President Obama and the return of the viral email

Well, now I’m getting worried. In reply to a comment regarding the recent post “President Obama and language used stupidly” (https://communicatorsandcommunications.com/2009/07/27/president-obama-and-language-used-stupidly/) I wrote: “I have some concern his communications team may be a little off stride of late: I will continue to monitor this and report appropriately on the C&C blog…and I am hoping these recent missteps are not indicative of a trend, but rather a “slip and fall” in an otherwise stellar tightrope act.” Now I’m not so sure.

Yesterday I, along with millions of others who subscribe to WhiteHouse.gov received the following e-mail:

axelrodemail
Dear Friend,

This is probably one of the longest emails I’ve ever sent, but it could be the most important.

Across the country we are seeing vigorous debate about health insurance reform. Unfortunately, some of the old tactics we know so well are back — even the viral emails that fly unchecked and under the radar, spreading all sorts of lies and distortions.

As President Obama said at the town hall in New Hampshire, “where we do disagree, let’s disagree over things that are real, not these wild misrepresentations that bear no resemblance to anything that’s actually been proposed.”

So let’s start a chain email of our own. At the end of my email, you’ll find a lot of information about health insurance reform, distilled into 8 ways reform provides security and stability to those with or without coverage, 8 common myths about reform and 8 reasons we need health insurance reform now.

Right now, someone you know probably has a question about reform that could be answered by what’s below. So what are you waiting for? Forward this email.

Thanks,
David

David Axelrod
Senior Adviser to the President

P.S. We launched http://www.WhiteHouse.gov/realitycheck this week to knock down the rumors and lies that are floating around the internet. You can find the information below, and much more, there. For example, we’ve just added a video of Nancy-Ann DeParle from our Health Reform Office tackling a viral email head on. Check it out:

email_reality_check

http://www.whitehouse.gov/realitycheck/71/?e=11

For my purposes, I have here only reproduced the introductory section of the email, which is what I want to consider. You can read the complete text at: http://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/The-Return-of-the-Viral-Email/

Now, what is my concern? Effective communication, as usual – and therefore, I was more than a bit taken aback by the tone and particular use of language in the email, issued after all by the “Senior Adviser to the President” and bearing both the “imprimatur” and letterhead of the White House. In fact, whitehouse.gov, the internet “face” of this administration has itself changed somewhat in character. For those not familiar with this web site, it was to be  an “open window” for the public to the White House and the current administration. On his first day in office, President Obama issued an executive order, the purpose of which was to ensure that the entire federal government should be more open, transparent, and internet-friendly. It stated that agencies must put information about their operations and decisions online and make them readily available to the public. So far so good. In spite of some “technical” glitches at first, whitehouse.gov has tried up until most recently to  practice what it has preached.

The health care reform initiative, characterized most recently as health insurance reform as hopefully more “palatable”, confronted by the opposition – including a barrage of TV ads opposing such reform, the town hall meeting protests (see my post regarding this:https://communicatorsandcommunications.com/2009/08/11/town-hall-protesters-communicate-effectively-not/), etc. have moved the administration’s communications approach into attack mode. The tactics being employed have been called “push back”. Basically there’s nothing wrong with a good old battle of words, depending on what the words are – the overall strategy may be OK at this juncture, it’s the methodology which is in question. The idea seems to be,  “fight fire with fire” – the only problem is the administration is starting to appear as if it is mud slinging instead of mud wrestling. 

There is a stridency to the email which was sent (stri-dent, adj. making or having a harsh sound; grating; to make a harsh noise) which could backfire.  The use of terminology  such as “spreading…lies” is akin to the use of terminology such as “acted stupidly” – remember the reaction to that.

The overriding consideration in any fight of competing ideas must be to ensure that the party that is in the leadership position by virtue of standing (such as a President) always  is seen as such; that doesn’t mean you can’t “take the gloves off” and strongly defend your position, or point up the fallacies in the argument of the opponent, but don’t resort to anything resembling an ad hominem attack – don’t use language which may be taken to suggest the other player is a liar for example. We’ll have to wait to see who lands the next punch!

https://communicatorsandcommunications.com/2009/08/14/president-obama-and-the-return-of-the-viral-email/

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Town hall protesters communicate effectively, not?

It is time to examine – in a dispassionate and calm manner – the effectiveness of the communications strategy enlisted by those protesting at  town hall meetings being held around the country, in particular those protesters  raising their voices – quite literally – when the ideas being proposed by the Obama administration and in Congress related to the issue of health care reform are the focus of attention.

