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What The COVID-19 Pandemic Really Needs – A Communicator

17 May

     Yes, the world needs a vaccine.  But until scientists create one, we need communicators too.  

      In times of crisis, leadership of course matters.  But so do words.  In a fast moving multi-channel, multi-platform world where communication networks are no longer linear and centralized, finding authentic voices to coalesce around a unifying message has never been more difficult or important.   Our elected leaders command a bully pulpit that gives them not just great opportunities to lead with their words, but equally great responsibility.  It’s one thing to hold daily news conferences, it’s quite another to persuade, inspire, and drive attitudes.

       Ultimately, historians will judge whether our leaders such as President Donald Trump, Dr. Anthony Fauci and many of our state governors have risen to this high mantel.  But one leading epidemiologist believes that on a national level, no one has—yet.  Dr. Michael Osterholm of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota along with three other academic colleagues recently released a paper projecting three scenarios for the progression of the COVID-19 virus.  The scenario that they believe government and healthcare leaders need to prepare for is a second, more powerful wave of the virus to emerge in the fall.  And Osterholm believes there is a national vacuum of urgency.

       “Generally, I think our leaders at the state level are doing an incredible job, as have most of the governors across the country,” said Osterholm when I spoke with him.

       But on a national level, Osterholm is looking for a voice from the past to come forward to the future.  “What I’m looking for is an FDR for a fire side chat.  Or, a Winston Churchill. There are going to be some really tough days ahead, and we need to be brining people together instead of splitting them apart.”

 

       In one important aspect, part of Osterholm’s wish is granted, although not in America.  It’s a voice that represents the past and the present—Queen Elizabeth II.  In her April 5th speech to the United Kingdom, the queen represented the pinnacle of Aristotelian persuasion.  She embodied ethos, or credible and ethical appeal.  The queen in her own properly stoic English way projects pathos, or emotional appeal based upon her experience in the Royal Family during some of Britain’s darkest hours.  And finally, she exhibited logos, or logical appeal to reinforce her message of resilience.   She did it all in just four and a half minutes.

       The queen proves long held communication theory that the messenger enhances the message.  This is precisely what Aristotle meant by his term ethos.  Yale psychologist Carl Hovland called it a source effect.  Hovland and his academic colleagues led research in the 1950’s that would become known as the Yale Studies of persuasion.  They determined that the source effect—or messenger—be it a celebrity, expert, or person of authority was among the four essential effects for a cognitive learning process that led to changing attitudes.  In the queen’s case, one could argue she is a celebrity, expert, and authority figure wrapped in one.  And because she is a beloved figure with an 81% approval rating in the U.K., her message is looked upon with more reverence and credibility than perhaps a similar message from a polarizing figure such as President Trump who struggles to maintain at best a 50% approval rating.

     But part of what makes the queen’s address so powerful is what Hovland would call the message effect.   Her words are deliberate in how they warn of darker times to come, yet reassuring that as a country Britain is up to the fight like so many it has faced in the past.   She also steals rhetorical tricks from the ancient Greeks, Shakespeare and Lennon.  Her use of polyptonton—repeated words—and periodic sentence structure cements the message in the mind.

 “We should take comfort that while we may have more still to endure, better days will return: we will be with our friends again; we will be with our families again; we will meet again.”

                The repeated words, ‘we will,’ and ‘again’ are a rallying cry.  They stick to the brain.  She stole it from Churchill who so strongly used his own polyptonton in 1940:

“We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”

       To this day many believe Churchill was talking about the allied invasion of Europe.  In reality, he was talking about a German invasion of Britain.  Eighty years later, Queen Elizabeth is rallying the country against the invasion of a virus.  Part of the enormous gravity in both passages is the periodic sentence structure that saves the most powerful verbs until the very end: meet again; never surrender.

       There has also been another voice.  This one comes from the not so distant past—President George W. Bush.

      President Bush’s message is also a call to action.  “We all need to do our part,” said the former president. 

     To be sure, President Bush was a leader who sometimes struggled as an orator.  He often made light of himself as someone who mangled the English language.  But his sincerity and empathy were rarely ever in doubt and that was in full display here, too.

