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Archive for the ‘Lessons Learned’ Category

Researchers have long pointed out that successful communication can only take place if the message receiver has the same meaning for the words that are used as the message sender. For example, when I say the word “dog,” I am only making a noise. The receiver must have the same meaning for that noise that I do. A dog lover will respond differently than a dog hater, and some people might even be thinking about a person they know!

Recent media revolutions made this communication reality even worse. Many important words are now losing their meanings. They get blurred in the mass of our overwhelming information overload. Simply put, people hear what they want to hear. Words like truth, socialism, conspiracy, collusion, treason, communism, capitalism, extremism, conservative, democracy, republic, spying, and even crisis, are clearly meaning different things to different people.

For example, many Marxist scholars would see socialism as a stage midway between capitalism and communism. And Russian communists will claim they are a democracy simply because they hold elections. When candidates are asked if they are capitalists, their answers will definitely mean different things to different audiences.

During my professional career I would ask groups to define words like these and there always was very little agreement. Most confused socialism with communism. Few had the same understanding of capitalism. And when Bernie Sanders talks about democratic socialism, his audiences will no doubt have differing ideas about what he really means.

Especially today, speakers and writers should always define their most important words before they use them. Or even better, maybe they should avoid using some words completely, and focus mostly on explaining their best ideas, as well as their plan for a totally renewed United States of America.

A positive tone and message for 2020 will be the only way to recapture the American dream. Above all, both parties must avoid drowning in the current administration’s moral cesspool.

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Recent media revolutions created a daily diet of confusing message patterns, processes, and change-producing forces. It requires a big picture perspective to see how these undercurrents of disconcerting messages are changing what is socially acceptable, and how making daily bold pronouncements has become a tactic for gaining and maintaining power.

For example, Mr. Trump’s success is because he unknowingly stumbled into this new media environment. I am sure he was surprised to discover how outlandish promises, lies, cruelty, chaotic disruptions, and “wannabe” dictator demands, could work exactly as his reality TV programs had worked in the past. Even better, he could now change the tone and content of public discourse, while also experiencing “bully pulpit power.” All he would have to do is dominate the media agenda every day by saying things that are outlandish and irritating.

For example, he is making new border control pronouncements almost every day. Since there are no real policy guidelines, he adds irritation simply by contradicting himself. Lacking both confidence and sophistication, he ignores criticisms and just makes more demands and threats. The resulting confusion and chaos is what enables bully pulpit power to emerge.

But the consequence is a seriously divided nation. Significant portions of the general public are experiencing disturbing psychological reactions to these ongoing disruptions. First, people become emotionally and mentally exhausted. Then, they become anesthetized, and simply look away. Many describe deep feelings of depression. All this, while many extremists are actually becoming encouraged and emboldened.

In this new digital media world, would-be autocrats with little substance can dominate the media agenda and gain power. But they also divide us. My goal is to use 50 years of lessons-learned about media dynamics to make you care. Then, I hope you will examine your lessons-learned, and do whatever you can to bring back the United States of America.

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If I was their communication consultant I would tell both parties that their extreme polarization is destroying them. And with a president constantly going crazy with hostile pronouncements, the road ahead is loaded with life-threatening hazards!

Let me first deal with the Dem’s. If they significantly turn up the heat on their Mueller investigation, there very likely will be a voter backlash. I would therefore recommend proceeding very carefully. However, simply by using known facts, they can develop effective talking points for their candidates. Details about the president’s character, cruel behavior, questionable foreign business interests, lack of cabinet experts, and many interactions between his campaign and Russian oligarchs, are already well-known. And now more than ever, these candidates must not get bogged down in the Trump swamp. Winning the 2020 election will require a huge preponderance of forward-looking big ideas, specific plans of action, and bold visions for recapturing global leadership.

What about the GOP? Its problem is that in spite of all the Trump turmoil, Republicans still have their heads in the sand. The idea that a few favorable White House policies excuse overlooking the president’s autocratic ambitions and mindless cruelty has run its course. Endless lies, gross exaggerations, admiration of dictators, and cruelty to everyone, eventually wear out in a media-driven, information-saturated, environment. And now, with the president’s most recent anger-provoking pronouncements, the GOP must focus on saving itself. Republicans desperately need an alternative to Trump who is intellectually capable of explaining the true meaning of the “American dream,” and why people all over the world admire it so much.

I am a critic of both parties, and have been for years. But today’s angry attacks, mindless polarization, and daily rants from the White House, have totally upended the founder’s dream of equal opportunity and justice for everyone. Sadly, it’s the people we elected to protect that dream who will be responsible if we lose it.

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I first began to study communication seriously when television was new. Early on, many of us thought that “talking heads” were boring. We needed lots of pictures because TV was a visual medium. As TV stars emerged, however, we modified our thinking to say that “talking head’s were boring only if their content and performance was boring.

