Theater Review: GM on Capitol Hill

Capitol Marquee.001The curtain rose on the congressional hearings into General Motor's ignition problems yesterday. Another performance has been scheduled for today, but with luck the show will then close.

As usual, these hearings followed a familiar plot line in the repertory of these predominantly old war horses. But a visiting cast member, new to this stage, gave a promising performance.

As is well known, Members of Congress treat these hearings as political theater in which they are the stars. There's more posturing at these events than on Fashion Week runways. 

Almost everything knowable by the time the hearing starts has already been summarized in a lengthy memo prepared by the Committee's staff. The real goal of the hearing is to show the members staring down a CEO when they're not raking her over the coals. 

But in yesterday's performance, GM's CEO played her part with exceptional sensitivity and control:

  • She sat alone at the witness table and didn't hide behind lawyers.
  • She didn't succumb to the members' baiting and remained calm and cool.
  • She repeatedly expressed regret and sympathy for the people hurt by the company's long delay in replacing faulty ignitions.
  • She didn't make execuses and explained what she is doing to answer questions like why it took so long to recall the switch, who was accountable for failing to do so earlier, and how it can be avoided in the future.
  • She announced that, in addition to hiring lawyers to find answers to those questions, she has also retained Kenneth Feinberg to address the ethical issues involved, suggesting the company won't hide behind bankruptcy protection.

This last plot point -- a novel twist in a hackneyed plot -- may lift the performance into award territory.

It indicates that GM sees this not an engineering, marketing, or financial problem, but as an ethical issue. That puts the company on the right flight path to restoring its reputation. And it suggests a storyline other companies might consider if cast in the same role.



How the White House uses Twitter

Obama twitterIf you're in PR, I urge you to subscribe to Mike Allen's daily "Playbook," even if politics makes you gag.

It's not only a good summary of what's happening inside the Beltway, it often includes insights on communications, as in this summary of yesterday's breakfast briefing for Politico readers by Dan Pfeiffer.  

Pfeiffer is White House senior adviser for strategy and communications. Whether or not you think President Obama has used communications effectively in office, there's little question his campaign's use of social media was masterful.  

Pfeiffer was at the center of campaign communications, having joined Senator Obama's staff Jan. 15, 2007, the day before he announced his presidential exploratory committee.

Below, highlights of what he had to say about social media, especially Twitter, as reported by Mike Allen:

--On how Obama decided to make his unusual late-afternoon appearance in the White House press room on Ukraine last week: "We obviously have a lot of sources, but ... with Twitter and social media, you start to see pictures of troops in front of bases or in front of airports ... In more closed societies where we have potentially less information, like in Iran during some of the political uprising earlier in the presidency, you learn a lot what was happening [from Twitter]. We found out a lot of what was happening in the Arab Spring by folks on the ground doing individual reporting of the social media or Skype."

--On Twitter strategy: "It is where the debate is really shaped -- I mean, it is really where the elite political debate is shaped. ... In the first debate in 2012, there was no question in my mind that the Twitter reaction to the President's performance greatly exacerbated the coverage and the reaction to it. ... I was in the Chicago headquarters the night of that debate, with the folks doing rapid response. And so, we had two screens: You had the TV and you had the Twitter feed. ....

"And if you were watching the TV you were thinking, 'This is not great, but it's not disastrous.' If you're watching the Twitter feed, you're seeing Andrew Sullivan and others threatening to commit ritual suicide over the President's performance and it's starting to spiral. And then you know how tough the folks in the spin room are going to have it that night."

--On Twitter in the midterms: "In 2012, for the most part, Twitter was a more elite conversation. It's how reporters are viewing events, it's how political operatives are shaping that, it's how the very most politically involved folks are looking at it. ... Twitter will be a little more like Facebook than it was in 2012. I think there will be more regular people getting their information from it, and so it will have more effect on the populous at large than it did in 2012. ...

"The big thing in the last year or so is it's less about the 140 characters than what you're doing with graphics and images. And some of the most retweeted things we have are charts and graphs that explain the President's policy. So, we're always thinking about, ... as we're rolling out any policy: What is the graphic representation of this that is sharable on Twitter and Facebook."

--On how Twitter makes governing harder: "In 2008, the Obama campaign ... broke all kinds of barriers. We were the smartest Internet campaign ever. We were pushing the envelope, and the Obama campaign sent one tweet in 2008. By the time 2012 comes, Twitter is driving the debate; it's a huge piece of the strategy. The campaign will spend time every day thinking about how you use Twitter in the campaign.

"So, there will be something in 2016 that we don't know what it is yet, but I can promise you ... it's going to be faster and with greater potential benefit but also greater risk. And it will probably be great for campaigns, and make governing harder. ... Governing takes time. You have to make decisions that have good substantive outcomes that are thought through. ..

"What used to take a week or two weeks in terms of the press cycle -- let's take Ukraine as an example. Ten years ago, maybe five years ago, something happens in Ukraine, the President goes out, everyone covers the fact that it happened. Then, everyone is altogether on it and we're united, and then we see how the strategy plays itself out and then maybe people start to have [criticisms] and then there's a moment where the press turns on you ... Now, the President spoke at like 4 o'clock and was at the DNC giving a speech at 5 o'clock, and all of that happened by the time we got off the stage with the DNC. ...

"And so it makes it harder to be deliberative and strategic ... [I]t used to be that you'd read the story about the baseball game that night or the next day. Now, the political equivalent would be: We're not just writing the story about it every inning, we're writing it every pitch. And so there's an element of hyperbole or apocalyptic description of it at every moment, like, 'This is the greatest foreign policy crisis the President's ever had, or the biggest test of the presidency.'"

--On how he avoids being swept up in the Twitter rush: "[B]efore we go out and do something, [Obama will] take a step back... He's always urging us to play the long game, to think through how this is going to affect our ultimate goal, and so that slows us down. The other thing is experience ... The longer he's here, the longer we've been in the White House, you have a greater ability to separate the signal from the noise -- what is a real political problem, real legislative problem, and what's just the fleeting thing of the moment.