     “Let us remember that empathy and simple compassion are powerful tools in our national recovery,” said Bush.  “We rise and fall together.  And we are determined to rise.”

     This too, Aristotle and Hovland would argue makes the messenger and the message incredibly powerful.

     Dr. Osterholm is right.  We need a national voice.  Not just a voice from the past, we need them from the present. 

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The Best PSA on Social Distancing – Ohio’s Little Power(ful) Ball

12 Apr

    For the past three months of the COVID-19 pandemic, doctors, epidemiologists and government leaders across the globe have tried to preach the necessity of social distancing.  The State of Ohio just did it in thirty seconds.

    The Ohio Department of Health and Dayton marketing agency Real Art are using a ping-pong ball and mousetraps to send a striking message about how this virus spreads and the effectiveness of staying apart and flattening the infection curve.

    The brilliance of the message is its simplicity.  Persuasive public communication and advertising is always most effective when it uses strong metaphors in human form, or to represent human activity.  In this case the single ball represents a single infected person setting off the jaws of contagion in crowded spaces.  In contrast, is also shows how proper spacing allows that same infected person to pass through without any damaging contact.

    But the simple before-and-after illustration is also a powerful teaching tool in the Theory of Trying.  Consumer behavior researchers Richard Bagozzi and Paul Warsaw developed the theory to show how intentions don’t always lead to a specific action.  In some cases, there is a goal evaluation based upon the risk of failure.  In the case of social distancing, the Ohio public service announcement clearly frames its argument both in terms of loss and gain.   In tight quarters it illustrates the consequences of failing to social distance balanced against the possibilities of success.   The framing primes one’s attitude toward trying to social distance and hopefully leads to a decision and action.

    Playing in parallel with the Theory of Trying in this PSA is Prospect Theory.  The well-established and utilized theory by Daniel Kahneman is essentially an economics theory that holds people are motivated more by a potential loss than by the possibility of a gain.  It won Kahneman the Nobel Prize in 2002 and has been the cornerstone of many successful political campaigns from Lynden Johnson to Donald Trump.  For better or worse, Trump masterfully used Prospect Theory in his 2016 presidential campaign to steer attitudes and votes based upon perceived losses to America from immigration, trade, and crime.  Likewise, President Johnson used Prospect Theory in his famous “Daisy” ad against Barry Goldwater in 1964.

    The simple ad showed a girl pulling the petals off a daisy that morphed into the countdown of a nuclear explosion.  The implied message was that Goldwater would lead to nuclear war.  The ad was so strong it only aired once.  Johnson won in a landslide.  In the Ohio ping-pong ball PSA, the loss is framed in terms of easily spreading the virus and getting stung by the traps.

    But the chief power of the Ohio flatten the curve campaign is its metaphoric simplicity.  Who knew a little ball could tell such a strong story.  The Ohio Department of Health did—it’s their own little Power Ball.

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Social Pressure in the Age of COVID-19

29 Mar


   From the time we were in middle school, adults pressured us not to be pressured by peer pressure.  But in the midst of a public health crisis, peer pressure has become among the main communications strategies from government leaders and social media influencers in slowing the COVID-19 contagion.

    The message: save lives—stay home.

    Among the social media stars jumping on board is actress Emma Watson.

    The evolving messaging is firmly grounded in long established psychological theory.  Research by Martin Fishbein and Icek Azjen shows how action is based not just on our attitude about committing to a certain behavior, but also what society expects us to do.  Fishbein and Azjen called it subjective norms.   The more positive feelings that are shaped about one’s attitude for the behavior, combined with the attitude toward doing what’s expected of them, are predictors of a certain behavior or action.   The resulting Theory of Reasoned Action has become a bedrock tool not just in public health campaigns, but social responsibility movements and advertising.

Figure 1

     The COVID-19 pandemic led to the public health necessity for populations to immediately restrict person-to-person contact to limit the spread of the virus.  Both political and health leaders have issued stay-at-home orders to hopefully slow the growth of infections long enough for hospitals to expand their capacity to treat patients.  The simple message:  if you stay home you will save lives.  That’s pressure.

