Archive for the ‘Public Affairs’ Category

Communication lessons learned:

Experience and research teach that intended messages are often not what audiences receive. Therefore, what a monument communicates will depend on what its’ various audiences want to receive. And even then, that will likely change when situational, historical or political circumstances change.

When a monument is intended to mark a historical event, it should best be placed in a museum-like environment where context can help reinforce its history lesson purpose. A clearly defined indoor or outdoor museum space with historical captions and explanations is the best approach. Otherwise, any monument will mean different things to different people, and there is no way to change that.

So in the case of today’s monument controversy, unless they are already located in a museum-like space, some people will be thinking either positively or negatively about a divided country, white supremacists and Nazis will have racist and pro-slavery responses, others may simply see a message of hate, and only a very few will see the monuments as purely historical. And the strong emotion produced by all these different responses will very likely lead to hostile demonstrations, and some of those certainly may turn violent.

For better or worse? Simply put, context clearly helps define how most messages are received. If a statement is intended to be historical, a clearly defined historical context is essential. Otherwise, most people will only “hear what they want to hear.”




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To what extent does the overall tone of presidential leadership influence the behavior of members of the public. If that tone is positive and unifying will it help bring about unity? And if it is combative and hostile will it encourage people with similar inclinations to act out their anger?

My experience over the years working with institutional presidents is that their tone certainly influences the cultural characteristics of their institutions. When a president is out front and aggressive, message tone often shapes brand identity more than the content. Sometimes it’s a culture of strong optimism. Sometimes it’s a culture based on deeply felt human values. Sometimes it’s a culture of big vision and teamwork. But sometimes it can be a negative culture of blame and unending criticism. And especially when that tone is the expression of the president’s long-established attitudes and behaviors, it is not likely to change.

The president of a nation similarly sets the tone for that nation with words and deeds. A chief of staff can improve daily operations. Second level administrators can set a different tone for their operation.  But only the person at the top can establish the nation’s tone.

So what about Charlottesville?  Did the previously combative and autocratic style of the current U.S. president establish a tone that encouraged white supremacists and other hate groups to show up, feel empowered, and behave violently? If his consistently hostile tone was a factor in causing the event, what happened when the television cameras arrived?

Clearly, television coverage gave the event a world-wide audience. Close ups made the violence more emotional. Lively reporting and commentary turned it into engaging “reality TV,” a situation with which Mr. Trump is perfectly comfortable. Those who planned the event got the mass publicity and validation they wanted, and the final outcome is that we are left with the fear that copy-cat violence and events like this will likely be ongoing public safety worries.

Make no mistake, a consistent and combative tone at the top of any organization or nation will encourage people with similar hostile inclinations to act out their anger in both small and large ways. When this happens, entire organizations and societies will inevitably experience increasing amounts of hate speech and violence.

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A recent Bloomberg Businessweek article reminded me of just how big a television star Donald Trump had become. NBC’s Apprentice was so popular that during its first season in 2004 it drew more than 20 million viewers. NBC’s profits soared. The Donald’s popularity was huge. People of all types became loyal viewers, including millions of minorities. His stardom led him to recurring visions of political success, and eventually to visualizing himself as president of the United States. But politics is a different kettle of fish. And governing is altogether something else.

There are many professions where being a performer is an asset. In addition to great food, Chefs often admit that a charismatic personality is an important ingredient in the success of their restaurants. Teaching is also a profession where entertaining lectures can be a way to earn great student evaluations. Lawyers also are often great performers. But in each of these situations ultimate and sustained success requires solid substance and experience in the subject matter of the profession.

Ronald Reagan was a successful  actor and Hollywood star before he came into politics. But before too long he recognized that he needed to surround himself with people of real substance and with impressive and experienced track-records. And he also made himself a quick study of the domestic and foreign policy issues essential for governing.

