No, don’t worry, I’m not going to gloat, mourn or add to the millions of words of post-election political commentary. This is about crisis communication and what we can learn from the election.
Entertainment is Everything
First, what struck me during this election is the truth of Neil Postman’s observation. We are entertaining ourselves to death. Cutting through the clutter of 3000 to 20,000 marketing messages aimed us at every day, having 24/7 access to all the world’s information at our fingertips means that grabbing attention is both exceedingly difficult and necessary if you live or die by an audience. It is hard not to see the election as a kind of Roman spectacle where the gladiator competitors bloody and bruise each other viciously, eagerly, gleefully for the cheers of the crowd. At the end of the contest, we are the emperor in the stands with our thumb up or thumb down. And sadly, the decision seems to made mostly on how much damage one did to the other. I used to run political campaigns and one of the first big lessons I learned, way back in 1978, is that voters vote against candidates, much more than for candidates. So, we have the necessity in a campaign of driving the other into the ground. And we as observers seem to kind of enjoy it. Yes, there is the talk about the horrible partisanship and nasty campaign ads, but they work. And, it seems we enjoy it too much.
The implications for crisis communication is all too clear, yet, seems strangely invisible to so many in this business. Entertainment in its most basic form is about good guys and bad guys fighting over something valuable. It’s valuable because we value it. Bad guys threaten what we all value, good guys work to protect it. Now, let’s say you have a problem. Bad product, environmental spill, accident where people are hurt, even fatalities. If this is cast in a good guy-bad guy mode, who do you think you will be? And how will you fare when to get those all important audiences, those telling your story need to make it compelling, exciting, aggravating–they need it to bleed.
Today, it seems we tend to see everything as a movie, as a story. The more neatly packaged, the clearer the distinction between good and evil, the good guys and bad guys, the more satisfying. Think about it as you prepare.
Debates and sound bites
One thing struck me about the campaigns was the importance of the debates. And there is an important lesson for crisis communications. All through the campaign we saw the candidates mostly through media and social media formats. And these are almost very short clips of things they’ve said, usually framed by the perspective of the channel presenting the clip. It is hardly unbiased, nor is it a very complete and comprehensive picture of what the candidate was actually saying. As they say about statistics, torture a sound bite long enough and you can get it to say just about anything.
But the debates were different. We saw them talk, engage, express themselves, respond with emotion, think on their feet and in some rare moments, almost be themselves. What a joy it was to be free of the six second clip and sound bite. We got a much clearer picture of who these people really were and what was important to them.
For crisis communication it means that if you entrust your message primarily to the reporters and video editors who will reduce your important messages into six to twelve seconds, and frame it in the way they way (see point above), then you are exposing yourself to great danger. Especially because it is so easy to communicate in much more debate style. I mean in every event going forward, you need to be prepared to put your CEO or other key spokespersons on video, blast them out on YouTube, do a longer form interview. The framed sound bite, standard fare in crisis communication, should be avoided. Instead, since you now have direct access to the means of giving a far more complete picture using video and other means, why would you not?
Mountains out of mole hills
The election is over and there is one big thing I am celebrating: the election is over. We have been inundated with hours and hours of news/infotainment/pundit talk and with all those hours to fill and the desperate need to come up with something fresh, everyone is on the look out for the issue of the moment. It’s bloody hard for the candidates to stick to message when everyone is looking out for the slightest grammatical error, for a candidate to misunderestimate something. So we have these issues popping up that have little or no substance but become the big story of the day. The flubs and gaffes take center stage–because there are too damn many center stages to fill. So when Tony Hayward flubs and says he wants his life back (who wouldn’t in those circumstances), he gets hung up on every tree the 24 hour networks can find. Too often I saw candidates joining in the mole hill game: Big Bird and Benghazi come to mind. These were distractions from the big campaign issues and their key messages–and they didn’t help them.
For crisis communicators, it is important to understand that particularly for crises that go beyond the one week wonders, this tendency to fill the endless TV hours with minor errors will be part of the game. The judgment to know when these issues are truly significant and resonate with audiences and when they are mere distractions to be quickly forgotten is a vital crisis management skill.
Feeding the angry beast
There is an awful lot of handwringing (including by me) about the nastiness, the partisanship, the toxic talk that dominates so much of our political conversation and indeed, just about every conversation on the web. But, I believe the fundamental problem in our nation politically is the system that we have that requires candidates to appeal the fringes to get the nomination and then have to swing mightily to the center to win the election. It makes them all look like crooks and liars, and makes it almost impossible for candidates who don’t want to play it this way to even get in the game. I don’t have a solution. But I believe that the vast majority of Americans are people of good heart and good will who do not go in for this kind of anger, outrage and disrespect. The media, pundits in particular, seem to have forgotten that. And too often it seems candidates have forgotten that.
For crisis communicators this means keeping in mind in almost every challenging public issue there are three categories of audience. I tend to call them saints, sinners and saveables. There is a tendency to “play to the base”–the saints, demonize the hard core opponents, “sinners” and forget the saveables. But, the right approach is to focus on those who are persuadable and consider that all but the most extreme “sinners” are also probably saveable if you treat them with dignity and respect.
Media today depend on feeding the outrage that comes so quickly to the surface. They do that for a good reason–emotion is necessary to break through the clutter as Danah Boyd makes clear in this video. It’s tempting in our own communications to take the cue from the media (and I fall into this, too.) But, I think most people are reasonable, not prone to outrage, willing to listen and consider. At least, its pleasant right now to try to believe that.