     The breakdown of Theory of Reasoned Action, or TRA, as it applies to the pandemic is fairly simple. (Figure 1)  One’s attitude about staying home is combined against the social norm of staying home.  The combined attitudes directly affect the attitude of acting which leads to the action.

     The TRA strategy is the cornerstone of the CDC’s pubic communications campaign put together by the AD Council.

    Whether he knows it or not, President Trump has played a partial role in building and reinforcing the social norm.   During one of his recent White House briefings he told Americans their actions on social distancing were “saving many, many lives.”   To be sure, in this age of political tribalism, one’s attitudes toward the controversial president are an independent variable in whether to act upon anything he recommends.  But in this case he makes the powerful appeal for others, not himself.

    Clearly, there are more influencers than just the president.  Collectively, social media stars and athletes such as Minnesota Twins pitcher Jake Odorizzi are applying their own pressure.

 

Figure 2

    Social pressure in public campaigns is nothing new.  The foundations of TRA go back to WWII when the War Advertising Council employed peer pressure to encourage Americans to buy war bonds.  One of their most famous campaigns created posters to change attitudes about home front discussions of anything related to war production and troop movements.  The resulting messaging was “Loose Lips Sink Ships.” (Figure 2)

    Arguable one of the most successful Ad Council campaigns in the past 75 years has been Smokey Bear.  The strategy to increase fire suppression relied on a societal expectation that preventing forest and wildlife destruction was an individual action.  The message was clear and simple: “Only you can prevent forest fires.” 

    Fast forward to 2020 and the same message is reapplied to COVID-19.  Only you can help save lives—maybe your own.  That’s powerful peer pressure.

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Old School Speech Lessons for the Modern World — Kissinger’s Eulogy to Sen. John McCain

29 Sep

    As time has passed since the passing of the late Sen. John McCain, this is a good time not to pass over one of the better eulogies in his memory and the lessons it offers to communicators. 

    At McCain’s own request, President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama led the eulogies and stole the headlines.  McCain wanted it that way.  He wanted the world to see that in America we settle political scores at the ballot box and thereafter break bread at the table of ideals.  But buried among the communion crumbs was a speech that students of political and social rhetoric should take note.  It came from none other than Henry Kissinger.   

    In many respects, these two men share nothing in common, and yet everything in common.  Separated by a generation, they represent different chapters in American history. Kissinger’s coming of age came during a time when American power was ascending, McCain’s came when American power was fracturing.  But Kissinger’s flight from Nazi tyranny formed his views on the ideals and values of America every bit much as communist captivity formed McCain’s. 

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Former presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Senator Joe Lieberman, and Meghan McCain were among the speakers eulogizing the late Senator John McCain at his September 1st funeral.

    The former Secretary of State under President Nixon, and co-recipient of the 1973 Nobel Peace Prize for negotiating a ceasefire in the Vietnam War is not especially noted for his oratory.  The plodding, bookish, and deliberative elder statesman speaks with a heavy German-accented monotone that is the antithesis 21stcentury talking heads. But his eulogy of Sen. McCain was a speech writing lesson in structure, substance and delivery. 

    By contemporary standards his eulogy was short, just 738 words.   But it carried exponentially more power, focus and ultimately a more forceful persuasion of McCain’s legacy than did a wandering speech by Sen. Joseph Lieberman who rambled for more than 20 minutes, often times talking more about himself.  Kissinger’s eulogy had a clear beginning, middle, and end.  In the first two sentences, he tells the audience what the speech is all about—one of history’s great personalities that remind us of unity and sustaining values.  “John McCain was one of those gifts of destiny,” said Kissinger.  Every word that followed supported and transcended this notion.

    Kissinger powerfully attempted to prove that gift of destiny with an admission of his own guilt.  Guilt about what he too didn’t do in life and what he couldn’t do.  The former diplomat acknowledged that he had the chance to free McCain during his negotiations with Hanoi to end the Vietnam War.  McCain thanked his captors for the offer, but refused. Kissinger had to wait until 1973 to finally meet McCain at a White House reception for several prisoners who were finally freed.  Kissinger remembered, “When we finally met, his greeting was both self effacing and moving. ‘Thank you for saving my honor.’”  It was all because as Kissinger noted, that in the McCain family national service was its own reward that did allow for special treatment.