With the Congress summer recess,  legislators are heading back to home territory and to their constituents, employing the opportunity to try to connect with those who put them in office through, among other means, a communications vehicle that has been used for some time albeit with much sparser audiences than during this “summer of discontent”, the so-called “town hall” format; a forum in which, ideally, the elected official speaks to the issues and garners feedback in the form of questions and comments from those “regular folks” who attend. The idea theoretically is to provide give and take between voters and the politicians who represent them; the town hall concept is intended to provide a sounding board to take the measure of those at the local level.

Well, this summer the “measure” seems like it should be taken with a decibel meter! Relatively large groups of people are fomenting considerable discord  seeming to treat these occasions much like a sporting event and as a stage upon which to showcase their approach to disagreement, and it is their modus operandi that is our interest here.

Dr. P.M. Forni is an award winning professor at John Hopkins University,  founder of the Civility Initiative, and author of Choosing Civility: The Twenty-five Rules of Considerate Conduct. His work has been featured in The New York Times, the Washington Post, the London Times, The Wall Street Journal, Forbes Magazine, and he has appeared on national media including National Public Radio (NPR) and The Oprah Show.  

What has been taking place is available to be seen on YouTube videos and cable and network TV. Suffice it to say that the protesters have just about smashed the tablets of Dr. Forni’s “Twenty Five Rules” including especially Rule 10 – Respect Others’ Opinions; Rule 13 – Keep It Down (and Rediscover Silence); Rule 14 – Respect Other People’s Time; Rule 15 – Respect Other People’s Space; Rule 23 – Give Constructive Criticism. To find out more about “Choosing Civility” go to:
http://krieger.jhu.edu/civility/choosingcivility.html

John Stuart Mill, the 19th century philosopher and political theorist, author of On Liberty, and influential advocate of freedom of speech, is quoted in Forni’s Choosing Civility: “If all mankind minus one were of one opinion, and only one person were of contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.” But it seems apparent a main thrust of the protesters’ efforts is in fact to “silence” the speaker.

We will resist the temptation to address whether these protesters are coming together in an organized or spontaneous fashion, whether truly grassroots or “astoturf”, non-local “mercenaries”, sponsored by major interests – stakeholders in the outcome of the health care reform debate – or whether one believes the rabble have been roused by the likes of Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, et.al.  and on the “other side”  whether Dems. have brought in “union goons” to intimidate the protesters. You can see from the terminology alone, the temperature is definitely rising .

This blog is committed to discussion and analysis of what constitutes effective communication. I have in previous posts addressed a number of the principal considerations in this regard, and I particularly draw attention in this instance to the post “President Obama’s scorecard as communicator-in-chief”:

https://communicatorsandcommunications.com/2009/04/08/president-obamas-scorecard-as-communicator-in-chief/, not because it refers to President Obama at that early time in his administration when his communication team was attempting  to kick start renewed confidence by the general public in our faltering economy, but because the post gives some basis for assessing  the effectiveness of  communication efforts in general. I wrote: “How do you determine whether you’re communicating effectively? By evaluating results. You set objectives…for your effort…and then you use some appropriate means to measure effect.” Sounds pretty straightforward, doesn’t it? Let’s see if we can apply this standard to the protesters at the  town hall meetings.

Of course all this has to remain speculative, but if you are trying to demonstrate anger for a proposition, it probably makes sense to find a video camera and a microphone and start shouting “I’M AS MAD AS HELL, AND I’M NOT GOING TO TAKE THIS ANYMORE!” (famous line delivered by Peter Finch as the ex-TV anchor Howard Beale in the 1976 movie “Network” ).

So, while it may not be according to Hoyle, or in this case Forni, the point of all of this may just be making an impression, but with whom? John Q. Public?, the rank and file of the Republican Party?

This gets us to the matter, also previously broached on this blog, of “truthiness”; I referenced the book True Enough by Farhad Manjoo in a previous post https://communicatorsandcommunications.com/2009/03/16/a-jurassic-park-kind-of-world/ ; there I quoted from the Publishers Weekly review of the book that Manjoo analyzes, “…the status of truth in the digital age, critiquing a Rashomon-like world in which competing versions of truth vie for our attention.”

So do the tactics employed by the town hall protesters have traction? It depends on who you ask and poll.  For now though, without any doubt,  they are generating less light than heat!

