Who matters and why it’s okay that nobody else likes you
By Joe Householder, Brian Gluckman and Danielle Thomas. This is part of a series of analysis and commentary from Hill+Knowlton Strategies public affairs counselors and political experts around the globe regarding the 2016 U.S. election.
In 2004, The New York Times Magazine published a now famous piece by writer Ron Suskind entitled, “Faith, Certainty and the Presidency of George W. Bush.” Within came a quote from an unnamed presidential aide attacking people like Suskind as being part of the “reality-based community,” who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.”
The source, later identified as Karl Rove, went on to say, “That’s not the way the world really works anymore.”
At the time, this led to significant derision, especially from the left. It was viewed as cynical, hubristic, and arrogant. But it was also prescient in that the election of Donald J. Trump to the office of President of the United States is its ultimate vindication.
While political candidates have been known to bend the facts to support their point of view, President-elect Trump has taken this art to another level. It is no criticism to say that misstating facts; denying statements that he’d previously made, even when they were available on videotape; and attributing words and deeds to others that were documentably false; were but a few routine habits of the president-elect and his campaign team.
Journalists and commentators pointed out these falsehoods and did so with certainty that candidate Trump was one doozy away from political self-immolation. It did not matter. They were wrong. He was right.
What pundits failed to realize is that he was not talking to them. He did not care if they and their audiences overheard what he had to say. What he cared about was his audience – an audience he started to build when he was, again against all facts and evidence, the de facto leader of the so-called “birther” movement that called into question President Obama’s legitimacy.
There are many conclusions now being drawn from the election results, but the key lesson that corporate entities and advocacy organizations should learn from the last 18 months is: The single most important moment of your campaign is the moment you define your core audience and the message required to move it. Understanding it and how best to talk to it is the difference between victory and defeat. The Trump campaign knew with whom it had to talk. The rest did not matter.
With the advent of social media, corporations, like political candidates, face an increasing level of expectation that they stand for something. No longer are companies rewarded for simply making a good product or providing a quality service.
With social media Balkanizing information and driving people to seek it through channels that reflect their own worldviews, consumers also more readily develop an affinity for corporate actors that they feel reinforce those views. In other words, the narrative a company describes and fulfills will define audience perception of that company because social media has enabled that audience to self-select the prism through which it views information.
This is not an argument for the establishment of a generic Corporate Social Responsibility program. Over the past 25 years, consulting firms have made millions persuading boards of directors to hug a few trees, create new literacy programs, set up educational foundations, or whatever, all in the name of CSR, and all with a “check-this-box-and-you-shall-be-saved” attitude, more often than not to little avail.
Instead, it is an argument for the need to understand, with absolute precision, your audience and what narrative will move it. It is also an argument that you should not worry so much about turning off or even angering audiences that don’t agree.
Say It Again – Volume Matters
There are still times when a press release is all you need. Maybe what you feel compelled to say doesn’t really impact your larger aims or, for some other reason, it’s best to just put the word out and move on. But, those times are increasingly rare.
With the sheer volume of information sources now competing for audience attention, the loudest and most persistent voices have the best shot at getting it. The compelling narrative, appropriately targeted to your audiences, is job one — but it is equally important to seek every opportunity to drive that narrative through the channels received by that audience. A good story that isn’t heard is equivalent to a good story that isn’t told.
No more should social and digital media — and the paid media needed to support them — be the afterthought of your budget. In fact, as the mainstream media were expressing shock that the Clinton campaign was massively outspending the Trump campaign on TV ad buys, the Trump campaign was focusing its time, energy, and money on the digital space.
Reporters whose job it is to find proxies for victory were looking where they’d always looked — and where the Clinton campaign was focused — on a medium that hasn’t been king for years. Meanwhile, the Trump campaign was cranking out, at high volume, its message targeting its audience. And winning.
Facts Are Helpful
There has been a great deal of lamentation that facts no longer matter; “post-truth” is even Oxford Dictionaries’ Word of the Year. What we witnessed was that, for Trump’s audience, the narrative was more important than facts. But that is not always the case.
Assume that you are a company in a highly regulated industry and you have a message to communicate to the regulatory authority that oversees your industry. While you might craft a narrative with an emotional appeal to mobilize the grassroots to put pressure on the members of Congress who hold the purse strings for that regulatory authority, unless your narrative has a firm basis in fact, that regulatory authority will be easily able to dismiss you.
Other times, though, facts may not matter. This election saw the rise of fake news feeds overtaking legitimate sources of information. These fake news sites often started with a story grounded in fact, but with an altered narrative reflective of the particular worldview of the intended audience.
It used to be that organizations would work to correct the record on false narratives, whether harmful or helpful. But fake news sites lack accountability, and not all social influencers are interested in a fact-based dialogue that does not fully conform to their point-of-view. The only counter is to make sure your audience is louder still, and more motivated to take action on your behalf.
In the end, our advice is that nothing has changed; it’s just gotten harder, requiring communicators to work smarter. Winning means knowing who you need to move to lead you to victory, knowing what you need to say that will move them, and knowing how often you need to talk to them to ensure that they move. That has always been the case. The difference, today, is that the level of precision required to understand those three things is significantly greater, as is the price of getting any one of them wrong.