Politics, Words, Controversy and Understanding

Aug 18, 2011 Beth Monaghan

This morning, I began my day by reading Jennifer Finney Boylan’s Op-Ed in today’s New York Times. In it, she recalls another era when her parents, both Republicans, welcomed spirited debates about issues such as the Equal Rights Amendment and the Gary Hart campaign with their friends who had differing points of view. She wrote that during these dinners, “At a certain point, my father would ding his fork against the side of his glass and command everyone present to begin arguing ‘the reverse of their earlier position.’”

After I read this, I launched Tweetdeck and was pummeled with headlines about the Dow Jones average falling 445 points in its opening hour. The debt crisis is bad for more reasons than the obvious financial trouble. It’s creating a communications chasm in an already divided country and political system that seem unable to come to even the most minor of compromises. I keep coming back to something Art Papas, CEO of Bullhorn, said in a recent meeting: “Perfect is the enemy of good.” Here here!

Now, I would not be a very good PR person if I did not understand the inherent link between controversy and interest. To find opportunity for our clients to be heard above the clamor of likes, tweets, press releases, blog posts and more, we have to identify the points of view that will stand out. Agreeing with the 72 other experts on a topic will only add noise, but it won’t engage your audience.

Spirited political controversy has turned into finger pointing and steadfastness to party lines. Back in January, I wrote about the dangers of using words as weapons while I watched the aftermath of the Arizona attack on Rep. Gabby Giffords. It seems that those lessons have been forgotten as we have moved on to the debt crisis. A quick Google search shows numerous accusations that Bernanke and even the S&P as an entity are “traitors.” On the other side, they are throwing “un-American” shots over the bow. I’m not going to comment on who is right and wrong. It does not matter. These are fighting words.

Words matter. Ideas matter. And compromise matters. When we prepare our clients for a major announcement, it’s our job to think through all of the potential questions we might have to answer – good and bad. We spend large amounts of time scrutinizing the words to ensure that they properly convey our messages. This is a good exercise because it pauses all of the hype and excitement that lead up to launch day so we can consider every potential point of view. It helps us understand necessary tweaks so that our news will be received well. And it forces us to think about other points of view.

In Boylan’s Op-Ed, she also wrote that her father, “would get me to play our piano with my left and right hands in different keys. ‘It’s good for you,’ he would say, gently. ‘It makes you open-minded.’” I think I’m going to start trying to use my left hand more and hope it catches on.

Topics: Public Relations, Journalism
Beth Monaghan

Since the early days working around her kitchen table, Beth has grown Inkhouse into one of the top independent PR agencies in the country. She’s been named a Top Woman in PR by PR News, a Top 25 Innovator by PRovoke, and an Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year finalist. Beth designed Inkhouse’s signature Storytelling Workshop to mirror the literary hero’s journey and to unearth the emotional connections that bind an audience to a brand or idea. She also uses narratives to build Inkhouse’s culture, most recently through two books of employee essays, “Hindsight 2020” and “Aren’t We Lucky?”

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