Earlier this month I spoke at the incredible Stratcom Summit '22 in Istanbul. Bringing together speakers from 22 countries and more than 3,000 government spokespersons, policymakers, campaign planners, thought leaders, experts and other participants, it offered an incredible global look at the present and future of communication around the world.
It was a delight basking in the thoughts of my dear friends İpek Tekdemir and Sami Hamdi in person. In her remarks, İpek emphasized the importance of the human to human component of communication, involving youth and rebuilding trust between governments and the governed. Sami emphasized that effective communication aims at the heart as well as the head (emotional appeals are often stronger than dry clinical facts) and the dangers of lecturing and dismissing rather than dialoging and understanding. It turns out their comments were incredibly prescient in their foreshadowing.
The centrality, criticality and consequence of communication to success in this age of ever-growing uncertainty and how often organizations fail to understand its role was inadvertently driven home by a second event I attended the evening after landing back in DC. At an event hosted by a prominent DC thinktank I found myself in a series of four conversations that precisely framed the duality of communication's central role and the way so many undervalue it at their peril.
Upon introducing my work in analyzing the narratives of global news media, a pair of senior leaders at the thinktank offered this summary of their view of communication's role in policymaking:
Narratives and communication play no useful role in policymaking. They are effectively useless. Why should we bother wasting time trying to inform or persuade the public or bother with speaking to journalists? As but one simple example of the utter pointlessness of communication in lawmaking is that a group of our fellows wrote the most amazing report in support of a bill pending before Congress. We posted that PDF on our website and they briefed a staffer in a congressman's office who supported the bill. In this last election he was voted out of office for supporting the bill because the voters in his district were too stupid to know the bill was in their best interests and the bill's opponents spent all their time convincing the public the bill was bad for them and to vote against it and so now the bill is dead. So why should we bother communicating with the public when our opponents are just going to spend all their time convincing the public to vote against what we want and the voters are too stupid to know that we are right?
Because when you say your opponents spent all their time convincing the public to vote against the bill, what you're actually saying is that they spent all their time communicating their arguments and narratives to the public and persuading them through that communication. So, in other words, while arguing that communication has no place in policymaking, you are in reality emphasizing its centrality and the perils of ignoring it.
To which there was only silence and a polite parting of ways.
The second conversation of the evening revolved around communication and energy policy, as another senior affiliate of the thinktank offered that:
Communication never works for energy policy, because when energy companies or the government inform the public of a new construction project like a new wind or solar farm or new distribution line, they are always upset. They always complain they should have been part of the planning process, but we can't do that because they'd just raise objections to stop it and they don't understand the science. I mean, we publish literally *thousands* of pages of scientific documentation written by the top experts in the country justifying the project and people just ignore it all and focus on their own beliefs of how it will affect them. And they are always too uneducated to understand the science and they just spout off emotional pleas rather than listen to the science. They let their emotions and beliefs get in the way of the irrefutable science.
What you are describing is not a failure of communication, but rather the long-understood failure of ex post informing in place of an ex ante engagement that makes stakeholders a part of the process from the very beginning, listening, understanding and addressing as best possible their concerns and meeting them at an emotional, rather than merely factual level. When you hold a press conference out of the blue to announce a decision that has already been made, cite reams of deeply complex and arcane scientific research and dismiss their concerns as "uneducated," "irrational" and "emotional" you aren't "communicating" you are "informing" and "dismissing." Communication is a two-way street that involves listening and engaging, not just speaking. It involves taking seriously their concerns and addressing them in a way that makes stakeholders feel heard, even if there are practical limits to what can actually be accomplished to address their needs. Importantly, it involves recognizing that facts alone do not convince, it is the emotion and narratives that often are the strongest at bringing people to your side. Most importantly, no matter how much you disdain or dismiss a community and its concerns, you must listen, treat their concerns as legitimate, and engage with them in a two-way dialogue rather than merely telling them your preordained conclusion in a monologue, appealing to them as human beings, rather than as uneducated obstacles ignoring perfect pristine science.
Once again, the there was only silence and a polite parting of ways.
The third conversation of the evening revolved around media analytics and the power of using advanced AI, discourse analysis, and other analytical and visualization tools to understand the public narrative of a space, with the head of the fellowship program at the thinktank offering that:
Oh, yes, we make heavy use of all of that. We send all our fellows to a half-day training course on how to prepare for speaking to the press. What clothes to wear, how to read verbatim from a script on a teleprompter without deviating by a single word and how to answer questions without actually saying anything.
