As the White House doors continually swing open to eject another ‘failed’ communications professional, is the job of advising a political leader on their communications indeed doable?
Every leading politician, all over the world, is desperately trying to get their message out in the most distinctive, effective and positive way possible. But few appear to be getting it right. Many long for the times when there were much fewer platforms for their message to be received from.
Back in the day, President Franklin D. Roosevelt realised that radio was the perfect vehicle for what became known as his ‘fireside chats’. He became the only president in American history to be elected for four terms. His first fireside chat occurred in 1933 during the Great Depression, he would continue with them throughout World War Two. He utilised his genuine warmth to share his audacious vision for a nation in difficulty.
He was wheelchair bound and the radio was the perfect vehicle for him. He drove great change by his indomitable spirit and marvellous voice for radio. His strong and invigorating tone would appear confidently in the lounges of most Americans, making them feel that he was speaking ‘with’ them.
Winston Churchill delivered some of the most impassioned, articulate and inspirational speeches you’re ever likely to hear, including the famous ‘we shall never surrender’ speech. He was expert at the courageous and defiant voice in the most troubled of times. He had a mastery of the English language coupled with that very British bulldog spirit, perfect for just what the beleaguered Brits needed at the time.
John F. Kennedy (JFK) was the first president to effectively use the new medium of television to speak directly to the American people. No other president had conducted live televised press conferences without delay or editing. He was energetic, handsome and charismatic. Kennedy made the most of his youth and novelty, says historian Robert Dallek, author of several books about JFK. He was made for television and he changed the way every US election has been run since.
Nelson Mandela had the most stunning effect on all who met him. He quickly established a reputation for being “everyone’s” president. He was charming, eloquent and always understated. This from a man who had every reason to be angry and unforgiving. He made tolerance and inclusion his signature. He touched all he spoke to, whilst he could deliver the big ‘set piece’ speech, he will be remembered for his humanity and his humility, which always shone brightly through.
These are four political giants of history who clearly mastered not just the ability to communicate effectively, but far more than that, they knew how to ‘engage’ with their audiences. This is much less about delivering an intellectually brilliant masterclass, but so much more about an emotional engagement. They knew what they were great at, and had the necessary humility to know what their limitations were and ensured they chose platforms and mediums wherever possible that played to their enormous strengths.
Don’t waste time focusing on your limitations, it’s much more productive to fine tune your inherent strengths to as near perfection as possible.
It wasn’t until I moved to work for PepsiCo, that I began to realise the huge difference between communication and engagement. It soon became clear about the tangible difference that ‘engaged’ employees could actually make. PepsiCo was the ultimate challenger brand, a business waking up every day under the shadow of its gargantuan rival, the world’s most recognised brand, Coca Cola.
The leadership of PepsiCo was switched on to this, and vitally, knew that their role was to create the environment and excitement that enabled loyalty and an extra 15% discretionary effort from all its employees.
This is something that political leaders can learn from the best business leaders, and from the aforementioned four giants of political history. The rules of engagement have changed over time. The huge glare of publicity that all political leaders have to constantly endure means that there is no ‘off-season’ any more.
The combination of playing to your strengths, identifying the right platforms and establishing an emotional connection is the recipe for great communications today.
Engagement is a deeply personal and emotional affair and cannot be mandated, and has no ‘universal solution’. One size fits no-one!
The solution is always peculiar to the specific environment. As it’s all about being encouraged to wanting to give ‘all of you’ for the leader – it requires different approaches for different audiences, and at different times.
The real trick is to find out what really engages YOUR audiences, not someone else’s.
Everybody deserves consistency from their politicians. Voters do not tend to leave because of one single incident. Most just want their politicians to be consistent with their dealings with people. Feeling that others are favoured can be debilitating and a vote loser.
By being fair and honest with people, no matter how dire the situation, they will become more engaged and consequently more motivated, attentive and vigilant.
They will care about the needs of others and want the leader to succeed. Trust has an incredible effect on engagement and consequently on loyalty.
Oscar Wilde describes it beautifully, “When we are happy we are always good, but when we are good we are not always happy.”
It never takes long for us to fall back on remembering our most illustrious leaders and how they made us feel. This tends to darken how we feel about today’s crop of leaders.
In listening to the very moving coverage of the 70th anniversary of the ‘D Day’ landings in France during the tragedy of World War II, we heard about the pride, camaraderie, and recognition of those who braved the beaches. We heard even more strong and positive memories of those who eventually got to Paris and beyond.
This was in spite of the brutal and unimaginable horrors of war. This was the most extraordinary form of ‘engagement’.
When there is a clear vision, it breeds a strong common purpose that drives collaboration and trust. This then drives engagement.
It’s always easy to take our minds back to our favourite teacher at school. That favourite teacher was probably the one that was the most enthusiastic about both their subject matter, and getting their points across to all the students in the classroom.
They tended to be the teachers whose classes nobody skipped, and everyone completed their set homework – on time.
They are probably the ones whom even if you forgot what they said, you always remembered how they made you feel – engagement again. Those who are seen to care receive huge commitment back in return.
