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Archive for the ‘Public Affairs’ Category

The recent flood of news from Washington has been deeply troubling.

Bob Woodward’s book about chaos in the White House, Omarosa’s tell-all book about Trump, a highly controversial Supreme Court confirmation hearing, an anonymous Op Ed piece about growing “staff resistance” in the White House, attacks on governmental institutions which are there to protect us from the bad guys, all contrasted with memorial events for John McCain challenging everyone to reconsider traditional American values, and it all rolled out about the same time. Confusing enough. But then reports followed that the president might be psychologically unfit to lead. This was overwhelming, and for most of us it was also exhausting!

As a consequence many observers have been asking if the Trump era is finally coming to an end, or was this just an example of much more to come?

Frankly, I had already been feeling the need to step back and take a fresh look at everything. I had been wondering out loud if mindless daily Trump tweets will ever slow down. And what good will ever come from all this anger?

And then more questions also poured out: Will Republicans and Democrats ever get their acts together? Is there a third political party in our future? Will Congress and the White House ever learn how to govern again? What media lessons are here for leaders of any institution? And how can we restore the faith we had in our most precious ones? How can we stop determined autocrats and bullies in their tracks? And what can be done about new media platforms being used as weapons? How can we best convey the purpose of press freedom? How can we revisit the reason for the separation of church and state? How can we restore experienced diplomacy and citizen engagement in foreign policy? What do we need to do to have world class schools? How can we provide medical care for everyone? What new possibilities will technology and globalization bring to higher education? How can the founding “idea of America” be reinvigorated and preserved? Can the core values of “freedom and justice for all” restore American leadership in the world?

With these questions in mind, I am going to take a few weeks away from the blog to refresh my thinking. And I am counting on returning to my writing and teaching with some fresh insights… cross your fingers.   

 

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The good news is that cities have been rarely divided by political extremes. Many have stories far more promising than today’s politically tainted supreme court hearings and presidential tweets.

While the nation and many states slosh around in mean-spirited ideology fights, city officials generally don’t have that luxury. They are just too busy. Every day most cities face both legal and illegal immigration issues, demands for affordable housing, homeless people living on the streets, unemployment problems, factory closures, pockets of serious poverty, children coming to school hungry, gangs and racial violence, deteriorating infrastructure, continuing police controversies, global warming consequences, aging water pipes, industry produced air pollution, and both international and homegrown terrorism threats.

But cities are also getting practical help from serious-minded professional associations, expertise sharing conferences, networks of experienced professionals, and problem-focused partnerships, all helping them bypass their politically paralyzed national and state governments.

For example, New York has been able to resist much of the pressure of Washington’s hard-line immigration and police program funding to address its problems more collectively. An active terrorism prevention partnership with Paris, France is but one example. L.A. is engaged in a wide variety of public diplomacy exchanges through its international office, and Fort Worth Texas is using citizen diplomacy to exchange ideas through its award-winning Sister Cities organization. These are but a few examples.

Many smaller cities are also dealing with both local and global issues more pragmatically. Highly experienced neighborhood volunteers, seriously concerned businesses, community problem-focused non-profits, public and private school outreach initiatives, university research and subject-matter experts, and urban-savvy arts organizations, are all becoming willing and engaged resources.

When cities face their issues head-on they also find counterparts all over the world with the same problems. An innovative city manager in Oregon is likely to find a counterpart in Asia with the same planning problems. A small town mayor in Nebraska may find a counterpart in Africa with a similar water problem. And Orlando officials are likely to find help in Amsterdam when it comes to dealing with both international and homegrown terrorism.

So while political parties fight and autocrats play bully games, imaginative cities are finding that citizen action, public-private partnerships, and public diplomacy initiatives can get the job done. You might want to read Our Towns by James and Deborah Fallows for more examples to renew your hope.

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CNN reporter Christiane Amanpour recently nailed it when she said, “My job is to be truthful, not neutral.”

It has been the tradition of much of mainstream journalism to remain neutral by always presenting both sides. That is usually done by putting news makers on both sides on the spot, often debating. But in today’s fake news intensive environment wouldn’t it be better to simply ask for explanations, and then follow by describing how journalistic investigation uncovered the truth?