"I was thinking about this when Secretary Gates' book came out. ... There were some excerpts in there that were taken and blown up to be this big thing ... I'm confident that, four years prior, a lot of the people in the White House, myself included, would be running around like chickens with our heads cut off trying to figure out how we're going to respond to this, it's the biggest thing ever. Then, it turns out, like three days later, the press moved on to other things. The press fires now burn hotter and faster than they did before. But a few days later, you're on to something else."


How to knit an argument.

Knitting toolsThere isn't a better lab for studying the mysteries of structuring arguments than Washington, D.C.

Consider this item from today's Wall Street Journal.

The Treasury Secretary yesterday predicted that the government debt limit would have to be lifted by the end of February. According to the Journal, some conservative Republicans -- chastened but not deterred by the public reaction to the last government shutdown -- are exploring potential concessions they might extract for agreeing to raise the debt limit.

One potentially attractive demand is changing an element of the Affordable Care Act known as "risk corridors." Those are payments which help offset the risks insurers assume in selling policies to all comers, without regard to things like pre-existing conditions.

Few voters know or care what a risk corridor is, but they overwhelmingly favor the elimination of pre-existing conditions. In less skillful hands, that would seem to make this argument a non-starter. But that's where the rhetorical brilliance comes in.

Rep. Steve Scalise (R., La.), chairman of the conservative  Republican Study Committee, side-stepped the intricacies of risk corridors and pre-existing conditions and focused on these poll-tested facts:

  • Americans think the government has too much debt.
  • They don't like insurance companies.
  • They hate government bailouts.
  • They're suspicious of China. 

With all the embroidering skill that went into the Bayeux tapestry, Mr. Scalise came up with the following:  

"We shouldn't be bailing out insurance companies
with money that's borrowed from China."  

Thirteen words any fifth-grader could understand and a master class in how to structure an argument.

Liberal or conservative, you have to admire the rhetorical skill.



Madison and AT&T's Blind Spot

Madison Google glassesIn today's New York Times' "Sunday Review,"Jeffrey Rosen shines light into a gap in the Bill of Rights on issues of privacy.

Taking a cue from recent court decisions citing James Madison on the issue, he points out that the author of the Federalist Papers had a blind spot when it came to assessing threats to liberty. He was far more concerned about government abuses than anything private actors could do.

Considering that, in those days, the printing press hadn't changed very much in the three centuries since Gutenberg invented it, that's not too surprising. But today's situation is different in kind not just quality.

"Now that Google and AT&T can track us more closely than any N.S.A. agent," Rosen writes, "it appears that the Madisonian Constitution may be inadequate to defend our privacy and dignity in the 21st century." Indeed, based on my own experience at AT&T in the very earliest days of the Internet, he's right. 

Back then, the company hadn't yet anticipated the Internet's full impact on itself, not to mention society. But the executives responsible for gaining a beachhead on the shores of the world wide web immediately understood the value of all the customer information that would be flowing through our servers, e.g., what web sites they visited, what seaches they conducted, what products they bought, etc.

However they had a problem -- the privacy policies the company had developed for the telephone business put all of that data off limits for any purpose other than billing and service. Under a strict reading, it couldn't be used to target advertising to customers. And under any reading, it couldn't be sold to other companies.

A committee of senior executives was convened to address the issue. I recommended that we maintain the same strict privacy standards unless customers to "opt in" to their use for other purposes.

It wasn't a popular position and the company eventually decided customers would have to "opt out" if they wanted to limit the use of the data we accumulated about their Internet usage. 

The AT&T I worked for has since been absorbed by another company that assumed its name and, I fear, Madison's blind spot.  



It's been 50 years

50 yearsThe media love anniversaries.

At worse, they're a lazy way to generate copy. Predictable in a way real news isn't. And they attract the built-in interest of anyone who was around when the original event occurred.

Since Baby Boomers are the fastest-growing demographic in the U.S., we can expect a spate of stories over the next decade or so about things that happened in the 1960s and 70s.

Those tumultuous decades have all the elements for a steady stream of anniversary stories keyed around themes like "where were you when it happened?" (e.g., the Kennedy assassination) or "look what's happened -- or not -- since."  

Today's front page story in the New York Times is a perfect example of the latter and anniversary wrting at its best. A retrospective on President Johnson's declaration of War on Poverty, which occurred 50 years ago come January 8, it's more than an exercise in nostalgia. It examines a full range of current controversies through the lens of history, including income inequality, Obamacare, food stamps, corporate welfare, racism, the minimum wage, globalization, the high cost of college, unemployment, and the future of Social Security and Medicare. 

Those of us who practice public relations (or write about it) would be wise to consider the string of 50th anniversaries yet to be marked this year:

The Beatles landed at JFK for their first U.S. tour (Feb. 7),

Kitty Genovese was stabbed to death in NY but no one in the nearby apartments reported her screams (March 13)

President Johnson launched "The Great Society," a set of legislative priorities aimed at eliminating poverty and racial injustice (May 22),

Three civil rights workers were killed in Mississippi after being released from jail (June 21), 

President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act (July 2 ),

Race riots raged in New York, New Jersey, Illinois, and Pennsylvania (summer),

President Johnson signed the Economic Opportunity Act creating a domestic Peace Corps (August 20),

President Johnson signed the Food Stamp Act (August 31),

President Johnson signed the Wilderness Act ultimately protecting 110 million acres of federal land from development (Sept. 3),

The Palestinian Liberation Army formed (Sept. 10),

The Warren Commission released a report saying that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone (Sept. 27),

Martin Luther King won the Nobel Peace Prize (Oct. 14),

The U.S. Roman Catholic Church replaced Latin with English in masses (Nov. 29),

Lenny Bruce was convicted of obscenity (Dec. 22),

The U.S. Surgeon General linked smoking to lung cancer (June).

Not to mention the introductions of Ford's Mustang (April 17), IBM's System 360 (April 7), the first Arby's restaurant (July) and, at some point in the year, General Mills' Lucky Charms, PepsiCo's Diet Pepsi, and Hasbro's G.I. Joe action figure.

So there you have it: a preview of some of 2014's major stories. And, for some, the stuff of thought leadership, executive speeches, Tweeting, and -- if they still exist, news releases.


