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Archive for the ‘Strategic Communication’ Category

There is a role for everyone to play when it comes to handling situations like we have now. 

We have a spreading pandemic, millions out of work. and constitutionally protected protesters in the streets sometimes indistinguishable from looters and criminals. And in the background we also have a military-obsessed president who rejects science, eliminates public safety regulations, needlessly rounds-up immigrants, ignores obvious climate change, and divides the nation with his dictatorial pronouncements.

News media certainly have a role to play in this scenario. But real change will require the leaders of state and local governments, along with the leaders of federal and non-profit institutions, to use every media platform possible to communicate “save our democracy” themes every day. 

When FDR began his regular radio talks the entire country was in disarray. It was in the midst of a depression, political polarization, and disagreements about the danger to the U.S. of Nazi activities in Germany. He dealt with all this simultaneously by first adding infrastructure projects to give people work, and then gradually bringing them together by reinforcing traditional American values.

1. The White House. To deal effectively with today’s complicated issues, this or another president will have to develop truly meaningful action initiatives and communicate empathetic talking themes every day. These themes and actions must also demonstrate an ability to bring people together to collaborate on solutions.

2. The news business. Skillful journalism can and must clarify issues, suggest ideas, and report events. I have been impressed with New York Times opinion reporter Tom Friedman’s suggestion that Joe Biden appoint his cabinet now so that the voting public can see how our most serious issues will be addressed. But journalist Friedman can only suggest ideas, he cannot implement solutions.

2. Corporations and businesses. Recently my thinking has been influenced by Rebecca Henderson’s book, Re-imagining Capitalism. Today could be a real turning point. Businesses should now be able to be profitable while also  creatively advancing the welfare of their employees, supporting criminal justice movements, and promoting the powerful potential of corporate social responsibility.

3. Political parties. With so many issues causing violence and disruptive national divisions, this is a perfect time for the parties to explain the difference between campaigning on ideology and balance-of-power governance.

4. Think tanks. These institutions are home to intellectuals and officials not currently serving in government. They are perfectly positioned to provide the data necessary for smart problem-solving.

5. Local nonprofits.  These organizations have a special opportunity now to initiate creative projects that enable criminal justice collaborations and improvements.

6. International organizations. Incorporating unity-building themes and projects fit the purposes of Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO’s). These include most professional associations, global banks, management consulting firms, and relief organizations.

7. Universities and colleges. Each president or chancellor should already be explaining the institution’s interest in community service, as well as its potential for helping to bring about cross-cultural understanding. Projects related to leadership development, problem-solving research, conflict management, terrorism, healthcare, climate change, energy, regulation, poverty, immigration, and more, all can help both the local community and world problem-solving

In summary, major crisis solutions must begin with an empathetic president and message themes so powerful that other leaders and organizations are motivated to echo them with their words and deeds. 

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In our 24/7 digital world, the daily implosion of information becomes a confusing mass of mush. When leaders are in conflict every day, as is happening with pandemic messaging and riots in cities, most of us throw up our hands and cry out for simple, transparent truth.

But a major theme of my writing over the years has been that media revolutions change everything… from families, to politics, to individuals, to education, to religion… and part of that change is overwhelming and confusing information noise.

For example, elimination of air and water pollution regulations, threats to eliminate health insurance without alternatives, tax cuts that favor the rich and big business, relief funds that don’t reach the most hurt, budget cuts in public education, quiet arrests and deportations of immigrants by ICE in major cities, verbal attacks on critics, tweets that can encourage violence, thoughtless abandonment of international agreements, inaccurate claims about virus tests, confusing timetables for vaccines, blatant science denials, many dismantled institutions, and the Voice of America becoming the voice of this administration, all of which add up to big daily doses of frightening noise. Very little truth can be found buried inside this kind of media mania.

Surprisingly, however, truth can be found beyond the daily news by simply seeing the “big picture.” It’s a very clear picture of a one-person-in-control autocracy.   

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The founders of this democracy put forth a balance of power framework to insure that no administration could establish an autocracy.

Here is the current situation. Hard power is the job of the Department of Defense. Soft power is the practice of diplomacy, which is the job of the Department of State. The state department explains the current administration’s foreign policy to governments around the world… and their citizens. This last part of their job is generally called “public diplomacy.”

But international organizations such as professional associations, aid organizations, management consultancies, international banks, corporations, treaty organizations, universities, schools, and more, also find themselves explaining their “idea of America…” which usually is how they see the U.S. founder’s intent. And citizens too explain their “idea of America” as they travel… which is often described as “citizen diplomacy.”

All this adds up to confusion about whose idea of America matters most… and digital media revolutions have only added to this confusion. 

The current administration is challenging many fundamental ideas of America, including the generally understood “balance of power” framework, and the content of “soft power” diplomacy. This has led to the actual dismantling of much of the work of the state department, and therefore democracy itself.

