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press relations

Trumping The Press

I need my skeptical spectacles.

Is Donald Trump vilifying the press or playing the press?

Take a recent example: someone leaked a draft memo to the Washington Post suggesting that the government will activate 100,000 National Guard troops to arrest illegal aliens. The Post printed the story and the reactions from both sides were predictable. The left was outraged that the government might do such a thing. The right pitched a hissy fit over leaks.

But here’s another way to interpret the story. The Trump administration wants to rid the country of approximately 11 million illegal aliens. Deporting them all would be a difficult, expensive, and lengthy task. So here’s another way: scare at least some of them into leaving on their own. The National Guard story – though false – undoubtedly started rumors in immigrant neighborhoods that the Feds were about to launch massive sweeps. Better to depart sooner rather than later.

Seen in this light, the Trump administration wins in two ways. First, the story sows fear in immigrant communities and may lead to “self-deportations”. Second, the administration continues to build the narrative that the media promotes fake news and is the enemy of the people.

Another tactic to control the conversation is what academics call availability cascades. We humans estimate how risky something is based on information that’s available to us. An availability cascade makes a cascade of information – about one and only one topic – readily available to us.

The Ebola scare of 2014 provides a good example. Somebody gets sick with a dread disease. The press writes vivid stories about the illness and makes grim images easily available to us. It’s top of mind. Then people push the government to “do something” about the menace. The press writes about that. Then the government actually does something. The press writes about that. Then people protest what the government has done. The press writes about that. Soon, the entire world seems to be chattering about Ebola. If everybody’s talking about it, it must be dangerous.

The Trump administration creates an availability cascade when it lures the press into writing more about Islamic terrorism. The administration has accused the press of underreporting terrorist incidents. In response, the press has written numerous articles pointing out just how many stories they’ve written on terrorist incidents. The net effect? Terrorism is in the headlines every day. Everybody is talking about it. It must be dangerous.

Even fake news can help keep availability cascades in the headlines. The administration makes a far-fetched claim and the press naturally wants to set the record straight. By doing so, the press adds fuel to the availability fire. The story lingers on. As long as the press plays along, the administration will keep creating alternative facts. Think of it as the media equivalent of rope-a-dope.

Trump’s obsession with himself creates another availability cascade. Trump regularly talks about himself and his accomplishments – how smart he is, how many electoral votes he won, and so on. He often repeats himself; the news is no longer new. Yet the press keeps writing about it. Apparently, they want to show how self-obsessed he is. But the practical effect is that Trump dominates the headlines very day. If everybody is chattering about him, he must be very powerful.

Bernard Cohen wrote that, “The press may not be successful … in telling people what to think, but it is stunningly successful in telling them what to think about.” The Trump administration is using the press to frame the discussion and tell us what to think about. Perhaps it’s time for the press to change the subject.

The Ice Cream Theory of Communication

Start at the small end.

If you have a fairly simple product — like soda pop — you can often communicate directly with your market. You figure out who’s likely to buy and craft messages that will appeal to them. Nothing stands between you and your audience. It’s like talking with someone standing nearby on a calm, clear day.

When you have a complicated product or service, on the other hand, you’ll need to deal with an embedded commentariat of current customers, gurus, analysts, pundits, kibbitzers, journalists, and competitors. Each layer of the commentariat can distort your message. It feels like yelling at a person 100 meters away on a windy, foggy, rainy day.

Let’s say you’re introducing a next generation product. You’ll go through an early customer acceptance test to sort out last-minute issues. Once you have everything sorted, you can just put out a press release, right? Wrong.

The issue is that your product is complicated — nobody understands it fully. If your product is very innovative, you have a doubly difficult problem. First, nobody understands it. What does it do? Second, nobody understands its category. What’s it supposed to do? Potential buyers will ask you lots of questions but will then turn to the commentariat to seek verification and validation. So, before you talk to the market, you need to ensure that the commentariat thoroughly understands what you’re doing.

Think of an ice cream cone — it’s wide at the top and narrow at the bottom. The trick with ice cream cone communication is to analyze from the top down but communicate from the bottom up. The top of the cone — the widest part — represents your market. It’s big and broad and tempting. Communicating with the market is your ultimate goal.  To get there, you’ll need to work your way through the commentariat.

To organize your communications, work from the top down, with a simple question, “Whom do they trust?” So, who would potential customers trust? It’s a good bet that they would trust the trade press. So take your story to the trade press before you take it to potential customers. Who do the trade press trust? Well, they’ll probably ask to speak to some gurus or analysts who have studied the issue in more detail. So brief the analysts before you take the story to the trade press. Who do the analysts trust? Customers. Analysts want to hear directly from customers, preferably without you in the room. So, prepare your early customers to talk to analysts and then make sure they meet.

And customers — whom do they trust? They’ll talk to many of your employees. Let’s say you’ve told a customer, Angela, that your new product is the best thing since sliced bread. Then Angela talks to John, her favorite consultant on your support line. Angela asks about the hot new product. John says, “I’ve never heard of it”. Unwittingly, John has just undercut the entire communication chain. Angela loses confidence in the product and may even jump to the conclusion that you’re lying.

So always start your communications with your own employees. They’re the narrow, bottom section of the ice cream cone.  Make sure they understand the key messages associated with the product. Then work your way upward and outward in the cone, to the interlinked audiences of the commentariat. It will take some time to get to the top of the cone — your target market – but it’s well worth the effort.

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