    Kissinger noted that McCain, too, returned to an America divided over its presidency and the direction of the country. Perhaps in an affront to the current administration, Kissinger skillfully challenged the notion that America cannot retreat from the world stage.   McCain, he said, would never allow for it.  “In this manner John McCain’s name became synonymous with an America that reached out to the powerful to be loyal and reach out to the oppressed,” said Kissinger.

    Perhaps most powerfully, Kissinger reflected upon his own failings as a world leader to instill hope and set for a call for action.  “Like most people my age, I feel a longing for what is lost and cannot be restored,” reflected Kissinger.  He then hypothesized that if beauty and youth are fleeting and short lived, then sacrifice for the greater good is ultimately what endures—qualities McCain proved.

    His conclusion was as short and strong as his “gift of destiny” beginning.   As if to put an exclamation point on his opening sentence, Kissinger declared, “The world will be lonelier without John McCain.” But in perhaps a tribute to the late Senator he challenged all Americans to fill the void.  Kissinger concluded, “Henceforth, the country’s honor is ours to sustain.”

     But it was more than Kissinger’s words.  Students of speech and communicators who want to better connect with their audiences should also pay close attention to Kissinger’s delivery. He spoke in short, declarative sentences.  Each one commanded its own power.  They willed the listener to pay attention.  In a teleprompter world, Kissinger goes back to an era where oratory was delivered from paper and memory, not from glass.  For reference, go back and watch every JFK speech, especially his “We choose the moon” address.  It’s a skillset where the speaker delivers no more words than the simple sentences and thoughts in front of him.  With this style, Kissinger created a cadence and rhythm that drew in the listener.

      It was certainly not the most talked about eulogy of John McCain.  McCain’s daughter, Meghan delivered her own powerfully emotional and political charged memorial to her father.  In a headline news world, Kissinger didn’t make the cut.  But for communicators his words deserve serious study because they offer a highly focused rhetorical map in a Google Maps world.

Here is the text of Henry Kissinger’s eulogy on Sen. McCain:

   Our country has had the good fortune that at times of national trial a few great personalities have emerged to remind us of our essential unity and inspire us our sustaining values. John McCain was one of those gifts of destiny. 

   I met john for the first time in April, 1973 at a White House reception for prisoners returned from captivity in Vietnam. He had been much on my mind during the negotiation to end the Vietnam War, oddly also because his father, then commander in chief of the Pacific command, when briefing the president answered references to his son by saying only “I pray for him.” 

   In the McCain family national service was its own reward that did not allow for special treatment. I thought of that when his Vietnamese captors during the final phase of negotiations offered to release John so that he could return with me on the official plane that had brought me to Hanoi. Against all odds, he thanked them for the offer but refused it. When we finally met, his greeting was both self effacing and moving. “Thank you for saving my honor.” He did not tell me then or ever that he had had an opportunity to be freed years earlier but had refused, a decision for which he had to endure additional periods of isolation and hardship. Nor did he ever speak of his captivity again during the near half century of close friendship. 

   John’s focus was on creating a better future. As a senator, he supported the restoration of relations with Vietnam, helped bring it about on a bipartisan basis in the Clinton administration and became one of the advocates of reconciliation with his enemy. Honor, it is an intangible quality, not obligatory. It has no code. It reflects an inward compulsion, free of self interest. It fulfills a cause, not a personal ambition.  It represents what a society lives for beyond the necessities of the moment. Love makes life possible; honor and nobility. For john it was a way of life. 

   John returned to America divided over its presidency, divided over the war. Amidst all of the turmoil and civic unrest, divided over the best way to protect our country and over whether it should be respected for its power or its ideals. John came back from the war and declared this is a false choice. America owed it to itself to embrace both strengths and ideals in decades of congressional service, ultimately as chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, John was an exponent of an America strong enough to its purpose. 

