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It’s become a truism that new technology can spark dramatic changes in business and society. In recent years, a confluence of new social, digital and mobile tools has totally changed how people access, create, track and share information. Communication disciplines like PR and journalism have been irreversibly transformed, though many are still struggling to adapt to the new reality. Well, the laggards better hurry because the next wave of change may be here, and it is virtual reality.

I recently had the opportunity to join a webinar by The Gronstedt Group that positioned virtual and augmented reality as a potential game changer for many industries, including public relations. The Gronstedt Group has been working with clients on the cutting-edge of technology for years, notably using 2D virtual environments like Second Life as interactive platforms for employee training and collaboration. But the emergence of new and affordable 3D virtual or augmented reality devices has changed the game – again.

There are obvious reasons why virtual and augmented reality has huge potential as a communication platform. The 3D environment is an immersive, powerful multi-sensory experience that goes well beyond 2D content like video or computer games. It’s the ultimate 360 experiential media. As such, it can carry more emotional and dramatic weight than video.

The other key development that will drive adoption and usage is the increased affordability and variety of VR tools, with the best example being the Google cardboard viewer ($15) which can be used with a smart phone and a special app. That’s a far cry from Facebook’s Oculus Rift (which requires a headset and special PC bundle) or the even more advanced HTC Vine – which allows for positional tracking. So the barriers to entry for both users and producers are getting lower every day. On the augmented reality front (which combines digital content on virtual screens with the real environment) the introduction of Microsoft’s HoloLens opens the door to broader corporate and consumer use.

Early examples of VR content demonstrate the huge potential for this technology. Though initial efforts focused on interactive gaming and specialized training (like medical training, flight simulation and even an NFL module to train quarterbacks) we’ve seen a range of exciting VR applications in journalism, marketing and entertainment. Notable examples include a ground-breaking virtual video story by the New York Times in April 2015 (distributed via free Google VR headsets) and a gruesome VR film shared at the World Economic Forum in Davos in January to dramatize the Syrian refugee crisis. (The director of “Clouds over Sidra” called his VR film the ultimate empathy machine.) In fact, the New York Times now provides a wide range of content in VR through its website, making a big play for what is calls “virtual reality journalism.”. Google’s Expeditions VR program has allowed half a million students to go on virtual field trips to global landmarks like Machu Picchu and the Great Barrier Reef. It’s now possible for home buyers to visit virtual open houses through VR content. Just this week the New Yorker magazine produced its online issue with augmented reality digital cover featuring the NYC skyline.

You can also imagine some fascinating applications for VR with the employee audience – my personal passion. Imagine a virtual onboarding session featuring video interviews and 3D brand visuals, or “micro” learning sessions with Google cardboard viewers. VR also opens the door to much more engaging, immersive digital training sessions (perhaps to introduce new products) or even virtual exhibits – like a 360 corporate museum. There are of course also huge opportunities to leverage VR technology for core business applications, like product development, data visualization or collaborative brainstorming. (Check out the Google Tilt brush application, which allows users to create 3D paintings.)

Virtual reality essentially opens the door to a new art or communication form. This is important not just for the sake of creative license or technological progress, but because the virtual outcomes will be more compelling and immediate, and the communication process itself more effective and impactful. This is a new frontier for communication disciplines like PR. Let’s hope communication professionals are paying attention and proactively take advantage of the VR technology.

The folks in marketing have long sought to define the typical customer journey, detailing key ‘touch points’ where content, advertising and other activities impact the sales process – either for good or bad. This practice has become more sophisticated, and useful, as social media and mobile technology has dramatically altered how consumers make their purchasing decisions. In this infographic I tried to demonstrate a similar construct for workers in the typical employee journey. This example is generic, but I believe it can be serve as a useful foundation for strategic planning.

