Monday, June 22, 2020

Messaging Advice for Politicians During Black Lives Matters

1. Advice you might have for candidates trying to show compassion, empathy, appropriate response to constituents during a crisis like COVID-19 and protests.

Well, you’re in a catch-22: If you stay silent, you risk criticism for not saying anything. If you say something, you risk saying the wrong thing. As someone I follow on Twitter recently wrote, “Both are options; both are risks.” So whatever you do, you need to think about your words with great precision and great care. Be hypervigilant.

Here’s a quick example: According to both the Associated Press and Merriam-Webster, the word “black” is now capitalized. So if you don’t capitalize “black,” some people may think you’re making a deliberate decision to insult African Americans — even if your mistake was entirely innocent.

On that subject, talk to people of color on your staff. Seek out not only their perspective, but also their candid counsel. One of the best things about diversity if that it allows you to engage with people who bring different experiences to the table. So if you’re not bringing alternative voices into your discussion, there’s a good chance you’re going miss an important nuance at best, and exacerbate a tinderbox at worst.

Finally, one last tip: Have at the ready a list of things you’re doing, and have done. You should absolutely have this list memorized. Facts and figures are your friend.

“We’re working with the CDC to get ventilators to St. Barnabas Hospital.” “We’re committed to making sure that X percentage of our team consists of people of color.”

Avoid phrases like, “We’re studying the issue.” Cite specific accomplishments.

2. Tips for engaging constituents in Zoom meetings

Limit, moderate, and mute. Zoom meetings can quickly spiral out of control, so you want to remain in control of yours.

Limit. Just as you would in person, limit the number of people who can attend and restrict access. Cap attendees at a certain number, give out the dial-in info only to people who, say, provide their email address, and don’t allow people to move out of the waiting room if they don’t provide a name.

Similarly, moderate questions. You can require people to type their questions, then a moderator can read them. Or your moderator can vet the questions and then unmute the questioner to ask it him or herself.

Mute everyone by default. Many people will be multitasking. Vacuuming, doing the dishes, even going for a walk outside are some of my favorite ways to multitask. And with that, comes background noise.

A few other tips:

Set ground rules. Civility and respect should be the norm: Make it clear, in your invitation if not also at the outset, that while you’re eager for questions, this isn’t a place for grandstanding or for monologues. That is, you want to questions, not statements, and you reserve the right, to keep the meeting on track, to silence someone.

Also, tempers are running hot, and sometimes people just want to vent, so let them. Sometimes the best thing you can do is listen, actively and with respect. And then express gratitude for the fact that your constituent shared his perspective.

Finally, always, always, always identify common ground. Even if you disagree with everything someone says, always try to build a bridge. In fact, sometimes you can build your entire response around areas of agreement, rather than pointing out where the other person is wrong.

3. Value of op-eds from candidates and elected officials — best practices

I’m a big fan of op-eds. They’re a peerless way to deepen your reputation for wisdom, to demonstrate leadership in a crisis, to raise your visibility.

Of course, you’re asking a ghostwriter who writes an op-ed a month, so my first piece of advice is to hire a ghostwriter.

Look, it’s no secret that many politicians, like many chief executives, have ghostwriters. But for big stuff, they often bring in a specialist. That’s what the president traditionally does when it comes to jokes when he speaks to the annual dinner of the White House Correspondents’ Association. So consider hiring outside your inner circle for an outside perspective.

Second, consider a local or regional paper rather than a national one. One reason everyone knows about Tom Cotton’s op-ed in the New York Times (“Send in the Troops”) is because it was in the New York Times. The biggest microphone in the world is not always the smartest strategy.

By contrast, not only is it easier to get published in a smaller publication; you’ll also be better able to address your specific constituents that way.

4. Response to evidence from past bad behavior and rumors

If you want to talk about bad behavior, look no further than Donald Trump.

More broadly, the politicians who stick their foot in their mouth tend to be those who speak without thinking. I don’t believe this is a time for off-the-cuff ad-libbing; the slightest slip of the tongue can be this afternoon’s trending topic on Twitter.

In this sense, I think we can learn from pols who are known to be tightly scripted — people like Mitt Romney and Hillary Clinton. They know how to stay on message, which in the rhubarb we’re in right now, seems smart.

5. Keep the candidate’s narrative authentic

It drives me nuts when consultants tell a client to “by yourself.”

For me, “being myself” means being casual and care-free. It means sporting flip flops and cracking inappropriate jokes. In this milieu, it’s easy to slip and share something I’ll later regret. (Just ask my girlfriend.)

By contrast, when I talk with a reporter, I’m on my best behavior. For one thing, I wear a business suit. That armor tells me that the given exchange is professional, not personal; this is business.

For another, I don’t wing it; I workshop my talking points in advance. That allows me to appear polished and poised rather than risking an ad-libbed gaffe.

Put simply, I’m not “myself.” I’m the best version of myself.

That doesn’t mean I’m inauthentic or insincere; it just means I’m prepared.

Addendum (6/25/2020): Success!

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