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Archive for the ‘Strategic Communication’ Category

Recent media revolutions gave leaders powerful new media tools. Businesses, social services, NGOs, museums, arts organizations, universities, schools, governments, and causes everywhere, all can now reach their audiences directly and powerfully. But these same revolutions also changed how their audiences receive information, making successful communication even more complicated.

So with chaos and division continuing in American society, I decided it is time to review some of the communication challenges today’s leaders are facing:

  • Communication break down is inevitable. People simply hear what they want.
  • There are new and powerful media tools available, but choosing the best ones for each audience is complicated, and requires constant feedback.
  • At the same time, consumers are learning that many of these tools are proving to be time wasters, potentially isolating, and sometimes even psychologically harmful.
  • So speaking to public groups and appearing on television continues to be important. And each has its own performance requirement.
  • Speaking in public requires projecting vitality. Talking on television requires a more conversational tone. And social media platforms require clear and concise writing.
  • To get through to overloaded audiences, messages must be simple… and examples must be emotionally compelling.
  • And the deluge of messages, news stories, and competitor attacks, tends to give charges of “fake news” an air of credibility.
  • Therefore, issues and crises become difficult to manage. Getting facts out quickly and repeating them often, is a must.
  • A reputation-defining institutional identity must become an often repeated central message.
  • Innovation and bold creative initiatives help achieve visibility.
  • Today’s audiences want their hope restored. Forward-looking ideas and values are essential.
  • Good relationships with key journalists are important, especially when dealing with issues and crises.
  • Managing groups skillfully is necessary to get everyone “on the same page.” Word-of-mouth support still makes all the difference.
  • Partnerships and allies with shared interests are powerful forces for rebuilding credibility.
  • Dealing with internal politics to build team support is mandatory… especially now.

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Media revolutions change everything. From families to politics, they change how society works, how individuals behave, and even how the news is reported. In fact, the entire profession of journalism has been permanently changed by the television and digital technology revolutions.

Here are some of the changes:

  • The television and social media revolutions created a media ecosystem of endless, mind-boggling information clutter. The entire journalism profession is struggling to adjust.
  • Growing numbers of TV channels and social media platforms resulted in more emotional content, fewer details, less fact checking, and a lot more consumer confusion.
  • Local newspapers lost significant income and readership when social media took over classified advertising… many local papers closed, and all of them reduced staff and local coverage.
  • “Multitasking” became standard procedure. Each day every surviving reporter had to learn to write website posts, develop stories for the main newspaper, do TV and radio interviews, research complicated issues, cultivate news-maker contacts, and then interview them.
  • 24/7 cable news channels multiplied quickly, focused on breaking news, developed political biases, and promised frequent updates to keep audiences watching.
  • Outrageous claims, unrealistic promises, and personal attacks resulted in headlines, added an entertainment dimension to news, and produced talk show and cable celebrities.
  • Rather than educate, on camera two-way debates resulted in mindless shouting and extreme polarization.
  • Social media platforms, email newsletters, bloggers, websites, and podcasts gradually multiplied, offering special-interest content and advertising that attracted loyal audiences.
  • More aggressive reporting, attacks by political opponents and foreign governments, and overall information overload, gave an air of credibility to charges of fake news.
  • Consumers began to rely on mainstream TV and cable for crisis reporting, and competition for audience among the networks led to non-stop, 24 hour coverage of riots and shootings.
  • Television coverage of events looks real, but TV news can be very deceptive.
  • Communicating with images resulted in a whole new visual language… wide shots define the story’s boundaries, medium shots focus attention on the action, close-ups add intimacy, editing manipulates time and space, special effects add surprise, and moving cameras allow viewers to ride along with the action… and all this comes together to make news into exciting drama.
  • Responding to market forces, talented anchors and reporters change their tone, content, and style to increase audience interest, thereby making news programs even more entertaining.
  • So, can today’s journalists bring us factual clarity in the midst of this new media ecosystem? Probably not. Only widespread media literacy and civics education, coupled with right-thinking leaders in media and politics, can do that.