I tried to highlight a few key points in this visual:

A wide range of factors influence employees on their work journey: workplace programs and policies, company vision and strategy, corporate reputation, internal communications, external influencers, peers, management style, workplace environment to name a few. Needless to say, the formal communication process is only one part of the equation, albeit an important one.
There are several key players in the employee journey beyond the internal communication team, notably core functions like HR, IT, Marketing and the C-Suite. Too often companies fail to integrate and coordinate the efforts of these teams to execute a holistic and strategic engagement strategy. For example, many companies struggle to present a consistent, compelling message (and image) from recruitment through the interview process to the first day on the job.
Much like in marketing, there are usually a few ‘moments of truth’ for employees that will help determine whether they are/remain engaged fans of the company or become disenchanted and critical, becoming either dead weight or leaving altogether. These inflection points include obvious landmarks in the employment journey (e.g. orientation, annual performance reviews, compensation changes) but also important announcements and multi-audience events, such as mergers or major change efforts.
I didn’t try to detail specific communication tactics for each stage of this employee journey, but clearly an important objective is to match the right content and channel for each of the key ‘touch points’ in this journey. There are some helpful best practices for developing a cogent communication program that targets key situations (for example, boosting face-to-face outreach during difficult or complex change efforts) but I would argue each company needs to define its own roadmap based on their employee preferences, workplace culture and other variables.
What is the typical employee journey for workers in your company? Perhaps there are several distinct paths based on different roles and profiles. Whatever the case it is useful to understand this path from the employee perspective, which will help those managing the process – be it HR executives or communication professionals – to be more responsive, relevant and effective. Ultimately, the lesson here is parallel to the marketing model – to truly be effective we need to put ourselves in our employees’ shoes.

This recent post in Huffington Post on Hillary Clinton’s authenticity (or lack thereof) got me thinking about the evolution of authenticity as a paragon of communication. In recent years, the immediacy and transparency of social media has increased the premium on authenticity – being true to your identity or person and avoiding artifice, hype or self-serving promotion. Over the years I have worked with numerous leaders and politicians striving to identify and promote their identity and genuine brand attributes – to be authentic. The premise is that an informed and empowered consumer (or voter) will not accept a disingenuous or fabricated persona, or marketing message. I still believe that striving for an honest, credible portrayal of oneself (or a company or culture) is critical, but is it enough? I’ve concluded that being authentic, in of itself, is not enough to foster lasting relationships with your audience(s).

Let’s take Donald Trump as a prominent example. Trump is unapologetic about being himself – for better or for worse, whether he contravenes political correctness or not. He ignores political conventions and etiquette, he blusters (apparently without script) about any topic, and he liberally throws around vitriolic insults at anyone who dares criticize him or his persona. Throughout this process, Trump seems to relish in being Donald Trump – or the persona he has crafted and become in the public consciousness.

At least for now, Trump’s recipe seems to be working. In fact, Trump’s very popularity seems largely based on his unscripted, honest and blunt commentaries and policy positions – which often contravene GOP orthodoxy. He is the consummate outsider (at least in political terms) and the opposite of the typical poll-driven, predictable and deliberate candidate. Other candidates seem to be either trying to ignore him – with varying degrees of success – or to emulate his dogmatic, no-holds-barred style. (On the democratic side, one could argue Bernie Sanders is benefiting from a similar wave of support for his direct style – albeit a more polite and humble version. Other pundits suggest Joe Biden, who has not declared his candidacy, would have the most equity on the authenticity meter.)

While Trump has garnered the headlines and the support, the cautious, reactive campaigns of other GOP candidates have generated more credibility problems than excitement with the public. Politicians like Scott Walker and Jeb Bush, along with Hillary, are the anti-thesis of Trump. In fact, all three of these candidates have suffered due to their lack of candor, sincerity and accessibility on contentious issues. Based on polls I’ve seen, most Americans seem to question the authenticity – or trustworthiness – of these candidates. Their outreach seems designed not to share candid personal views or insights, but to sell a proactive electoral platform and carefully crafted persona. These candidates may at their core have real beliefs and policy ideas, but we’d be hard pressed to judge which ones are entrenched and which are promoted for political expediency or to avoid controversy. In other words, they are having difficulty making the case they are authentic.

