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Archive for the ‘Public Affairs’ Category

The recent tragic shooting at a practice for the annual Congressional baseball game resulted in politicians on both sides agreeing to lower the temperature of their out-of-control angry rhetoric. Many recalled the days when Democrats and Republicans actually socialized, knew each other’s families, developed meaningful friendships, and found ways to work together on legislation.

Turning the temperature down on the rhetoric in Congress is indeed a great idea. But the president must do the same. His behavior and body language with oval office visitors, choice of words in daily tweets, constant bad-mouthing of his predecessor, and strong-man “photo-ops” on foreign visits, all establish an atmosphere which enables and even encourages similar behavior in others.

When news and social media reinforce the drama in political events everything degenerates even more. Eventually pundits begin reporting that the country is disintegrating, and historians remind us of how many great civilizations have totally destroyed themselves.

Partisans always blame the other guy. Republicans began attacking and blocking everything Obama wanted to do, and did so for more than eight years. When “repeal and replace” instead of “we can fix it” became both their strategy and tactic, battles erupted and soon descended into all-out war. And instead of articulating a well thought out plan of action with a vision, the opposition became defensive and lost their way. Many other outsiders went “AWOL” and ran off into “Never-Never Land.” But their absence also became part of the problem.

The natural inclination of the news media is always to enhance the drama. Hostility makes good copy, and conventional wisdom suggests that debating issues is a good thing. It certainly is good television. But the communication reality is that aggressive debating without objective scoring always results in polarizing both debaters and audiences.

Simply put, people hear what they want to hear. A Democrat’s argument only makes a Republican a better Republican. And vice versa. To find our way out of this mess we will need to replace betting on horse races and taking sides in debates with focusing full news media and political attention on finding workable solutions to complex problems.

We desperately need to turn the temperature way down on hostility all across society. Now more than ever each and every politician, government official, journalist, and citizen must play a part in eliminating the wickedness that is tearing us apart… and find specific ways to help save the future of our otherwise values-based country.

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A reader recently asked me how public confidence in journalism can be restored. I did not have a ready answer, but promised to reflect on my longtime experience and make some observations.

A compelling article in the March/April issue of Foreign Affairs argues that Americans are losing confidence in expertise everywhere. Experts are confusing because they disagree with each other. And 24/7 information clutter makes it too hard to sort out the truth. So the result is that a growing number of people just want to find strong sounding leaders they can believe will make their life better. Then, they vote that way and ignore the experts… be they professors, scientists, pundits, or journalists.

Even so, serious journalists remain deeply concerned about the decline of public confidence in their work. To some extent they are indeed victims of this overall changing public attitude about expertise. But they also work for organizations that must be commercially competitive and earn profits. This reality adds additional complications.

In earlier broadcasting days I remember a television production professor of mine pointing to a TV camera and saying, “This is a TV camera. It is used to make programs that deliver audiences to commercials.” At first, news was not seen as a profit center. But as it demonstrated it could become one, “the news” began to change. Producers learned how to attract audiences for commercials that would pay the high cost of news reporting. And they did it by bringing entertainment values into news programming. Gradually they used the power of celebrity and ratcheted-up the pace and drama to make it all more compelling.

But is it possible that by making news more entertaining people now watch it (or read it) mostly for entertainment? Consider that Mr. Trump’s press attacks stimulated a “news war” between the New York Times and the Washington Post and that a colleague told me that he found following it to be quite entertaining. Trump gets his visibility. Television gets viewers. Newspapers get readers. Profits are up. Everyone wins. Except possibly all the serious investigative journalists, and the seriously confused news consumers.

Here are some questions to ponder:

  1. Can pressures for more and more news drama be lessened?
  2. Can preferring fashion model look-a-like anchors and pundits be changed?
  3. Can anchors stop aligning their own celebrity status with entertainment and sports celebrities?
  4. Can overall fast-paced, high drama anchoring be slowed down?
  5. Can using the term “breaking news” just to add drama be stopped?
  6. Can promising “new information after the break” (when only the words change) be stopped.
  7. Can legitimate experts be allowed to finish their thoughts instead of constantly cutting them off?
  8. Does the profession have the responsibility to explain exactly why consumers must become their own editors?
  9. Can “live” TV coverage of clearly outrageous, headline-seeking political events be ended?
  10. Can shouting reporter mobs alter their behavior “optics?”
  11. Should both the uses and hazards of “insider news leaks” be explained more clearly in the reporting?
  12. Should media organizations  underwrite and promote “media literacy” education in schools, universities and community groups?
  13. Should news accuracy policy commitments be visibly broadcast and printed?
  14. Should news consumers be asked to submit ideas for earning their confidence… on-line and in ongoing focus groups?

