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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Real time conversation – a “real first”!

The next logical step in personal communication: real-time. Wow, what a concept. This latest developing development comes to us courtesy of the man who gave us gmail, that ubiquitous staple of the online world. Paul Buchheit, among other dabblings since leaving Google and being flush, is “playing” with Friendfeed, a quite interesting  tool in and of itself (check it out at http://www.friendfeed.com ).

By putting emphasis on real-time, Friendfeed (Buchheit) is trying both to leap frog the competition and presumably point the way. What a way it is to be sure. Kind of “Back to the Future” aided precisely in kind like in the movie – through technology. Not in this case through hot cars with time warping capability, but the equivalent. These “vehicles” don’t have wheels, they are “communication vehicles” – means to an end, namely talking to, not talking through, around, or at others. The difference is between leaving a note posted on the refrigerator vs. actually carrying on a live conversation.

This blog has previously pointed to source information suggesting that social networking as we know it today is wearing thin in relation to its value as a means of true communication as perceived by users. See: https://communicatorsandcommunications.com/2009/04/10/quick-takes-social-network-fatigue/

Feeling connected in real time totally changes the equation in terms of personal communication, so much so that it impacts the very character, content, and potential “outcome” of that communication. This is a big deal indeed as McCluhan would I’m sure point out – in fact he has; the medium is and will always be the message. (https://communicatorsandcommunications.com/2009/03/07/marshall-mcluhan-revisited/)

 Even if the rhetoric sounds like re-inventing the wheel, which it does and what is put forward is attempting to approximate “the wheel”, i.e. live conversation, it puts the merit of true personal communication back in play and that’s the really big breakthrough here!

https://communicatorsandcommunications.com/2009/05/10/real-time-conversation-a-real-first/

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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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Blogs as today’s communication bargain

Over the past weekend a number of media sources – online and off – picked up on a story which I think may have originated in Chicago, my hometown, on Friday the thirteenth no less. We won’t call it “Black Friday” in this instance, instead we’ll call it “Red Hot” Friday. The basic point of all these pieces was that the hot dog is making a comeback in these hard times; it is construed as the “perfect recession food” Hot dog sales are “red hot” according to the site “Serious Eats” http://www.seriouseats.com/2009/03/the-hot-dog-as-perfect-recession-food.html#comments

Now I am a serious hot dog lover myself; the Mii on my Wii is “hotdogman” for goodness sakes. The buzz about the dog reminded me that this is the time of the little guy, the bargain. I pass up the fancy car wash with the waiting room sporting a flat panel TV in favor of one tied in with a gas station where I get pretty much the same hand wash for about half the price.

Blogs are in a way the bargains of today’s world of communications. The “hot dog article” posted at Chicago Public Radio http://www.wbez.org/Content.aspx?audioID=32792

references the opinion of Darren Tristano an executive vice president at Technomic Incorporated, a food industry research firm: “He says hotdog stands are set to capitalize on food trends-they’re cheap, the food is fresh, customizable, portable, and he says Chicago hot dogs taste really good. All of which makes them a strong contender for a great recession meal.” Just exchange the words “Chicago hot dogs” for the words “well prepared blogs” and I think you’ll see the attributes listed are comparable. The recipe for “well prepared blogs” will be given in a later post.

 

https://communicatorsandcommunications.com/2009/03/19/back-at-the-same-old-stand/

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Franklin Roosevelt invents the “fireside chat”

76 years ago today Franklin Roosevelt sat in front of a radio microphone and literally created a new communications “environment”. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fireside_chats

What I want to point out about the concept of the “fireside chat” as a communications vehicle is directly related to President Obama and the current situation we face as a nation. As “Communicator in Chief” president Obama has to ensure that for the duration of this national morass we are going through, that in all his communication efforts to the general public he essentially utilizes what I will call the “Roosevelt Approach”, so well crafted by FDR, and therefore Obama’s communications advisors – who were seemingly so astute on the campaign trail – need to revisit the rationale for the success of the fireside chat format. In this regard, as important as the content was, the character of the presentation within the framework of the media involved is what needs to be assessed from a communications standpoint. Keep in mind that this took place during the “Golden Age of Radio”; we now are in the “New Age of the Internet”, and I am not so sure that a talking head in front of a camera albeit,  a Presidential talking head – translates that well on a computer screen for the purpose intended, that being hopefully injecting confidence about the future. What is needed is to re-invent the “fireside chat” circa 2009.

https://communicatorsandcommunications.com/2009/03/12/franklin-roosevelt-invents-the-fireside-chat/

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Marshall McLuhan revisited

We’re going to mention “packaging” a lot, “The manner in which something, such as a proposal or product, or someone, such as a candidate or author, is presented to the public.” (from answers.com) with emphasis on what should be considered in trying to appeal to the INTENDED audience, which it often turns out is not necessarily what appeals (appearance-wise or otherwise) to the one generating the communication; this determination – what is it that most probably will appeal to the intended audience –  should be the first order of business in calculating a communications approach in all cases;  I would strongly urge that anyone striving to be an effective communicator start with Marshall McLuhan, if you haven’t already, because his conception of communications  is one of the pillars upon which all effective communications strategy should be based.

For example McLuhan said: “People don’t actually read newspapers. They step into them every morning like a hot bath.” Here’s another one, after the manner of McLuhan: People don’t actually read blogs. They jump on them coming and going like a bullet train.

https://communicatorsandcommunications.com/2009/03/07/marshall-mcluhan-revisited/

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