Wednesday, September 30, 2009

1776 Déjà Vu?

So Much Hinges On So Few
One of my children was just watching the movie version of 1776, the musical show about the events leading up to and including the signing of the Declaration of Independence. In the Broadway account, the fate of the document, the fate of the world, came down to James Wilson of Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania was, indeed, torn between reconciliation and war with England. In a last gasp appeal, John Adams spoke out. "It would be a pity for a man who has handed down hundreds of wise decisions from the bench to be remembered only for the one unwise decision he made in Congress." Wilson (who, in reality, spoke forcefully for independence) relented. He didn't want the attention or the responsibility. "Mr. Adams is correct about one thing," he said. "If I vote with you [John Dickinson], I'll be the one who prevented American independence."

Healthcare reform and the signing of the Declaration of Independence may not be in the same league of American milestones, but the parallel struck me. Of course, there have been many, many instances where critical decisions came down to one unsuspecting or unprepared (or manipulative) person. But here we are. With the so-called public option going down to defeat in the Senate Finance Committee, it is now highly unlikely that any subsequent amendments with such a provision will survive.

And what does that mean? The table is set for Senator Olympia Snowe to play James Wilson. Sixty votes will be needed for passage and it's looking more and more like achieving meaningful (though highly compromised and far from perfect) healthcare reform any time in the foreseeable future will rest with the capable centrist from Maine.

The optics aren't pretty -- the old saying about laws being like sausages comes to mind. And what got us to this point hasn't been any more attractive. The raucous Town Hall meetings over the summer -- the shouting down of elected officials and the perpetuation of false claims -- did not instill confidence in the process of creating legislation. Politicians need to pay more attention to this point. The substance is important but, when it comes to building trust and unity, the visuals and the tone mean a great deal, too.

While one voice may decide the fate of healthcare reform, it's interesting to note which voices went largely unheard. The most vocal weren't those with the most to gain -- the roughly 46 million without insurance. The squeakiest wheels were found on those who believed that reform will diminish their care or cost them more money. They had the best access to the media, the best messaging consultants. So much for Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness for the rest.

Yet, some major groups that were lined up against previous reform efforts -- most notably the pharmaceutical industry and organized medicine -- are now advertising their support. Despite the bad press over the haranguing and arguing, there has been much more engagement, much more deal making and number crunching. Making a business case, not just an emotional one, may be the winning formula this time around.
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Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Chill Pills All Around, Please

Outbursts and Meltdowns Punctuate the Week
Civility was in particularly short supply this past week. Representative Joe Wilson of South Carolina shattered precedent and decorum by yelling “You Lie!” at President Obama during a joint session of Congress. Tennis star Serena Williams threatened a line judge at the U.S. Open with bodily harm following a blown call. Rapper Kanye West grabbed the microphone away from Taylor Swift, trampling what was to be her acceptance speech at the Video Music Awards, to disagree loudly with the judges’ choice. Conservative “Tea Party” events protesting big government saw slogans that included "Unarmed, this time," "Impeach the Muslim Marxist" and "Obama is trying to kill my mama."

It seems that these types of breakdowns in behavior (and good sense) are becoming more strident and are occurring more often. Why?

There is often little, if any, consequence. One reason that we have so much boorish behavior and repeat offenders is that people get away with it. Most people and organizations aren’t willing to set limits. There are too few that will object when “the line” has been crossed.

You can chalk it up to emotion. We’ve heard them all this week: “I’m a very passionate person,” “It was just a spontaneous outburst,” “My emotions took over.” Sorry folks. These are tired and wholly inadequate excuses.

People can blame the “fringe.” Another convenient excuse is to say that the particular incident wasn’t sanctioned. “We can’t be held responsible for the actions of individuals” goes the refrain. Fine. But did anyone speak out? Did anyone say you’re at our event and you’re out of line?

There are some important bottom line considerations in all of this:

Behavior still counts, at least for some. Unless you want to be known as a beast, you are harming your personal brand – or the brand of your organization – by engaging in uncivilized behavior. We all know that part of successful reputation management is setting the proper tone for communication.