The U.S. constitution protects the freedom of the press and the public’s right to know. But this protection did not anticipate today’s “news business,” and its need to be profitable. Some would suggest that expanding public broadcasting and nonprofit news organizations is the answer. But others accurately observe that adequate funding and creeping commercial underwriting influences are also issues in today’s nonprofit world.

Even in an age where faith in educated expertise might be declining, greater public confidence in journalism is absolutely critical to preserving our nation’s democratic future. My conclusion is that both the news consuming public and journalism professionals have shared responsibilities for finding the best way forward.

 

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Three people with three knives and a van are able to able to achieve 24/7 nonstop visibility. Are cable channels just handing terrorist organizations the publicity they seek, or is all this coverage essential information that the public needs to have? This is one of the dilemmas of the “reality television” world we now inhabit.

Cable news has the technology to provide immediate and ongoing coverage, and along with that comes a business model that requires them to use it. So here is the way such coverage unfolds:

Getting there first with the most technical and human resources is an important competitive advantage. Keeping the audience engaged becomes critical. Losing viewers is counterproductive to their purpose. Witnesses in the street are the first available interviews. So early death and causality numbers will come from their speculation and hearsay. These numbers are always wrong, but are reported anyway. Ongoing casualty reports now become an unmentioned “keeping the audience engaged” factor. It will take a while for investigating and political officials to make more accurate statements.

Soon retired FBI and other experts are brought in to review once again the steps that investigators follow to identify potential accomplices. They tell us that investigators go to where the terrorists live, find their family members, locate their friends, identify previous travel and possible training, etc. The audience will likely hear this process described over again by several different retired experts.

Reporters also will describe once again where victims are taken, explaining that several hospitals are always used. As witnesses who were inside the event (or are now in the hospital) can be found, they are also asked to tell their stories in as much emotional detail as they are willing. These tragic human interest stories become the final step in continuous coverage, and potential followup stories later.

Both recent London bridge events are examples of how these events unfold for long periods of time with very little new information reported along the way. Cable channels cover it because they can, and it simply is what they do. It is good reality television. But how much of it is news? And how damaging is it to be giving terrorists the publicity they so desperately crave?

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We are all accustomed to the term “copycat.”  Each time there is a terrorist attack we share a concern that others will be motivated to follow. We accept the psychological reality that when someone commits violence others might be emboldened to act out their own grievances.

So when leaders establish a consistently aggressive tone and refer to people they don’t like as “the enemy” might they also be inciting others to talk and even act in the same way?  Make no mistake, my long experience working with communication issues confirms that they are doing just that. Leadership words and deeds clearly establish the climate and often the acceptable ground-rules for community discourse and problem-solving.

Here are some examples: President Erdogan of Turkey recently was invited to the White House. As he returned to his embassy he found his bodyguards beating up peaceful protesters. Erdogan just stood there watching. Some call him an autocrat, others a dictator, and he was happily welcomed into the White House. What tone does this establish? What values? What behavior cues might some like-minded citizens take from this?

The military dictator of Egypt was also welcomed to the White House. And what about the cheerful Oval Office meeting with Russian adversaries? And Mr. Trump’s congratulatory phone call to the dictator of the Philippines? This guy openly condones murder as his tool for ending drug addiction. Is this not paving the way for many to behave very badly?

And what’s more, as the governor of Texas was announcing a reduction in the state’s gun licensing fee he displayed a bullet pelted target and handgun to the crowd, and then quipped that he would hold on to them in case he saw a reporter! Who can argue this was not copycat motivated?

Heightened aggression in the U.S. is now ranging from the consistently nasty “mean-spirited” language of ultra-conservative politics to actual outbursts of physical violence. Hate speech, violence, and random attacks on police are appearing everywhere. And fearful of what is happening, a growing number of angry protesters also are appearing in conservative town hall meetings and on the streets. Meanness “in the air” encourages meanness everywhere.

Bottom line: Mr Trump’s constant outrageous tweets, attacks on the media, anger toward illegal immigrants, heavy-handed deportations, bully posturing, and admiration of autocrats and dictators, all have combined to establish a constant tone of meanness. Just look around. Many of us already are waking up every morning afraid of what might happen next.

 

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Consistent behavior patterns either establish credibility or eliminate it entirely. Without credibility there is no reliability or trust.

Not too long ago I found myself explaining to a colleague how “credibility” functioned in foreign policy, and why it is so important. When expectations are for advancing individual freedom, democracy and justice, but the behavior is collaboration with dictators and autocrats, credibility suffers… to say the least.

Expectations in the Middle East are for the U.S. to champion human rights, gender equality, and peace. But when that is exchanged for imagined security established with a $110 billion arms deal, the confusion inevitably will lead to a significant loss of U.S. credibility.