But there is another side to Trump’s transparent “deal with it” persona. Yes, he certainly appears to be a distinctive personality and has carved out his own unique style. He is, in short, authentic and entirely original. But what of the view that he is also a bigot and misogynist? Or woefully ignorant of political minutiae and world affairs? Or laughably egotistical, thin-skinned and petty? All of the those criticisms have some strong proof-points and cogent advocates. In other words, he may be real, but is he a positive, effective candidate to be president of the country or is he a self-promoting clown?

I would posit that by itself authenticity isn’t enough if the person or brand being featured doesn’t align with the values, beliefs and aspirations of his/her supporters (or consumers.) In other words, you also have to be relevant, credible and yes, even likeable. What is the true value in an authentic narcissist or bully?

I would also argue that beyond an authentic personality, there needs to be authenticity for the actual ideas being promoted by candidates like Trump. Indeed, there is likely value in having passionate, consistent and convincing ideas (and content) rather than chasing polls or simply tossing out bumper-sticker slogans with little intellectual or empirical heft.

The focus on authenticity has also obscured the reality that politicians (and companies) need to do more than talk about themselves – they have to listen. And respond. And presumably also accept the ideas and criticisms of their followers or consumers. One could argue the implicit contract with fans or consumers – on social platforms but also through traditional media channels and political settings – is that the discussion should be civilized, with a measure of decorum, fairness and balance – like any reasonable conversation. That’s the basis of code of conduct for public communication in many organizations, and what keeps discourse on the web from becoming a troll free-for-all.

I’m not certain Trump is willing or able to show this level of civility, humility and empathy. Being elected, or selling a product, is not a one-way conversation or license to be obnoxious under the guise of being honest and unfiltered. Even if you are an authentic original. For these reasons I think Trump’s wave of popularity is not sustainable. Will he actually be the GOP presidential candidate? The jury is out, but my guess would be no.

As communication pros we’ve always had a tough challenge, but drafting and communicating a message these days is more difficult than ever. Beyond the long-standing requirements of clarity, relevance and credibility we now must address the emerging demands for trans-media content, real-time conversation (and adjustment) and targeted delivery across social platforms; all in a context of decreasing trust for leaders and corporations. It turns out that even if we satisfy all these best practices, we still face a major hurdle. Indeed, new research suggests that even the strongest factual messages may not be enough to change minds. Chalk it up to confirmation bias.

If you’ve ever wondered why even the strongest arguments don’t seem to resonate with a particular audience – even when supported with cogent evidence and presented by credible sources – this research by IPR has the explanation. In a recent study IPR author Christopher Graves found that when people are shown evidence they may be wrong, they not only discount that evidence, they become even more extreme in their original belief. […] While it may not have been particularly surprising that people cling to their beliefs to the degree that they filter out any evidence that challenges their beliefs, an unexpected finding of the experiment was a backfire. The study goes into interesting details about the physiology and neuroscience behind this phenomenon. One particularly interesting finding suggests the messenger of information is critical, since outsiders will automatically elicit skepticism: To avoid being rejected from the get-go, you must choose representatives with whom each group feels comfortable, messengers or narrators who send the proper cues that identify them as in-group members. 

Though I’ve long known people initially discount information that doesn’t suit their particular viewpoint or narrative, I was surprised by the lack of importance (or power) that facts have if they go against the prevailing views of the target audience. Furthermore, it appears the more you try the wrong approach, the more you polarize the audience and diminish the resonance of your argument. I suppose this information bias helps explain how seemingly smart, curious individuals can have such different opinions on major public issues (notably climate change) and are not swayed by evidentiary facts that contradict their position.

So what are PR pros to do with this information? I suppose the first decision is whether to throw in the towel and abandon probity and factual evidence as tenets of content. After all, if the facts don’t really make a difference with many people, why even bother? Let’s just jump on the hype bandwagon and sell snake-oil. Assuming we want to maintain our ethical stance and remain committed to telling the truth – in whatever format and channel is most effective – there is a potential path to success.

The IPR research itself suggests that the answer to overcoming strong confirmation bias can be overcome with the following strategy:

  • Affirm/recognize the audience’s core values
  • Argue the position through an emotional narrative
  • Choose an in-house messenger to reinforce, if not carry your message

It’s interesting to note that this roadmap in many ways echoes the increasing focus on influentials and storytelling in successful social media programs. It also suggests that it’s easier to change minds through conversation (and intellectual compromise) than just turning up the volume or frequency of your message.

