Tag Archives: politics

The SF Chronicle Doesn’t Understand Why It’s the Problem

17 May

newspapers complaining about congress

News media whipped up a huge furore several weeks ago about the sequester causing flight delays because of Congress’ automatic spending cuts.  As a result of this uproar, Congress almost immediately passed legislation allowing the FAA to operate at prior spending levels.  Many legislators and members of the media then became upset about the quick fix when programs as important as Head Start, cancer research, and housing subsidies for the poor remained harshly cut.

But who’s really to blame?  Sometimes, a picture like the above tells a thousand words.  The San Francisco Chronicle last week told the heart-wrenching story of a 69-year old woman who now can’t afford her rent due to the sequester’s effect on federally subsidized housing.  She now “rarely goes out because she can barely spare money to see a movie” and is an example of the “the poorest Californians . . . whose political voices aren’t as powerful as a frequent flier’s.”

This was an important story.  Where did the Chronicle place the story in its print edition? In a tiny box on the bottom of the front page.  What was the more important story that went above the fold?  A British yachtsman who died on the Bay during an America’s Cup training race.

In other words, the Chronicle placed the story about the (albeit tragic) death of a guy voluntarily participating in a rich person’s sport above the suffering of millions of poorer Americans whose “political voices aren’t as powerful as a frequent flier’s” nor, presumably, yachtsman.

For those who believe the media is the fourth estate, and has any sort of social responsibility, this is frustrating to say the least.  The fact that the same media kicked up such a frenzy about “two-hour flight delays” in the first place reveals an incredible short-sightedness and lack of perspective.

Unconsciously and unintentionally, but very revealingly, this little anecdote tells much about how editors and publishers think, and who they think they are appealing to.  One effective form of strategic communications is to present information as a simple choice between two thing; to create a dichotomy and let people make a choice.  To me this demonstrates the relative importance the media has elected between separate segments of society.  Granted, viewers play a role in this, but for those who believe that the news media should be Fourth Estate, and that it has any sort of social responsibility, the question is how far have they strayed from that role.


Screw the Polar Bears: How to Effectively Frame “Greater Good” Messages

26 Mar


New Research Is Clear – Appealing to Americans’ Sense of Independence Works;   Appealing to the “Greater Good” Actually De-Motivates!

One of my core messages about Communications Strategies is: Be Authentic! How do I reconcile that with the following new research from Stanford – to motivate Americans to do something for the greater good, you have to appeal to their independence and individuality.  Surely, this encourages dishonest and disingenuous communications strategies?  Not really.

This research recently came up in the context of the difficulties President Obama has had selling gun control to Americans, even in the wake of Sandy Hook.  Obama was quoted as arguing:

We don’t live in isolation. We live in a society, a government of and by and for the people. We are responsible for each other.

So what’s wrong with that?  Well, the Stanford research found that when people (specifically white Americans) are asked to perform tasks explained to them as being part of the greater good, it actually demotivates them.   It doesn’t have a neutral effect – it actually undermines their performance.  Wow.

Independence is apparently so wired into Americans’ DNA that anything perceived to restrict individual liberties just doesn’t resonate.  In the gun control debate, this hurts liberals.  However, in another hot button image, gay marriage, one reason the liberal position has gained popularity is because it actually appeals to individual rights and freedoms (less government restriction on how people live their lives).

So, as far as communications strategies, here is the significance of this research for me:

Focus on direct individual benefits to specific audiences, rather than intangible abstract universal goals.

For someone passionate about climate change, talk less about polar bears.  Instead, tailor messages to the disruptions in specific groups’ current ways of life.  For example, emphasize to skiers and snowboarders in Northern California that Lake Tahoe’s snow could well disappear over the coming decades unless more actions are taken to prevent climate change.  For gun control, talk less about “gun control,” and more about individual safety, reduction in violence, and billions of dollars of savings for taxpayers from the reduced deaths and injuries.  To get your selfish friends to take a flu shot, ditch the argument that they could be spluttering next to your grandma on the bus, and instead focus on days they will lose of work, activities they may miss by being sick, and the costs of hospitalizations.

So does this encourage inauthentic messaging when the “greater good” is actually the “true” goal?  Not really.  The “selfish” selling points described above are all assumed to be true.  And in many cases, those individual rewards, if aggregated together (by motivating people to take the specified actions) will actually produce the underlying societal benefits.

The American military got into the act years ago, with their early 2001 “Army of One” recruiting campaign, which replaced the famous “Be All That You Can Be” slogan.  The point was to highlight the career opportunities that the army could produce, and to make the army seem less dehumanizing.  The then-Secretary of the Army admitted to the New York Times the contradiction of selling individuality to recruits for the ultimate collective unit.  But he understood the need to effectively frame the message to get those recruits in the first place.  “They are going to get the ethic of selfless service, duty, honor and country in basic training and in every unit they are assigned to . . . But you’ve got to get them in the door… And you’ve got to let them know that even though it is about selfless service, they are still individuals.”

I will leave it to others to analyze whether all this reveals something dark and disappointing about human motivations.  But, the take home is this: to motivate people to support the greater good, focus on individual benefits.  If you’re uncomfortable with that, realize that those small rewards, when all taken together, are just the flip-side of the same coin!

Authenticity – It’s the Real Thing

5 Mar

Mitt Romney re-entered political life this week and immediately provided a useful reminder.  Whether conservative or liberal, all voters need a sense of the real person behind the political soundbites.    


