“Values” And Political Candidates — How to Evaluate What You See and Hear This Election Season

This commentary was originally posted in May 2017 as the political season moved into high gear.  I updated this in late Fall 2017 as Secretary Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump were about to square off at Hofstra University for their presidential debate.

And it is worth reading again after last night’s State of the Union presentation to the Congress by President Donald Trump (January 30, 2018).  This was a different persona for the chief of state, not the harsh tones of the Twitter-ing that he does every day; not the campaign rally insults and pointing out the dangers posed “by the other” of us); not the nastiness in general of his off-the-cuff commentary.

The “SOTU” was polished, well presented, with some flourishes here and there, some policies laid out with details and others brush-stroked for the lawmakers (to fill in the blanks).  Overall for President Trump, a good night.

The Democrat response by Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy III was also excellent and perhaps a good example for us in the context of the Aristotelean model that I outlined in 2017 in the commentary here.

Given all of the above, I think the content here is worth re-reading and keeping in mind as we move into the campaigning for the November 2018 election.

Commentary by Hank Boerner

Back in May 2017, as the primary season was in full roar, the two main contenders were steadily emerging in the leader position in their respective parties —  Donald Trump and Secretary Hillary Clinton. Tonight the two square off at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York (about 20 miles east of Manhattan).

Are you tuning in? Estimates are that perhaps 100 million people will be watching on broadcast, cable and social media. We are along, long way from the first televised presidential debate, between U.S. Senator John F. Kennedy and then-VP Richard M. Nixon. That was a very polite and real debate, with issues front and center and the two contenders exchanging compliments (about the other).

The two contenders today are absolute opposites and lightning rods in their own right  for serious criticism — and at the same time heaped with praise by their fiercely fervent followers.

So how do we cut through the bombast and probably the insults hurled, and barbs exchanged and other snide-ery to take the true measure of each of the contenders?

For sure, both are intelligent, strong-minder, powerful personalities who first names are front-of-mind in every corner of our country.

Back in May, as the two contenders were moving ahead in the polling, I shared thoughts on how to judge the “values” of the Republican and Democratic front-runner.

Update: Here is my May 2016 commentary — hope that it is helpful for you.

The nation is being perceived at home and abroad perceived as being deeply divided on many issues. Labels abound — signifying “I’m right/you are wrong” on many issues.

Labels:  Right-Left. Liberal-Conservative. New York City & Hollywood and the rest of the USA. The One Percent and the rest of us (the 99%).  Republican-Democrat, or at least by the labels of what that used to mean.

Look at the messages we have been hearing:

Put up a big wall (a beautiful wall, 60-feet tall with a beautiful door) to keep “them” out vs. a more liberal immigration policy.

No Muslims allowed vs. we cannot discriminate and the basis of religious or ethnic origin. (Remember that powerful First Amendment!)

Tear up NAFTA vs. those advocating for free trade polices.

Free tuition – for all in public universities. No more student loans. vs. everyone should pay their own way.

And on and on and on. If you own stock in ABC-TV (that is, in parent Walt Disney Company stock, the corporate owner)– or perhaps CNN (parent Time Warner) — or MSNBC (Comcast) or Fox (News Corp), you should be pleased. The ad campaign dollars have been flowing in and the best is yet to come in the general election cycle.

If you are the “average” American (whatever definition that is today), and you are trying to decide who to vote for, perhaps volunteer for, maybe click the payment button on the candidate web site to send money…well, you are not alone if you are anxious, confused, angry, disappointed, disgusted, hopeful, and more.

So I will briefly share some of my coaching techniques here that may help you to better evaluate “who” is deserving of your support and vote. (And DO vote this November; a lot is at stake!).

About “The Rhetoric” — Not a Bad Word

We often toss around the term, “rhetoric” (as in, oh, that’s just political rhetoric) but the concept is very important. Here’s why.

Over the years in my professional life, and even in my personal dealings with leadership (when I volunteer to do so), my coaching for speech-making and more effective campaigning goes back about many centuries, to Ancient Greece and in the years of  300’s B.C.

We owe thanks to Ancient Greece for introducing us the first western concept of democracy. Think Demos in Ancient  Greece  the People. Greece was a direct form (not representative form) of democracy.  Rhetoric was as a system devised by the wise men to help the citizens (and not everyone was one) to understand politics and politicking (Polity, derived from the Greek word for citizen…politics should be all about the work of citizens in governing themselves in the democracy.)

The perfecter of the system of rhetoric was the great teacher,  Aristotle, He was born about 384 B.C. and died at age 62 in 322 B.C. He is credited with greatly influencing western philosophy, Islam and Judaism, and many philosophers and deep thinkers who would follow.

Aristotle is often credited with being the first tue scientist; creator of “logic” as we know it; was one of the most honored citizens and teachers of his time.

The important teaching relevant to this essay is about rhetoric  —  in the the Ancient Greek, the making of magnificent orator, a teacher. Here are brief highlights of what my partners  and I  adopted in our leadership coaching from the Aristotle’s teachings on rhetoric.  Aristotle believed there were three means of persuasion in the democracy:  reason, character and emotion.  These are all on display in campaign 2016 in the U.S.A.