Understanding the right

5159439310_bleeding_heart_liberal___wingnut_conservativee_xlargeIn addition to spending more time on the treadmill, one of my New Year's resolutions is to read more from the other side of the political spectrum. It's part of my personal program to move beyond a bumper sticker understanding of the political right. (Sadly, watching Fox News while on my treadmill won't do that. So much for two birds with one stone.) 

I got off to a good start with an essay by Michael Gerson and Peter Wehner in the National Journal. Gerson was a speechwriter for Bush 43; Wehner was an advisor to Gov. Romney's presidential campaign

Their essay is an erudite and insighful explanation of conservative principles. 

Following an obligatory excoriation of the Obama administration as a "travesty" and a "federal power grab," they pause to catch their breath and ask, "what is the proper and appropriate extent and purpose of that government?"

To their credit, they distance themselves from the "rhetorical zeal and indiscipline" of some conservatives "in which virtually every reference to government is negative, disparaging, and denigrating." They agree with the Tea Party view that we should return to the founders' ideals of government, but they disagree that Madison and company viewed the central government as "an evil, or even as a necessary evil."

"The Constitution did not simply create limits on government, as some of today's conservative rhetoric seems to imply; it created a strong if bounded central government," they write. "It is important to speak up when those boundaries are breached, but it is important, too, to remember the aims of that government."

They then describe those aims in broader terms than I would have imagined, with specific reference to the writings of Madison, Hamilton, and Lincoln.

In the process, they identify America's main political battlefield as "the space between the individual and the state" where "the family, civil society, and local community" have historically operated. 

Those institutions have traditionally been responsible for our citizens' moral formation. And they believe most of our current disagreements boil down to a disagreement about the state's role in the formation of the people's moral character. The loudest voices on the right believe the federal government has no role; those on the left believe it has an unfettered role.

Gerson and Wehner believe the state has a limited role in people's moral formation, though they caution modest expectations.

They even go as far as to declare, "Government holds some responsibility for creating the ground for that equality of opportunity, which is not a natural condition." Indeed, they describe our current condition in terms that sound downright leftish:

"... equal opportunity itself, a central principle of our national self-understanding, is becoming harder to achieve. It is a well-documented fact that, in recent years, economic mobility has stalled for many poorer Americans, resulting in persistent intergenerational inequality. This phenomenon is more complex than an income gap. It involves wide disparities in parental time and investment, in religious and community involvement, and in academic accomplishment. These are traceable to a number of factors, including the collapse of working-class families, the flight of blue-collar jobs, and the decay of neighborhoods that once offered stronger networks of mentorship outside the home."

So are they lefties in disguise? Hardly. If they sound reasonable, it may be because they are.  

Here's what they have to say about the role of government:

"American citizenship has evolved around the exercise of liberty in a complex, mutually dependent web of institutions. One of those institutions is and must be government — effective, respected, and limited.

"The purpose of the state is to keep society safe and strong; to protect us from outsiders and from each other; to maximize freedom in a way that is consistent with security and order and that advances the common good; to provide society's 'mediating institutions' the space they need to thrive; to encourage equal opportunity for all citizens; and to make a decent provision for the poorest and most vulnerable. All of this is meant to allow people to flourish and to advance human happiness."

It seems to me there's plenty of room for reasonable people to agree in words such as those.  

Thank Grandma



We're all the men and women our grandmothers wanted. More than they (or we) ever expected.

Three recent books spell it out.

Jonathan Haidt's The Righteous Mind reveals the inherited gut feelings that undergird our moral systems. And he shows how difficult it is to bridge the differences that result, especially in religion or politics. 

Daniel Kahneman's Thinking, Fast and Slow distills 50 years of psychological research into a lucid explanation of how our decision-making is shaped, and sometimes dominated, by "cognitive illusions" passed down from generation to generation.

E. O. Wilson's The Social Conquest of Earth refashions the story of evolution to show how group selection is the driving force of human development.

Taken together, all three authors credit our common Grandma 8,000 or so generations removed for making us who we are. Grandpa played a role too, of course, but even he had a grandmother who anthropologists are pretty sure got the evolutionary cart rolling.

When she and her sisters dropped from the trees and began walking across the savannah, survival favored those who were disgusted by rotting meat and excrement. Those who weren't gorged themselves, got sick, and died.

Similarly, those who ran from snakes in the underbrush lived longer than those who decided to hang around to get a closer look.

Those who had a natural ability to work in groups brought down bigger game than the loners who set off on their own. Freeloaders and bullies were tossed out to fend for themselves.

A natural sense of fairness and an aversion to causing harm to group members contributed to the group's survival. As did an instinctual hostility towards strangers who could threaten the group or steal resources.

Offspring born with such instincts survived and passed them on to later generations, all the way down to us. 

Some scientists believe that much of our behavior and most of our beliefs are the product of unconscious biases, inclinations, and instincts inherited from our evolutionary Grandma.

They are the fabric of our moral beliefs, the engine of our thinking, and the framework of our relationships. They were adaptations to the environment in Africa 140,000 to 200,000 years ago, even before the development of language.

And they did such a good job for Grandma and her offspring that they endure to this day.

Spinning contest

RadelPolitico magazine ran a "spin this" contest, challenging readers to come up with a strategy to extract Rep. Trey Radel (R-Fl.) from the controversy following his arrest and subsequent guilty plea for buying cocaine from a DEA agent.

The "winner" had a four-point strategy:

"1) Get head nods: 'Alcohol and drug addiction is a disease that millions of families across American have to face.'

"2) Demonstrate your shared belief: 'Like many, I too have made a serious mistake based on this disease and my own weakness. And being a member of Congress is no excuse, and I don't expect special treatment.'

"3) Highlight your own efforts: 'I have pleaded guilty to the charges. I have begged forgiveness of my wife, and am devastated about what this means for my young son. And I am of course seeking medical treatment.'

"4) Make the ask: 'I will be taking a leave of absence, and ask for privacy for me and my family during this period. When I complete my treatment, if -- and only if -- my doctors deem me fit, I will return to Congress to do the job the voters have sent me to do'." 

