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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.
I wasn’t surprised at all by the results of the US presidential election. Despite Republican conspiracy theories about the polls, I believed most were an accurate reflection of the mood of the electorate – or as accurate as polling can be. And I expected a majority of Americans would gravitate to a moderate position on key issues, and be scared off by some of the extreme, simplistic positions promoted by Republican candidates. What did really surprise me, however, was that Romney and his ardent supporters on Fox News seemed genuinely shocked, even flabbergasted, that Obama had won – and decisively at that.
I suggest the main cause of this surprise was the insular, persistent echo chamber constructed by conservative media pundits, the powerful PACs and the Romney campaign that promoted its own narrative at any cost. As a detached observer (I’m Canadian and therefore cannot vote in U.S. elections) it struck me that the conservative media machine was doing a great job telling their own supporters what they wanted to hear, but in the process they built a parallel universe that filtered out or discounted information that didn’t fit their narrative. They appeared to lose touch with the concerns, doubts and opinions of many voters. Witness the histrionic focus on conspiracy theories around the Benghazi attack in the days prior to the vote while most of the country, rightly, seemed far more concerned about the Sandy disaster.
Perhaps more surprising is that the Romney team went along for the ride. In short, they guzzled their own delusional cool-aid. In the process of pushing their message – again and again – and listening primarily to their fans (and billionaire supporters) while avoiding critics, the Romney team seemed to lose the pulse of the broader electorate. They forgot that the essence of a productive communication process is a dialogue, where listening is a key ingredient in delivering a relevant and credible message.
I’ve seen this same insularity and hubris in corporate settings. Some CEOs forcefully promote and execute their agenda with little care or understanding for their employees’ concerns and questions. They pay limited attention to employee feedback, and rely more on informal sources – often senior staff reluctant to share bad news – which fosters an artificial decision-making cocoon that becomes detached from the reality on the front-lines. As a CEO, losing touch with your audience increases the chance your outreach and policies will be duds, and that your employees will ignore, or worse reject, the top-down dictums.
The lesson here for communication professionals is that it’s fine to have an agenda and narrative you want to promote – even a partisan one – but doing so without careful, constant consideration for your audience and a realistic, open perspective is a recipe for disaster. In this case, electoral disaster. Despite the propensity to rely increasingly on partisan hype – a wall-of-sound of repetitive, shrill advertising and commentary – all the wishing and punditry in the world can’t change the reality on the ground. It’s understandable the Romney team didn’t want to show their true hand, but they certainly should have known their realistic prospects, and spent more time listening to the voters rather than their own hype.
I read a headline in my local newspaper today about the list of 2010’s top lies according to the website Politifact.com – a national fact-checking website. The winner was the oft-repeated claim that President Obama’s health care overhaul was a “government takeover”. According to the Politifact researchers, this loaded phrase has no basis in fact and is, at best, a gross exaggeration. According to the reports, the messaging was developed by a political consultant and designed to foster opposition to the legislation.
Sadly, the loaded, misleading phrase apparently played an important role in shaping public opinion – and fostering widespread misunderstanding – about the health care plan. Republican leaders and pundits repeated the phrasing with almost obsessive regularity – following the old adage that if you say something often enough, people will eventually believe it. A number of public opinion polls suggest the attacks got traction with the public, and most observers believe the losses by Democrats in the November elections can be attributed primarily to negative views on the healthcare reforms. (FYI: Factcheck.org has also repeatedly debunked the government takeover claim.)
No matter their political convictions or opinions on healthcare reform, communication professionals should be disappointed by the apparent success of this dubious messaging. Yes, it was effective – at least in the short-term – as a provocative and simplistic sound-bite. And it certainly helped shape public opinion against the healthcare reforms – at least so far. But it also reinforced all the negative stereotypes of public relations as spin, fluff and disingenuous hype. I’ll allow that politics is a more polarized environment where truth is often vulnerable to simplistic political slogans, but the dramatic impact of the healthcare attacks is still cause for concern. Has truth actually become irrelevant in public discourse?
As communication professionals, we’re often required to help our clients or companies to influence public debate and garner positive media coverage – and ultimately help drive a strategic agenda. And we certainly do our best to present information through messaging that is resonant and palatable with the target audience. We even advocate the message repetition I mentioned in the previous paragraph. But that doesn’t mean we should lose sight of the fundamental principles of public relations – such as commitment to transparency, honesty and respect for your audience. That’s what drives long-term credibility and trust, and helps build positive brand or personal reputation. We see clues of the Pyrrhic healthcare victory in the political arena; though public opinion is firmly against the healthcare overhaul, Americans have very low levels of trust in their elected officials – including those who so harshly criticized the healthcare reforms. So the messengers pushing the government overhaul canard seem to have a credibility problem of their own.
Ultimately, as professionals we need to ask ourselves what we would do to win an election, promote a stock or help sell a product. I suggest that sticking close to the facts is a good place to start. With no ethical compass, we deserve all the criticism the industry gets.