Today, with conservative talk radio and 24/7 cable in our face everyday, the airwaves are filled with nonstop talkers. It’s amazing how compelling they have become for so many of us just by saying the same things over and over, often for weeks at a time. Admittedly, they do alter their language a bit, and sometimes even change guests. But over time most of these talkers bring very few issue-settling insights. And when their guests also develop this now coveted nonstop talk talent, they become regulars.

I quoted a definition of “word salad” in post #477. Now we also have “talk soup!” Together, we have a whole meal. Bon appetit!

 

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Over the years I often evaluated the communication performance of presidents and CEO’s. But I must say it never occurred to me to seek answers to questions like these:

Did they engage in lies, gross exaggerations, personal attacks, and confusing doublespeak? Did their international actions and decisions ever endanger national security? Did they demonstrate affections for autocrats and dictators? Could this have been a clear sign of their own goals? Did they use fear mongering to seek support for controversial projects? Did they often fail to condemn hate crimes, white supremacy, and civil rights violations? Was their overall moral character in sync with America’s human rights and rule of law values? Were they mentally and emotionally stable enough to govern? Were they often vengeful and cruel in their response to those not supporting their actions?

Recent announcements by this president to totally eliminate Obamacare with no healthcare program replacement, to cut back aid to Puerto Rico while still rebuilding from a devastating hurricane, and to cut all funding to the Special Olympics… made me think, is he really crying out, “please stop me, I can’t help myself?!”

In addition to cozy relationships with Russians and legal ways to obstruct justice, Trump family business practices will now be added to a long list of concerns about this presidency. These will include money laundering, employment of illegal immigrants in golf clubs, racial discrimination in rental properties, payments to prostitutes, misrepresenting wealth in bank transactions, illegal family foundation practices, and using government relationships here and abroad to enrich the family, now and in the future.

I have noted in several past blog posts that I get frustrated when news media report each action of the President and White House in a matter-of-fact manner, failing to immediately point out obvious lies and gross exaggerations. With today’s technology and 24/7 investigative journalism, simultaneous fact checking is usually available, and is certainly needed.

We are experiencing a whole new day in politics, the presidency, and journalism. And it all adds up to a desperate need to use every opportunity to break through the noise, chaos, bullying, and cruelty, with hard, cold facts.

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Pundits are offering differing perspectives about the outcomes of the Mueller report… so much so that people will be able to hear and believe whatever they want.

Some are claiming the president has been cleared of collusion and obstruction, and that’s all that matters. Others believe he’s probably guilty, and it is being hidden by the White House. And others are pointing out that guilty or not, close campaign associates are already going to jail for their criminal conduct, and communication between many of the candidate’s associates and the Russians during the campaign has been clearly documented.

So whether or not crimes have been committed, this much is clear: Simply from a digital media and communication dynamics perspective, the damage to our democracy by the Russians (and possibly other foreign governments) has been serious, and the 2016 presidential election was clearly compromised. And what’s more, the 2020 election probably will be too.

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We simply cannot ignore what words can do. When divisive words become the norm, they inevitably incite anger… and eventually produce violence. The fact is… Social media are creating an international vocabulary of copycat words, with the power to unite extremists and incite violence.

“Immigrant invasion” emergencies. When any emergency is explained as an “invasion of immigrants,” it must be recognized that this is a code phrase being used by white supremacists who have already staged killings in New Zealand, Charleston, Pittsburg, Charlottesville, and many other places around the world.  Today, social media has become its own ecosystem with an incredible international bonding power for lost and angry souls.

Contempt for adversaries. When constructive conversations in search of imaginative solutions degenerate into widespread contempt and hatred for adversaries, violence is close at hand.

Populism, nationalism, and autocracy.  When populism and nationalism force citizens to take sides, an autocracy is in the making. Fueled by social media, and encouraged by autocrats, dangerous divisions have already appeared in Russia, China, Philippines, Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, the U.S., and a number of countries in eastern and central Europe.

The dividing power of wealth. History teaches that widening class divisions can eventually destroy entire civilizations. In the U.S., huge tax cuts mostly benefiting the rich, unfair job advantages, easy elite college access, plus arrogance… and more, might be early indications of a possible middle class and poor people’s rebellion.

The seriousness of climate change. Willingness to ignore modern science by too many of those invested in polluting industries, is inspiring a growing and dangerous youth rebellion. Such generational divisions have a history of turning into worldwide, peace-threatening, demonstrations.

Code words and phrases. Fear mongering on social media every day exacerbates, unites, and incites. And when leaders suggest that their followers might get out of control on their own, a kind of permission for violence is felt by those who only need a little encouragement.

Autocracies can actually become attractive. In countries threatened by division, a gradual belief can emerge that the control promised by an autocrat is necessary to bring about stability. Inevitably, however, autocracies backfire into cruel dictatorships.

“With me, or against me” are words that produce dangerous divisions, no matter the political ideology. Ironically, they are both the dividing and uniting words of terrorists, autocrats, and dictators all over the world.

Arthur Brooks, the president of the American Enterprise Institute, has a new Book: Love Your Enemies. It is an alarming warning of how violence results when constructive debating grows into contempt and hatred for your adversaries.

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