I look forward to additional findings and guidance from this IPR study. For now, the lesson is that using facts and logic to convince a skeptical audience – no matter the underlying value of the evidence – will not only fail without the right strategy, but will likely backfire and permanently discredit your argument. Another good reminder to think before we act.

In recent weeks I’ve witnessed several instances of public figures using talking points, or planned messages, in ways that should make every PR professional cringe.

Perhaps the most visible example was the brouhaha surrounding Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act, when Governor Pence appeared on talk shows to defend the proposed legislation – which was widely criticized for allowing, perhaps even encouraging, discrimination against the LGBT community. In one widely publicized interview, Pence methodically repeated his key talking points – including the widely debunked argument the Indiana RFRA was identical to a law passed by other states – even as the host provided detailed evidence to the contrary. To make matters worse, Pence repeatedly avoided answering a direct question about whether the law allowed discrimination against LGBT consumers, reverting back to stock messages that were not relevant. By most assessments, Pence did not fare well in the interview, yet his discredited talking points lived on even as the legislation was amended (despite Pence’s earlier claims to the contrary) to reflect the widespread criticism.

In fairness, this stubborn adherence to irrelevant or misleading talking points isn’t limited to one side of the political spectrum. Last week US Senator Bob Menendez was indicted on criminal charges of bribery and corruption. The surprise wasn’t that Menendez pleaded not guilty, but that in his remarks he defiantly pronounced his innocence and defended his actions with arguments (and messages) that strained credulity given the scope and detail of the accusations. Undoubtedly, we will hear his script repeatedly as we wait for the legal process to unfold.

Like many communication professionals, I believe there is great value in proactively planning speaking points to position your argument (or product or policy) in the best possible light. I’ve trained my share of leaders on this practice. But there are several critical requirements to ensure this is done effectively, meaning the messages are relevant (in some way relate to the question and circumstance), supported by proof points and perceived as credible, or at least plausible and appropriate. It’s also important the messages be adaptable and evolve to reflect their resonance, or lack thereof, with observers. Worse case scenario, the audience or interviewer could disagree with your position, but not call into question your bona fides or integrity.

Unfortunately, the practice of talking points has become pervasive and perverted in recent years. Now it’s common practice for politicians, for example, to align on a set of partisan messages and repeat them with numbing frequency, notwithstanding the occasion or even the question. In the worse cases, these talking points are often misleading, if not outright fabrications; more slogans or aspirational headlines than information. What used to be shared as opinion or suggestion is now peddled as fact. The thinking appears to be that if you repeat something often enough – even if it’s not accurate or relevant – people will start to believe it.

Maybe the most surprising aspect of this is that the speakers appear oblivious to the fact their statements do not pass the sniff test. Witness the recent announcement by Senator Ted Cruz he was running for President. Cruz’ stump speech (ironically headlined with the theme of truth) is littered with sweeping, provocative claims that have been widely debunked, and not just by the obvious suspects on the other side of the partisan divide. Yet, Cruz appears happy to continue repeating his punch lines, presumably content that his target audience (conservative Republicans) is quite happy to believe in his worldview. My issue here isn’t with Cruz’s arguments or politics, but that he appears totally unconcerned about the widespread, repeated questions about the veracity of his statements. What me worry?

Like other industry observers, I suspect this neo-propaganda model of talking points owes something to the most infamous examples of intentional misinformation: the tobacco industry’s decades-long denial of health hazards from smoking. Other industries – notably the oil and gas sector – have followed a similar model of incessant lobbying fueled by massive advertising and marketing, all scripted by carefully written narratives and slogans with a tenuous relationship to truth or public interest. Now politics seems to have fully embraced this campaign model, designed more to shape public policy and sway voters than to educate or foster dialogue.

The problem with this paradigm, I would argue, is that the cumulative impact of this disputed, polarized messaging is the eroding credibility and relevance of the process and the messages themselves. Does anybody really believe what the politicians are saying? Or does having evidence to back your messages even matter anymore? A number of recent surveys on low levels of trust for a wide range of sources – notably politicians, journalists and corporate leaders – suggests there is a serious credibility gap in public discourse.

