Monday, September 21, 2009

The power of public conversation done well...

Just last week I heard three separate comments and read many more about the state of public debate in the US.  One of these comments was how watching TV was just too upsetting, and the commenter said his family was now turning off all news, even the ones they used to like.

Certainly the times have forced the pace of change and those changes threaten how we live our lives.  You can't have a massive recession, war and terrorism, fundamental policy change and historic political events unfold in a smooth easy-to-understand narrative.

But the real fulcrums for this reaction, I think are new media strategies being adopted by communications companies to rebuild readership and viewership. In the short run, highly partial recounting of the news seems to be effective to attract audiences.

But lately the long-term viability of this idea seems in question.
Chayefsky imagines cynical television executives who create a ratings sensation out of the nightly rants and ravings of Beale. The host energizes the nation with his cry, "I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore!" It's hard to find a film that better captures the rotten vibe of the early 1970s, when America found itself suffering through one downer after another: failing companies, tense foreign relations, high unemployment, rampant incivility, spiraling deficits, corruption in high places, a seemingly endless war. Sound familiar?
Beck often cites Beale as an inspiration and a tribune for our own times. "I think that's the way people feel," he told an interviewer. "That's the way I feel" — like the fist-shaking, hair-pulling Beale. Whether channeled by a playwright on the left or a talk-show host on the right, anger and distrust can be dramatized and monetized. But do they ever really go anywhere?
The trouble with this prophecy is that we never find out what happens to the people watching Beale. Do they stay mad forever? Does their screaming ever lead to something better? Does the rage merely migrate, sending new audiences with new enemies to scream from more windows? And if the time comes when every audience is screaming, who, in the end, is left to listen? [More]

The public temper tantrum may be a working answer for selling aspirin, but if you have to communicate a corporate message to a public whose attention seems to be floowing the loudest outrage, how do you do that?

Bob Greene found one interesting answer in the last place you would expect: the words of Richard Nixon.
One answer may be found in an unlikely place -- in words spoken by the most divisive political figure of his era.
Richard Nixon, in his first inaugural address during a time of widespread public rage in the United States, talked about "reaching with magnificent precision for the moon, but falling into raucous discord on earth."
Nixon's presidency would end in shambles. But on its first day, here is what he said about how to soothe the anger that was consuming the nation:
"To find that answer, we need only look within ourselves. ... To lower our voices would be a simple thing."
Some people's feelings about Nixon undoubtedly cloud their opinion of everything he ever did. Yet what he said as he took office in a time of nonstop partisan conflict is worth considering as we pass through similar days:
"In these difficult years, America has suffered from a fever of words; from inflated rhetoric that promises more than it can deliver; from angry rhetoric that fans discontents into hatreds; from bombastic rhetoric that postures instead of persuading.
"We cannot learn from one another until we stop shouting at one another -- until we speak quietly enough so that our words can be heard as well as our voices."
But maybe that has become impossible. The pedals are mashed against the floorboards now, and our engines are roaring too loudly for any calming voice to be heard. We seem to be approaching the bad part of the movie. The part where we find out that no one wins. [More]

It is such an approach that is  exemplified by this.

The corporate response by ADM to the new movie "The Informant!" was IMHO, masterful. In fact, all of us at USFR watched it and immediately grasped the skill and effectiveness of the video, but more importantly the attitude underlying the message.

(One caveat: none of us understood the washed out and rather bleak background - presumably shot through a window at the HQ - but hey, that's just TV people quibbling)

I remember the Midwestern drama that unfolded during the investigation.  I also recall the exceptional reporting of columnist Alan Guebert, whose legwork was remarkable and indefatiguable.  If he had some web presence I would link, but he apparently is betting all on a print comeback or something).

I followed the increasingly bizarre aspects of the case with detached bemusement.  And yes, it did alter my opinion of ADM.  To be fair, I worked during college across town in Decatur at Staley, at the time a rival of ADM, so I was hardly unbiased.

But regardless of what you think about ADM, this little gem of communications illustrates something I had hoped to begin witnessing.  In a world of shouting and industrious misrepresentation, a calm, confident voice commands immediate respect and trust.  It need not be seen by millions to have large effects either, because unlike the rants, it does not have to be reinforced daily.

Our bodies do not tolerate permanent outrage well. Sooner or later, we have to adjust our brain chemistry to allow our cardiovascular system to endure, to name just one physical threat.  In fact, I think the decision to turn off cable news could originate in brains desperate for relief.

ADM could have marshaled facts and created bullet points too. But as someone who has stepped away from PowerPoint during my presentations, I can reinforce the idea of the power that simple narrative now has.  No quick cuts, special effects, or interwoven music or images - just one person talking to you in conversational tones.

Don't get me wrong.  I suspect the script wasn't dashed off twenty minutes before filming and I hope Ms. Podesta didn't do it in one take (trust me - it's harder than it looks), but I think the increasingly popular choice for corporate voices will resemble this example more than stern attorneys deflecting questions or talking heads exchanging acidic barbs.

Agriculture at every level should notice this, as we engage in public debates on everything from trade policy to animal rights.  America is developing a hunger for listeners and brief-talkers.  Above all, they want to feel better - not worse - after the exchange.

The urge to mount vigorous and strident public relations campaigns often arises from people who produce vigorous and strident public relations campaigns, I have found. It is job security not to suggest quiet forbearance or (God forbid!) good-natured tolerance of what will prove to be soon forgotten nonsense.

We need to instead 1) do our job well, 2) bear more than our share without complaining, 3) keep our sense of humor, and 4) be the calm voice that helps those we serve find refuge from the din of acrimony.

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