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Presidents everywhere find many reasons to get upset with journalists. They all would prefer to explain what they are doing as they see it, and simply have that described accurately.

However, when the framers of the Constitution guaranteed “freedom of the press” their idea was that the primary role for reporters would be to ask probing questions. The press was expected to look behind what was said, and expose any wrongdoing.  Over the years most presidents found ways to work with this constructively. Some even enjoyed the challenge. After all, it sharpened their thinking and provided easy opportunities to reinforce their goals.

Mr. Trump and his administration, however, expect reporters to simply report the president’s schedule and accomplishments. As a result, the president began labeling unfavorable reporting as fake news, and has often gone so far as to call mainstream media “the enemy of the people!”

The result is an unhealthy division between the press and the White House. And the “enemy of the people” label adds a seriously dangerous dimension. Deranged individuals can take this statement as permission to bring real harm to journalists and their organizations… including correspondents working in danger spots around the world.

The White House “daily” briefing has simply become too combative and unproductive. Maybe in such a setting journalists should do little more than take notes. Later they can add more information gathered from off-the-record conversations and interviews with inside contacts… offering their professional observations where appropriate. After all, the best investigative reporters have always worked this way.

Eliminating angry confrontations between the administration and the press is critically important, especially right now. We know that unstable people can do stupid things, and we already have too many instances of attempted violence and shootings.

What’s more, when any leader of any country is informed enough on relevant issues, has a well thought out vision for the future, and is capable of a substantive conversation, an experienced journalist will always write an accurate story. But when that leader has no clear plan, is not educated on the issues, and angrily attacks people and situations, the attacks and divisions are what become the headlines.

Of course, there is always the occasional reporter who is arrogant and irritating enough for a president to call a managing editor and ask for a different one. But reporters like that are clearly the exception. On the contrary, professional journalism is precisely what the founders promised us: (1) watch over the health of our democratic republic, and (2) expose the scoundrels.

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Democrats won the House and Republicans retained the Senate… a virtual tie.

However, the president held a press conference where he declared victory for himself, offered the possibility of working with Democrats in the House, but quickly followed by reprimanding fellow Republicans by name who asked that he not help them, and warned Democrats that if they launched investigations he would retaliate. Later in the day he fired his Attorney General and replaced him with a political supporter inclined to limit or end Robert Mueller’s investigation.

So is a unified legislature and country even possible? From a communication perspective unity requires ongoing interaction. The problem with Congress is that legislators no longer care about getting to know each other. They aim to win, not to govern as nonpartisan statesmen. As a result, they generally travel home on Thursdays to avoid each other, and no longer move their families to Washington.

Unity requires a business-like openness to new and innovative ideas. It requires respect for each other’s backgrounds and an honest curiosity about what different cultural experiences can bring to the discussion. What works best is a pattern similar to many conferences… work hard in meetings, consider everyone’s ideas, and then adjourn to social receptions and dinners. A combination of business and social interaction that often included family members, is what legislative life was like in Washington in the past.

And when it comes to the news media, a similar pattern of business combined with mutual respect and occasional “get to know each other” events and meetings works best. But when politicians simply label the press fake news for their own combative benefit, and reporters respond with tougher and tougher questions, division is magnified and any possibility of mutual understanding is undermined.

In the real world peace maintenance requires finding at least a semblance of win-win solutions. And a genuine desire for stability is necessary in diplomacy. But when one side declares war, communication strategy shifts from finding common ground to winning at any cost. Media become weapons, divisions become permanent, and winners take all. My fear is that the president has already set up the inevitably of two more years of political warfare and dangerous division.

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We now live in a media-ecosystem where constantly repeated lies sound true, vicious personal attacks abound, and celebrated experts disagree on everything. The accumulated impact of all this on the nation’s culture is deep social divisions, dangerous feelings of anger, increasing acts of hostility, and growing voter confusion.

Gerald Seib, Washington Bureau Chief for the Wall Street Journal, offered that no matter the election outcome, Mr. Trump already owns the soul of the Republican Party. My concern, however, is more for the soul of the American people!