Ethics and Values Come First

First — consider ethos – from this our modern day term ” ethics” has descended. It’s about the values of the orator. What are his/her personal values, beliefs, actions, ethical behaviors? They are on display in the speaker up there on the podium, derived in great measure from the actions (walking the talk) as well as the pronouncements.

Second — consider pathos — from this we get modern day sympathy, empathy. It is about the connection with the audience (the “hearer,” the receiver of the oration]. Is the speaker connecting with the audience? Are they feeling connected with him/her?  Do they share values?  Do you share the values of the candidate(s) that you prefer in 2016?

Third — consider logos — the word from the Ancient Greek. We think of “logo” in terms of the familiar corporate branding but it means more. It is the word/words — the signs — coming from the speaker to the audience.  And other signals, some silent. (Does she look you in the eye?  Does he seem uncomfortable up there?  Do you have a feeling that what the speaker is saying isn’t ringing true with you?)

Putting It All Together

So simply put, does the orator (1) demonstrate the values that the audience appreciates, agrees with, shares with the speaker? (2) Is the speaker connecting with the audience in powerful ways? (The best of our preachers know well how to do this on Sunday mornings.) And (3) are the words coming forth (the logos) resonating…creating empathy…”ringing true” with those listening?

This is the system of persuasive rhetoric. And in the end, if all this works, we achieve mythos…a powerful, memorable, moving story that will ripple out way beyond that immediate audience. In the Ancient Greek, it was about a teaching a fable. But we clearly remember childhood fables, don’t we? The turtle and the hare. Jack and the Beanstalk. Little Red Riding Hood and “grandma” Wolf.

And the mythos created by a candidate is very powerful. Think of President Ronald Reagan — the Great Communicator. President Theodor RooseveltSpeak Softly and Carry the Big Stick.  President Franklin RooseveltWe Have Nothing to Fear But Fear Itself!  President John KennedyAsk Not What Your Country Can Do For You!  These logos became the enduring embodiment and capture the legacy of many presidents.

And so whether conscious or not of the power of the system of rhetoric, we the listeners will no doubt be making up our minds on candidates in 2016 based on their rhetoric.

The two front runners now — Donald Trump and Secretary Hillary Clinton — have mastered rhetoric, whether by conscious means or not.  You like them or not based on the system of rhetoric I’ve just set out for your use.

I am writing this summary for you, dear friend and voter, not the candidates. They have their own advisors. I’m sharing this so that you can watch and listen to the candidates and the campaigns as these unfold, and put the ethos-pathos-logos together and see if the mythos (story) adds up and matches your own story. (Every one of our lives and those of our loved ones, near and departed, is a story, right?  A story we tell over and over in various ways.}

It may be that you have to hold your nose or avert your eyes and cast your vote. Or, happily, a candidate may really touch you and their mythos resonates with you and others.

So far, the two political party outsiders — Senator Bernie Sanders and The Donald — have done a really good job of creating their stories, mostly anti-establishment, anti-status quo. Their rhetoric is resonating with enthusiastic, cheering audiences.

What are your issues? What keeps you up at night? What are your daily worries? Think about the ethos — the values of the candidate(s) — and think hard: do they match your feelings about key issues, etc.?

Having coached corporate executives, public officials, heads of activist organizations, and others in the Aristotlean method of the rhetoric, I must listen to the candidates through this lens. And so can you.

And, (sigh) since we are a very divided nation on so many issues, I am finding it challenging to nail down the mythos that most appeals to me. I think that many Americans are in the same boat.

As my colleague and friend Larry Checco (a brilliant essayist) writes, this year it’s not about political party anymore — it’s about COUNTRY! in this election cycle.  You can see his essay at Accountability Central .com

And the 40% of the electorate that is reputed to be “independent” of party label or affiliation will be the determining factor in November.

When you hear “rhetoric,” keep in mind now that it is an ancient yet very powerful system to motivate you, the voter.  Use this guide in evaluating who should get your very precious gift in November – your vote!

Good luck to us all!

Personal footnote: My growin’ up hometown is Hempstead, New York (and semi-rural East Hempstead). How great it is for this hometown boy to see Hometown Hempstead and Hofstra University in the headlines ’round the clock!

At Crisis Time – For Companies and Celebrities, It’s Usually Not Just One Thing to Deal With

by Hank Boerner

In my career of advising clients on issue management and crisis management (and especially crisis response), I usually pointed out to  those in the crosshairs that it is not just “one thing” to deal with. Often, in time of an escalation of existing issues, a critical event occurring, or a full blown crisis at hand, the managers on point have to deal with numerous things going on.

Chaos, confusion, complexity reign. Things feel, well, like they are spinning out of control.  Often, they are!