Consistently telling the truth, collaborating with allies, demonstrating informed expertise, and honestly consulting with experts, all contribute to credibility. A long history of lies, bullying, attacking critics, a string of broken promises, and off-the-wall tweets, all raise real questions about motives and credibility.

As I listened to the new secretary of state describe how he was going about discussing issues such as Syria with Putin and why this is important, I was beginning to think this man is making some sense. But the Russian behavior of the president, coupled with his otherwise lack of communication credibility, raises serious questions about likely outcomes.

When it was reported that Trump gave away classified secrets to the Russians in a private meeting in the Oval Office I actually found myself  thinking, “Yep, that sounds like him.” Boasting about knowing inside secrets with people he wants to impress seems consistent with the Trump I have come to know. It’s not scientific, I know. But this is how communication works.

Former defense secretary Gates recently said he thought the firm responses to North Korea and China were appropriate. He also added, “But it’s absolutely essential to know when not to go too far.” Can we trust this president’s judgement in such a crisis?

Washington Post columnist David Ignatius recently reported on Face the Nation that a number of longtime members of Congress who have not yet spoken out told him that “this man scares me.”  An increasing number of everyday Americans are also feeling this way… all based on past and ongoing erratic communication behavior.

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Can a large increase in the defense department budget compensate for a large decrease in the state department budget? Or to put it another way, are strong military threats more effective than strong diplomacy and soft power public diplomacy programs? And what does this have to do with education?

Experience suggests that the effectiveness of military threats depends on the country, its leader, and the circumstances of the moment. And a miscalculation can be devastating. Failure in diplomacy, however, is less risky. And while it takes more time, it certainly is preferable. And here education, especially higher education, can be helpful.

For the most part, “diplomacy” is government-to-government communication. Embassies basically function as strategic communication agencies. Foreign service officers collect vital intelligence, conduct volumes of important research, collaborate with foreign officials, champion democratic values, develop many other in-country contacts, and also can be very helpful to universities going global.

“Public diplomacy,” is people-to people communication. Its primary purpose is to facilitate private citizens in different countries getting to know each other and finding common interests… in business, the arts, education, social services, and everyday life. And they usually find they want the same basic things… food on the table, opportunities for their children, individual freedom, honest elections, a safe place to live, justice for all, and colleagues with common interests. Public diplomacy is very effective soft power, especially when funded properly and sustained.

International higher education can become an extremely effective partner in soft power public diplomacy. It is people-to-people communication. It achieves many of the same outcomes. For example, international leadership development is all about cross-cultural understanding. Many universities have researchers and experts who can help rebuild devastated nations and institutions. And there are numerous other scientists and experts who can focus their work to help solve other world problems… i.e. poverty, food, public health, water, climate change, energy, and more.

So now we return to the impact of Trump budget cuts: This administration’s plan to significantly cut the state department’s budget inevitably will have terrible consequences for vital intelligence gathering, in-country economic and other trend research, diplomacy effectiveness, soft power public diplomacy programs, and the enormous help embassies can give to universities as they seek to become productive global citizens.

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Strategy is defined as “a plan or set of maneuvers for obtaining a specific goal or result.” Tactics without strategy leaves people confused and feeling vulnerable. For some this may seem desirable. Keep them guessing, or as a colleague of mine once put it, “Don’t show your hand before you are ready to play it!”

This might work for a card game or short-term real estate games.  But in the game of world politics it can become very dangerous. Bold initiatives or tactics require context in order to be understood and trusted. Clear strategy provides context. Endless surprise initiatives do not. This is communication 101.

Allies and potential allies require knowing and sharing a set of governing strategies, having similar ideas about handling the big issues, and being able to trust commitments when the going gets rough. Playing the foreign policy game solely from the keep-them-guessing perspective eventually doesn’t work. Allies not only begin to feel uneasy, they may even soon begin to talk about erratic mental stability. Then, there is no rational basis for making crisis decisions.

And by the way, no lies please. This is also communication 101. Lies cannot remain hidden for long. And they inevitably signal someone with an insatiable ego, no consistent set of governing values, and eventually even the possibility of mental problems. One thing is for sure, constant lying never conveys superior intelligence and competitive cleverness, as every perpetrator wants you to believe. Rather it conveys a significant lack of knowledge and experience.

The bottom line is that allies need to know they can count on the leaders with whom they collaborate on serious matters. So far Mr. Trump continues to demonstrate a strong preference for throwing people off guard and tweeting off-the-wall comments. He might win a game of poker this way, but in the world of foreign policy he is on his way to having no set of informed ideas around which to bring allies together to address the world’s most pressing problems.

Be certain that nothing here has anything to do with politics or the Republican party. Everything here, however, has to do with fundamental communication dynamics and lessons learned from experience.

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