The result of all this, I fear, is collateral damage for the reputation of the PR profession, already struggling with accusations of spin and ethical lapses. All communication pros should carefully consider their own actions in these situations. What are the values and principles that guide our counsel and behavior? I believe our profession needs to take a stronger stand with our clients or company leaders, and promote a more authentic, relevant and cogent messaging strategy that can stand up to objective scrutiny. In short, stand up for the truth.

During SXSW a few weeks ago I had the good fortune of meeting a number of my former colleagues from Dell, where I worked from 2002 to 2006. During my stint there I had the incredible good fortune of working on the team that would design, develop and manage Dell’s then new – and since much lauded – social media program.

But our conversation didn’t dwell so much on the good old days as the realization that years later many companies are still hesitant to embrace, or even explore, the full potential of social media technology. This despite the dramatic increase in cheap, user-friendly technology to support everything from targeting to analytics to collaboration. In fact, outside of some perennial leaders – many of them in the technology industry – many organizations are still grappling with the same questions and fears we saw almost ten years ago. And this is particularly true of companies exploring a social strategy inside the enterprise. (As just one example of this slow going, the folks at Prescient Digital estimate that only 4% of companies have a truly social intranet system.) After comparing notes about our respective clients and consulting gigs, we concluded many of the original arguments, tools and basic social media models we developed in those early days were still relevant, and very much in demand.

So why the uneven, reluctant adoption of new approaches and technology?  While many have focused on potential fixes for PR teams and their clients (check out this excellent blog post by my former Dell colleague Richard Binhammer) I am more curious – and perplexed – about the barriers to progress in PR. Why is a business filled with smart , accomplished consultants so slow to adapt? Based on my perspective the past few years, I offer a few suggestions:

  • Bunker Mentality – There’s no way to escape the dramatic tectonic shifts in new technology and the related impact on entire industries, including news media, advertising, retail, music, and not least communications and PR. The dizzying pace of new products and functionality makes it even harder to keep up with change. While some organizations seem invigorated by these shifts and flood of new opportunities, many have reacted with grudging, superficial tactics without changing their strategy or business model. In many ways, they are still in denial.
  • Inertia – The sad reality in any corporate setting (indeed, perhaps even in human nature itself) is that there is very strong momentum for doing things the way they’ve always been done, particularly in times where staffs are lean and driven by short-term objectives. And despite all the hype around innovation and risk, very few organizations have cultures that encourage, or even allow activity outside the norm. Often, companies need a major event like a new strategy or leader to encourage a shift in direction. Without that, it’s difficult to change old habits.
  • Functional Insularity – Functional departments that would typically help spark and support innovation and change – or at least be the sources of new ideas and information – are often the most insular, reactive ones of the bunch. HR and IT, for example, are in many cases reluctant bystanders to progress and sometimes surprisingly uninformed about new technology or trends. (In some of my social media projects, in-house IT departments are either reluctant partners or standing on the sideline.) The one department that seems to have embraced change, albeit sometimes reluctantly, is marketing. PR is often caught in the middle of this dynamic and too often unwilling or unable to drive its own momentum.
  • Boomers Dominate Leadership – Though statistics suggest boomers are among the fastest growing users of social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook, many older workers are less familiar and comfortable with new technology, social or otherwise. This helps explain anachronisms like the CEO who refuses to use email or others who shun any type of digital discourse. The grizzled leadership in many PR companies has the same generational anxiety about trying new tools and approaches. This trend should change as younger, much more tech-savvy workers gain leadership roles.
  • Tyranny of Today – Many communication professionals operate at a hyper pace and in a routine that leaves little room for introspection or learning. In that context, it’s easy to simply continue focusing on immediate projects and put off professional development – both formal and otherwise. Add to this the reality that many clients and peers are also focusing on their daily priorities, and paying little attention to broader issues outside their immediate tasks. Perhaps the most common refrain I’ve heard from peers struggling to understand and incorporate new technology is “I just don’t have time.”
  • Knowledge Gap – Save perhaps for a few precocious millenials, very few of us in the PR industry start with a deep base of knowledge in social media or related technology. What we know is what we’ve learned in the past decade or so as social media has become more prevalent in our lives. So it takes effort and commitment to remain in learning mode and stay current on major trends and new platforms. Unfortunately, it seems too many PR pros are counting on a few resident tech nerds or outside experts rather than upgrading their own knowledge base.

