to it can have serious long-term consequences. The 24/7 media that helped build support doesn’t go away. Over time message content will likely change with new information and evidence, and what works and what doesn’t will reach both the base and the American public at large.

  1. Trump made exaggerated promises to an important group of people who legitimately felt ignored by Washington. He gained their passionate support by over-promising. But what happens when industries that moved away do not come back? What happens when these people are not the ones that get the new jobs when they appear? What happens when Abolishing Obama-care does not result in much better healthcare at prices they can afford? Promising is one thing. Making workable promises is something else.
  2. Ultra-conservative republicans promised their voters and donors in narrowly formed ultra-conservative districts to “repeal and replace” Obama-care. But they grossly underestimated the general public’s response to only offering low-income people very minimal coverage “access.” Most people want better coverage that is affordable for everyone… as promised by President Trump to his base.

In today’s instant media environment appealing to a base is possible in the short-term. But messages about what works and what doesn’t will eventually come through to everyone, and exaggerated or false promises very likely will bring legislative failures.

It’s may be possible to campaign with narrow liberal or conservative ideas, but not to govern with them. Progress on problem-solving requires workable ideas on the table, mutual respect, good faith collaboration, and a willingness to compromise on some details. Implementation problems can be fixed later with experience. This is the way problems get solved in the real world.

Extreme conservative and liberal ideologues will always face the reality that persistent 24/7 media will ultimately reach everyone with messages about what is working and what isn’t. Learning the “what’s workable” lesson sooner rather than later could save a lot of people a lot of pain.

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In over fifty years of study, teaching, and professional practice I found that the words people used either clearly reinforced their credibility or permanently destroyed it. There was no middle ground.

But sadly I have to acknowledge that the recent presidential election produced an exception. It seems that television experienced speakers in our 24/7 “live” television environment are now able to suspend this negative effect of repeated lies, vulgarities, exaggerations, bullying, and personal attacks for some uncertain period of time. This is especially true if they convincingly promise to fix their audience’s most deeply felt problems… even when the fixes may not be realistic.

And now other experienced television performers have managed to polarize their political party ideologies and unknowingly drive them into total gridlock. The sad consequence is that these mean-spirited performers accomplished this while being mindlessly unaware that great numbers of Americans were dropping out of their system. Now these drop-outs may be growing into a new majority.

New polls confirm that more and more Americans are concerned about unanticipated consequences of exaggerated promises, White House management turmoil, mean-spirited personal attacks, elimination of society’s safety-net programs, dangerous foreign policy pronouncements, continued gridlock, and mindless disruptive presidential tweets. The question that has so many of us living on pins and needles is… “When will something really bad happen?”

Do we have fresh thinking political leaders ready to engineer a new day? Do we need a totally new grassroots electoral system? Can the current two parties survive this mess they created? Or will a clean-up require new parties based on pragmatic problem-solving and new ideas? There are no easy answers.

But I must say that during my 50 years of immersing myself in all aspects of the power of media and communication I learned that it is possible that truth-telling, authenticity, integrity, ethical character, trust, and credibility can all be restored as unwavering prerequisites for leading anything… most especially great institutions and nations. Collective persistence is the key.

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In the foreign policy world “hard power” is military strength and “soft power” is diplomacy, public diplomacy and all those communication initiatives related to building understanding between countries and cultures. Hard power deters potential enemies and confronts them when necessary. Soft power builds international relationships, increases cross-cultural understanding, and helps solve global problems.

Soft power diplomacy is government-to-government communication, and soft power public diplomacy is government-to-people communication and people-to people communication. People to people communication carries the most credibility because of its genuine authenticity.

A  number of years ago there was an agency of the U.S. government that was responsible for soft power. It was the United State Information Agency (USIA). It developed programs to communicate and demonstrate the exceptional “idea of America” around the world. Artists, scholars, and musicians were sent abroad to show their talents. Groups and individual exchanges were arranged to encourage continuing dialogue. Libraries of materials were established. Films were produced and distributed. And the Voice of America (VOA), broadcast trusted news and information programs 24 hours a day all over the globe.

But, during a widespread austerity move, the Clinton administration eliminated the USIA and moved its programs into the Sate Department. As a result, soft power funding was dramatically reduced and programs and projects were eliminated. The negative consequences of this mindless move have never been remedied.

