An interview worthy of some praise

Posted on in Featured, RowCom with No Comments

I have a bad habit of criticizing nearly every news interview I hear, so I get really excited when I hear one that restores my faith in spokespeople.

Yesterday on NPR’s Here & Now, Denis Mulligan of the Golden Gate Bridge transit district knocked it out of the park.

He was discussing the district’s plan to install “suicide nets” on the bridge to prevent fatalities. He hit every point, addressed every question and (most importantly, in my opinion), stopped talking at just the right moment. The interview went so well, in fact, that I wondered whether it had been scripted. I’ll let you decide.

Listen here.

It’s not perfect. There are several “umms,” which don’t bother me as much as they used to. And Mulligan is an uptalker, which is a personal pet peeve that sends shivers up my spine. But on balance, it was a great job and is a worthy model for spokespeople to follow.

I’m completely speculating, but I suspect he did a few things:

He had notes or talking points in front of him while he did the interview. There is no shame in using talking points, especially when you’re doing a phone interview. (There should be shame in NOT using them.)

He practiced. Perhaps he has a communication person that helped with the talking points and likely follow up questions. Regardless, he sounded like had had this conversation a million times.

He learned to talk about something about which he is not an expert (which suggests he researched and practiced that, too). Surely, his organization deals with a disturbing number of suicides each year. But I don’t think Mulligan is a mental health professional. Still, he sounded knowledgable, compassionate and believable when discussing this very sensitive issue.

So, give it a listen. Mulligan’s interview is the first four minutes of the story.

Share on LinkedInShare on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Email this to someone

When audience-based messaging backfires: from global warming to climate change

Posted on in Featured, RowCom with No Comments

A recent report from the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University demonstrates how the words we use to describe what we do and the issues we try to affect can sometimes get in the way of our work, even when we think we’re being really smart about it.

The center’s case study is about Americans’ reaction to two similar (but different) terms:  global warming and climate change. The study found that the two terms elicit different responses from Democrats and Republicans. From the report (emphasis mine):

“Some issue advocates have argued that the term climate change is more likely to engage Republicans in the issue, however, the evidence from these studies suggests that in general the terms are synonymous for Republicans – i.e., neither term is more engaging than the other, although in several cases, global warming generates stronger feelings of negative affect and stronger perceptions of personal and familial threat among Republicans; they are also more likely to believe that global warming is already affecting weather in the United States.”

“By contrast, the use of the term climate change appears to actually reduce issue engagement by Democrats, Independents, liberals, and moderates, as well as a variety of subgroups within American society, including men, women, minorities, different generations, and across political and partisan lines.”

Translation: A few years ago, many environmentalists began using “climate change” instead of “global warming” because they thought it would help pull Republicans into the issue. It didn’t. But the shift appears to have turned off many Democrats, a group most environmentalists would consider their “base.”

I remember this linguistic shift and the debate it sparked within the environmental community. I also remember that the move toward climate change was supported by Frank Luntz, a brilliant scoundrel who helped Republicans change oil drilling and gambling to energy exploration and gaming. He changed the estate tax, which most Americans support, to the death tax, which most Americans hate. (You can read more here.)

He advised the Republican party that, because it was vulnerable on environmental issues and the voting public was woefully uneducated about the growing scientific certainty about global warming, it should: (1) use the term climate change because it’s less scary than global warming and (2) equate the public’s uncertainty about global warming (which was true) with scientific uncertainty about global warming (which was false). I know. Evil.

So, though Luntz and the environmental community were on different sides of this issue, they ended up cooperating to redefine a global issue to suit the needs of one segment of the message market.

Many groups agonize about the words they use and often try to so carefully parse their messaging for different audiences that the way they describe themselves to one audience is sometimes unrecognizable from how they describe themselves to another. Along the way, they can lose sight of their core values and their core constituents.

I strongly believe in audience-focused language. But your language shouldn’t vary so dramatically that your identity gets muddled. In Texas, we often say that you should “dance with who brung you.” That applies to words, as well. If you’re going to abandon the words, imagery and rhetoric that have helped you grow and inspire your base, be cautious. It doesn’t always go as planned.


Share on LinkedInShare on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Email this to someone