That's better advice than the expert who suggested Radel claim, "Bitch set me up!"

But I'm only on board until the "ask." Elections have consequences -- and so does an elected official's behavior.

At some point, a PR person's job is not to help a client evade those consequences, but to accept them. That's not always easy -- sometimes, it's even impossible -- but it's ultimately in the client's best long-term interests.

Rep. Radel may not have difficulty finding a doctor who will pronouce him fit to return to Congress, but convincing voters of that is a higher hurdle. Accepting the consequences of unlawful behavior is the only way he can demonstrate true contrition.  

PR's job is not to "spin" the facts, but to help a client make the right decision and, only then, to explain it.  In this case, that means resigning in a way that retains the possibility of eventually winning forgiveness and redemption.



The most powerful people in finance

Mystery peopleSanta isn't the only one keeping a list.

Fortune has its 500 most admired companies; Forbes has its 400 richest people in the world; and Worth magazine has its "power 100," i.e., the 100 most powerful people in finance.

I doubt any of these lists would survive a rigorous audit, but they're instructive nevertheless.

Consider, for example, that nearly half the people on Worth's “power list” are in government. In fact, the twelve most powerful start with Mary Jo White, head of the Securities and Exchange Commission, and extend to Ben Bernanke, retiring Chairman of the Federal Reserve. 

You have to go all the way to number 13 to find someone who actually works in financial services. That’s where Jamie Dimon, CEO of J.P. Morgan Chase, shows up – six ranks lower than the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, Preet Bharara.

Of course, when Worth’s “power list” was being compiled, Dimon looked like the prettiest pig in the feedlot. Since then, he’s negotiated a total bill of nearly $20 billion to settle an array of mortgage-related lawsuits and investigations, demonstrating just how long a shadow regulators and policy makers cast in the world of finance. 

Will financial firms ever be able to demonstrate that they don't need fulltime  nannies?

There's a glimmer of hope on Worth's list. There, at position 98, is one Jake Siewert.  Siewert (who I don’t know) is Goldman Sachs’ top PR guy. 

He joined Goldman in March 2012, when customers, investors, and employees were voting with their feet and writing op eds on their way out the door. Prior jobs in the Clinton White House press office and as counselor to Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner suggest his mandate is to deal with regulators and policy makers more than with the public. 

But in fact, Siewert reportedly got the job based not so much on his political connections as on his demonstrated ability to manage high profile, high-pressure situations – and personalities.  

The media have a tendency to anthropomorphize big, complex companies in the likeness and personality of their CEOs. Siewert made the “power list” largely on his success “humanizing” a CEO who had infamously called his job “God’s work” and couldn’t understand why there was such a fuss it had recommended its customers buy securities it was simultaneously betting would decline in value. 

Still, Siewert has a long way to go. The Reputation Institute, which measures these things, ranks Goldman 145th out of 150 companies it tracks. It’s in familiar company; its peers are all in the lowest two categories.

For its part, Goldman has not repudiated the Wall Street mantra that “greed is good.” But it appear to be trying to get closer to the ideal of being “long-term greedy,” meaning it will pass up short-term profits if they come at the cost of long-term relationships.

If Siewert's job includes helping the firm convince its managers and leaders that it's serious about this, he may be able to make a difference. Otherwise, don't look for him on next year's list.

Dangerous hats

Dukakistank2Anyone considering a public relations career should read two books: Public Opinion by Walter Lippmann and The Image by Daniel Boorstin.

Writing in the 1920s, Lippmann explains how "the pictures in our head" define reality for us. Picking the story up in the 1960s, Boorstin shows how easily those pictures can be manipulated to serve someone else's purpose.

Communications strategists have been drawing lessons from those two books for decades. One of the most basic, enshrined in "Politics 101" since the days of Cal Coolidge, is: "Never put your candidate in a hat."

For the story on how a presidential candidate violated and reconfirmed the wisdom of that fundamental rule, see the current issue of Politico magazine. 

The next frontier

Victoria's SecretGay marriage has won acceptance by the majority of Americans and is a reality in a growing number of states.

Now it's time to pay more attention to  a segment of the population that still lives in the shadows: people whose personal gender identity doesn't match their assigned sex.

These people are known as "transgender." They are not necessarily homosexual. In fact, they can be gay, lesbian, straight, bi-sexual, or a-sexual. And not all transgender people undergo -- or even want -- sex reassignment surgery. 

And that's just the beginning of  complications, as the Wikipedia entry under "transgender" demonstrates. But two things are certain: (1) most transgender people lead difficult lives and (2) most non-transgender people are uncomfortable around them.

Society needs to resolve a host of issues complicating the lives of transgender people, ranging from pronoun designations (e.g., whether to refer to a transgender man as he, she, them, or some other term) to overt discrimination and hate crimes. But we each have a responsibility to educate ourselves. You can learn the basics here

As I discuss in OtherWise, the rights of transgender people are the new frontier in gender politics. They are our era's "Other." 

And as was the case for gay rights, popular media will be the battle front. Just as "Will and Grace" helped Middle America accept gay men, "Orange Is The New Black" is helping increase understanding of transgender people.  

Next up? It could be Victoria's Secret. The model strutting her stuff above is Carmen Carrera. More than 35,000 people have signed a petition to win her a spot as the first transgender "Angel" on the label's next runway show. 


It's always something

Roseanne roseannadannaRemember Roseanne Roseannadanna?

Apparently, she's back on the air.

On Oct. 27, Lara Logan of CBS News did a "60 Minutes" story featuring a British security consultant who claimed he was in the compound the night Ambassador Christopher Stevens was killed.

His story differed significantly from the official account and added fuel to the political controversy about an alleged coverup. 

It was such a hot "get," the network teased it on its evening news program earlier in the week.

It was also almost certainly a fabrication. When the Washington Post reported his account was wildly different from the account he reported to the FBI, the network retracted the story.

Ms. Logan apologized on the network's morning news show, then again on "60 Minutes" itself. Kind of.

She said she was sorry for "including (the British security consultant) in our report." Left unsaid: without him, there would have been no report because everyone else interviewed had said their pice many times before.

