In the wake of their unequivocal electoral defeat in November, the GOP party has been doing some chaotic soul-searching to figure out what went wrong, and how they can get back in the White House.

Well, it appears the brighter Republican minds have determined that they had a “messaging” problem in the election, rather than any demographic or policy dissonance between the American electorate and the Republican platform. More specifically, some argued it was who delivers the message and how it’s delivered that matters most; the underlying GOP messages themselves retain their probity and relevance. To use the words of one attendant at the RNC debrief: “we don’t need a new pair of shoes, we just need to shine our shoes.”  More recently, following the inauguration of President Obama, Paul Ryan and other GOP leaders reaffirmed this assessment, saying their party needed to change the way it communicates, not its ideas, to win back the White House.

As a communication professional, I would be the last person to deny that language and messaging can make a difference in public perception, attitudes and behavior. And I support the theory that the GOP election campaign was littered with examples of messaging (scripted and unintentional) that influenced the polls and ultimately fueled their electoral defeat. But the GOP post-mortem analysis seems far too simplistic and self-serving. In fact, it reflects a particular obsession in politics with adjusting words and labels to be more palatable and resonant – packaging which often comes with limited connection to, or impact on, the underlying policy reality. This game of focus-group window-dressing and euphemisms has become so common and predictable in Washington it’s something of a bad cliché. “Hey, we need a user-friendly label for this new tax law that plays well in the middle-class….”

In PR we often run into clients or prospects that ask us to “message” them out of a crisis or bad reputation. And just as often I tell them that communication alone can’t fix a bad decision or policy. But they still try.

I’ll leave it to others to determine whether American voters really buy into the GOP platform – the actual policies, values and laws that they promote and implement. But I would argue the Republican messages were only one part of a broader construct that shaped their public profile – which includes their actions and ideas, not just their words. And though brands and labels do matter, they can’t exist (or be changed) in a vacuum. Messaging without supporting evidence and ongoing corroboration – particular in a political context – is little more than dubious propaganda.  I also believe that most American consumers/voters are smarter than political leaders (and their armies of consultants and lobbyists) give them credit for, and will see through the most blatant messaging overhauls.

As luck would have it, I’ve been reading the results of Edelman’s excellent annual survey on trust. The survey suggests that trust of leaders and organizations is critical to influencing audience opinions and behavior (whether it be purchase, engagement or advocacy.) I think most of us would agree with that basic premise. But the study further argues that to build and sustain trust companies/leaders must focus on five key areas:

  • Stakeholders want to see ENGAGEMENT behaviors like frequent, transparent communications and obvious care for employees and customers.  There’s great faith built on the back of dialogue and interaction.
  • They expect clear exhibition of INTEGRITY of business practices and responsible actions about issues. Again, transparency is key, since it’s inadvisable to go around bragging how high your integrity is.
  • Quality PRODUCTS AND SERVICES seem like cost-of-entry, but this is a powerful way to build trust, especially with your innovation in evidence.
  • Once upon a time, brands could truly differentiate themselves by addressing a greater PURPOSE than mere profit and valuation results. Purpose initiatives are more powerful than ever for bonding and setting oneself apart… but now it’s expected, if not demanded, that businesses work to protect the environment, address societal needs and impact their community.
  • The fundamentals of the enterprise – OPERATIONS – are an important basis for trust; these include having highly regarded leadership, ranking among top companies and posting strong financial returns. And while you’re not likely to generate great increases in trust with these, if you fail, trust will plummet, and you’ll have much bigger issues to address.

I recognize the Edelman study focuses on companies and executives, rather than politicians or political parties. (On a side note, the survey shows that government lags business, media and NGOs in trust ratings, with the gap between government and business growing.) But I think the findings are quite relevant to this issue. It suggests that some of the old chestnuts of PR like “walk the talk” and “show me don’t just tell me” are still valid. In order to drive and sustain tangible changes in public attitudes and behavior, words (spoken or written) aren’t enough. It’s time politicians and executives commit to a more mature, comprehensive approach – where their actions, ideas and messages are real and aligned – to build credibility and support. I’ll be watching with interest how the GOP does with its “words first” approach.

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