Six communications lessons this week

Welcome back!
It's been a crazy week of highs and lows in the worlds of politics and media, with a few lessons to keep in mind for all of us.

Laura and Barry "standing on guard for thee"
Lesson # 1 if you can't make it better, make it different. President Obama's second Inauguration was a great experience to attend. Even without the euphoria that pervaded Washington the first time around (and with a noticeably smaller -but enthusiastic - crowd), nevertheless it was an historic experience unlike anything any other country's experiences. In Canada, such 'celebrations' of power might include a double-double Tim's coffee and delicious donuts for a handful of invited guests indoors, away from the prying eyes of the media!
Four years ago, Laura and I had a blast doing the VIP welcome at the Inaugural Balls. Check out this earlier post.  For this second inauguration, alas, Laura and I turned down an invitation to volunteer at the White House Ball on Tuesday night due to business commitments, but our son Brendan was a volunteer at the Official Ball on Monday night at the Washington Convention Center. It was a great opportunity for him to learn how a large enterprise comes together,  involving all the complexities of holding an event with 35,000 people celebrating.
Lesson # 2 Better to make it real, rather than a 'perfect' imitation
A lot of social media coverage focused on Beyoncé's lip-synching of the National Anthem. Given the frigid air, I can't say that I could particularly blame her. Nevertheless, in the Twitter-verse world of today, the result was a distraction from the coverage of the ceremony.To be honest, if the President had lip-synched the speech, I don't think the crowd would have noticed, at the time.
Lesson # 3 If you can't be a symbol of unity, then fire up your base
A more passionate 2nd Inaugural Speech
President Obama's first Inaugural was a truly historic occasion - one that many had never imagined would happen. He responded with a unifying theme, but after four deeply divided years, he knew that he was not the symbol of bipartisanship. There was no doubt that his second Inaugural speech had a strong partisan streak running through it. It was, however, delivered with more passion and energy. On Martin Luther King Day, he was clearly motivated to pick up on Dr. King's theme of equality and applying it to women's rights, same-sex marriage, and, in one that surprised quite a few - climate change.
Lesson # 4 Bipartisanship is a lot more useful than pure partisanship
Speaker Gingrich and his wife Calista 
Laura and I had a terrific time with the best view on Pennsylvania Avenue - the roof top level of the Canadian Embassy. Ambassador Gary Doer played host to Minister John Baird at a dinner the evening before as well as the next day's luncheon. What was intriguing was how the conversations cut across the usual partisan lines at both events.
Between the two events, we had some great chats with Ambassador Gary Doer (NDP); former Senator and now Chairman and CEO of the Motion Picture Association of America, Christopher Dodd (DEM); Speaker Newt Gingrich (GOP); North Dakota Senator Heidi Heitkamp (DEM); former Canadian Ambassadors Frank McKenna (Liberal), Michael Wilson (Conservative); former Minister Jim Prentice (Conservative); former U.S Ambassadors to Canada (Gordon Giffin (DEM) and David Wilkins (GOP). It was a thrill to meet broadcasters Robert McNeil and Jim Lehrer, whose essential decency and professionalism still stand out today.
Lesson # 5 If you're going to apologize, do it earlier and really mean it
Lance Armstrong's two part apologia on Oprah Winfrey's show was a must-see for all who have watched the many years of Armstrong's denials and truly wanted him to come clean and be humble about it. Well, he told the truth (mostly) and he was not-quite-humble-but-sorta-justifying it all. From the social media reaction, he didn't get the response he was hoping for. Most saw it as a start. He could earn his way back, but people can tell if you've had a true change of heart.

Lesson # 6 Momentum is more important than gender or sexual orientation in politics.
The Ontario Liberal Party has just elected Kathleen Wynne as their new leader, and Premier. Not only is she the first woman to become  the Premier of Ontario, but the first openly gay leader of either gender in Canada. Following an impressive speech to the Convention, she was able to build on that momentum throughout the balloting. Although she was a few votes shy in the first two rounds, she pulled ahead of Sandra Pupatello when the other candidates - notably Gerard Kennedy - brought their supporters over to her.
What will it mean for her election chances within the next year or so? She will have an extremely difficult balancing act to perform. Whenever a new leader replaces an incumbent leader, they almost always fail to pull it off. (Think John Turner after Pierre Trudeau; Kim Campbell after Brian Mulroney; Ernie Eves after Mike Harris; Paul Martin after Jean Chretien and on and on.) The key for her will be to re-brand the Party while maintaining its supporters. My instinct is that she has the potential to take votes from the NDP's Leader, Andrea Horvath, but not as many from the Tories under Tim Hudak. Pupatello had the voter universe on the centre-right side of the spectrum; however, she wasn't able to build momentum in the final days of the campaign.
Until next time.....


The Worst Communicator of 2012 Award Goes To..