This blog will not become political.  But politics is very instructive when it comes to messaging.  The mini-brouhaha Mitt Romney caused over the weekend in trying to explain his “47%” comment illustrates why a politician’s inability to be authentic in his messaging can be deadly to his success.

Politics is about people.  The reason we elect representatives is because we don’t have the time or skill to dive into every policy issue ourselves, so we ask other people to represent us.  The criteria we use to choose those representatives varies widely.  But ultimately, what almost every voter wants – in fact needs – is to believe that the individual they send to a city council, a state legislature, Congress or the White House, will represent some portion of their interests.

Sure, politicians will break promises.  But the question voters ask is – do I have a basic understanding of how this person will act on my behalf?  Do I feel I know what this person will do for me?

The last three elected Presidents – Clinton, George W. Bush, and Obama – all found a way to resonate with voters by showing voters a real part of themselves as people.  Clinton empathized and projected a message that he understood your pain.  Bush saw eye-to-eye with the common Joe and could make solid decisions based on good instincts.  Obama was both the embodiment of the American Dream, and also the preacher that made you want to believe and to be part of the “change” that was coming.

By contrast, Romney falls into the same camp as Gore and Kerry, where the image each tried to convey could not be reconciled with the unintentional messaging each candidate actually projected.  In Romney’s case, he was a moderate governor of Massachusetts but also a “true” conservative, a Mormon but also a holder of traditional Christian values, a creator of universal health care in Massachusetts but also an opponent of the federal government extending the exact same program nationwide.  As a conservative columnist recently wrote about Romney, “he would have said almost anything to win.”  And then throw in the fact that he simply could not relate to everyday people (think Nascar owners, Binders full of women, and the dog-on-the-roof), and it is not hard to see the challenge Romney faced getting elected.

This weekend, he tried to re-launch himself into political life with an interview on Fox News.  It backfired in part because, again, Romney could not explain how his private comments (about 47% of Americans being “victims”) jibed with his public position.  He said about the 47% comment, “What I said is not what I believe.”  The New York Times reporter who followed Romney on the campaign trail tweeted that this comment “epitomiz[ed]” his campaign problems.  It reinforced the idea that he would say anything to win.

It was actually worse than just that, though.  Romney prefaced that already-damning  “What I said is not what I believe” comment by saying “when you speak in private, you don’t spend as much time thinking about how something could be twisted and distorted…”  This suggests that Romney perhaps did mean what he said, he just hadn’t thought about it too carefully.

So it’s unclear whether Romney: (1) believed the 47% comment and later lied to the public about not believing it; or, (2) didn’t believe the comment at all and was lying at the time he made the private speech.

Whatever Romney meant, he lost the election because he simply did not convince enough people that they knew the real Romney and could trust him to represent them.  Undoubtedly, national politicians face a Herculean task of holding together a coalition of often competing political interests, all for the sake of getting elected.  But perhaps for that very reason, voters need to find some identifiable personal values in their candidates to guide their ballot box decisions.

In Romney’s case, the lack of authenticity created doubts in too many people’s minds.  No-one, apparently including Romney himself, knew whether he believed that 47% comment or not.

PS.  Next post will be about my trip to Stanford’s Graduate School of Business – I was asked to help several groups of students with their presentations, and I learned a lot from this experience that I’d like to share.

Chris Christie’s Fall and Extreme Messaging

27 Feb

How Superstorm Sandy Blew Away a Conservative House of Cards


File this one under S for Speculative.  But today’s NYT report this week about just how far New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has fallen out of grace with conservatives, brings up an interesting messaging question.

Christie upset many conservatives before the November presidential elections by publicly applauding President Obama’s efforts with respect to Superstorm Sandy.  The issue this raises for messaging is “why were they so upset” or rather “why did it matter so much?”

The standard responses are that Christie had: (1) endorsed Romney; (2) given the keynote address at the Republican National Convention; and, (3) gone so far as to (correctly) predict that Romney would clean the floor in the first debate.  Therefore, by embracing Obama’s response to Sandy, he was throwing Romney under the campaign bus.

I take issue with this analysis, and think the significance lies elsewhere.  After all, at its basest level, Obama was just doing his job.  Is it so extraordinary for the governor of a state to thank the President for organizing an efficient response to a disaster?  Additionally, this was a storm affecting states that were all clearly going to Obama anyway – only if the President had horrifically bungled the FEMA response was there any real political capital at stake.

From a messaging point of view, the real problem is that Christie’s back-patting was contrary to the image repeatedly portrayed by conservatives that Obama was the worst president in history.  It wasn’t just that Obama’s viewpoint was different, that he was taking the country down the wrong path, etc., an image was built that Obama was truly the worst.

And when he had a discrete task to perform (coordinate a disaster response), the fact that he did it well – and a Republican said so – shattered the veneer of incompetence and uselessness that had been so steadfastly built.

Like I said at the beginning, this is a more speculative “thought experiment.”  And it’s clear that many other factors were involved in Obama winning re-election (e.g. Mitt Romney).

But you have to think carefully about the messages you create.  Often times it makes sense to give people a clear A vs B choice.  But the more extreme the distinction you present between two choices, the easier it is for something outside your control to unravel that dichotomy and suggest that it’s false.  And once your audience doubts a central tenet of your message, it becomes much harder to maintain the same people’s unquestioning belief of everything else you’re trying to say.

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