Candidates who support the president have rationalized that they can overlook his cruelty and lies because they support his policies. They accept that ends justify any means, and are willing to overlook that it’s the “means” that establish the country’s cultural norms. And many candidates on the other side don’t seem to understand that counterattacks only widen social divisions. What is needed from each party is an inspirational and unifying vision that is grounded in our country’s founding ideas of freedom, opportunity, and justice for all. In the past, if one party doesn’t provide that, the recourse has been to vote for the other.

Anyone who ever studied communication knows that words really do matter. CEO’s and presidents have the power to choose to be a force for the common good, or a force that stirs angry passions, or a force that calms when events require. The problem is that this president doesn’t have enough empathy to know what’s appropriate. As a result, he awkwardly reads the few sensible scripts that are written for him, and then quickly reverts to the only style he knows… that of a dramatic television entertainer. Once he get’s started, the only material he has is what he makes up. He never had the patience to study social issues, and never paid attention in history class.

Sadly, the only solution I see is at the ballot box. A BIG surprise in the election next Tuesday could be the catalyst needed for some immediate change. Not that one party is the victor over the other, but rather that maybe all this election mess will convince both parties to finally make the system work more respectably.

Beyond that, we sorely need intensive media and civics literacy training for our schools, universities, social media initiatives, Internet sites, professional association programs, community organization agendas, and other critical issues projects. Admittedly, this is a long-term undertaking, but it will be absolutely essential if we are to survive this mess.

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Following this week’s pipe bomb incidents, will any candidates on either side have the fortitude to condemn all the lies, bullying, and angry attacks that have become tactics in too many campaigns, including the president’s? 

Certainly there must be traditional Republicans, thoughtful Democrats, Independents, and heretofore non-voters who are finally disgusted enough with the fear-mongering, constant lying, and angry attacks on individuals devastating our politics.

After this week, it should be possible for candidates in both parties, and at all levels, to call out this loathsome behavior, and to do so without getting down in the gutter themselves. Really, how can any candidate with a conscience go forward if they don’t condemn and help clean up this mess?

Here’s what a candidate can do when mud begins flying: Temper tantrums, “me first” boasts, vulgar and vicious attacks, false claims of immigration horrors, supportive references to violent acts, senseless fake news charges, strings of bold-faced lies, and campaign rallies that are no more than political wrestling matches, can be labeled, described, condemned, and countered, from a position of self-confidence and strength. Accomplish this quickly, and the real substance of the campaign message can become practical and substantive ideas and plans for a better America.

Some candidates have sidestepped this mess by focusing on healthcare, tax cuts and jobs. These are important issues.  But what we have now is all out attacks on individual people, legitimate news organizations, and common decency by too many candidates. And this is creating dangerous societal divisions that are threatening the very foundation and future of our democratic republic.

Our country desperately needs candidates who will take this on. And people of good will in both parties should do the same.

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When an ally goes rogue… words matter. They really matter.

Beginning with the deliberations that culminated in the U.S. constitution, human rights has been a major feature of American exceptionalism. It is the core idea that resulted in a war to eliminate slavery, and what countries the world over have come to count on as the lead idea of U.S. foreign policy.

The recent crisis with Saudi Arabia certainly tests this core American value. Even with periodic sanctions, there is little doubt that financial benefit is replacing human rights as the primary concern of the current U.S. administration.

Words matter a great deal when it comes to establishing a country’s brand identity. The words you lead with are the ones that define you. It makes a big difference whether you lead with human rights concerns and follow later with protecting your financial interests, or whether you lead first with your financial priorities and add a few sanctions later.

And what makes matters worse with the Saudi’s is that constant lying and disdain for journalists on both sides raises serious questions about the overall autocratic interests of both leaders.

It therefore is critically important right now for Americans who understand their heritage, and want to preserve those basic values, to speak out in support of universal human rights. 

With this Saudi situation, the rest can play out later. But it will only do so if Congress finally performs its proper checks and balances duties.

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