Examples are being set. Like it or not, these high profile offenders have fans, they have constituents. They’re role models. Without any impediments, these behaviors are bound to be emulated and propagated.

Bad behavior can incite worse. With each unchecked incident, the line separating good behavior from bad gets shifted. A new, potentially dangerous norm is set. In the most extreme case, it seems that the threshold from outburst to threat or from threat to violence is getting unsettlingly easy to breach.

Manners can trump message. At the core, though, it’s the message – the actual facts of the matter – that get lost. Are we talking about the tennis play between Williams and Clijsters? Swift’s music video? In the case of politics, we’re pulled away from an actual, healthy debate and forced to discuss the spectacle. Moreover, the public is often asked to take a side. The “if you’re not with us you’re against us” mentality still runs deep in enough of the population to threaten compromise or legitimate disagreement. This helps to crush the middle ground and polarize opinion further.

I hope the shrillness and the intolerance can be mitigated. It’s not like this is a new problem, either. It’s been discussed for millennia. Remember “Love thy neighbor as yourself” (the ethic of reciprocity)? It’s time to deliver.

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Thursday, September 10, 2009

A Military Man Points the Way, Again, On Strategic Communication

This article also appears in

An Admiral Sets a New Course
Carl von Clausewitz, the 19th century Prussian general, may not be a household name but he laid the groundwork for the way in which the modern military thinks and plans strategically. In 2001, the Boston Consulting Group condensed and rearranged his voluminous writings into a neat little book (Clausewitz on Strategy: Inspiration and Insight From a Master Strategist) that provided some important lessons for the battlefields of the business world.

Indeed, many of Clausewitz’s observations translate quite well to the issues surrounding successful communication: defining objectives, understanding the audience and their agenda, adapting to changing conditions, clear accountability and communication channels, and, ultimately, changing a behavior.

In the case of executing U.S. foreign policy, however, something has been lost. In his recent “From the Chairman” column in the Joint Force Quarterly, Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, warns that we’ve “walked away from the original intent” of strategic communication by allowing it “to become a thing instead of a process, an abstract thought instead of a way of thinking.”

Admiral Mullen reminds us of some important truisms not only for the successful execution of policy but for communicators everywhere:

Understanding. We need to start with research and data gathering. The key, of course, is turning the information into insights that will help guide the strategic initiative. What is it that our audience believes? What should be said and done to influence them? What might be our common ground?

Listening. Gaining a greater understanding of the issues and concerns, and building trusting relationships are endeavors with a component of mutuality. “Good communication runs both ways. It’s not about telling our story. We must also be good listeners.”

Relationship Building. It takes time. It’s an investment. “Our messages lack credibility because we haven’t invested enough in building trust and relationships, and we haven’t always delivered on promises.”

Trust and Credibility. The issue above speaks loudly also to follow through and perseverance. “We hurt ourselves more when our words don’t align with our actions.” And what we say and do cannot be just for show; they cannot be delivered expediently. “We’ve come to believe that messages are something we can launch downrange like a rocket, something we can fire for effect. They are not.”

Accountability and Ethics. Behavior is important. Ethics cannot be optional; they cannot be episodic. “We must be vigilant about holding ourselves accountable to higher standards of conduct and closing any gaps, real or perceived, between what we say about ourselves and what we do to back it up.”

Tone. It’s not just the substance that’s important; the way in which we communicate has a lasting impression. An unambiguous message that is encased in civility and mutual respect is the best case. “I hope we learn to be more humble...”

Admiral Mullen deserves a salute from us civilians for elevating the discussion on strategic communication, and highlighting the importance of how we go about shifting perceptions in the attempt to elicit behavior change. Now, more than ever, we should take heed of the lessons inspired by Clausewitz who, as expressed in the BCG book, offered "new ways to order thinking in disorderly times" and provided a "steadiness in charting strategy in an unstable environment."
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