Taken together, these factors help explain the myopic outlook and slow adoption of social media in PR. And I’ve experienced every one of these barriers, so I have some understanding for the challenges in our business. But they shouldn’t be an excuse for inaction. I don’t want to be having this same discussion in 5 years.

I was pretty happy to read the dual press statements from Yahoo and Tumblr when they announced their partnership this week. I have to admit in recent months I’ve pretty well given up on press releases – a sterile, decaying art form that is seemingly impervious to innovation and improvement. It’s true that some companies have made their releases more social in recent years, even entertaining, but too often releases are formulaic, devoid of personality and cloaked in vague and trite legal jargon. In other words, they are usually boring, generic and lacking credibility.

In this sorry context come the above mentioned releases. First Yahoo. Right off the bat, you’ve got to give the Yahoo team kudos for featuring the elephant in the room right in their bylinewe promise we won’t screw it up. Marisa Mayer’s comments about Tumblr and its CEO David Karp seem genuine and conversational – as if (lo and behold) the quote is actually real. She also acknowledges the obvious – that the two companies couldn’t be more different – but also makes a good case for how they can complement each other. A few other nice touches – the word awesome and an ironic exclamation point  – help make the release not just credible, but worth reading. And though the release has some typical verbiage on opportunity and assets, the business case is presented in a way that makes sense.

The Tumblr statement is even more refreshing, and totally in keeping with the company’s smart, rebellious image. David Karp’s blog post is funny, sarcastic and ends with a disarming “F… yeah!” It’s also concise and hits the obvious concerns of his team right at the top. All this and not a legal term or ten-dollar word in sight.

Beyond the initial statements, both teams used their arsenal of social media platforms to get the word out and provide ongoing elaboration and commentary. In the process, they haven’t shied from some of the controversial aspects of the deal (notably Tumblr’s not so secret reputation as a hotbed of porn.)

The lesson here is not that companies need to make their press releases irreverent or informal, but they should remember their identity and their target audiences – which include employees and consumers, not just Wall Street heavies. In this case the tone of the statements seemed entirely appropriate. It helps that this transaction seems to fit with the strategy of the respective companies – Yahoo gets a new potential audience, a boost in buzz and some much-needed hip factor; while Tumblr keeps its independence while benefiting from the huge audience and finances of a large partner. Another point I’ve argued many times with peers and clients is that information that is important – notably in formal announcements like press releases that must be carefully crafted – doesn’t have to be serious or boring. Compelling content that is aligned with readers’ interests, lexicon and media habits is much more likely to be read and believed. Isn’t that the point of releases in the first place?

Each year at this time the gigantic Consumer Electronics Show occurs in Las Vegas. This is like the Super Bowl of the technology industry with equal parts hype, illusion, innovation and debauchery in the program. What strikes me every year, however, is not necessarily the news or products coming out of CES – here’s one summary of the key trends at CES – but that the event is virtually ignored by the PR industry.

As I read article after article in the business, marketing and technology media outlets, there is nary a mention in PR industry publications. (PRWeek US does have one article, but it focuses on how brands are adapting their promotions to drive buzz at the event rather than the actual technology.) There’s a similar trend on popular PR blogs and discussion groups, with those leaning on communication (or broader, related topics like engagement and dialogue) virtually ignoring the event and related discussions.

This lack of interest, and coverage, reflects a dangerous blind spot for the PR industry, which still focuses on churning out content and traditional techniques and tools and lacks interest and expertise in emerging technologies. I’ve witnessed the same “leading from behind” trend with the industry’s uneven, tentative reaction to the social media revolution, which has resulted in sporadic deployment and glaring knowledge gaps across the industry. It’s as if the technology side of the equation has been outsourced to digital agencies or even IT teams (though the latter also lag badly in some organizations.)