Of course, none of this matters. Research shows that retractions don't change nearly as many minds as the story being retracted. Indeed, facts contradicting previously held beliefs actually cause people to hold onto those beliefs even more vehemently. 

As Roseann Roseannadanna would say, "It's always something."

Department of radical ideas

SnailmailYou may have heard: the HealthCare.gov web site isn't working very well. The Obama administration will throw legions of techs at the issue, and someday -- maybe in our lifetimes -- it will stop crashing.

Meanwhile, here's a radical idea: why not prepare printed summaries of the health insurance plans available in each county and mail them to every home in America?

This is one case where snail mail might actually be quicker than a so-called "electronic marketplace."

The Post Office could use the revenue, but if that isn't practical, at least put copies on the web in a "brochures shoveled onto the Internet fashion." That might be out of date, but it's better than being out to lunch.

At least people would then know what is available. They wouldn't get the specific cost of their plan, but at least they'd have a ballpark idea.

It would reduce the anxiety of all the people who are getting cancellation notices from their insurance companies. And it would counter the imaginary horror stories being spread by opponents of the health care law.

It should even be possible to give people a ballpark calculation of the subsidies they are entitled to based on their income.

It won't solve the problem -- signing up for a plan will still require more personalized attention -- but it could help.

Lessons of Obamacare

Obamacare-DelayObamacare is in crisis, both for reasons of its own making and for reasons beyond its control.

What do the rules of crisis management suggest the White House did wrong and how can it recover?

Caveat: one of the things I learned at AT&T is that the solution to problems like this always appear simpler from the outside than the inside. And hindsight is indeed 20/20. But having said that, here's what I think it did wrong:

1. It tried to hide the web site problems by claiming too many people were trying to get on at once. While that seemed plausible at first, the real reasons for the problems eventually surfaced and the administration lost credibility.

2. It tried to hide the low level of sign ups by saying it would start reporting monthly figures in November. That seemed defensive from the start, and the actual numbers eventually leaked making it look like the administration was trying to hide something (which it probably was).

3. This lack of information left a vacuum it's opponents were more than happy to fill. The GOP was given a golden opportunity to schedule attention-getting hearings where it could lecture the administration's leaders and suppliers (which it did).

4. It doesn't appear that it had an integrated communications plan in place to deal with any problems even thoughit should have been obvious its opponents would jump on the smallest issue. Opponents had already spent more than $500 million attacking the Affordable Care Act, 36 states refused to run their own exchanges, and the GOP was willing to shut down the government in an effort to postpone, if not cancel, its enactment.

What should the administration have done?

1. When the Affordable Care Act was passed, it should have made someone responsible for all communications related to its implementation. And it should have given that person the authority to cut through red tape, to secure whatever information he or she needed, and to speak with authority.

2. It should have communicated all through the development period of both the program and the web site, announcing what insurance companies had signed up state by state, what milestones had been reached in the web site's development, and how the testing was going.

3. At minimum, even if the web site worked flawlessly, someone should have anticipated what questions would be asked about the program and prepared honest, complete answers. For example, "The president said if we liked our insurance we could keep it, but some insurers are cancelling their plans. What gives?"  

4. When the first problems occured, it shouid have been more forthright, detailing what was known without finger-pointing and explaining what was being done to resolve the issues. 

5. In addition to apologizing, it should have given something back, such as giving the people who signed up during the period of difficulty a break on their first month's insurance bill.

6. Going forward, it should issue regular reports on milestones reached and problems solved. It should set very few goals and when it does, it should ensure that they are modest and achievable. 





Junk polls


This afternoon, an official-looking "Congressional Research Survey" landed in my mail among all the catalogs and credit card offers.

The light blue envelope looked very official, with a "tracking code" and warnings that it contains "registered material." In fact, the names of my Senators and Congressman were visible through a glassine window.

Inside, I was warned that the survey is "non-transferable."

It was created by Dr. Ralph Reed to pick up where the Tea Party Caucus left off, He makes no bones that its purpose is to "send a powerful message to conservative candidates for Congress and the Senate in 2014 that they would do well to make ObamaCare the main issue and focus of the 2014 mid-term elections."

That kind of pre-supposes the results of the survey, but considering the structure of the questions, it was probably a safe assumption.

For example, this is Question 3:

Issue Summary: The Tenth Amendment of the Constitution states as follows:

'The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people."

Do you think ObamaCare is CONSTITUTIONAL, and consistent with liberty? Or is ObamaCare an UNCONSTITUTIONAL assault on America as the "land of the free?"

It doesn't appear to matter that the Supreme Court settled that question. But then Question 4 makes it clear that the whole survey is unconnected to reality:

Issue Summary: President Obama is now using the ObamaCare law to force doctors and hospitals to investigate which patients own a gun so the federal government can track and monitor law-abiding gunowners. This is part of Obama's program to strip away your SECOND AMENDMENT right to keep and bear arms.

What's your reaction to President Obama's use of ObamaCare to go after gunowners, and to attack your rights...? 

The other questions follow the same pattern and are clearly designed to elicit responses proving that people believe ObamaCare will lead to socialized medicine, rationing, higher costs, and America's very survival as "land of the free."

The technical terms for this is an "advocacy poll." It starts out with a desired result and crafts the questions to get it.

I'd like to say that Dr. Reed's timing is off. Sadly, I know there are plenty of people who will happily fill out the survey exactly as he'd like.

 He's only going through the exercise for the donations that will accompany their responses. And he's counting on reigniting their outrage to open their wallets.

That's the worse kind of junk mail.


The center is squeezed

Head in viceNBC News and Esquire magazine just published the results of a new survey that suggests the nation is not as polarized as our elected representatives have proven to be.

Their analysis used a sophisticated statistical technique to cluster survey respondents into groups whose members were as alike as possible, but that were also as different from the other groups as possible.

(Think of it as sorting your socks by color. You might end up with four clusters -- e.g., black and grey, white and cream, brown and tan, and argyle. The socks in each cluster would be very similar to each other, but very different from the socks in the other clusters. That's what they did with survey respondents, based on their demographics and opinions.)