To which I replied:
That's not media analytics. That's press training, preparing people to talk to the press. Though as a journalist myself, I wouldn't recommend the teleprompter advice, as it comes across too stiff. What I'm talking about is media analytics: of taking all of the news coverage about a topic and using machines to synthesize it down to the findings and trends that you need to more effectively communicate into that landscape. Here's an example. You mentioned decarbonization of the economy is a huge focus of one of your fellowship programs. Media analytics is: of the millions of articles about climate change that were published across the world this year, what were the main arguments made for and against decarbonization and who are the most influential voices across the world? Are there major country-specific differences in the core arguments? Which arguments and narratives are winning? Are there new emerging narratives and arguments that were more prominent this year than in the past and/or are there arguments that are fading in prominence?
Oh yes, we use a clipping service and send a daily email to our CEO with a list of every article our thinktank was mentioned in.
To which I clarified:
No, I don't mean just a giant email list of articles and I don't mean mentions of your thinktank, I mean coverage of a topic you focus on, like decarbonization. Ie, if you just compiled a giant email today of every article published around the world mentioning decarbonization, all you have is a giant LIST. It doesn't TELL me anything. What analytics does is to take that list and translate thousands of media citations into a handful of top-level trends and findings that are ACTIONABLE and can be used to shape how I try to tell my story.
The subsequent several minutes of conversation involved further back-and-forth clarification along these lines, with the thinktank leader continuing to confuse press training, clipping services and media analytics. Finally, there was a breakthrough, where the leader finally understood the idea of ANALYSIS. To which came the inevitable reply:
Why would we do that? We know what the right answer is – that's why we we work here – so why do we care what anyone else says? They either agree with us or are wrong. But, more importantly, our CEO doesn't do anything with our daily press clipping email. It just gets deleted. No-one uses our current clipping service so why waste time and money doing anything more with it? We clip because everyone clips so we have to, but that's it.
That single response summarizes the reasons media analytics fail in so many organizations: conflating a simple bulleted list clipping service with rich analysis that summarizes its trends along actionable threads, believing it isn't worth monitoring what others say because they are wrong, and viewing media assessment as just a checkbox to be ticked, rather than an integral part of understanding the landscape being messaged into.
The fourth conversation of the evening offered a useful epilogue to the evening's insights. Upon discussing several interesting recent media trends with a senior adviser to the thinktank and showing them the underlying graphs that showed coverage of specific topics increasing or decreasing, the findings were rejected with:
I don't really care what the data says, its wrong. You keep saying that those graphs are from the closed captioning transcripts of those channels and they show mentions have gone up or down, but it doesn't matter what the data says, its wrong. I watch those channels. I know what they say. I've personally seen CNN and MSNBC mention Ukraine two to three times more every single day last month than they did in the first week of the invasion combined.
To which I replied:
That's where data is so powerful! We get so immersed in the topics we focus on that we lose the longitudinal aspect – it might seem like CNN is covering Ukraine 24/7 every day now and mentioning it far more than it did in the first week of the invasion, but actually the data shows quite starkly how much Ukraine has faded. Its still very much there, but just a glimmer of what it was in late February. Now, it may be that different keywords are being used or different aspects of the invasion are being focused on, so you have to look carefully at that, but in terms of mentions of the most common Ukraine-related terms, there are just far less mentions of Ukraine on CNN today than there were in the first week of the invasion. But, that also intuitively matches what one expects: all stories fade over time in media attention.
The reply was an even more perfectly succinct synopsis of the evening's thoughts than I could have imagined:
That's the problem with data – it either tells me what I already know or its wrong. I don't care what your data says, I personally watch CNN every day and I know it covers Ukraine more today than it did in the first week of the invasion. Every day today there are 2-3x more mentions than there were in the opening week of the invasion. That's just fact. And if your data doesn't show that, then its wrong. And so what you're really saying is that data and media analysis are worthless.
And there you have it. The jarring juxtaposition of being surrounded by 3,000 thought leaders and practitioners in Istanbul who deeply understand the power of communication and its ability to engage and persuade, versus a room full of DC thinktank glitterati a day later who disbelieve anything that disagrees with their preconceived notions of the world.
Which side will win out? It is clear from the DC glitterati that they understand the perils of the failure to communicate, even if they don't realize communication lies at the heart of their failures. The only question is whether they will eventually open their eyes to the role communication plays in engaging with the global citizenry of the world and the power of tools like media analytics to help optimize and tune those communication campaigns and the two-way dialogues they spawn.