The big question for today: Is it possible for a chief-of-staff or any competent second-in-command deputy to make the person at the top successful when that person lacks substance. My consulting work with institutions would say no. With Mr. Trump the primary issue is one of character, truthfulness, morality, and knowledge sophistication under fire. History tells us that celebrity chefs, teachers, lawyers, actors, and nation leaders without substance will eventually fail. And very often they will actually be driven off their stage either by the real professionals in their field, or their constituents.

Mr Trump came to politics as a reality show entertainer. Months into the office of president he still relies on tweets to bring him the attention he craves. He requires constant admiration and praise from his staff. And when the going gets tough, he runs off to perform again on his entertainment-centered campaign rally stage. Here he can happily shoot off one-liners, make fun of people he dislikes, tell lies about his accomplishments, brag about his power, make outrageous promises to an already admiring audience, and lead cheering for himself and against adversaries. Besides his White House, this is one of the very few settings where he will always be adored.

After months of analysis, it seems to me that it is unlikely that he can change. He still shows no sign of developing the personal character and sophistication of a genuine leader. Everyday it becomes more and more possible that he will be pushed out of office by the leaders of his own party. My bet is that sooner or later he will join an ultra conservative media organization and head back to television as a performer, which is the role he really treasures most.

The fallout will be that “the Donald” will likely keep his base with him, regain his status as a TV star, and continue to be a name-calling irritant to those who will be working to reestablish America’s leadership of the free world. This will be a sad outcome, indeed. But our great country will at least be back on the road to recovery.

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There are many ways to express the founders’ “idea of America.” But its clear from reading the constitution that human rights are at the core. Also basic is a measure of compassion, a non-negotiable commitment to individual freedom and justice, and a shared belief that peaceful communities based on mutual respect are fundamental. It seems elementary that anyone elected to lead this great nation would be a champion of these underlying values.

A plutocrat is someone who thinks that the rich can rule society better than government. After all, most would agree that Bill and Melinda Gates can fix many public health and education problems more efficiently than government. The Clinton Foundation has addressed many international development problems that government finds too expensive, or not appropriate for taxpayer support. The Carter Foundation also has addressed may issues around the world that could benefit more from private wealth than public funds. Possibly even former Mayor Bloomberg of New York City demonstrated that he could separate governing in the public interest from directly enriching himself. So maybe it should not be surprising that Mr Trump convinced people who were being ignored by “Washington” that a rich man was in a better position than government to help them.

The plutocrat advantage argument might have been more convincing if that plutocrat also shared the founding father’s “idea of America.” But Mr. Trump’s consistent record of lying, bullying, forgetting promises, disruptive tweeting, mistreating staff, and enriching himself first, in no way adds up to a benevolent autocrat. “Making America Great Again” should mean doing a better job of advancing the founders’ core values as the way to provide leadership to the free world.

Make no mistake, our belief in capitalism derives from our belief in individual freedom. But the idea of America does not also condone self-serving greed or personal meanness. Nor does it condone using the public trust and treasure to continue enriching oneself. Getting rich in America should be celebrated, but only when it includes a bit of humility… along with feeling a strong need to pay back the very society that made personal success possible.

The question for American’s now is: Will enough people see the significant difference between Bill Gates and Donald Trump? And will we take the necessary steps to fix it?  None of this has anything to do with party politics. Rather it’s all about analyzing leadership communication and behavior, and the horrible psychic and social consequences of extreme personal greed.

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Last week I attended a week of lectures and discussions at Chautauqua Institution in upstate New York presented by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington. CSIS is a nonpartisan think tank that focuses almost exclusively on national security issues.

Major topics throughout the week included national security strategy, geopolitics, surprising changes in China, endless turmoil in the Middle East, the changing energy landscape, the future of cyber warfare, and much more.

At week’s end, the always engaged Chautauqua audience came away understanding that there are some very smart people in Washington, that many of them reside in think-tanks, that they are generating very detailed information about global trends every hour of every day, and that CSIS houses one of the best and most nonpartisan group of experts specializing in national security in the world.