When they were done crunching the numbers, they ended up with 8 clusters, which they gave cute names like "Minivan Moderates."

The 4 clusters in the middle represent 51% of the population. (Back to the sock example, each cluster would have a different number of socks in it, but most of the socks might be in just one or two clusters.)

More than half (55%) of the people in this new "center" describe themselves as politically "moderate." Self-identified "liberals" accounted for 20%; "conservatives," 25%.  (Tea Party supporters represented 15%.)

The new center also espouses pretty pragmatic views on a wide range of hot button issues -- 54% agree the government shouldn't legislate how Americans behave in their personal lives when it comes to marriage, abortion, owning guns, or using marijuana. 

On the other hand, 54% believe the government should maintain programs like food stamps, Medicaid, and welfare so people who hit on hard times don't fall through the cracks.

But the new center also feels squeezed from all directions.

Thanks to the poor economy and rising inequality, only 5% still believe America is a land of opportunity for all. Almost a third (31%) doubt that everyone can work themselves into the middle class.

Our increasing diversity seems to be squeezing the new center from the other direction as well.

Nearly two-thirds (63%) believe that in respecting the rights of minorities, “we’ve limited the rights of a majority of Americans.” Almost one in five says diversity makes them “very anxious.”

In fact, people in the new center favor ending affirmative action in hiring decisions and college admissions (57%). More than half (58%) would require voters to show photo-ID, a move which disenfranchises minority voters.

Likewise, most of the center (54%) is against a path to citizenship for people who came to this country illegally. A plurality (40%) is worried that “racial tensions” will turn violent in the near future.

The survey was conducted in August before the threat of government shutdowns and default were in the news. What's happened since can only have turned the screws on the new center.


Stupid is as stupid does

Capitol DunceIt's enough to make Forrest Gump blush. 

Everyone from the Senate chaplain to sitting federal judges, not to mention 89% of voters, is fed up with Congress.

Yet our elected representatives seem incapable of extricating themselves from the mess they've created. 

I only wish Carlo M. Cipolla, a professor of economics at Berkeley had lived to see it.

Cipolla is famous for developing the basic laws of human stupidity

In philosophical terms, Cipolla was a utilitarian. He analyzed human behavior in terms of gains and losses. He defined a stupid person as someone who "causes losses to another person or to a group of persons while himself deriving no gain and even possibly incurring losses."

It seems to me that Congress comes very close to proving Cipolla's theory.

Now, to be perfectly fair to Prof. Cipolla, although he thought the proportion of stupid people was far greater than widely believed, he did allow for at least three other possibilities. He said that people could also be:

  • Bandits, who cause losses to another to benefit themselves, 
  • Hapless souls, who cause losses to themselves as well as to others, or 
  • Intelligent people who create gains for both themselves and others.

All four cases are illustratred below.

The horizontal “X” axis measures the advantage gained from one’s actions. The vertical “Y” axis measures the advantage gained by others.

I leave it to you to decide whether our elected representatives deserve to be in one of those other categories. Bandit maybe? Hapless?

Of course, Cipolla also suggested that the most dangerous people of all are those who are so stupid they don't know they're stupid.  

That category looks most likely to me all the time.



Lessons from Capitol Hill

Capitol-tilted_463x3071Capitol Hill may be the last place anyone would look for lessons in much these days. But on the assumption that experience comes from what you do and wisdom, from what you do badly, that's precisely what this posting proposes.

Here are five communications lessons to draw from the current shenanigans on Capitol Hill:

1. Don't let your biases cloud your thinking. Republican leaders are so convinced Obamacare is an abomination they made defunding it their core demand in threatening (and then the price of ending)  a government shutdown. Unfortunately, at least one Republican pollster termed that a losing proposition. "By 59 to 38 percent, even those who oppose Obamacare believe a partial government shutdown is not the way to go," he pointed out. "A government shutdown divides Republicans and flips the anti-Obamacare coalition, which is why the shutdown stopped revolving around the health care law several days ago."

2. Consider the full ramifications of decisions before you make them.  Closing the government turned voters' attention away from Obamacare's rocky first days. According to Pew Research, 73% of voters followed news of the shutdown closely while only 57% followed news of the difficulties in signing up for Obamacare. At least one GOP pollster argues it was "reasonable" to have anticipated this. "The plan to use a government shutdown to spark a national discussion of Obamacare," he said, "fell flat."

3. Don't assume your base of support is monolithic. Tea Party and ultra conservative Republicans hate Obamacare so much they are willing to do anything to get rid of it. But Pew Research showed that  the issue split the party -- most (61%) non-Tea Party Republicans were opposed to the shutsown strategy. Other polls showed that Independents are more like Democrats on the issue. Three quarters of Independents joined 86% of Democrats in opposing a government shutdown in order to "fix" Obamacare.

4. Watch the tone of your argument.  The very nature of a govenment shutdown has a negative tone to a very important block of voters. Women are more conerned than men about the economic impact of a shutdown, more likely to consider it a "bad thing," and follow news about it more closely. They're also more likely to vote than men. The GOP has had trouble appealing to female voters. The shutsown will only make that more difficult. 

5. Turn the discussion to people's greatest concerns. Polls suggest the GOP is being blamed for the shutdown by a wide margin. Worse, from the GOP's perspective, the same poll shows people's attitudes toward Obamacare are improving. But there is a way out of this.  When CNN asked people to pick the greatest problem facing the country, 41% pointed to "the economy," only 13% picked "the deficit." And when Pew Research asked how concerned people are about the shutdown's effect on the economy, 77% said they were "very or somewhat concerned."Maybe it's time to pick a battle people really care about.


War by other means

CivilWarIf war is politics by other means, it can work the other way too. What we're seeing in D.C. these days is politics as continuation of the Civil War.

There is little doubt that the current gridlock in Washington was the brainchild of Tea Party Republicans. What's less obvious is that the Tea Party Caucus in the House of Representatives is essentially the old Confederacy. 

Of the 47 members of the Tea Party Caucus in the House, 31 -- or two-thirds -- are from former states of the Confederacy.

