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December 8, 2010

the folklore of communications and messaging

"If three Americans were dropped from an airplane at 10,000 feet, by the time they had reached the ground they would probably have formed an association and elected themselves president, vice president, and secretary-treasurer," wrote E. Digby Baltzell years ago. Today, the plummeting Americans would turn themselves into a communications committee and brainstorm "messages" to "get the word out" or "raise awareness" of their plight before they hit the ground.

Messaging is second nature. If you ask kids to pick an issue that concerns them and do something about it, very often they will choose a bad behavior and develop a communications plan against it. They have learned that style of engagement from their elders.

"Strategic communication" (trying to get other people to do something by sending them some kind of message) has its own folklore. We assume that effective messages are short, simple, and memorable. They stress benefits and don't complicate matters by mentioning any drawbacks. If a message mentions opponents, it disparages them. Ideally, the message comes from famous and cool supporters. The more repetition, the better.

We borrow these techniques from commercial advertising, the medium in which we swim. But commercial advertisers want people to do things that are (1) conceptually simple, (2) available, (3) normally free of organized enemies, and (4) of tangible value. Tropicana, for example, wants us to fork over cash for an available good that affords some pleasure and health benefits and that may have competitors, but that no one is advertising against. To be sure, the value of the Tropicana brand is non-tangible, and the cost of their product may be too high. They address those challenges by appealing to emotions.

Political campaign face a similar situation and borrow most of the same techniques. Like buying orange juice, voting is conceptually simple and available. Most candidates are in zero-sum struggles for votes, a situation that encourages far more negative advertising than we see in the commercial world. Also, the benefits of voting are non-tangible, which is why candidates either resort to nebulous sentiments or try to make their impact appear more concrete than it is. But most of the principles of commercial advertising apply.

The principles apply, too, if you want people to buckle up or not to drink and drive. Those are concrete choices, available to all who have cars in the first place.

But the normal forms of strategic communication cannot work if:

Most of the things that I care about--civic engagement, deliberation, literature and the humanities, effective public institutions, social justice--face all of the challenges listed above, which is why I am generally skeptical about the advantages of a "communications" strategy. Organizing and recruiting people to have tangible and rewarding experiences is much more promising.

December 8, 2010 1:00 PM | category: none



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