It sounds so compelling, why don’t more political leaders get this? Well, a look at what disables engagement most points to a few recurring themes.
The most common is that administrations going through significant transition forget to ‘up’ engagement levels.
When this is followed by the combination of not dealing with poor performers and covering up for their incompetence or corruption – engagement levels crash.
Many politicians still make it very difficult for precocious high-performers to advance. They tend to fear young emerging talent rather than groom them for success.
Emmanuel Macron eventually felt little allegiance or loyalty to President Hollande or his party. He felt ignored, overlooked and became disenchanted. After leaving to form the centrist En Marche! party in 2016, Macron became a surprising frontrunner in the presidential race. He defeated National Front leader, Marine Le Pen, in May 2017 to become at 39, the youngest president in French history. He had a simple message of optimism that he delivered brilliantly. Many said he had no policies and therefore no chance, but he knew how to engage an increasingly downcast electorate with his JFK like youth and energy.
The real prize is much more about establishing a movement that feels connected and valued. This requires the vision and values well communicated, leaders who live the values every day, and vitally, an administration carefully selected for their ability to complement the leader.
When this has been eventually achieved, it’s a great start, but nothing stays still for long, nowadays, the message must be continuously tweaked and redesigned to ensure it remains modern, humane and enjoyable. A very tall order, but eminently achievable.
Apart from our favourite teacher who (perhaps with my faded memory) appeared to deliver positive engagement at every class, I experienced all this and more during one of the more unlikely periods of my career. At IPC Media, with my fellow board directors, we had just commenced an audacious Management Buy Out (MBO), which eventually took the business private. Away from the glare and scrutiny of the stock markets, it was possible to reshape the business to out-deliver our financial commitments.
The new sense of purpose, common goals and shared commitment was immensely powerful and energising, despite the tough everyday challenges and tightening cost environment.
Whilst the financials were paramount, numbers never generate excitement, the leadership and the workforce together created an enduring sense of adventure and an energising ‘buzz’. We were in this thing together with an authentic interdependency.
Every day was tough, but memorable, because of the natural collaboration. We gave our people our attention and they gave us theirs – just like our favourite teacher. Engagement no less.
In an era of rapid change and transformation, there is still far too much of a premium placed on intellect and academic rigour, when what is actually necessary is the ability to keep a team energised, especially through tough times.
We see this played out again and again, and only need to look at how the ‘Brexit’ campaigners here in the UK, removed any intellectual stimulus from their message. They put up politicians that had an incredible ability to connect and engage with a disaffected electorate.
The opinion polling before Brexit never suggested that the disillusioned were being connected with by an anti-establishment message that touched their inner feelings of neglect. They felt ignored by what they perceived as ‘out of touch’ traditional politicians cocooned in their ‘well off’ ivory towers.
Many who voted to leave didn’t appear to care that the policies being presented were at best half-truths and that the numbers just didn’t stack up.
Strategy and numbers rarely create excitement. Leaders who can ‘walk in the shoes’ of their people, and have that common touch are the obvious winners in today’s roller coaster political world.
A self-indulgent political elite persevered with the traditional and intellectually sound policies that failed to connect or engage with a disaffected electorate.
Not having learned anything from the Brexit debacle, Theresa May, was elected the new Prime Minister of the UK by her party, the Conservatives. She was seen as “strong and stable”, despite her obvious failings. She has unfortunately never had any form of empathy or EQ.
The real killer flaw with May, was her inability to engage, even with her ministers and her cabinet. This dire lack of engagement, left her blind to the real feelings of the masses. This led her to disastrously call a snap election.
Far too many non-committed voters went for the complete antithesis of Theresa May, in the leader of the opposition, Jeremy Corbyn. Corbyn is an unreconstructed socialist who appeared trapped in the bygone protest votes of the 1970’s.
Corbyn may be many things, but an aloof intellectual, he certainly is not. Many find him just a little too wrapped up in impossible socialist rhetoric, but tellingly, the cliché most associated with him is “he wears his heart on his sleeve”.
In just a matter of weeks, the same set of seemingly disinterested and disaffected voters, appeared galvanised, as he re-energised those that had felt marginalised.
He had given them a new-found purpose, and instilled a strong sense of self-actualisation. He is the living embodiment of the ‘movement’ he is invigorating; smiling, high fives and much fist pumping as he plays to a hugely supportive gallery.
He has installed that famous ‘underdog spirit’ that Brits love so much. His much-maligned Labour party nearly overturned the humiliated Prime Minister’s huge majority and are now favourites to win the next election.
Corbyn scored hugely with the younger generation who took to his natural empathy and ability to truly ‘feel’ what they felt.
Corbyn will never be everyone’s ‘cup of tea’, and he certainly would not do well on a debating society evening, but he knows how to engage his followers and instil in them a ‘cause’ that they all believe in and are prepared to fight for.
Despite those who decry him for being outdated and yesterday’s man, those working with him see authenticity, the ‘common touch’, and most of all someone that they can believe in.
As Confucius says, “The person who said it cannot be done, should not interrupt the person doing it”.
Photo by Peter Oswald on Unsplash