Following the fall of the Nixon administration a system of inspector generals was created to monitor and put a stop to malpractice in government departments and institutions. This was intended to put more balance of power back into the system. But by firing four of these inspectors, and then declaring they all should be eliminated, the current president is gradually dismantling democracy and building his own autocracy.

This is what happens when extreme politics replaces statesmanship in governance. Democrats and Republicans simply must come together and stop this ongoing dismantling of our democracy.

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A strong democracy requires strong institutions… AND empathetic leadership.

  1. Empathetic leadership only comes from studying those leaders who learned during crises how to describe the truth about what is happening while offering an inspirational vision for a better future when it’s finally resolved.
  2. Strong institutions are the bedrock of any democracy. Some are government institutions… such as the justice department, the CIA, or FBI. These institutions exist to provide essential research and information without political consideration to whoever occupies the White House.
  3. Some institutions exist in society as a whole, such as schools, universities, human services, international nonprofits, arts organizations, and church denominations, and these are also critically important for a functioning democracy.

But the truth of the matter is that the current administration has cut the budgets and staffs of most governmental institutions, as well as their support for those in society that are proud of their political independence. Governments focused mostly on winning elections will likely use social media and conspiracy rumors to distract and confuse, attack those who criticize (including mainstream news), blame others for what goes wrong, and use political extremes to divide people against each other.

What is needed now in America is a leader who will tell the truth about this current pandemic, use examples to show how people come together to find lasting solutions, and articulate an inspirational vision for a future that the entire country can easily rally around. It also seems obvious that any truly empathetic leader would be finding all the resources necessary to meet the needs of everyone on the front lines of healthcare, as well as those who have lost their jobs… or are losing their small businesses.

Only after everyone is led through this crisis with common cause will the economy really come back. And then, finally, it very likely will come back with “warp speed.” 

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Freedom of speech gives us the right to protest and say whatever we are thinking. Many think this also includes the right to ignore current health warnings: I have the right to risk my health and go anywhere I want without a mask.

If risking one’s health threatens the health of others, what happens to the others’ rights? Doesn’t some kind of “hybrid” way forward seem necessary in situations like this? In other words, shouldn’t the idea of the “greater good”  take over? But for this there is an important requirement: A genuine leader who is transparent, empathetic, and trustworthy. Instead, sadly, we have a president thoroughly obsessed with his own re-election.

But, there is also one more big requirement: Our 24/7 digital world created  a permanent state of information-saturated confusion… a truth hiding daily mental fog which causes many people to reject expertise and align with political extremists who promise to take care of everything. And what’s more, we are learning that autocrats thrive in this kind of media-produced fog. It is therefore absolutely necessary that Internet consequences, and not just social media skills, be taught in schools and discussed in community groups all over the world. 

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The DFW World Affairs Council will soon host a by-invitation webinar with four prominent ambassadors on how to revitalize and modernize American diplomacy and the U.S. Foreign Service. Below is my contribution to the agenda.

In four short months COVID-19 created a situation where public health, many businesses, education, government, and relationships around the world will need to be rethought and reactivated. 

Here are some questions related to diplomacy that must be answered:

  1. Looking ahead, what will be the proper role of U.S. diplomacy? Messaging will be critical. Diplomacy helps determine a nation’s brand-identity. Therefore should a media-savvy, strategic communication plan be a part of very early thinking?
  2. So will diplomacy’s primary role be to… explain the current administration’s policies; explain the basic “idea of America;” champion democracy everywhere; collect intelligence and do research; help resolve international issues; or to establish a strong presence in critically important countries with a professional staff that does all of these things? In other words, what are the specific action steps necessary to modernize diplomacy?
  3. Will “public diplomacy” have an important role to play in this modernization? Should the many international nonprofit organizations be involved in the planning? Should coordinating public diplomacy remain a part of the state department? If so, how should it be funded and structured? If not, do we need to establish a separate entity, much like the former U.S. Information Agency (USIA)?
  4. Will there be an important role for higher education to play? If so, how? 

We currently have a state department significantly reduced in size and influence, and a president who thinks he is all we need. If diplomacy should once again become an important part of American global leadership, we will need a complete change in thinking at the top.

And, reactivating many universities after the current pandemic will necessarily include reconnecting with international partners and relationships. Therefore, in many cases experts in all aspects of global leadership, cross-cultural understanding, education, media literacy, strategic communication, healthcare, energy, water, conservation, poverty, climate change, sciences, humanities, arts, engineering, politics, government, city management, and more, might already be in place.