For example, when serious journalists decide to put news makers on the defensive, those in the audience will usually dive deeper into their biases. They simply hear what they want. But when news makers are only asked to explain the situation as they see it, and then professional journalists describe the truth as they uncovered it, the integrity of the profession is preserved and a little education might also take place.

The morning after the Michael Cohen trial one network anchor demanded that Cohen’s lawyer present physical evidence that the president was involved in payments to silence two women. The intent was to remain neutral and fair. A second network invited former prosecutors, defense lawyers, award-winning journalists, law professors, ethics experts, and experienced strategic communicators to explain what happened and what is likely to come next. Which approach was most likely to polarize audiences, reinforce biases, and possibly perpetuate fake news? And which one might at least provide some useful understanding of the situation?

After the trial the president went off to one of his early campaign “reality TV” rallies… “cheerer-upper” gatherings largely built on lies and gross exaggerations. Journalistic attempts to remain neutral and fair usually result in reporting such rallies as news. But isn’t that approach legitimizing a mostly fake news-driven event? Maybe being truthful rather than neutral requires a completely different approach.

Advancing fake news without realizing it happens to the best of reporters. And it happens most often when journalists just can’t resist reporting one-sided political entertainment or polarizing shouting as legitimate news.

When all is said and done, isn’t Amanpour’s “truthful not neutral” the better professional journalism standard for today’s confusing and divisive information-saturated world?

 

 

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Imagine a political candidate facing a crowd of supporters. He is anticipating their needs and begins making promises to make things better for them.

As they respond he doesn’t have facts at his fingertips, so he exaggerates by guessing at some numbers. The crowd applauds, so he does it again as his promises multiply. Finally, the crowd is shouting. The sheer joy of the experience becomes a trap that nudges him into even more exaggerations and lies the next time.

He simply does not have enough knowledge to educate constituents about issues. But he finds that the more lies he repeats the more true they sound, even to him. So soon they become rallying cries and full-blown campaign themes. And as crowd after crowd goes crazy with shouts and screams, feeling that exhilaration becomes his narcotic.

The issue of immigration is another case in point. Stopping illegal border crossings has widespread political appeal. A campaign promise to fix the situation can be quite popular. But in making a strong immigration case it’s easy to misrepresent the kind and number of people coming across. Some exaggeration is expected in campaigns, but when the candidate’s exaggerations are responded to with shouts and screams, it becomes all too easy to misrepresent facts even more.

Exaggerations soon become outright lies, and promises for fixes become more and more extreme. In the case of immigration, putting in place some kind of border barrier is a possible step toward a fix. But when a call to build an impregnable wall the entire length of the border is met with wild cheering, a candidate can easily be tempted to keep this theme going… and expanding.

What might have been a reasonable campaign promise quickly can expand into a wild “drain the swamp” idea. It’s just the kind of noise maker angry voters might be craving. A bold border wall proposal may not be practical, but that doesn’t matter. Enthusiastic revenge-seeking supporters can quickly become cult-like, and others will likely climb aboard because they think they will benefit politically and personally simply by association.

So… after our president recently asked his team to hold a press conference and tell the truth about Russian election hacking, he immediately flew off for his next narcotic fix. Standing there basking in the exhilaration of rally lies, exaggerations, shouts, and screams, he totally contradicted what his team had just said about the Russians. Mr. Trump is clearly in his element when entertaining his troupes… but a colleague recently suggested that he should also be saying, “Please stop me, I like this stuff way too much!”

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Daily streams of lying, exaggerating, bullying, and threatening from the White House are causing voices of concern to get louder about dangerous effects on fundamental standards of civility and human decency.

Some basic questions to consider: When does the behavior of a CEO influence copycat behavior in others? Or, do leaders quickly become role models for followers with similar inclinations? Or, as they are now suggesting, can a president’s subordinates implement a set of consistent policies while his behavior is continuing to be more erratic every day?

My past experience consulting with institutions simply teaches that when a leader at the top is seen to be unsteady, leadership can never be successfully taken over from below. Everyone will always look to the CEO when making judgments about how things are going.

I joined a conversation the other day where the participants were lamenting what they believe to be a rapid breakdown of civil discourse in our society. They were arguing that the president’s “only I can fix it” obsession and constant mind changes on critical issues have cancelled out any hope for unifying the nation. And they see this behavior (intensified at his rallies) as inciting serious racial divisions and increasing the likelihood of hostile community confrontations.

