Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

An open letter to President Obama on bridging communications gaps

Posted in Web 2.0 marketing by Timothy Platt on February 8, 2011

Dear President Obama,

Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the 32nd president of the United States had his fireside chats – weekly radio programs in which he reached out to connect with and involve the American public in his goals and policies. Roosevelt was the first US president to really see and understand the power of radio and his radio programs, bringing his vision of America into the American household, played a crucial role in his success in pushing through an extensive and far reaching agenda into law and ongoing practice.

It can readily be argued that John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the 35th president of the United States, was the first US president to so understand and capture value from the still new medium of television. President Kennedy understood television and how to make this forum work for him in a way that Richard Milhous Nixon never did, and certainly not when they met in 1960 for their first-ever televised presidential debates. Their respective performances there and the impressions they left in the minds of the public played a key role in determining the outcome of that year’s presidential election.

And when Kennedy met with Nikita Khrushchev in their televised kitchen debate, in a mock-up of a standard American kitchen, that had tremendous impact world-wide by highlighting the disparity between what the American and Soviet systems were capable of achieving in meeting basic human needs. After that, any Soviet claims that they would outcompete the West and bury them under the weight of their greater efficiency and productivity rang hollow. Kennedy knew and understood television and its potential and he used that knowledge to great effect.

You face a complex mix of opportunity and challenge, and a pressing need for effective and sustaining action. That, I know I do not have to tell you or anyone else who pays even modest attention to the news.

• We are still struggling out of the Great Recession and the official national unemployment rate in the United States is still hovering way too close to 10% for anyone to feel a full measure of confidence in our economy.
• We are still enmeshed in several wars, and the number there exceeds just the two of Iraq and Afghanistan and certainly if every conflict where we have direct military involvement is counted and every country we take action in is separately counted (e.g. our involvements in Pakistan and Somalia among other places.)
• You have reached some major and very significant policy achievements with healthcare reform coming immediately to mind but even that is under direct and intense challenge with the Republican Party and its Tea Party extremists pushing hard for repeal.
• And on top of that, and facing tremendous national debt and deficits at local, state and national levels there are still many pressing issues on the table.

None of this is new or News, at least as stated here. This, you and everyone else already knows. But you have a compelling message to share and a compelling need to convey it, and with the break-through effectiveness that Roosevelt and Kennedy achieved as they mastered new media. And there is a new range of media and communications channels that is available to you with new and emerging online social media.

Yesterday I posted a note on how businesses fail to connect effectively by speaking without listening (see Making Business Social Networking Work in Both Directions.) Politicians and political organizations are not in general doing much better in this and certainly insofar as they throw away opportunity inherit in social media for reaching out to, connecting with and involving members of the larger community.

Roosevelt and Kennedy found ways to connect with and involve people using new media and in new ways. They built bases of support for what they were doing in developing and enacting policy. They used their expanded voices and their extended reach to build grassroots support that their political opponents could not readily overcome or ignore. You need to do that same thing, if you are to prevail in enacting a sustaining vision into reality that can address our pressing collective needs.

My simply invoking the words “social media” here as if waving a magic wand cannot offer much help. So perhaps I should expand a bit on the How of this. I in effect started doing that yesterday when I wrote of the importance of listening. I note in that regard that your key political and policy opponents mostly just talk – and stridently so and both through talk radio and similar surrogates and more directly in their own voices. I am thinking Republican and Tea Party here though no political organization or voice of any significant current reach seems to know how to use the interactive capabilities of social media, at least as of today and this year.

The devil, so the old saying goes, is in the details and I only offer a broadest brush stroke outline here but I offer this as a starting point.

• Listen! Create and sustain a message that conveys what you have to say but do so in the context of a two-way and even multiple direction conversation. Find and use the social media channels that the people you wish to connect with are using and enter into dialogs where you and your spokespersons and your organizational support listen at least as much as you all speak. I worked on your Obama 2008 election campaign so I know there has always been at least something of a two way flow if ideas in your approach but there are so many ways and places where this could be improved upon, and where like the businesses I cited yesterday, you just mostly do the talking.
• Beware of the focused, audience-specific message. This is actually a point that goes way back earlier than Roosevelt as being important. Abraham Lincoln, our 16th president generated a significant level of discord as his political opponents noted the way he conveyed different and at times conflicting messages depending on where he was speaking in the country. The all the time and everywhere immediacy of current communications and news flow brings even the most minor differences to light everywhere, and certainly where a politician might toss in a line to please the people in the room, but where everyone else will hear that too. So “interactive and social media aware” means rethinking where and how you speak too, as well as how best to listen and interactively connect. This is definitely a place where some of your more strident political opponents fail, with their local crowd-pleasers going out to confuse and cause consternation among the wider audience.
• Managing the level of details shared, from fine points up through wide angled broad perspective vision: what you say and how you say it has to mesh correctly with the specific audiences and social media channels you use.
• Managing the feedback and the incoming messages becomes both more important and more difficult. This is probably the biggest challenge here and it is one where grassroots organizations have to be involved, but with escalation of conversation upward as appropriate. That calls for proactive and supportive guidance downward to make it work which also have to be interactive and two way in conversation flow. Think of your 2008 campaign efforts but with a goal of creating a genuinely next generation version 2.0 that can both collect demographics data and convey a message, and listen and complete the circle too.

You can and must do a lot of this yourself in shaping and guiding social media communications, and in conveying the sense of urgency throughout your organizations to do that with your political party and supporting outside organizations. But that means empowering others to sustain the myriad possible grass roots and upwards conversations. That only begins hands-on with you.

At approximately 1400 words this open letter is probably long enough and more, but it only addresses a first step in beginning to rethink how policy and policy decisions are conveyed outward. It only suggests the start of conversations as to how you could bring the public to be more involved and to take a more vested interest in supporting your efforts. This can all be done better and we need as a country for you to so.

Thank you,

Timothy Platt, Ph.D.

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