   But John believed also in a compassionate America, guided by core principles for which American foreign policy must always stand. “With liberty and justice for all” is not an empty sentiment he argued, it is the foundation of our national consciousness. To John, American advantages had universal applicability. I do not believe he said that there’s an errant exception any more than there is a black exception or an Asian or Latin exception. He warned against temptation of withdrawal from the world. In this manner John McCain ‘s name became synonymous with an America that reached out to oblige the powerful to be loyal and give hope to the oppressed.

   John lines of all these battles for decency and freedom. He was an engaged warrior fighting for his causes with a brilliance, with courage, and with humility. John was all about hope. In a commencement speech at Ohio’s Wesleyan University John summed up the essence of his engagement of a lifetime. “No one of us, if they have character, leaves behind a wasted life.” Like most people of my age I feel a longing for what is lost and cannot be restored. If the happy and casual beauty of youth prove ephemeral, something better can endure and endure until our last moment on Earth and that is the moment in our lives when we sacrifice for something greater than ourselves. Heroes inspire us by the matter of factness of their sacrifice and the elevation of the root vision. 

   The world will be lonelier without John McCain, his faith in America and his instinctive sense of moral duty. None of us will ever forget how even in his parting John has bestowed on us a much needed moment of unity and renewed faith in the possibilities of America. Henceforth, the country’s honor is ours to sustain.

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When a Meme Becomes a Social Movement — Chaos Theory and the Al Franken Resignation

16 Jan

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    In Shakespearian tragedies, kings and lovers alike are brought down with daggers and potions.  In today’s tragedies, they are brought down with tweets and hashtags.

   The remarkable and sudden fall of US Senator Al Franken is a unique case study in chaos theory, contagion, and the resulting social movements that create new order.  It is not just the story of David throwing a single tweet at Goliath—it’s also the story of ten thousand re-tweets, each with the weight of a stone.  The social narrative gives cover for suppressed victims to thrown their own stones.  Despite all efforts at containment and crisis management, the outcomes are as unpredictable as a creative Saturday Night Live sketch that bombs, or a brilliant legislative package that can’t gather enough votes.  In Franken’s case the unpredictable became inevitable.  It forced Franken to resign from the US Senate.  Goliath fell.

   By itself, the tweet seen around the world from Los Angeles radio host Leeann Tweeden of Al Franken appearing to grope her chest during a 2006 USO tour was a powerful image.  Even though the picture was taken before Franken became a US Senator, it creates a strong cognitive intrusion into the known and expected behavior of a person of power.   But the visual dissonance of the image carried even more weight against the backdrop of social chaos already underway with the sexual harassment allegations against Hollywood film producer Harvey Weinstein.

   When actress Ashley Judd accused Weinstein of harassment in a October 5th “New York Times” investigation it created its own cognitive intrusion into the reputation of one of Hollywood’s most successful film makers.  The Times investigation uncovered eight settlements paid out to women for their silence on Weinstein’s alleged predatory behavior.   The story was David’s stone cast into a pool of water.  The ripples are the basis for what social scientists call the modern embodiment of chaos theory.

   Chaos theory has its roots in mathematics and physics where researchers such as Edward Lorenz found that even minor variances in complex computational models led to unexpected and contradictory equations.  Lorenz called it the butterfly effect, where the flap of a butterfly’s wings could ultimately affect weather patterns weeks later.   Increasingly applied to social science, chaos theory holds that small events cause ripples that eventually amplify into meaningful movements.  University of Amsterdam researcher Jaap van Genneken notes that within a collective adaptive system such as public opinion, those small events or voices can multiply through media channels to become a powerful and shifting force.

   That’s exactly what Ashley Judd started.  Within seven days, former actress Rose McGowan also publicly disclosed Weinstein had assaulted her and reached a settlement in 1997.  Two days after McGowan, actress Alyssa Milano encouraged victims of sexual harassment to tweet #MeToo.  By the next morning 30,000 people did.  The hashtag shot like its own stone into the public consciousness.  The voices of three women suddenly identified an issue that had been covered up for too long.

   In an age where we communicate at the speed of light, more women saw the light.  Chaos became a contagion.  But it was more than Weinstein.  Accusers came forward targeting politicians, actors, ceo’s, musical directors, even Today Show host Matt Lauer.  Perhaps the most famous target, Alabama US Senate candidate Ray Moore, was accused of sexually targeting teenagers when he was in his 30’s.  

