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Rubio consults a Bible

RULES FOR RADICALS.001As I walked into church yesterday (right on time), my pastor delayed the entrance procession long enough to admonish me for being "kind of hard" on the presidential candidates in these postings.

I'm pretty sure he was kidding. But it does make you think.

My goal, of course, has never been to change anybody's vote. For one thing, I've written before about how hard it is to change a mind that is made up. For example: here and here. For another, that's not the purpose of these occasional musings about public relations and related topics.

But there is no better laboratory than an election to explore the nature of public opinion. For example, pundits and political consultants have been amazed that Donald Trump can say the most outrageous thing without suffering any loss of support. On the contrary, the majority of Republicans (60%) consider him trustworthy and honest, even though he says things that are demonstrably false. That makes it kind of hard for his competitors to rebut him.

Marco Rubio seems to have hit on a formula that could work. His supporters won't like to learn this, but it's a technique taken straight from the Bible of the radical left, Saul Alinsky's Rules for Radicals

Rule 5: “Ridicule is man’s most potent weapon.”

Don't attack an opponent head-on, if he holds a superior position. Cut him down to size first. Mockery is the great leveler. Plus, it's consistent with Rule 6 -- “A good tactic is one your people enjoy.”

Rubio seems to be enjoying the tactic plenty, though he may have taken it too far for some when he edged into blue material over the weekend.

But for the ultimate takedown of Mr. Trump, take a look at John Oliver's report last night over on HBO.


Mr. Oliver should be glad he's not a parishioner in my church.  



Bashing Big Business

BWThe strikingly profane cover of this week's Bloomberg BusinessWeek suggests everyone is peeing on business.  

Or as Peter Coy put it more decorously in his accompanying article, "negative sentiment about Big Business" is rising.

Coy puts his finger on the source of all this negativity. "Fairly or not, Big Business is taking heat for the stagnation of living standards and the widening gap between rich and poor."  

But why, he asks, has the business community only "responded to the accusations with murmurs"? Why hasn't it mounted a vigorous defense?

Coy suggests "there are similarities between today and the years immediately after  the Great Depression." The difference now, he says, is that "business is less outwardly focused this time around." 

Why isn't it fighting back?

Coy suggests many CEOs have assumed an attitude of "this too shall pass." Others worry that sticking their head up is the quickest way to get it scalped.

Fair enough. But an even better question is how the business community should respond.

One former Congressman suggests "Business needs to do a better job of making clear how its priorities -- freer trade, less regulation, etc. -- will benefit the public." The head of the Business Roundtable says, "We need to end this class warfare and get busy getting back to a fundamental economic rule, that a rising tide really will lift all boats."

Therein lies the problem -- a suggestion that these negative feelings are really a perception problem.  

If Big Business wants to mount a vigorous defense, it needs to acknowledge the real reason ordinary people are fed up -- in recent decades, rising tides may have raised yachts but they left row boats and dinghies in the mud. That's not a perception, it's a well documented, sad reality.

If Big Business wants to regain public trust, it should follow suggestions set forth in a report issued by the Arthur W. Page Society and the Conference Board in the aftermath of the 2008 economic meltdown. They set out to study "the current landscape of public trust." What they found was "deep anxiety about whether or not the public still trusts capitalism to be the best form of social cooperation." The current presidential primaries suggest that anxiety hasn't exactly eased.

Among many constructive suggestions, the report identified "mutuality" as a key component of trust. Mutuality is shared interest and shared risk. 

Now think about all the ways corporations have shed risk in recent decades. Defined pension benefits morphed into defined contribution plans. Employer provided health insurance morphed into high deductible plans with ever-rising premiums. The yawning gap between CEO and worker compensation has grown inexorably. Job security is a fading memory.

Think about all the ways the interests of corporations and workers have diverged. Not only in companies' increasing dependence on downsizing and outsourcing to improve earnings. But also in the way corporate leaders are spending those higher earnings on stock buybacks and higher dividends to goose their share price, rather than on capital investments to increase productivity and grow jobs. Financial engineering is the new R&D.

The public is not peeing on Big Business because it doesn't get it. Big Business is playing a different game than it used to. Want to regain trust? Change the game.



The Meaning of Trump

Trump.001Donald Trump hit another jackpot in Nevada yesterday, giving political scientists plenty to chew on while establishment politicians nurse an upset stomach. But there are a couple of important public relations lessons here too.

And they all have to do with the essential strategy of any winning campaign -- to create meaning.

What the candidates mean to us is the context within which we judge their competence and within which our feelings or affinity for them are formed.

Competence, affinity, and meaning are the basic elements of trust, which is critical to winning their vote. 

Competence is a largely rational judgment of someone's capabilities. It's necessarily second-hand so it's heavily influenced by network effects. The more people believe a candidate is competent, the more competent he appears to others. 

Affinity can be based on shared values, common goals, admiration, or any association that make us feel close to someone. It's appearing to share someone's cares and "caring about people like me." It has to be genuine, but it's also heavily influenced by network effects.

Meaning is what the candidates represent to voters, i.e., their significance or import. It can be shaped by a candidate, by the candidate's opponents, by the media, or by exogenous events. But it has to be credible or at least plausible, grounded in something you can point to both in behavior and words. Most importantly, it has to matter to voters, reflect their biggest concerns.

Gov. Bush -- who is clearly a competent and likable man -- tried to build meaning around his experience and proven ability to fix things. But while many voters believe Washington needs to be fixed, they are looking for an outsider to do it. And what Bush meant to them is "more of the same." 

Mr. Trump, who is too brash to be very likable, has amassed enough money in business to wear the mantle of competence. But more importantly, he has acquired the meaning of "getting things done," without letting something like "political correctness" stand in his way. He's like the guy on the next barstool, saying out loud what everyone is thinking. People may not feel personally close to Trump, but they feel he's close to them

Messrs. Rubio and Cruz, meanwhile, have been struggling with their meaning.

Rubio's biggest stumble came when he allowed another candidate to define him as a robotic candidate programmed to repeat the same applause lines over and over, questioning both his authenticity (a key component of likability) and his competence. Rubio eventually regained his footing by admitting he had a bad night and promising to do better. 

Mr. Cruz has allowed other candidates to define him as nasty and unlikable. Mr. Cruz tried to rehabilitate himself by firing his communications director. Time will tell whether it works. Unfortunately, a long trail of questionable campaign tactics make the accusations look at least plausible. 

On the Democratic side, Secretary Clinton is clearly competent, but she's only "likable enough." Her biggest failing to date has been an inability to create meaning in a way that makes her seem less calculating and more relatable. There are early signs she's trying to change, but she still has a way to go.

Bernie Sanders, on the other hand, couldn't be more curmudgeonly, which isn't exactly a likable trait. But everything he says and does (e.g., habitually flying coach in a middle seat) demonstrates he is for the little guy and against the fat cats in finance and politics. Like Trump, he speaks his mind (though with less profanity) and seems sincere. Voters like him so much for sharing their concerns, they're willing, for now at least, to ignore questions about his ability to govern, i.e., actually achieve his goals. 

All of which suggests that the biggest challenge facing the second and third place candidates in the primaries is to redefine the leader.  And whichever two candidates emerge victorious from the primaries (or conventions), they need to create meaning around their competencies in a way that makes voters in the general election feel good about them.