Addendum: In response to a particular comment received related to this post, I want to state that any appearance of prejudice – positive or negative – for any group in this present health care debate is unintended. The health care issue gravitates around larger issues – one in particular being the perspective  different people have of the very nature of our society. My only bias is in favor of effective communication.

https://communicatorsandcommunications.com/2009/08/11/town-hall-protesters-communicate-effectively-not/

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Viral “marketing” – word of mouth in a YouTube world

We are presently experiencing a virtual pandemic. I am not referring to the current Swine Flu, more properly named the H1N1 Flu . I am speaking of viral marketing,  the term itself is relatively recent and started to be used in the mid 1990’s. The term’s imagery is particularly engaging. While it certainly can carry a negative connotation I want to address the ramifications of this “phenomena” as it relates to the age-old concept of “word of mouth” now sometimes referred to simply as “WOM”.  We have all heard this: there is no better form of advertising than word-of-mouth. Among other attributes of WOM, the perceived non-commerical nature of the communication enhances its credibility. One of my basic premisses about WOM in its contemporary manifestation is that technology has spawned a social networking capability that adds such potential impact to word of mouth  that it has or at least is on its way to re-asserting itself as one principal means for driving acceptance/popularity of products, persons, ideas, and “information”.

How did someone or something get notice – positive or negative – historically, let’s say in Rome in 63 B.C. “Word” travelled on horseback or chariot; escapades and episodes were passed from person to person and made reputations, for ill or well. But it wasn’t exactly speedy delivery.

Cicero, the great orator, politician, and philosopher of the period said “Like readily consorts with like”; the idea is that the transmission of a message from an accepted source has both credibility and influence, and is therefore eagerly  shared with others,  because in part, the person who passes it on  wants to be associated with the remark and the party making it.

In viral communication, those who get the “virus” affect going are usually individuals with what has been characterized as high social networking potential (SNP).  There is in fact a whole new area of marketing/public relations activity devoted just to injecting positive “buzz” intentionally through using a viral approach – kind of like seeding a cloud to produce a rain shower.

The Susan Boyle example from the TV show “Britian’s Got Talent” is a textbook study in viral communication and its potential impact. The YouTube clip of her singing in the competition literally spanned the globe with meteoric speed, and due largely to this she has become something of an icon – and rightly so, exemplifying  the adage, “you can’t tell a book by its cover”. Thus the rise of another “star”  born through the power of the Internet.

There are lots of implications for all of this. Does the viral approach to popularizing persons and things have merit or is it a menace? The verdict is yet to be rendered –  by a jury of our peers  –  and the jury is still out.

https://communicatorsandcommunications.com/2009/05/24/viral-marketing-word-of-mouth-in-a-youtube-world/

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“Accidents” can be the answers

When I was on the advertising side of communications I had many unique experiences. Because everything wasn’t ready until the last minute  a chartered  plane took me to  Lake Placid,  New York – the plane was crammed full with presentation binders, displays, and all the necessary multimedia equipment  to deliver an annual product introduction for a major multinational company. I thought we were completely prepared for anything; oops, nobody thought to mention the unconventional  power generating system at the famous winter resort we were heading to that would grind our “gear” to a halt. We ended up improvising as a small army of volunteers manually advanced the phalanx of slide projectors cued with scripts hastily reworked on site. A minor victory over technology bugs; and  to this day I always have back up plans and try to be as “self contained” as possible for any presentation. Accidents do happen, sometimes with fortuitous result, which is the moral to this story.

One of the clients I worked with in those days was Corning, Inc. – their Biomedical division had just introduced an innovative piece of laboratory equipment, a blood gas meter, but it wasn’t selling well partly because it was different technology than the market was accustomed to using. It wasn’t selling well except in one particular sales territory where it was doing great, and I talked to the sales rep about his surprising success. “Well when I go back for my sample unit, the  lab won’t let me take it, they try it and they buy it.”  Of course he wasn’t supposed to leave his very expensive sample unit, just show it during his sales presentation. Thus was born the “Borrow A Meter” campaign, and one of the most successful product launches I can remember.

We can’t control everything. Unanticipated things happen. When that occurs you just might be able to use the result to advantage if you’re open to consider something different than what you expected.

https://communicatorsandcommunications.com/2009/05/03/accidents-can-be-the-answers/

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President Obama’s scorecard as Communicator-in-chief

How do you determine whether you’re communicating effectively? By evaluating results. You set objectives, sometimes referred to as goals in the blogosphere, for your effort, be it a blog, a presentation, etc. and then you use some appropriate means to measure effect. Now your objectives need to be realistic and attainable, and there are short-term, medium-term, and long-term objectives as well so be sure you know which you are assessing. The process of goal-setting must be carefully done. It’s easy to confuse your primary goal with secondary objectives necessary to reach the primary goal. In other words, there can be a hierarchy of goals to consider.

For example, take my recent post about Earth Hour: https://communicatorsandcommunications.com/2009/03/29/earth-hour-nonverbal-and-symbolic-communication/ The sponsoring organization earthhour.org clearly has as its primary medium-term objective:  to influence the up-coming Global Climate Change Conference in  December, 2009 to move governments around the world to take action against global warming. The means which they have devised to achieve this end is to present a billion “votes for earth” evidenced by the symbolic act of turning off lights in one’s home, business, municipality, wherever. This is the secondary objective.  As another example, increasing traffic to a blog could be construed as a primary objective, but in and of itself number of hits and views is not consequential. What happens because of the increased visits to the site is what ought to be the basis for defining the primary goal. 