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Figure 1 – December 6th tweets of women U.S. Senators calling on Sen. Al Franken to resign

   This was the chaos and contagion that encircled Al Franken like a swarm of Davids.  By the morning of December 6th, a seventh woman accused Franken of attempting to kiss her.   That same morning TIME named the “Silence Breakers” as its Person of the Year.  In its cover story TIME wrote, “When a movie star says #MeToo, it becomes easier to believe the cook who’s been quietly enduring for years.”   Within hours, New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand called for Franken’s resignation—seven more women senators joined her in short order. (Figure 1)  Those were David’s final stones.  The next day, Franken announced his resignation on the floor of the US Senate.

 

 

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  Although Franken’s communications team tried to counter the attack by producing testimonials from former women staffers on his thoughtful and supportive treatment of them and his championing of women’s issues, it couldn’t compete in a climate of #MeToo contagion. (Figure 2)  Google Trends data clearly shows a timeline of the chaos and the shifting social attitudes.  A TIME/Survey Monkey poll conducted between November 28th and 30th showed 82% of respondents were more likely to speak out about sexual harassment since the Weinstein allegations.  Furthermore, 85% said they believed the women making the allegations of harassment.  

Linear vs Networked Models

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   But the phenomenon also speaks to the changing nature of influencers in an environment of fragmented media.  It demonstrates how the old rules of linear communications models with thought leaders at the center have given way to randomized networked systems of influencers. (Figure 3)  Columbia University sociology researcher Duncan Watts has established a model where movements are not necessarily driven by a single person or media channel, but instead by cascades of easily influenced people.  Those cascades turn global—or large—when a critical mass of early adopters connect with each other in the influence network.  Although Watts argues the critical mass may only occupy a small fraction of the population, the cascade effect becomes global when the remainder of the population activates as well.

   This is essentially what happened on the morning of December 6th, when the seventh accuser stepped forward against Franken.  She may have been a small influencer, but timed with the release of TIME’s “Silence Breakers” it built the critical mass that gave cover for the coordinated call among women senators for Franken to resign.  Accelerated by social and digital media, the cascade became unstoppable.

   One of the principals of chaos theory is the self-organization that occurs after the chaotic state or crisis.  In other words, there’s a return to a new order.  In the case of the chaos brought on by the Weinstein accusations there is an emerging re-organization on several fronts.  First, in Hollywood, the creative community has formed the “Times Up” movement creating new awareness and expectations for worker treatment in the entertainment industry.  Second, industrial giants such as Ford have already reexamined HR policies including harassment training at its manufacturing plants—especially in Chicago where complaints surfaced.  As for Al Franken’s senate seat, there is also new order.  A woman—former Minnesota Lt. Governor Tina Smith has replaced him in an orderly transition.

   Like the butterfly’s wings, a single voice can still create the stone in David’s hand, or the dagger in Shakespeare’s play.  And in today’s world of digital communication the contagion they can generate are exponentially powerful at creating disorder and reorder.

How 3M’s Inge Thulin Fought The Charlottesville Crisis with Code

14 Sep

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       3M’s CEO Inge Thulin recently found himself caught between a meme and a movement.  The violence in Charlottesville, Virginia during a neo-Nazi rally and President Trump’s half-hearted condemnation of white supremacists put Thulin and other business leaders in an uncomfortable spotlight with the president generating the wattage.   How to respond to an emerging public relations threat is not just a business decision, it’s also a strategic communication decision.

        Thulin along with 26 CEOs joined Trump’s Manufacturing Council at the beginning of his administration.  For these business leaders, joining the commission not only gave them an important seat at the table in forming government policy that could benefit their core businesses, but it also could provide valuable insights into economic trends and how to strategically position their companies.  There was little to lose.

       Then came Charlottesville.

       The images that spread at the speed of ones and zeros also captured a fractured nation at the speed of smartphones and social media.  President Trump’s ultimate failure to condemn the white supremacists simply fed the outrage.  The business leaders on the president’s manufacturing commission quickly found themselves caught in the contagion.    

