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Friday, February 02, 2007

Kicking at the darkness ‘til it bleeds daylight

Today’s episode of Little Miss Know-it-All: Free communications advice.

This post is not about abuse of the English language. This post is about how to position yourself to respond to an offensive situation. I usually don’t give away free communications advice, but I am going to make an exception today.

Let’s imagine that you are an activist, lobby or local group with a mandate to make something better. I dunno, let’s say you lobby on behalf of a local river. You want to keep it clean, so the fish, wildlife and plants can be safe and healthy.

Your goal is always going to be to keep the public aware of your issue, so they can put pressure on the decision-makers to keep the river clean. You do this by establishing your own credibility and then the credibility of your message.

This is a balancing act. You see, the public doesn’t REALLY worry too much about whether the river is clean. They leave that to you. They know you’ll let them know if there’s a real problem. Most of the time, they worry about their own jobs and families, not the river. They’ll pay attention to the river when you sound the alarm, but the rest of the time they expect you to keep an eye on things and do the worrying for them.

Now, let’s imagine that you discover something alarming. A company is dumping waste into the river. Naturally, you’re outraged, and you sound the alarm, knowing that the public will also be outraged.

Here’s where the balancing act comes in. You can’t be too over-the-top when you sound the alarm. You can’t say that the waste is radioactive when it’s not, or claim that other companies are doing the same thing when they’re not, or that the problem has been going on for a long time when it hasn’t been. You want to avoid all the hyperbole and focus on the real issue: It’s bad to dump waste in the river.

When you tell the public about this problem, you want their reaction to be Yeah, that’s awful. You do not, under any circumstances, want their reaction to be Wait, it’s not that bad. This will be the reaction if you start screaming that the waste is radioactive: the public will see through your hysteria and automatically move to the other side of the seesaw. You want to be closer to the middle and to take a position that people will think is reasonable.

You also want the public to identify with your position. This means you’ll want to present your concerns as being reasonable and rational for any member of the public. You won’t want to say that people who visit the river every day are so upset they can’t function, because most people don’t visit the river every day and they’re suspicious of people who get so upset they really can’t function. Of course, the two or three people who do visit every day might be part of your overall strategy, but you want to give the public a chance to identify with people who are affected in ways that are less horrific.

These missteps will get you on the front page of the newspaper, but they won’t give you any credibility with the public. Remember that reporters like sound bites, and that “This might have been happening for five years!” plays better on the news than “This has been happening for five days!”. But you’re not playing to the cameras. You’re playing to the public. The reporter doesn’t really care about your issue anyway; she’s just trying to fill a news hole with the most exciting story possible. She gets kudos from her boss for dragging these extreme statements out of you, but she’ll move on to some other issue tomorrow. Meanwhile, you have a much bigger goal: You want the river to be clean. You can only do this by establishing long-term credibility with the public.

Of course, I’ve made up this issue, but I think these general guidelines can be used for a wide variety of other issues.


Torq said...

Hmmmm... Lessons of a budding Propagandist???

Steve & Megan said...

"Propaganda" is such a harsh word.

I prefer to think of it as helping people talk to each other in ways they understand.