For about a year I was a part of many discussions (including a project at the Wilson Center think tank) that brought together legislative staffers, government professionals, educators, and politicians in Washington who were concerned about the diminished state of public diplomacy communication in the state department. It was a concern strongly reinforced by several staffers from the defense department. They told us that the Defense Department was sponsoring public diplomacy projects only because soft power initiatives were urgently needed in places where hard power was not appropriate… and because the state department did not have the resources.

The PBS News Hour recently reported that the Trump administration is working on a budget that reduces state department funding by another 37% in order to help pay for dramatic increases in the defense budget. Can you imagine the devastating impact this will have on soft power public diplomacy communication?

No matter your politics, the need for significant increases in soft power initiatives to communicate the “idea of America” and enhance cross-cultural understanding has never been stronger. To ignore this urgent need is not only short-sighted, it is a major threat to our national security.

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Senor Editor at the Atlantic, Derek Thompson, wrote a very perceptive book called, Hit Makers: The Science of Popularity in an Age of Distraction. It avoids articulating a specific formula for popular success, but it certainly clarifies many of the compelling factors involved.

It became a particularly important read for me because it helped me understand the election victory that many experienced and intelligent people failed to predict. For example, my takeaway was that bold and surprising pronouncements can have a strong audience appeal if they are surprising and credible enough sounding to a specific audience. Constant repetition of themes related to those pronouncements can then reinforce that initial appeal. And new and outrageous remarks will also guarantee ongoing media distribution and even news coverage.

In addition, in such a climate a super hero can be created by establishing that a superstar performer alone is capable of solving your problems. And when you combine bold repeated themes with the powerful persona of a superhero you have the potential for enormous popularity… especially with an already sympathetic audience.

In many ways Mr. Trump became a super hero for a very small segment of American society… people who had good reason to be unhappy and felt that they had not been heard. His “Make America Great” theme sounded new enough, but it also had a familiar ring. This was because Ronald Reagan used much the same theme and Trump just made it sound new, relying on the power of it also sounding familiar. And then he captured ongoing news coverage for this revived theme by constantly making new and outrageous remarks.

Simply put, this analysis suggests that Trump is an experienced entertainment machine skillfully designed to make himself a super hero… the only person who can fix your problems. And while much of his base would eventually see all this as over-bragging, over time they would merely overlook his crazy remarks as “just Trump,” choosing to believe that he could still deliver a better life for them.

Now that he is President this analysis does raise compelling questions about how effectively these instincts for achieving popularity in unique situations transfer over to leading a nation, solving complex social problems, dealing with relentless terrorists, managing huge national and international crises, and making life and death war decisions.

Make no mistake, this analysis is not about political ideology. It is about the scary psychology of popularity, the winning instincts of a previously successful entertainer, and the good and bad consequences of this age of instant technology, “tweeting,” and 24/7 news.

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Will President Trump follow his address to Congress with an ongoing change in the tone of his leadership? What follows now is obviously what matters most. There is a good deal of compelling anecdotal evidence that leading with arrogance, threats, and anger unleashes similar behavior in organizations and citizens.

For example, threatening rhetoric about vetting refugees from specific Muslim countries unleashed anger on several fronts, even though most citizens might have agreed on a softer approach. A surprising resurgence of antisemitism around the country has been occurring for no apparent reason… except for a growing feeling of anger. A widespread fear of military style deportations came over huge numbers of Hispanics as a result of the rhetoric… even though there were no changes in the law. Responding to scary ambiguities about health insurance coverage, refugee vetting, and deportations brought shouting crowds to Republican town hall meetings, even though these were not new issues. Angry students at universities across the nation protested and tried to block speakers with extreme messages, even though the appearance of such speakers had been fairly commonplace. Shouting crowds related to gun violence and police brutality brought a resurgence of dramatic news media coverage. And in the midst all this unrest the news media was angrily declared the enemy.

It is as if a hostile tone was set at the top, and then it spread into to the streets encouraging all kinds of frustration and anger to be acted out. In fact, many of us have been getting awake each morning afraid of what might happen next… a situation that is also expressed by many foreign policy professionals around the world.

My study of communication dynamics clearly suggests that leadership tone can either bring people together or produce even deeper divisions, more anger, and high levels of anxiety. Did Trump’s address to Congress put his leadership style on a more constructive course, or will his angry tone reappear and keep feeding a climate of chaos and unrest? Only time will tell.

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