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Figure 1

       Knowing how such a contagion starts and evolves is also helpful in navigating a response that protects and elevates a brand.   Social psychologist Jaap Van Ginneken holds that such a coalescence of public opinion forms when diffuse ideas congregate around an idea or strong replicator.  It’s a process he calls entrainment.  In Charlottesville, one of the replicators was the image and video of the car that killed a woman as it was driving through the crowd of those rallying against the white nationalists.   The image forces the viewer to associate the experience with their own closely held beliefs.  The stronger the beliefs, the more likely it will affect their attitude toward action to align themselves with those who share their beliefs, and just and important, align themselves against those who do not. (Figure 1).  It’s classic balance theory.   In this case of entrainment, the image turned viral, a contagion was born, and it coalesced around pop-up movements, vigils, and rallies across the country to denounce the violence in Charlottesville. 

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       For the CEO’s on the president’s commission, the contagion prompted viral petitions for members of the Manufacturing Commission to stand up to President Trump and resign.   3M’s Inge Thulin was among those in the cross hairs.   For most multi-billion dollar corporations, responding to such a crisis typically involves a team of attorneys, advisors and corporate communicators who look at everything from the effect on stock price, supply chain, and potential investor lawsuits.  To complicate matters, Charlottesville happened as 3M shares were already falling on Wall Street.   One question 3M certainly asked itself was whether to associate the fortunes of the company to a president experiencing dismal approval ratings. (Figure 2) 

      It’s complicated.  Thulin made it simple.   He resigned from the commission and announced why on social media.

 

            In making its decision, Thulin and 3M looked no further than their own corporate soul–their code of conduct.  The 3M code spells out in detail the values and expectations of not only its business practices, but how employees are to treat each other.  Among its core principals: be good, be honest, be respectful.  

            Johnson & Johnson CEO Alex Gorsky made a similar decision.  Gorsky too, leaned on his company’s own credo.  Over the years the J&J credo has famously guided the company in responding to the Tylenol tampering crisis in the 1980’s and other product recalls in 2009 and 20010.  To this day, the J&J credo is considered the gold standard of corporate ethics.  After Gorsky, Thulin and several other CEO’s decided to leave the president’s council, the remaining members dissolved it.

            During a time when a polarized public and consumer attitudes shift like the fog in a crooked canyon, brands and their communicators need a guiding light.  3M had one, and Charlottesville helped its CEO focus the beam.

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How Strategic Communication Positioning Won for Donald Trump

13 Nov

trump-positioned-to-win-002     Donald Trump didn’t just win the war for the Electoral College, he won the messaging war for an important segment of disaffected Americans.  He did it by strategically positioning his brand, his message, and perhaps by complete accident, his marketing drivers.

     Trump paid attention to the one data set we now know mattered most—dissatisfaction with the direction of the country.  The Humphrey School of Public Affairs’ Dr. Larry Jacobs told a group of journalists and producers during the political conventions (myself included) that this was a political insight that couldn’t be ignored.  Jacobs warned that it would be extremely difficult for an incumbent or someone closely tied to an incumbent or the perceived establishment to win. 

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Figure 1

      In this respect, the polling was convincing.  In the aggregate tracking compiled by Real Clear Politics, the margins couldn’t be more stark. (Figure 1)  For nearly all of 2016 Americans believed with a nearly two to one margin that the country was heading in the wrong direction.  Donald Trump focused like a laser beam on that insight and the people behind it. 

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Figure 2

     In speaking to those voters, he positioned himself in their minds as the candidate who represented change.  Quite frankly, he stole a page from the strategic marketing playbooks of major brands and products in carving out a point of differentiation.   Consumers tend to build perceptual maps in their minds about how products compare to each other when they make a purchasing decision.  I would argue they make the same set of comparisons between political candidates.  In the case of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton the dominant perceptual map came down to a choice of who represented true change and who would be better for the economy. (Figure 2)  As a brand, you want to occupy the upper right region of the axis points on the perceptual map.  Trump didn’t just occupy this position, he owned it with the majority of voters in the critical swing states who tipped the Electoral College. 

