Thursday, July 14, 2016

Their expertise is elsewhere

It never fails. Whenever I teach a class on media relations, someone trots out an official sounding fact about the decline of reading comprehension in the United States, and how you have to 'dumb down' whatever you are talking about when you address the public.

Go stand in the corner, dummy
I have heard the average reading comprehension drop from 10th grade about a dozen years ago to as low as third grade. Yes, I was told by someone who regularly addresses the public that the average reading comprehension of an American is on par with someone who is about eight years old.

To this, I say Hogwash.

The problem we have isn't that reading comprehension has dropped. No, the problem we have is that we - as specialized communicators - often overlook the fact that our audience knows a lot, but their expertise is elsewhere.

Rock on, my man!
Let me set up an example. You buy tickets to a concert. You go to the show, expecting awesome shredding lead guitar, gut busting drum solos and the lead singer to belt out the lyrics. Do you really want the band to take the stage to deliver a lecture on the importance of hand washing to prevent the flu? Not at $80 a ticket you don't!

What's wrong under the hood?
After the show, with your ears ringing and your adrenaline pumping, you start your car to head home, but it won't shift into drive. After fussing with the shift lever for a while, you call a tow truck to take your car to the garage. When the mechanic comes out to tell you what's wrong with your transmission, do you want her to pontificate about how long it will take to evacuate residents from a barrier island in the event of an approaching hurricane?  Heck no!  Fix the car and let's get moving again!

That's one mighty big heart you have there, doc!
With all of the stress, you notice that you are starting to experience chest pain. You call 9-1-1 and are whisked to the nearest hospital, where a cardiologist takes a look at you. When that doctor comes into your room after running a battery of tests, do you really want him to take the time to advocate for smoke detectors in your home? Of course not. You have more pressing matters on your mind!

Now, from this illustration, would you call any of these people ignorant?  On a third-grade level of intelligence?  Not a chance.  Each of these people has a tremendous amount of skill and knowledge developed over years of study and practice, but not in the field that you are an expert. While the public may do things that drive you mad with exasperation, just remember that they don't have the background in the topic you have. Add to that they also have to juggle getting the kids to practice, do grocery shopping, balance their checkbooks, plan when they will finally get around to painting the house - well, you get the idea.

So, how do we reach them?  Easy. Drop the jargon. Lose the acronyms. Remember you aren't speaking to peers in your discipline, but people who can learn if the information is presented in the right way. In other words, we need to stop looking down on the public we serve and understand a great truth that Albert Einstein grasped so well.

There. Now I will get off my soapbox.

Tom Iovino

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Politics and ... Communications?

All politics is local.
           Tip O'Neill, former Speaker of the House of Representatives

If you want to see a great study in the evolution of communications, you need only to look at the world of politics.  After all, it's critical for campaign managers to reach out to the electorate to motivate their supporters to head to the polls on election day.
Communications techniques become especially important in presidential politics in the United States. First, the national scale of the race precludes the individual door-to-door campaigning that a mayoral candidate could conduct in a small town. The four-year cycle between elections also allows different communications technologies to evolve, giving us great insight to how important they have become during the intervening time.

Since the 2016 election cycle is ramping up, now is a good time to take a look back to see how people have effectively used the different media available to them.

James Polk's campaign handbill
Initially, in such a large country where it could take weeks for news to travel throughout the states, newspapers and printed handbills were made available to local election organizers to get people to the polls. Sometimes, they would feature images of the candidates and a few inspirational quotes. Sometimes, wow, if you thought today's campaigns were messy affairs with negative ads, you should read what was said in the campaigns of the 1800s.

President Herbert Hoover campaigning from the back of his presidential train
Once railroad lines started crossing the United States, it became considerably easier for candidates to conduct a true nationwide presidential campaign. And, with those railroad tracks came telegraph lines, which allowed advance notice to supporters to show up at the station for whistle stop campaign speeches. From the days of Abraham Lincoln through Barack Obama, this form of campaign still resonates with Americans, even though new forms of communication have taken over and become far more effective at reaching voters.

FDR conducts one of his fireside chats from the Oval Office
Radio became the next big evolution in communications, allowing the near-instantaneous release of information through the major radio networks. The president considered the most skilled practitioner of radio communications was Franklin D. Roosevelt. During his presidential tenure from 1933 until his passing in 1945, he masterfully utilized the medium during his campaigns and through his legendary fireside chats.  Each of his conversations with the American public, while coming across as folksy and relaxed, was carefully drafted, edited and choreographed to build confidence during some of the nation's most trying times.

After World War II, television became the next big thing. Now, not only could people hear or read about the candidates, they could also see them. That was a big step forward, because studies have shown that the words we choose convey only 7% of the message we communicate. The rest comes from the tone of voice, facial expressions and body language. Dwight Eisenhower was the first candidate to use television ads for his campaign, to great effect. Lyndon Johnson would later use one of the first negative ads to great effect against his opponent Barry Goldwater.

Bill Clinton's 1996 re-election campaign website
While George H. W. Bush was in office and signed the bill that opened the Internet to the public in 1991, it was his successor Bill Clinton that was first able to utilize the power of the Internet on the campaign trail. Granted, winning the web was not all that important in 1996, but those first few brave steps by the Clinton and Dole campaigns opened a whole new political battlefield for those who followed.

Barack Obama's 2008 Facebook page
This, of course, led to what we see today - social media as a political driver. It wasn't until the 2008 contest between Barack Obama and John McCain that Facebook, Twitter and YouTube became important players, but both candidates jumped in eagerly to embrace the new outreach tools. President Obama's campaign was lauded for its skillful use of Facebook in getting younger voters out to the polls, helping ensure his victory.

Who knows what communications outreach tools will help win elections in the years to come. But, one thing is certain, a wise Public Information Officer will take the time to study how people whose mission to communicate effectively with a wide number of residents accomplish their task and apply that knowledge to their communications plans.

Tom Iovino