Is Good Messaging Another Quick Fix?

I am in Denver for the 2008 Democratic Convention.

This morning in Denver I attended a Seachange Forum panel on messaging titled "Winning Words on the Toughest Issues: National Security, Taxes, Healthcare and Immigration".

This was an excellent panel on how to talk about progressive values and issues in ways that the public "hears." To really, really simplify the issue, in a 1988 campaign debate between Michael Dukakis and George HW Bush Dukakis was asked, "Governor, if Kitty Dukakis [his wife] were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?" Dukakis replied coolly, "No, I don't, and I think you know that I've opposed the death penalty during all of my life," and calmly went on to explain his position.

He was calm and reasoned, but the public needed to see emotion.  Emotion, not reason is how people decide what they think about issues and people.   It's just the way it is -- it is how our brains work.  This is what neuroscientists, psychologists, marketers and others who study how people make up their minds are concluding.  You have to connect viscerally or people just won't "get it."

So one thing this panel was talking about was how Democratic politicians can reach people through emotions instead of just listing issues.  And, fortunately, many Democratic politicians are starting to learn how to say what they say in ways that people hear.

Is this enough?

I used to complain that progressives put all of their efforts into election cycles, hoping for a "messiah candidate" to come along.  In Messiah Candidate Thinking (this was a pre-Obama post) I wrote,

I don't think that one person or one election is going to lead us out of the wilderness. I think there is a lot of work required before progressives can win again and turn America in a progressive direction.

. . . This right-wing assault has eroded the public's understanding of (and belief in) democracy and community. It has even eroded understanding of - and faith in - science and reason! So I think there is a lot of work that has to be done to bring things back. We have to spend the money and do the work and take the time to build the think tanks and communications organizations (like Commonweal Institute) that will reach the public and explain and promote the benefits of progressive values and a progressive approach to issues. Over time this effort will restore public demand for progressive candidates.

Messiah-Candidate Thinking is a way to avoid facing the changes that have occurred in America. It is a way to put off the work that needs to be done.

So we have moved a long way, from looking for the "right" candidate who "knows" how to reach the public to come along and save us, to helping many candidates understand how to reach the public.

OK, so progress.  But I left the panel feeling like this understanding how to talk to people is still a very reactive approach.  It is still catching up to the right, and trying to come up with magic slogans that will suddenly turn the public in our favor.  It is good, it is important, it is a start.  But it's still a search for a quick fix.

I think the answer is long term.  We ust have to go through the hard slog of building a movement.  We need to build and fund an infrastructure of organizations that reach out to the public, explaining the benefits to them of a progressive approach to issues, and of voting for progressive candidates.  It is going to take years and decades to help people understand why one-person-one-vote democratic solutions work better for everyone than conservative one-dollar-one-vote approaches.  It is going to take a long time for people to remember why we're-all-in-this-together is better than -everyone-on-their-own, in it for ourselves approach.  They're way sounds great but it is a food chain with a very few at the top, and the rest of us end up as the food.  We need to spend the time and effort to help the public understand that again.

It requires a movement and a lot of work, not a quick fix.

Note -- on the panel were:  John Neffinger (Truman Security Project Communications, Formerly Director of Communications & Outreach at Harvard University's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and Public Speaking and Body Language Consultant), Dr. Drew Westen (Author of the "The Political Brain"), Richard Kirsch (Campaign Manager of Healthcare for America Now and Executive Director of Citizen Action of New York) and Stan Greenberg (Political Pollster and CEO of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research).  This was one of the Seachange Forum's panels going on at the Starz Green Room.

(I'm helping Seachange by leting people know about these events at the convention.)

Tags: Democratic Convention, Denver, DNC, messaging, Progressive Infrastructure, Seachange Forum (all tags)



Re: Is Good Messaging Another Quick Fix?

Good post.  I agree.  we need ot create a movement dedicated to real, progressive change, and not just to a person.  

by TomP 2008-08-26 11:37AM | 0 recs
Re: Is Good Messaging Another Quick Fix?

Hear ! Hear!
Conservatism is a concept that many have carried the torch. I am an avid supporter of Obama, but he cannot be the face of progressivenism.
We need the ideals of progressives to transcend any one person and be a greater torch that anyone and everyone can pick up.

But first we need to define the difference between a liberal and a progressive.

by xodus1914 2008-08-26 03:03PM | 0 recs
Re: Is Good Messaging Another Quick Fix?

I still think that this was the moment that Dukakis lost the election.   I think it would have been much better for him to talk about how he would have wanted to kill the person with his own hands and make them suffer, but after that he could give his logical reasons why he opposed the death penatly.   He could have used his reason to show how the law sometimes needs to trump emotion.

by gavoter 2008-08-26 11:44AM | 0 recs
Re: Is Good Messaging Another Quick Fix?

You are not alone in your belief that he lost the election on that question. It is pretty much a given that question was a turning point.

by xodus1914 2008-08-26 02:59PM | 0 recs
Re: Is Good Messaging Another Quick Fix?

Unfortunately, I don't think there's some sort of uniform block of American thinkers that we're trying to reach.  There's no one magic key to appeal to them.  

Personally, I'm not interested in making an emotional connection with a candidate.  I want sound policies, based on a nuanced understanding of the problems and the pros and cons of available solutions.

Maybe some people want to have a beer with the candidate, or need to hear that, yes, he'd be distraught if his wife were murdered.  That's not me, but maybe it's someone.

I think the "answer" is a good mix of touchy-feely message, underlaid by a sound foundation of clearly described actual policies addressing critical issues.

by milton333 2008-08-26 12:27PM | 0 recs
Re: Is Good Messaging Another Quick Fix?

And to clarify, what I mean is a mix of some ads focused on "feelings," and some focused on clear-headed policy wonkiness, not something that tries to be everything to everyone.  A mix of ads, targeted to different types of people.

by milton333 2008-08-26 12:29PM | 0 recs
Re: Is Good Messaging Another Quick Fix?

I think it's more than a mix of touchy-feely and policy. I think the right has done a good job at creating emotional logic. That is, an emotional argument that is coherent. It has to all add up to some larger point, or else you could just have an add with puppies and sunsets while an announcer reads off healthcare proposals.

by Metrobot 2008-08-26 12:56PM | 0 recs
Re: Is Good Messaging Another Quick Fix?

I totally agree with this post.

I'm sure that George Lakoff came up during this seminar, but he talks alot about how the language and framing is going to be just what you describe; arduous years of repeating the messaging so that the brain pathways in peoples minds become more easily activated toward nurturant parent world-views.

The KEY time to introduce and reinforce these frames and messaging is during trauma.  He uses the War On Terror as an example of a frame that was perfectly timed and executed and has subsequently made reframing the issue EXTREMELY difficult.  In the first few hours after 9/11 the media was calling it a "crime," which is what it was and how terrorism is usually (and effectively) handled in places like Britain.  The Bush administration began to reinforce the frame "War on Terror" to suit their military goals in the Middle East and the rest is history.

I think you could say that Election Cycles provide a sort of a trauma, especially during the past few cycles with GWB wreaking havoc, the economy worsening, and gas prices going up.  We need to use this time to start the process of breaking down the War On Terror (by using the word "misguided" before-hand as in "GWB's Misguided War On Terror") and by developing new frames (like "privateering" as a word to describe what conservative-republican policies and corporate lobying have done to erode our democracy).

Let the reframing begin today!

by jlars 2008-08-26 01:08PM | 0 recs


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