I have to admit to a morbid fascination with the hyper-partisan and highly ritualistic wall of noise that serves as communication during this election season in the United States. You know the playbook: deploying an army of “surrogates” to amplify the daily message platform; vacuous appearances in friendly, choreographed media interviews; carpet-bombing of shrill, bombastic advertising (much of it devoid of nuance or credibility); and, commentary by a motley crew of journalists, polarized media personalities and self-appointed expert pundits.
The premise behind this political playbook seems to be that saying something loud and often – no matter how tenuous the relationship with objectivity or truth – will eventually get people to believe it . It suggests that subtlety and creativity have no place in bare-knuckle political advertising (which would explain the highly formulaic production that mimics low-rent infomercials.) It also seems based on the assumption that most of us rely, almost exclusively, on media sources that are already aligned with our beliefs – almost like talking to ourselves. In other words, we access news and information from our side of the political divide; the rest is likely rotten and misleading anyway, so why bother. Perhaps the worst aspect of the political toolkit is the intense personal attacks; the debate is often framed not by disagreement about policy or vision, but by dubious personal attacks questioning the character and integrity of the candidates. Beyond the merit of these specific tactics, which seem almost anachronistic in this age of empowering technological progress and social media, this whole approach seems perched on the belief that most people are simply not very smart.
In spite of my personal distaste for this carnival, it does raise two important questions for me and other communication professionals. Does any of this really work? And is there something valuable here communication professionals can learn from?
Does any of this really work? There’s been plenty of discourse and disagreement on the question of whether the political communication model actually works. Maybe I’m an idealist, but I like to believe that most informed observers, – who are willing to look beyond the most predictable, partisan media outlets – have the judgment and intellectual curiosity to make up their own minds on the issues. Those who are most partisan happily return to their favored sources to hear what they want to hear, but many others will take advantage of the rich, diverse array of information sources, formal and otherwise, to shape their opinion. In terms of the loudest winning the argument (or election), history is littered with those who mistakenly thought their money, and advertising clout, could buy them victory (Meg Whitman is one recent example.) Furthermore, I’m not sold on the logic that hearing a message repeated by 10 people, all obviously towing the party line, will make us more likely to believe it than if we heard it only from the candidate. There are also many examples of voters contradicting the polls, and experts, predicting one outcome or another based on their campaign acumen. So my verdict on whether this model works is: the evidence is mixed, and I don’t see enough reason to throw my values and professional integrity out the window.
Is there something valuable here communication professionals can learn from?
This second question is one that comes up often with peers, particularly younger professionals new to the PR/communication industry. My answer to them is that politics is the last place I would go to pick up valuable best practices. Yes, there are certainly some lessons we can learn from the political process – notably the sophisticated use of research in message development, enlisting of third parties and local volunteers, and efficient use of “war room” monitoring and response teams. There are also important media trends we can learn from, such as the shift to more blatant, unapologetic political alignment. But overall the extreme (some would say perverse) communication approach favored in political campaigns is a good model of what to avoid if you want to foster a credible, lasting relationship with your audiences. Hype and propaganda may win you a few temporary victories (including some elections) but facts, balance and transparency are more important if you want long-term relevance and respect as a source, or professional counsel.
Ultimately, I have faith in the capacity of well-intentioned people to sift through the noise, do their homework and make up their own minds. Banking on the ignorance and gullibility of people is not in the best interest of voters, or the PR profession.