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Figure 3

     In many respects he did it through branding and messaging.  In a previous post, I established how Trump personified the Rebel archetype. (Figure 3) His break-all-the-rules brand spoke directly to disaffected voters who felt that the country wasn’t just heading in the wrong direction, but that no one was listening to them.  Clinton’s Ruler archetype was too closely aligned with the establishment that Trump’s voters felt alienated from.  To be sure, Trump also successfully deployed the fear factor.  By exploiting voter anxiety on crime, immigration, jobs, and health care insurance he banked on well-established economic theory that people are more motivated by loss than they are by gain.

     But Trump also helped his candidacy by how he marketed himself.  Former Campbell Mithun advertising agency CEO and University of Minnesota Strategic Communication Program Director Steve Wehrenberg argues that there are seven irrefutable marketing drivers.   Whether by pure luck or shrewd planning, Trump succeeded at nearly every one of these drivers.

Brand Awareness.   Real estate, hotels and casinos made Donald Trump a business brand and best selling author, but the NBC television show “The Apprentice” made him a star. By the time Donald Trump announced his candidacy for president in 2015, he was already a household name having built his brand as a savvy business expert and larger-that-life personality.  Trump was able to leverage his brand awareness to get free airplay on cable news channels and largely bypass expensive television advertising.

Emotional Bond.  Trump’s brash personality and shoot-from-the-hip style caused people to love him or hate him.  But those who loved Donald Trump, really loved him. Trump famously said during the campaign “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters.”  Even when the video emerged of Trump making lewd remarks about women on the “Access Hollywood” bus, it only had a temporary effect on his polling numbers.  We now know that the emotional bond to Trump’s economic message simply swamped whatever misgivings his voters had about the messenger.

Product News.   Trump’s pension for outrageousness and unpredictability made both his supporters and enemies follow his every move and statement during the campaign.  Quite simply, he was a Los Angeles car chase no one could stop watching.  His use of Twitter as a means to directly communicate with his followers kept them constantly informed of his every thought and move.

Activation.  In the marketing and advertising world, activation is getting the customer to make the immediate decision to buy your product through a sale, coupon, or incentive.  In politics, activation is about getting people to vote for you on Election Day. For all of her superior organization, fund raising, and GOTV, Hillary Clinton lost the activation battle in several critical battleground states.  Trump won it in part by his message and his personal social media appeals on November 8th.

Loyalty.   This is all about providing exclusive offerings to loyal followers.  The Best Buy’s and Amazon’s of the world build loyalty by offering discounts and free shipping if you join their rewards program.  Similarly, politicians reward loyalty by providing exclusive access and one-on-one pictures for followers at donor events.  Donald Trump attempted to build loyalty in reverse by making disaffected workers believe that he was the only candidate who believed in them. 

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Picture 1 – Donald Trump at Minneapolis-St. Pau Intl. Airport on November 6, 2016

Product Experience.  Here too, Trump created the illusion that getting the chance to see him and hear him at a rally was a not-to-miss experience.  To be sure, every candidate does this.  But Trump’s rallies became a calling.  At the Minnesota rally hastily arranged within 24 hours at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, the Republican Party of Minnesota reported 17,000 people RSVP’d online.   Trump’s followers illegally parked on Hwy 77 and scaled chain link fences to race to the hangar to get inside for the rally.  Even then, more of his followers were left stranded outside of the hangar than the thousands who got inside to hear him speak. (Picture 1)

Buzz.   For better or worse, Trump dominated Internet search and chatter.  The final Google Trends metrics show how Trump (seen in red) commanded a large share of search queries all throughout the campaign. (Figure 4) 

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Figure 4

    Political scientists, strategists, and journalists alike will analyze the Trump electoral phenomena for months to come.  Many will focus on the flaws of Clinton herself, her State Department emails, and her abrasive personality.  Others will focus on her campaign’s failure to activate Obama Democrats.  The Washington Post has already examined misplaced ad buys in the final weekend that could have contributed to Clinton’s final downfall at the polls.  But perhaps none of that could overcome the headwinds of an electorate who believed in their core the country was heading in the wrong direction. Trump positioned himself to be the messenger change.  They may not have liked the messenger himself, but enough of them perceived his message was the only one they could identify with.

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