Friday, September 18, 2009

Unscripted

A lot of things went through my mind this week when I learned that the President had been taped calling singer Kanye West what kids would call “a bad name.”

The first thing I thought was – this seems like just another Internet hoax.

Then I thought, well maybe he said it, but maybe he said it in private and somebody leaked the comment to the press.

After that I found myself very curious about what exactly had happened. So I went to the website where the audio was posted and listened for myself. Sure enough, there it was, the President on tape, saying that Mr. West was out of line for praising the singer Beyonce, who did not win a video music award, while simultaneously presenting it to the winner, Taylor Swift. And then I heard him actually use the “J” word. (You can look it up if you don’t know what that is.)

Now, that tape could have been doctored. But it was true. As it turns out, the President had indeed said the word, but that part of the interview was not supposed to be on the record. Yet a reporter Tweeted it anyway, and it was gone into the frantically buzzing world of social media and soon the mainstream news. An apology from the news organization that let the Tweet out quickly ensued.

I took this all in and reflected on what had happened and what it all meant from a communications point of view. Judging from the prominence of the headlines this got, it was a big deal to people. Undoubtedly reactions varied. I personally was taken aback. But you know what? I wasn’t offended. To be honest, it was a moment of candor. And moments of candor from our leaders, perhaps because they must always be so careful what they say, are refreshing.

I’m not insinuating here that the President is less than candid. Or that he, or anyone else should make it a habit to use that kind of language in an interview. What I am saying is that from where I sit, the “J” word was an appropriate reaction given that the nation was so shocked and offended by what Mr. West did. And Mr. West himself knew it – so much so that he felt compelled to apologize to Ms. Swift not only once but several times and in public.

In that moment, with that word, the President showed humanity, honesty, empathy for Ms. Swift, and his choice of words made him “one of us” rather than “one of them”. The President could have said, “I believe that Mr. West’s words were inappropriate,” but you know what? There really is no other word that so precisely covers such rude behavior.

As the President - more than anyone, I think - knows, we are living in a time of tremendous turmoil and often ugliness, and this awards show was a chance to escape from it for just a few minutes. A national community was taking part in that show. And the hurtful comment just tore down the veil of fantasy and put us right back into an ugly place. Not to mention inflicting embarrassment on Ms. Swift on what should have been one of the happiest moments of her life.

What does this mean for government communicators advising senior leadership? Should we tell them to use slang, or curse? Of course not; that idea is just plain silly. Is every issue that simple, that a leader can just spit out a simple reaction in a few words that really explains the issue, where he or she stands, and why? Also, far from realistic. But this incident does point to the constant need to come up with strategies for leaders that will help them achieve the objective of speaking to their constituents in a way that helps them genuinely achieve their communication goals.

No matter how complicated the subject at hand, no matter how complex and multifaceted the issues are, no matter how technical the content or how sensitive it is, there is no point in communicating unless the audience actually gets the point.

To do anything else – to obfuscate the content in any way – not only confuses the audience and leads them to go to other sources of information, but it detracts from the relationship of trust that the leader seeks to build with their audience.

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Copyright 2016 by Dannielle Blumenthal, Ph.D. All opinions are the author's own. Powered by Blogger.