I hesitate to wade into the political waters in the wake of the U.S. election, but I keep on asking myself if there are valid lessons for communicators in this post-mortem. A cynical person might be tempted to conclude the following from the mid-term election:

  • Negative advertising – despite being shrill, dubious and laughably formulaic – actually might work.
  • Facts may ultimately be irrelevant in shaping opinion or discourse.
  • Influence and credibility are not necessarily related to knowledge, intelligence or probity.
  • Repeating statements – even outrageous, simplistic arguments – will ultimately result in public acceptance.
  • Personal attacks are acceptable – even expected – under the guise of political discourse.
  • National media have given way to self-important, biased blowhards disguising as reporters.

The context for my soul-searching is that much of the dialogue during the campaign seemed to be about emotion, hype, polarized opinion and vitriol than about policy, statistics or integrity. And there was no consensus on the most trustworthy, reliable sources of information – in fact, it was like a gigantic buffet with pundits and sources for every partisan flavor. Plenty of screaming, media noise and anger…but very little intelligent conversation. During the election, I was asked pointed questions by peers and clients – including whether “truth still mattered?” and “is experience now a negative?” Ultimately, what does this all mean – if anything – for communication professionals?

My answer is yes…truth and behavior do still matter and there are basic communication rules that are still relevant. I think part of the answer is that elections are a special occasion where – for better or for worse – normal rules of conduct and communication are suspended. Passion, hyperbole and hype trump civility, dialogue and facts. Still, there are a few notable lessons from this election:

Communication means listening not just talking. Perhaps the most valuable lesson from this election is know your customer. By all accounts, the Democrats totally underestimated the angst and frustration among the electorate – including their own party – and stubbornly continued to push their agenda despite strong evidence it lacked resonance and popularity. It’s no surprise, therefore, that many appeared to tune out the White House and Democrat candidates during the election period.

Long-term relevance and credibility is about relationships. Wild accusations and demagoguery by self-appointed pundits may shift opinion during a campaign, but they are not the basis for long-term credibility. Sources that have a track record of solid, objective reporting and commentary have a better chance of a sustained profile and relationship with listeners. This has nothing to do with formal credentials or experience, and everything to do with integrity and responsibility. Beyond the media, voters will also remember the conduct and promises of the candidates, and they will also likely favor those that acted with consistency and honesty over time.

Tell your story. One of the primary criticisms of the Democrats during this election is that they failed to convincingly tell their story – whether it be explaining their agenda or detailing their achievements. It’s hard to argue with that assessment when a majority of Americans have incorrect notions on a wide number of government policies and issues (most notably that the TARP effort was a failure.) Facts do matter, but not if they are buried or delivered in the wrong format, context or channel. Opponents of the President were only too happy to fill this vacuum with their own story.

Choose your media platforms carefully. One of the striking lessons from this campaign is that the media landscape is increasingly fragmented and diverse. Americans appear to increasingly seek out media sources that are aligned with their political leanings or cultural preferences, and that includes social networks that allow for communication within narrow interest groups. Nothing wrong with that I suppose, but it does create communication challenges for those seeking to reach across a broad segment of the population, rather than smaller communities or interest groups, or to gain the informal stamp of approval – the proverbial media hit – from a widely respected, influential outlet. It also raises serious questions about the accuracy of the information being shared, which ultimately harms the quality of the public discourse. On the positive side, this trend may drive organizations to find new, better ways to communicate directly with their constituents (or customers) rather than through third-parties.

Advertising still works…or it may not. It’s hard to uncover any immediate clues from the impact of the $2 billion in campaign advertising during the election, but clearly some of the biggest ad campaigns (hello Meg Whitman) didn’t work as intended. Hard to say if that was the candidate, message or medium, but clearly just repeating something ad nauseam does not change people’s mind or make them do something they don’t want to. There’s also evidence that ads or calls that were relevant or targeted were better received that spam or robo-call campaigns.

A bad story (or statement) can live forever. The ravenous 24-hour media cycle can spark and spread global coverage quickly – which is great when it’s a good story but terrible when it’s about a scandal, controversial statement or debate flub. Several volatile candidates likely suffered from their ill advised actions or claims. Even without the election glare and related “gotcha” mentality, leaders need to be keenly aware of the potential impact of their statements – whether written or spoken – and conduct. You can’t avoid honest mistakes, but preparation and crisis planning can help avert a bigger PR disaster.

Stick to your values & principles. The election environment is full of temptations around communication – attack your opponent, stretch the truth, cherry-pick your interviews, drill your message, make grand promises – but I still believe (naively perhaps) that corporate and political leaders should be guided as much by their values as their communication playbook. There’s nothing wrong with a communication strategy, of course, but building it on a framework without credibility is a mistake. What may seem like an expedient solution – whether during an election or corporate crisis – may permanently tarnish a reputation or brand, and ultimately is a disservice to loyal customers (or voters.)

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