Welcome back!
A belated happy New Year to all of you! I took some down time over Christmas and am now back in the blogosphere. Laura and I, along with our daughter, Caroline, have just emerged from a Downton Abbey video marathon and came up for air in time to begin the third season. I have to admit I'm totally hooked, and didn't really expect to be. How about you? Have you fallen victim to it too? It's okay, I believe there's some kind of a shot for it. Speaking of which, I got the flu shot after friends were sharing horror stories of their bouts with it. So here's hoping it works. It's still not too late!]
We also caught up on some movies I've wanted to see, including Argo (great suspense, well executed, and we'll forgive the downplaying of Canada's role in the freeing of the hostages), Lincoln (inspiring), Les Misérables (powerful), and Zero Dark Thirty (rivetingly intense). All well done in their own way.
The 2012 Presidential Inauguration
We will be attending the Presidential Inauguration next week. Although we were invited to be volunteers, Laura and I have decided to just be spectators this year, and will be watching it all from the Canadian Embassy on Pennsylvania Avenue. Our son, Brendan, 22, is a volunteer at the Inaugural Ball. There's something about seeing your son in a tux that makes me realize that he's really grown up...... It's a lot of fun and craziness, no matter what - with lots of great people to meet. Canada's Ambassador, Gary Doer does such a great job of hosting such events, and will no doubt do a super job this year.
'The Worst Communicator of 2012 Award' Goes to....
As we are now into awards season, it's time to name the Worst Communicator of 2012 Award. Drum roll please! The winner is...a group award...goes to.....
The Gun Lobby - including the NRA's Executive V.P. Wayne Lapierre ('armed security in every school'), the Gun Owners of America and conspiracy theorist Alex Jones ('1776 will commence again'). who have had a field day in response to the Sandy Hook elementary school, Newtown massacre.
Piers Morgan and Alex Jones
Without any attempt to build understanding of their position, they have adopted an intemperate 'take no prisoners' approach to public discourse on this matter. It's a classic 'preach to the converted, angrily talk over anyone who holds another opinion, strategy in communications. They may have confidence that with their carefully targeted political smear campaigns it can still work in upcoming election campaigns. They could be right, but they never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.

President Obama Unveils his Gun Initiatives
President Obama's carefully orchestrated unveiling today of his legislative push to strengthen gun laws, including twenty three executive actions, came on the heels of this public relations disaster by the gun lobby since the nightmare at Newtown. The Obama Administration is pursuing a full-court press to build support for it, no doubt emboldened by the tone-deaf approach of gun lobby advocates.

But that brings up a broader question about how our society deals with divisive issues:

What has gone Wrong with Public Discourse?
1. Our society no longer debates or discusses issues. Instead, we have fallen deeply into a whole other approach to public policy, that is, two sides jump into their opposing fox holes and start throwing grenades at each other. Now it takes place more and more in the blogosphere and Twitterverse at least as much as in the traditional media. They seem to have figured out that they don't have to persuade anybody to their side. Instead, they have come to believe that emotionally connecting with your base leads to supporters and money.
2. Facts get in the way of opinions. The rise of conspiracy theorists - always out there, but given rocket fuel after 9/11, now drives incredible traffic to web sites that feature the ravers, the conspiracy theorists and the crazies who provide a home for their fears, fallacies and hallucinations. Those conspiracy theorists are particularly strong among young people, but can be found in every generation, from every walk of life. They actually believe that there are sophisticated plotters deep in government and corporations who secretly control everything - including the traditional media. Facts will not deter them and argument will not weary them.
3. Moderation is a sign of weakness. As we saw in the 2012 elections, there is very little room for the middle ground. You are either 'left' or 'right'. You're either all in or all out. That is a major reason why we don't have true public discourse.
4. People choose not to listen. Do you notice how often panel shows and talk shows dissolve into one or more 'guests' talking over the other? They have their talking points. They don't need to listen, and, frankly, don't particularly want to. Besides, if they were to silently listen, they'd be  wasting a golden opportunity to drive your message, right? Click on the 'Alex Jones' link above for proof.
5. Intolerance will set you free. When I was growing up, it was seen as a positive character trait to not only tolerate - but attempt to understand- opposing points of view. Well, that is so 'yesterday'! You see it on the left, and you see it on the right. Alex Jones's mocking imitation of Piers Morgan is an excellent example of that. [Again check on the Alex Jones link above.]

Tips on what to do if arguing with an intolerant person? If you can't walk away, don't want to, or in a panel discussion with an 'angry bird'....
1. Stay cool. They love it when you get angry. Besides, you'll look unhinged on YouTube®'.
2. Listen more than you speak. Listen for the key premises behind their arguments. For example, those who are dead set against any restrictions on gun ownership. Questions might include: 'So you believe that all rights are unlimited?' or 'Do you believe in any restrictions to the type of firearms a private citizen can own? If so, what ones?' Usually, angry people are incredibly contradictory and their arguments collapse before them. [Of course, what they have learned to do is switch the subject, or 'scattergun' their attack points all over the place.]
3. Paraphrase what they say, and try to get agreement that it is, in fact, what they are saying. Put it into your own words, and feed it back to them. "If I understand you correctly, what you're saying is that rights have no limits, is that true?" Most will balk if they think it makes them sound totally looney, so they will try to prevaricate or attack. Calmly, but firmly ask them if it is true. And if not, what is inaccurate about it?
4. Summarize the points of agreement and disagreement at the end of the conversation. This is a constructive effort that will  be in painful contrast to the 'take no prisoners' approach of the other person. The audience will note that to your benefit.
5. Maintain an even and reasonable tone throughout the dialogue or debate. Most people get so emotional that they come across as unbalanced and people you mostly want to stay away from, let alone agree with.

Until next time.....