They aren't trying to restore slavery, but their other motivations are very similar. They object to the federal government's meddling in their lives, want to starve the beast to death, and question the legitimacy of the current president. 

Their districts are 10% more affluent and 3% "whiter" than average within their own states. Voters in their districts are also less likely to use food stamps and more likely to have health insurance.

Those districts didn't just happen. As Republicans gained control of state legislatures, they rejiggered election districts so they could withdraw into what the Cook Political Report calls "safe, lily-white strongholds."

According to Cook, many Republican districts are products of "creative redistricting."  It notes, for example: "Using only 2010 census data, Rep. Daniel Webster’s Central Florida district jumped from 57 percent white to 66 percent white; Rep. Pete Sessions’s Dallas-area district leaped from 42 percent to 53 percent white; and Rep. Pat Tiberi’s Central Ohio district soared from 68 percent to 88 percent white. All three Republicans had relatively close races in the last decade but won easily in 2012."

As the nation gets more diverse, the GOP is getting whiter. Just what old Jefferson Davis had in mind.


How to close the institutional empathy gap

Mind-the-gapThis blog is about second thoughts, and I had some serious ones last week.

I gave a talk about OtherWise to a business group. The very first question after my presentation set me back on my heels: "You make a good case for developing more empathy," my questioner asked. "But what institutional changes would you recommend to accomplish that?"

I tap-danced around the question and said something like, "Sadly, there is no institutional solution. We have to work at the individual level to change our institutions."  Out of politeness, my questioner let it go at that.

But I've been thinking about his question ever since. Then I realized the answer was on the front page of every newspaper, led the evening news, and dominated the blogosphere.

The Great Government Shutdown is the product of an empathy gap that in turn results from gerrymandering.

Let me explain.

Political scientists have long noted that gerrymandering has created politically "safe" districts where elected officials don't have to worry about voters of the other party. 

Of course, both parties try to design congressional districts to favor the election of their candidates. Unfortunately, that has resulted in the kind of polarization that led to the political gridlock we're now experiencing. 

In North Carolina, for example, when the 1990 census gave the state an additional congressional representative, the Democratic-controlled state legislature drew up a new district that was primarily African-American. It was an ungainly, skinny thing hugging a major highway that sprawled across the state, but it has reliably voted Democrat ever since. 

When the Republicans regained control of the North Carolina legislature, they used the 2010 census as an excuse to redraw congressional districts.  They shifted the boundaries of the reliably Democratic 13th congressional district to decrease its black population by 39%. A Republican took over the seat in 2013.

"So what?" you say. That's the way the game has always been played. That's true. But these days the result is not only to make districts "safe" for one party or another. It also makes the districts themselves more homogenous.

For example, it wasn't only the 13th district's racial composition that changed when it was redistricted. Median incomes also increased by 42%, making it the richest congressional district in the state.  

That means whoever is running for Congress in the 13th district can safely ignore its poorest voters. Worse, by concentrating on the richest voters, they risk losing their sense of empathy for the poorest.

Researchers have shown that wealth and status reduce empathy. People of higher socioeconomic status are more likely to feel they’ve earned their high place in society, and can't understand why everyone else can't.

This situation repeats itself in nearly every "safe" district. With one important difference: "safe" Republican districts tend to be economically better off than other districts in the same state.

That may explain why some Republicans want to cut the food stamp program and defund the Affordable Care Act. For example, voters in the 12th district are only about half as likely to have health insurance as those in the 13th. And they're almost twice as likely to receive food stamps.

See for yourself. You can find economic and demographic data on every Congressional district here.

So on second thought, I should have answered the question about institutional change differently.  There is something we can do: elect state legislators who will ensure that Congressional Districts are truly heterogenous, with different incomes, educational levels, and political leanings. It's the only way to close the empathy gap and to put Congress to work for all voters.


False equivalency

Not-equal-to-mdAn open micrphone caught some interesting byplay between senators Paul and McConnell the other day.  

Paul told McConnell: ""I just did CNN and I just go over and over again 'We're willing to compromise. We're willing to negotiate.' ... I don't think [Democrats]  poll tested 'we won't negotiate.' I think it's awful for them to say that over and over again."  

The whole clip is here but you'll have to watch a commercial to view it.

The local station that broadcast the pols hushed conversation said it showed how much the government shutdown is really about messaging as far as congressional legislators are concerned.

That's not exactly news, even though it is startling to see two senators confirm it so blatantly.

To me, the real story is how easily logic can be twisted in political discourse.

The technical term for the GOP's apparent messaging strategy is "false equivalence." It consists of attributing the same term to two parties without examining the underlying meaning of the term in context. The example my logic professor used in philosophy class years ago was:  "Rats have four feet. Dick is a rat. Therefore, Dick has four feet."

The example Messrs. Paul and McConnell are using is: "We're willing to negotiate. The Democrats aren't."  

Sadly, their analysis of the likely polling for such an argument is correct. Americans like their representatives to get along and to compromise. Politics is just another word for negotiation, as far as they're concerned.

But there really is no equivalence between the parties in this case.

The Democrat-dominated Senate passed a 2014 discretionary budget of $1.12 trillion.The Republican-dominated House of Representatives approved a budget of $986 billion, a $13 billion reduction. But they also attached an amendment that would defund the Affordable Care Act. The Senate approved the House budget, but stripped out any reference to Obamacare.

That sounds like negotiating to me. In fact, on the numbers, it's essentially capitulation. (Even leaving aside that the GOP budget includes savings that the "revoked" Affordable Care Act is supposed to produce.)

Of course, few people know these numbers. All they've heard is that the two sides have dug in their heels. And -- from the GOP -- that the Democrats "refuse to negotiate."

But if a hijacker says he'll blow up a plane unless he's taken to Cuba are we supposed to negotiate a shorter flight? Like to Jacksonville?

Is it accurate to say one side has "dug in its heels" when it has already made concessions?

I don't blame the average voter for falling for this stuff. But political reporters are supposed to know better. And when they run headlines like "Both sides have dug in their heels," they demonstrate that they don't.


The Frame Game

Framing no old houseThe federal government has been partially shut down for the first time in 17 years. And we all get a lesson in framing an issue to your own advantage.

