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Political campaigns

Narrative. Story. Backstory. Media jargon is now part of the lexicon of public life, drawn on daily by politicians, journalists, commentators, marketers and businesspeople to set the agenda, challenge, inspire, dramatise and bring meaning.

For Boris Johnson, ‘Brexit is going to happen… and when it does, we must finally begin the positive narrative of Brexit Britain: tackling crime, investing in our health service and our schools, and fixing the housing market to help young people own their own homes.’

An American CEO and entrepreneur with an unorthodox career says she wants ‘to share with you my backstory and hope it can encourage you’.

And here’s Allianz Global Investors CEO Andreas Utermann looking to persuade asset managers of the merits of active investing by changing its fee model:

Allianz CEO changes active investor narrative

As communicators working in a fast-paced visual age in which facts and rumour and misinformation constantly compete for attention and viewpoints chop and change at a moment’s notice, it makes much sense to think like journalists, producers and storytellers.

The customer is not a moron media-junky

Talk of stories, backstories, narratives and episodes may sound impressive and make sense to our clients and ecosystem partners and media targets. Yet is this how our wives and children and friends and next-door neighbours think?

Do they, like Boris Johnson (who must compete with multiple other narratives and has his own rather complex backstory to contend with), reckon the positive story of Brexit Britain can only start if and when the UK leaves the EU?

Or do they think the facts speak for themselves, from whichever side of the political spectrum they hail?

We are in danger of assuming the man on the street understands and relates to such language. We also risk sounding pretentious, confusing, and disingenuous.

Focus on the facts not the packaging

As communicators we are, or should be, in the business of honesty and clarity, of rigorously examining the underlying issue rather than revelling in its packaging, of reducing the gap between rhetoric and reality.

This means sticking to the facts, avoiding jargon and doublespeak, and using words and phrases everyone understands. And it means persuading our clients to do the same – especially in a consumer or general public context.

‘Active managers add long-term value cost-efficiently. Our new fees reinforce this.’ Allianz could have said.

Which would have been clearer.

Our American CEO might simply have said she would like ‘to share with you my backstory unusual career path and hope it can encourage you’.

Which might have resulted in a few more clicks or likes.

Boris could have stated: Brexit is going to happen… and when it does, we can must finally begin the positive narrative of Brexit Britain start building a new and better Britain.’

More people might then believe him.

Bob Elphick, former Reuters and BBC foreign correspondent, my initial boss at the European Commission and first professional mentor, liked to say the Commission had ‘broad shoulders’.

By this he meant that it could – indeed was in the regular business of – taking the blame for others’ deeds and misdeeds.

By the end of my time there, much of my job was spent attempting to kick into touch scare stories of Brussels needlessly meddling in UK matters.

Rumours abounded of the EC (now EU) banning bendy bananas and curvy cucumbers, or outlawing cheddar cheese and forcing donkeys on beaches to wear nappies.

The problem: few were true.

The Economist - Euromyth lies, damned lies and directives

Yet euromyths have persisted to this day, largely unchallenged, and have had a significant impact on public opinion in the UK.

Why have these scare stories been allowed to circulate so freely?

Here’s my take in the EUobserver, based on my time as an EU official much of whose time was spent fact-checking and rebutting tall stories in the UK media.

It is a cautionary tale for all organisations, especially supra-, national- and international ones.

As our local vicar likes to remind us, Christmas is about giving and about receiving. It is not just about Playstations and socks and mince pies; what really counts is that it is done with meaning and integrity.

It is the thought that counts.

I am reminded of a passage in Michael J. Sandel’s book Justice. A meditation on political philosophy, Justice also makes the case for civic engagement in politics, something that seems a pitifully low priority for governing classes across much of the world.

The passage in question was the opening salvo in Robert F. Kennedy’s campaign to become US President, which saw him addressing students at the University of Kansas in March 1968. Of course, Kennedy’s campaign was doomed as within weeks he had succumbed to an assassin’s bullet in Los Angeles.

While the jist of his words is striking – even for the 1960s – its expression makes for a stirring and memorable piece of communication:

Too much and for too long, we seemed to have surrendered personal excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things. Our Gross National Product, now, is over $800 billion dollars a year, but that Gross National Product – if we judge the United States of America by that – that Gross National Product counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage.  It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for the people who break them.  It counts the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl.  It counts napalm and counts nuclear warheads and armored cars for the police to fight the riots in our cities.  It counts Whitman’s rifle and Speck’s knife, and the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children.  Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play.  It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials.  It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.  And it can tell us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans.

The full text of RFK’s speech can be read here.

By contrast, Pope Francis’ recent denunciation of trickle-down economics appears an exercise in stilted verbosity which while making headlines also forced the Papacy into a clarification.

That said, it is certainly worth a read. Here is a decent overview.

Just as it does for companies and governments, the Playstation era enables religious leaders to communicate direct with their audiences.

As the Pope’s use of Twitter shows, this doesn’t mean that official communication must necessarily be dumbed down.

But it does have to be clear and, better still, emotive if it is to change hearts and minds – principles RFK had certainly heeded.

Whatever your religion and politics, Happy Christmas and here’s hoping for a meaningful and prosperous 2014.

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