Goal setting deserves and will eventually receive its own attention on this blog, but for right now, I just needed to set forth some generalities before launching into an appraisal of how our new president is doing in regards to his communication efforts to date. I have raised the matter of  the administration’s developing “communications strategy” in at least two previous posts. Now might be a good time to pause and have a look at this one: https://communicatorsandcommunications.com/2009/03/26/president-obama-and-communication-experimentation/  and this one as well: https://communicatorsandcommunications.com/2009/03/20/president-obama-on-late-night-tv/

Come on back when your done, I’ll wait…waiting…waiting…waiting. OK, let’s assume the administration’s primary goal is to get this economy moving again. Fair assumption I think as it has been stated as “job one” about one thousand times. From a communications standpoint the means to this end is to pump confidence back into an abjectly deflated populace, ergo, enter our secondary objective.

Now enter the New York Times/CBS News Poll just released. The headline in the New York Times is: “Poll Finds New Optimism on Economy Since Inauguration”; so the combination of late night TV, virtual town halls, prime time news conferences, et al. just might be paying off.  The number of people who think the country is going in the right direction has moved from 15% in January, pre-Obama, to 39% now. The number who believe it’s going in the wrong direction dropped to 53% vs. 79% in prior polling. The percentage feeling that the economy is getting worse has gone from 54%, pre-Obama, to 34% at this point in time.

One person, in a follow up interview conducted in conjunction with the poll, said “It’s psychology more than anything else,” It’s effective communications more than anything else, and if you’re keeping score, the strategy seems to be working.

For the Complete New York Times Article on the recent poll go to: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/07/us/politics/07poll.html?_r=1&ref=todayspaper

https://communicatorsandcommunications.com/2009/04/08/president-obamas-scorecard-as-communicator-in-chief/

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President Obama and Communication Experimentation

OK. What’s the latest. The lastest is the “online town hall” today – another first. Q&A of the people, by the people, and for the people. How many people? White House estimates indicated some 67,000 watching online towards the end. How many questions? More than 100,000, with over 3.6 million “votes” in cyberspace to help rank the questions of most interest. CNN.com characterized the event as a kind of virtual meeting and a new twist on President Franklin Roosevelt’s fireside chats. In an earlier post I wrote about the need to re-invent the fireside chat (see sidebar tag).  http://edition.cnn.com/2009/TECH/03/26/online.obama/index.html#cnnSTCText

The comments I looked at to try and assess John Q. Public’s reaction fell into two categories: opinions about the content of the event, and opinions about the nature of the event. Because this is a blog dedicated to matters relating to communicators and communications I’ll reserve judgment on the content and stick with issues related to format.

Typically, either commenters felt the “online town hall” was a kind of staged event, or they considered that representing the event as a real face to face was inaccurate at best.

If we look at this “communication experiment” from a strictly numbers standpoint, to give this some basis for comparison, there were 131.2 million voters in the 2008 presidential election compared with 3.6 million voters for favored questions to ask during the online forum; by my calculation that’s 2.7% online votes relative to election votes. I’m using “election votes” for comparison purposes because this reflects the voting population, actively engaged enough to cast a ballot in 2008, and therefore this is the “universe” one might expect to pull from for an event like this. In my opinion, that’s a solid expression of general interest for a first time attempt at something never tried before. The 67,000 viewers tally seems a miniscule number granted, but remember the president himself characterized this event this way: “This is an experiment,” he said, “but it’s also an exciting opportunity for me to look at a computer and get a snapshot of what Americans across the country care about.” Remember, this is the same president who refused to be parted from his Blackberry.

What I want to emphasize as regards this “communication experiment” is the legitimacy of trying it out. One requirement for an effective communicator is to gain a sense of his or her audience. This may turn out to be a valuable way to “stay connected”, and if so, justifies the idea – from a communications strategy standpoint, given the reaction as I have gauged it, much of which is predictable and based on built in biases, as a communication vehicle it may not have much sway with the general populace, but as this blog always takes the effort to point out, it is the impact on the intended audience which really counts. The intended audience here? Those confortable in cyberspace, the very cadre enlisted by the Obama campaign team so effectively. I intend to do a separate post after more thorough assessment as to how the “online town hall” concept might be fitting into the further development of an overall communications strategy for the president, that being something I have addressed in previous posts as well.

https://communicatorsandcommunications.com/2009/03/26/president-obama-and-communication-experimentation/

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