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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.
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 byline – we 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?
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.
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.