But they also came away hearing that there are very few if any firm solutions when it comes to the big issues we are all concerned about: What to do about North Korea? Russian political interfering? Chinese uncertainty? Individual privacy? Globalization consequences? The impact of Trump’s constant rants? Poverty? Energy? Public Health? Global Warming?

In the final analysis, think tank research results in presenting informed action alternatives and expert opinions to government officials for their consideration. But when pressed, most experts admit that the world keeps changing, issues keep getting more complex, and there never is only one right way forward.

But it’s also important to mention here that there are lessons from communication and media research that provide some promise. While it is true that research shows communication always breaks down, that true success requires time and interaction, that media revolutions always change how society works, and that 24/7 digital news is resulting in information clutter and confusion, it can also be said that scoundrels will likely be revealed and defeated, and that with persistence, productive action steps can gradually emerge.

So keep your practical problem-solving hat on, make your expectations for leaders shaped by traditional American values known, and keep your fingers crossed!  Oh, and also make sure you have read the preceding two posts.

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Or, is the French presidential election really a precursor for what will soon happen in the US? Put still another way, will young voters and the vast silent majority be looking for a completely new choice outside both parties?

Captured by extreme conservatives, the Republican Party wasted seven years as the party of “no” and failed to prepare viable solutions for America’s complex problems… most especially healthcare. Their voter districts were hijacked by extremists and Congress became hopelessly polarized. As a result significant numbers of Americans simply are disgusted.

Democrats on the other hand want to focus on jobs but also have no real plan. And as in the presidential election, they now run the risk of focusing on the shortcomings of the current president and failing to articulate a viable vision and plan for the future of the country. They also have become a party of extremes and have no compelling emerging leader.

The winning presidential candidate’s “Make America Great Again” slogan may have sounded visionary to some but it has not been accompanied by a mechanism for solving serious domestic problems, and it has not produced a workable leadership role for America in the world. The result is a planet in disarray.

Also in disarray, the people of France rejected their political party mess and elected an outsider as president… one who is strategically smart, articulate, and visionary. Is America ready to do the same?

Could such a leader who is well-educated, internationally experienced, understands practical problem-solving, operates on a set of traditional American values, and has an imagination impressive enough to restore America as the leader of the free world emerge here?

I am betting that it can… because it must.

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The talk in Washington is about Russian internet hacking to influence the U.S. presidential election. But future concerns should also be about “bad guys” having the capacity for even more pervasive influences in a country’s economy, institutions and politics. From a citizen’s perspective, these activities can easily operate silently “below the radar,” and are likely in time to become extremely disruptive. The communication process implications here go far beyond computer hacking.

Senior Vice President for Europe, Eurasia and the Arctic at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Heather Conley, was a co-director and co-author of a study of Russian influence in Central and Eastern Europe.  The study was a project of both CSIS and the Center for the Study of Democracy (CSD). It is titled, The Kremlin Playbook, and the complete study can be downloaded at CSIS.org.

My take: “Bad guys” can influence political processes with much more comprehensive and sophisticated communication and other tactics than internet hacking. Combining insights from my reading of this new study with those from scanning periodic U.S. news media stories, here is my take on how this frightening process can work:

  1. “Bad guys” make various real estate investments in target countries of special interest, including the U.S.
  2. They also facilitate profitable investments and partnerships in their country for well-healed investors from their target countries.
  3. They then look for specific “mogul level” investors who are willing to consider bigger and more profitable opportunities.
  4. These bigger opportunities will soon involve ethically questionable situations that include “moments” of possible personal “entrapment,” some with later blackmail-potential.
  5. Now, with the help of entrapped investors, bad-guy-operatives begin to infiltrate political activities, with the ultimate goal of influencing election outcomes.
  6. Electronic hacking is an important part of this formula, but only one part.

Has Russia employed these tactics to influence the U.S. political system and voting processes? It certainly seems likely. And if so, will they do it again? Answering these questions with more facts is what the current special investigator’s challenge is all about. But here is the most important question of all: When we finally have all the facts about Russian involvement, will we have the courage to do what needs to be done?

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