I recognize CES is about consumer technology and products, but I believe the concept of marketing to consumers carries some relevance to marketing – or communicating – to other audiences, including employees. At minimum, should professional communicators not track what new technologies are impacting various products and industries – particularly those directly grounded in communication areas like digital content and collaboration?

This is one area where marketing and advertising firms seem to have the upper hand. They realize, it seems, that they risk irrelevance and oblivion if they don’t seek to understand and implement new technology to inform and engage customers. I like the approach of the Starcom/Publicis agency team, which hosted hundreds of clients at CES to expose them to emerging trends and partner in discussions on the implications for marketing. Their message on the event is perceptive and telling:

“CES is about more than just technology.  The agency views it instead at the Consumer Experience Show. […] One of the underlying messages from CES is that technology is a major contributor to a culture and business climate that is evolving at warp speed. Ultimately, creating a compelling experience is what we’re all struggling to do.”

I keep hoping that the PR industry will stop playing catch up on these major trends. Maybe I’ll see more interest and participation at SXSW in Austin, which is ostensibly more relevant to PR professionals. Getting informed and engaged is in the interests of our industry, and our clients.

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.

The U.S. election season the past few months has been notable for the vitriol, partisanship and disingenuous arguments featured in much of the conversation. In fact, it’s been a depressing showcase of the worst instincts of communication professionals, with decorum and credibility taking a back seat to carpet-bombing ads and scoring political points. But during the DNC a few weeks ago, Bill Clinton provided a memorable reminder that well-delivered and packaged information – and balanced arguments – can still pack a punch.

Clinton’s speech was widely lauded as the most cogent and straight-forward defense of Obama’s re-election platform to date – even better than Obama’s own keynote speech and numerous previous attempts to frame his case for another term. Using all of his considerable skills as an orator and politician, Clinton presented a clear and crisp argument for why Obama deserved a second term – or at least made the best case for it. Though the address was certainly partisan, it relied heavily on anecdote and evidence and avoided the worst excesses of the party campaigns.

The most interesting lesson for me here is that information – no matter how credible and relevant – is just not enough. In fact, the Obama team had been struggling for weeks to shape and share essentially the same content that was so effectively presented by Clinton. Indeed, the secret sauce of communication is the presentation, format and delivery of the core material, or messages. This may be a truism of PR but one that is often forgotten in the race to just get out the message. Clinton used essentially the same material as Obama, but explained and presented it in way that was more streamlined, resonant and repeatable than before.

Here’s a few specific tactics Clinton used that bear notice:

  • The best speeches or presentations are about sharing information with people, not talking to them. Despite his keynote speech format, Clinton made me (and presumably other listeners) feel we could have been sitting with him in a far more intimate , informal setting.
  • There’s no substitute for experience and credibility. Say what you want about Clinton’s failings as President, but he remains an incredibly smart policy wonk who has first-hand experience in many of the issues he discussed in his speech – notably welfare reform. That carried gravitas that simply isn’t shared by most other speakers (hello Paul Ryan.)
  • Building on the last point, Clinton backed all of his arguments with evidence. One can argue with his data, views and conclusions, but he certainly backed his assertions with a solid explanation and relevant proof points.
  • Clinton is famous – sometimes mocked – for his litany of mannerisms; the aw-chucks bite, folksy chuckle and wagging finger are just three of his famous repertoire. But these seemed heartfelt and appropriate, and were very effective in helping him to make a point, or add emotion and emphasis to his comments.
  • Simplicity is a forgotten art in the overhyped world of politics. Many of Clinton’s key points were captured in punchy, repeatable phrases. Though not slogans per se, they are easily understood and repeatable.
  • The best evidence is personal stories that capture the inherent issue, and proposed solution, in even the most esoteric policy arguments. Clinton used several of these effectively.
  • And finally, Clinton’s speech was relevant and responsive – particularly in how he provided a point-by-point dissection, and rebuttal, of the most popular Republican criticisms. Unlike other speeches that seemed drafted in a vacuum, with no acknowledgement of media or political winds, Clinton made sure he addressed the questions many viewers would want answered.
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