How the disagreement that led to the shutdown is framed will determine whether House Republicans, Senate Democrats, or the president will be blamed for it.

Framing is more than the window through which a message is delivered; it's the basic framework on which it is structured. It's the answer to the question you want people to ask, rather than the question that might occur to them naturally.

For example, in a brief statement to the media late last night, Speaker Boehner said, "The House has voted to keep the government open, but we also want basic fairness for all Americans under Obamacare... The Senate has rejected all our offers to go to conference to resolve this."  In other words, we did our part, but the Senate refuses to do what the people want. 

Also yestderday, White House spokesman Jay Carney asked who would be blamed if the government shut down because President Obama refused to sign a budget bill unless it contained a requirement for thorough background checks on gun purchasers. The answer seems obvious -- he would be.  Isn't this situation clearly analogous -- Republicans in the House refuse the pass a budget unless it contains something they want: defunding of the Affordable Care Act. 

There's no sign that any negotiations are underway to resolve the crisis. But it's almost guaranteed that both parties are working hard to avoid blame for it and -- if possible -- to derive advantage from it. 

For example, a polling-based strategy paper by the left-leaning Global Strategy Group shows that "Making the case that Republicans in Congress are 'irresponsible and reckless, putting the economy at risk to advance their political agenda' is more effective than focusing on either do-nothing obstructionism or going backwards ... Behavior-focused descriptors like 'irresponsible' and 'reckless' are more effective than ideology-focused ones like 'extreme' and 'radical.' 'Opposing reasonable solutions' is more troubling for voters than ... labels about inaction, obstruction or dysfunction."

You can be sure that someone like the right-leaning Luntz Group is working on similar messaging strategies for the GOP. For the moment, the GOP messaging machine seems to be focused on positioning Obamacare as "wrecking the economy even more than a shutdown will" and on characterizing the other side as "unwilling to negotiate."

At first blush, this might seem like a savvy move.  Polling shows that the public is pretty evenly split on the Affordable Care Act --  42% unfavorable to 37% favorable, with 20% uncertain. Considering all the money spent attacking the Act, those number are not surprising. 

But initial polling shows the public overwhelmingly opposes shutting down the government to defund or delay Obamacare -- 72% to 22%. Furthermore, 55% of voters say "gridlock in Washington is mainly because Republicans are determined to block any Obama initiative."

Whether those numbers stick hinges on subtle differences in messaging, especially on who wins the frame game.



Empathy for the GOP

Ted_cruz2I had an epiphany of sorts during a long drive today.

I have long wondered why so many Republicans can't stomach Barack Obama as president. Why do perfectly rational people seem so eager to accept accusations that he's a socialist bent on destorying our way of life?

Clearly, there's an element of racism in some of these attitudes. But some of these people are personal friends. I've worked with them for decades and I know they don't have a racist bone in their bodies.

Then, during my drive today, I heard speculation on the local NPR radio station that Ted Cruz's real agenda in opposing Obamacare (even if it drives the country into budget gridlock) is to lay the groundwork for a presidential run in 2016.

Ted Cruz as president?!?

Then it hit me -- that's exactly how most Republicans feel about Obama and for the same reasons (though erroneously).

Cruz has been a senator for less than a single term. Ditto Obama when he first ran for president.

Cruz is the darling of the far right wing of his party. Ditto Obama (though of the opposite end of his party).

Cruz seems obsessed with the Affordable Care Act. Ditto Obama (though his obsession was the war in Iraq).

Cruz is even a minority, born outside the U.S.  Okay, so Obama was born in Hawaii, but try to convince the real Obama haters. 

Now I get it. 

It doesn't solve the problem, but it increases my empathy for the other side, which is always step one.


Dispossessed Americans

Grapes-of-wrathTo better understand why so many people are opposed to immigration reform, I analyzed the comments to the Wall Street Journal article mentioned in my last blog post.

That piece characterized immigration as basically positive, but didn't take a position on any of the issues surrounding the current proposal for reform. Rather, it took an historical perspective, exploring the long history of immigration in America and even suggesting that the country was "built for immigrants" rather than simply "by immigrants." (Emphasis mine.)

Nevertheless, or not surprisingly, depending on your perspective, the online comments were overwhelmingly negative.  I analyzed the first 100 comments published.

I counted separate postings by the same person as one comment, but tracked the total number of "recommendations" they received. (On the Journal web site, a "recommendation" is equivalent to a Facebook "like" and is a rough indication of agreement.)

For simplicity and clarity, I ignored threads that sometimes made comments off topic or simply repeated prior assertions.

I recognize that people who disagree with something are more likely to comment than those who agree. The article continued to attract comments after I began my analysis. As of this writing, it had attracted more than 270 comments. A quick reading suggests that the tenor of the comments hadn't changed much.

So what did I find?

  • Nearly 9 out of 10 comments (88%) took issue with the article's premise that the U.S. has an innate ability to accomodate diverse peoples and that immigration is basically positive.

  • Negative comments received far more "recommendations" than the positive comments did, 95% to 5%.

  • More than half the negative comments and recommendations (51%) were based on a perception that immigrants aren't assimilating into American culture (28%) but are here simply to collect welfare benefits (22%). 
  • About one out of ten (9%) said they were not opposed to immigration but simply to giving illegal immigrants anything but a one-way ticket home. 
  • Another one out of ten (12.5%) consider today's immigrants fundamentally different from prior generations, largely for the reasons explained above.

  • Finally, a small (12.5%) but not insignifant group believes immigration reform, as well as the changing character of immigrants themselves, is part of a liberal plot to expand its electoral power.

  • The last 15% had a variety of reasons for opposing immigration reform -- from calling it a plot by Big Business to lower wages or expressing an enduring fear of Muslims, to saying "I don't care about the rest of the world" or "if diversity had real benefits, whites would want more of it."  

So what are we to make of all this?

It seems to me these are the comments of people who feel dispossessd, aliens in their own country. They are scared and angry. No rational argument -- no fact-based rebuttal -- is going to shake them from their feelings of assault and betrayal.  

A question worth exploring: what will?