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Will colleges and universities come back as completely different institutions? Here is a list of possible changes some administrators are already considering: A freeze on new hires; reduction of benefits; elimination of programs and research projects; voluntary and involuntary salary reductions; merit raise freezes; closure of buildings; modifying fundraising expectations; specific uses of endowment funds; continued use of remote on-line technology for teaching and support staff; easing of admissions requirements; tuition freezes and reductions; mergers with other institutions; partnerships with community colleges; cutting travel for business and conferences; becoming more global through on-line interactions; planning for anticipated reductions in government underwriting, financial aid, and research; holding the entire fall semester on-line; cancelling fall completely and starting up again in 2021.

Can intercollegiate sports as we knew them be brought back? Here are some administrative worries: Filling stadiums when that revenue is required; reevaluating income potential from luxury suites, reserved parking, and premium seating packages; holding on to needed television and radio revenue; dealing with huge head coach and assistant coach salaries; finding alternatives to funding minor sports from major sports revenues; cancelling some sports temporarily, or completely; effectively utilizing first-class stadiums originally built to provide more income options, attract star athletes, and accommodate premium level donors; dealing with lingering COVID-19 fears; handling any continuing NCAA player and coach violations; recovering from a conference decision to cancel the fall season; considering the possibility of increasing public interest in club sports.

Specific vulnerabilities will determine each college’s fate. Some will survive major changes… and others might not.

  • taken from a scan of The Chronicle of Higher Education, Inside Higher Education, University World News, and thoughts from my 50 year career in higher education.  

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Truth in politics comes much the same way it does in teaching…

I never thought about it this way until graduate school. It was there I first realized that the really great teachers were actually “living their subject-matter,” and that this was the real appeal of a career in education. Students came in and out of their lives, but the best teachers were constantly growing and changing by living their subject-matter every day.

I found in my teaching that living my subject-matter meant getting lost in my own world of communication and media when and where students could engage with me. As I referenced the best experts and reflected on the consequences of media revolutions, new thoughts would magically pop into my head. Truth would therefore gradually come to us by constantly searching for it together.

In retirement, however, I now teach about media, communication and politics without a classroom. My students are the readers of my blog. My new ideas appear during walks, or while struggling for clarity. I read the experts, try every day to pull some truth out of the media fog, and continue to interact with individuals and small groups as I am able.

This is what I learned…

Finding truth in politics today requires searching the cluttered media everyday for bits and piece of it. Our task is to compile the pieces that make sense to us, realizing that our conclusions are likely to change as we go… just as they do in successful teaching careers.      

 

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Several months ago I wrote how disappointed I was with both party’s behavior in Washington.

Instead of paying attention to meeting the needs of people in middle America they were focused on fighting each other. This opened the door for anyone promising to meet those needs to become president. I remember even writing about the feasibility of a third party candidate, or even a charismatic independent running for president and winning.

Now we have COVID-19. The obvious thought is that this should be a great opportunity for bipartisan problem-solving and leadership. But, alas, political polarization continues.

The president is obviously using his daily press briefings as a platform for re-election. He is blaming governors and even the World Health Organization. He is ignoring true experts and even occasional advice from inside the White House. And he recently made inspector-general and other personnel changes to align his daily briefings with his campaign. There are are even growing concerns about how the money allocated by Congress to help those losing jobs will be managed. So far his party appears to support him… probably out of fear of losing their own elections. As a consequence, Democrats in the House and Senate are also drawn into these politicized, and therefore polarizing, battles.

Political party scholars have observed in the past that criticism of presidential leadership generally grows over time, and this often causes a swing in political direction to the other party. It looks like this is happening right now… even before the end of this president’s first term.

So those who find his self-praising and dictatorial behavior dangerous to national security, or who are just fed up with politicizing a universally life-threatening pandemic, will simply have to vote for the other party. Right now the public’s health, a reliable economic recovery, and American leadership credibility, are all at stake.

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In a crisis, presidential press conferences traditionally are held for two reasons:

  1. To bring the country together by inspiring confidence in its leadership.
  2. To report new factual information about the crisis important for the public to know.

Today, presidential press conferences have these characteristics:

  1. They compel cable TV coverage, visibility, and big audiences.
  2. They give a former “reality TV” star a comfortable “rally style” format.
  3. They confuse and divert attention when facts were ignored and denied far too long.
  4. They allow putting critics on the defensive, including legitimate professional journalists.
  5. They strive to create the of illusion of leadership in the absence of knowledge.
  6. They keep the president’s political base intact… cruelty and lies have become style characteristics acceptable by far too many.

It’s time for cable networks to stop daily live coverage, and only report outcomes when the two traditional reasons for presidential press conferences are met. This is because:

  1. Rambling on for hours only confuses everyone.
  2. The integrity of professional journalism must be much better demonstrated.
  3. The unmet needs of those in “the president’s base” should be constantly explained by the press.
  4. Those who can meet those needs should be identified and challenged to do so.
  5. The consequences of ongoing political polarization in Washington should be constantly explained.

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