Make no mistake, this has nothing to do with political ideology. This is only about a top leader’s choice to either champion good or bad cultural values and open dialogue in nations and institutions, and the impact that choice will have on those inside and out.

When the idea emerges that a strongman’s ends can justify a strongman’s means, it must be remembered that a strongman’s ends most often will be tragic, and a strongman’s means will inevitably establish hostile and fearful communities which eventually will have to be fixed.

That is, of course, if the destruction of vital institutions and firing of talented experts has not already gone too far.

 

 

 

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What we had before the Helsinki Summit is what we still have now… two bullies playing reality TV, each giving incoherent monologues.

The U.S. bully had just attacked his NATO allies, his only protection from another world war. He then derided his most reliable European trade partners, and also viciously undercut a longstanding UK friendship. Later in Helsinki, he ignored ironclad proof of Russian election meddling.

The Russian bully claimed he never met the guy standing next to him before he became U.S. president, even though there are Trump brags on video tapes proving otherwise. Constant lies and exaggerations came home to roost in Helsinki for both men, and so nothing said by either one was believable.

In the final analysis, if there was any winner at all it was probably the Russian. He got a photo standing equal in apparent power and influence with the U.S. president, while also looking more skillful at producing amusing facial distractions. Body language reveals a lot. Conducting the official meeting in secrecy, however, means we may never know what was actually said, or if important issues were ever even discussed.

It’s sad, but the American people never had a chance to see a proud patriot standing tall representing them in Helsinki! There were no specific U.S. interests advanced that we know of… only disappointing words of autocrat-to-autocrat admiration. Even supportive Republicans in Congress began to voice disgust.

Certainly “The Base” must now be able to see far more clearly that character and common decency mean everything when it comes to advancing the interests and values of the once universally admired United States of America. Bottom line: When you can’t trust the messengers, there will be no good results. It’s as simple as that.

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Forget the politics. Now it’s about the potentially destructive outcome of blindly and viciously attacking longstanding NATO allies in public, and about hearing and seeing a US president rant on totally ignorant of recent history. Who can possibly benefit from this? China? Putin? Anyone at all? His base might cheer the hostile tone, but what can they gain?

Angry public criticism of allies can only poison summits. Disagreements are always addressed in private meetings. But what binds them, and not what divides them, is their purpose. In NATO’s case, collective security is clearly the unifying benefit. Mr. Trump arrogantly criticized Germany’s energy pipeline arrangement with Russia in front of TV cameras. His concern is legitimate and has been appropriately debated inside NATO. But it is not a situation that will change the overall security benefit NATO provides for it members. Also, Trump’s loudly voiced problem with NATO funding imbalances has been the legitimate complaint of multiple presidents. But this also never affected the numerous security benefits of NATO, including member countries hosting major US military bases.

To make matters worse, in the midst of this NATO debacle Trump is also announcing more sweeping trade tariffs. And the UK is also bracing itself for an untimely Trump visit following this summit. The US president is unpopular in the UK and his arrival will no doubt cause huge protests. These will unnecessarily distract the Prime Minister who is currently dealing with a very serious Brexit produced political crisis.

Meanwhile daily assurances also continue that everything is safe in North Korea even though their leaders are saying the US approach has been gangster-like. Mean-spirited immigration rhetoric also continues this week while migrant children remain cruelly separated from their parents. And all this will lead the president suspiciously into a private and chummy get-together with the Russian dictator… even when most everyone agrees that Putin has expansion intentions and is orchestrating the tearing apart of the entire US electoral process. What is most troubling is how at home Mr. Trump looks when schmoozing with autocrats.

Photos of the week so far show Trump’s staff and diplomats looking hopelessly embarrassed in his presence. So what are the consequences? A complete unraveling of NATO? Greater polarization and ethnic divisions everywhere? More normalization of cruelty and “me first” behavior? Worldwide citizen numbness? Or how about a golden opportunity for China to simply claim economic and global superiority?

One colleague told me that it seems Mr. Trump just can’t help himself and is actually begging the US Congress to stop him. My analysis focuses only on the overall consequences of out-of-control wrecking ball communication behavior. But career consequences for totally paralyzed elected officials in a situation like this is anybody’s guess.

It’s really important to note, however, that when a leader’s portrait is finally hanging on the wall with all the others, it is his or her character that is most remembered.

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