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Archive for the ‘Public Affairs’ Category

This essay has nothing to do with partisan politics. It is about how self-centered and hateful communication can screw up everything, especially governing.

We have a president who uses attacks as ways to force deals. He doesn’t negotiate them. He makes demands with no plans in hand, or even the vocabulary required to explain them. He uses an autocrat’s style, transparently driven by a relentless “it’s all about me” ego. Even when he reads a thoughtful script written for him, it’s clear that this uncomfortable “reader” is not really him. And so the fear of what he might say or do next continues.

At the same time, elected officials have created a vicious competition-based legislative process that has become so entrenched there seems to be no other way they can try to do business. The result is severe polarization, extreme thinking, and an overall meanness that has made too many legislators blind to the horror they have created. For the most part, both major political parties are now talking only to themselves internally, making each other believe that their extreme ideologies are best for everyone. All it takes is standing back for a second or two to know that problems just don’t get solved that way.

The result in Washington is a mean-spirited environment, and a totally confused nation. A deluge of negative and contradictory stuff just keeps coming every day from the White House, from legislators, from special interests, and from the news media. And try as they might to sort things out, the 24/7 news media also ends up adding more clutter than clarity.

Finding and communicating simple truth in the midst of overwhelming clutter is almost impossible. There certainly are many good people trying to do it. But in a churning sea of turmoil even top experts can’t agree, constant lies begin to sound true, and the ongoing build-up of clutter continues to confuse. Our only hope is that somehow responsible fact-hawks will persist and endure, and their never-ending determination will sooner or later enable truth to break through.

With the incredible cost of hurricanes Harvey and Irma, frequent nuclear threats from North Korea, and countless other threatening issues facing legislators, what can we expect from a president and federal government in ceaseless and senseless turmoil? Or maybe the better question is this: Will these crisis moments be big enough to break through crippling legislative extremism and a self-obsessed president to finally make the greater public good our national priority? We all better hope so. The stakes have never been higher.

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Weather disasters seem to define the crisis management role of cities, states and the federal government with a clarity we otherwise rarely see. We now have another example in Texas. Weather-related or not, the fact is that most large-scale crises happen in cities… be they about gang or police violence, illegal immigration, homegrown or international terrorism, contagious diseases, school shootings, tornadoes, hurricanes, and even transgender-bathroom disputes.

If you have followed the recent weather disaster in Texas you heard the federal coordinator say that local officials are the ones responsible for managing the situation, and that federal resources are authorized by the president when requested by governors. You also heard him dance around questions about homeland security budget cuts and reduced numbers of staff, while giving credit to a president who has been shying away from any out-front leadership. It’s important to note here that this president actually said at a news conference that he picked the unfolding disaster in Houston as the time to pardon a politically supportive sheriff who broke the law because the “ratings would be higher.”

Nonetheless, past experience suggests that Texas can expect federal help for search and rescue, and a presidential visit or two. But search and rescue is one thing, and rebuilding is something else. It’s important to remember that following major storm “Sandy” in the northeast it was politicians from the Texas region of the country who blocked essential additional emergency funding.

It is true that governors have a stronger role when it comes to funding first-responders, mobilizing state public safety and shelter resources, and even calling-up the national guard. But many governors also face disasters with limited budget and staffing levels that are the result of their own narrow partisan priorities. Even so, search and rescue will get funded somehow, and some rebuilding projects probably will too. But Houston citizens were also truthfully told early on by their mayor that they cannot rely on rescue help getting to them, that they should focus on saving themselves, and that they must help each other. And this is precisely what they are doing.

The truth is that when the disaster smoke finally clears getting needed help to citizens will continue to be a relentless and daily city reality. As a result many cities around the world have become extremely effective at taking a practical approach to addressing their own problems… even national and international ones, for that matter. Immigration issues and terrorism threats, for example, are alive in most city neighborhoods.

While nations and states tend to be highly political in all matters, more and more cities are not. Cities are therefore learning to take practical advantage of the many partnership resources available to help them. Universities, public schools, businesses of all kinds, neighborhood groups, experienced professionals, museums, performing arts groups, nonprofits, individual volunteers, associations, churches, civic clubs, supermarkets, restaurants, and even local news outlets… all have strong vested-interests in their cities, and surprising problem-solving capabilities.

On-the-ground experience quickly teaches that serious problem-solving and political ideologies don’t mix. Partisans end up talking only to each other and believing that their narrow ideology-based ideas benefit everyone. These partisans mostly end up problem-creators, not solvers. It’s therefore a very good thing that mayors and city managers around the world are gaining valuable experience in nonpartisan crisis management and practical problem-solving.

Houston will become still another example that these experience-educated city leaders will be needed everywhere in the world in the days ahead.

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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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