Over the years I estimate that I’ve been involved in more than 400 critical issues and crisis situations — in various industries and sectors (auto manufacturing, banking and financial services, airlines, cruise ships, railroads, chemicals, pharmaceuticals, educational institutions, government, countries, mining, food marketing, consumer goods, oil & gas, mutual funds, stock exchanges…and more. Some of my work involves helping individuals cope with crisis eruptions. Those are vary tough assignments – emotional damage is difficult to deal with.

In my issue and crisis preparation training for managers, I stress the key, top line actions for effective response by the enterprise:

  • Know in advance what might go wrong (the potential risk posed to the enterprise or perhaps a leader such as the CEO), and monitor and evaluate those issues regularly. What “is” (facts) will surface one way or another – perhaps by a whistleblower. “Nothing is secret anymore” is my advice.
  • Develop a plan for responding to critical events; assign roles to responders and prepare them (such as with formal training).
  • Build prevention programs. Practice – drill – stress internal preparedness.
  • Establish communication channels and have content ready “in case.”
  • Respond quickly – work to reduce fear; maintain credibility; create positive perceptions where you can.
  • Work hard to control the incident, the crisis. Stress solutions. Demonstrate your values.
  • Communicate – tell your story — if not, others will fill the vacuum and their story…and yours…and set the context in which the story [of the crisis] will be told and retold in the future.

In the context of corporate crises situations, these guidelines have pretty much become SOPs. With my partners, over 25 years we helped many companies in the US and other countries put issue and crisis management programs in place.  There are other consulting practices doing the same. Yes, crisis situations still occur (cases in point including General Motors, BP, Target, the Obamacare launch) but many enterprises really are better prepared to respond that in years past.

But What About Individuals in Crisis?

For individuals involved in crisis situations — especially high wattage celebrities with brand and reputation (and future earnings) on the line — the man or woman in the crosshairs will often find themselves in uncharted territory.

As the ancient mapmakers would put on their charts of the distant oceans — here be dragons!

Right now, comedian Bill Cosby — “America’s Dad” as his brand — is dealing (or, not dealing) with a serious crisis continuing to spin out of control.

Comedian extraordinaire Bill Cosby has not been in hiding.  At 77 years of age, he is still very much in the game.  He’s been doing his one man shows across the country, 50 a year it’s reported  (My wife and I saw his show a few years ago — outstanding!) His books sit ready for purchase in many book stores and retail outlets. His TV series continues to air in syndication.

But recently a series of business decisions put him out front in media reports (of a favorable type) and stirred up allegations of sexual misconduct of years standing. Consider:

  • He was in discussions with NBC to create a new weekly TV series.
  • Netflix, the popular technology and entertainment threat to cable and broadcast dominance, had a special scheduled (“Bill Cosby 77,” featuring the  comedian as MC at the SF Jazz Center last July).
  • His old 1980s family audience TV show was doing well in re-runs (more income generation) on TV Land…possible marketing leverage for a new weekly show on NBC.
  • His books remain popular with readers and are featured in retail and on Amazon.
  • A new biography — “Bill Cosby. His Life and Times” by former CNN news leader and  former Newsweek managing editor Mark Whittaker was on the retail shelves.  Praises for Cosby in the book were by other celebrities who enjoyed cultural admiration — Mary Tyler Moore, Billy Crystal, Jerry Seinfeld.

Things were really looking up for the star of I Spy and The Bill Cosby Show, two important cultural foundation stones of many Americans’ youth.

And then…in mid-October comedian Hannibal Buress in a stand-up routine accused Cosby of being a rapist and told the audience to “Google” the record on this; he then went on the Howard Stern program on Sirius XM to repeat his charges, and pushed his views out on Twitter; The Philadelphia Inquirer “old media” giant posted the routine and the social media platforms it up.

Author Whittaker’s biography was publicly attacked by the National Review as “fawning,” glossing over the many rumors over the years about Mr. Cosby’s misconduct, and tagged the author as the “latest enabler.”  The article went viral in the nation’s politically conservative community.

Back in 2006, Philadelphia magazine published an article detailing the alleged attacks on more than a dozen women by the comedian.  The Montgomery County (Pennsylvania) district attorney (Bruce Castor) investigated claims and declined prosecution; he now has to publicly defend his prior decision.  A civil lawsuit proceeded with [there was said to be up] to 13 women that could be involved; that case was settled and sealed.

One of the women — Barbara Bowman — went public in November, publishing a commentary about her experience in The Washington Post.  That got other traditional and new media lighting up with more “news” and lots of commentary.

Other women then stepped forward — a dozen or so — repeating their stories of years ago or going public with their stories for the first time.

And the Google searches suggested by comedian Burress?  There were millions of searches, according to media reports..

Reaction was comparatively swift:

The NBC series – cancelled.  The Netflix special – cancelled. The interview with David Letterman on CBS – cancelled. The new biography’s sales were reported to be slumping. TV Land  re-runs – cancelled.

Author Whittaker’s  new biography was attacked by the National Review as “fawning,” glossing over the many rumors over the years about misconduct, and tagged the author as the “latest enabler.”  The conservative publication’s article went viral, especially within the nation’s politically conservative community.

All of sudden another “old” scandal was back in focus for the right wing:  former President Bill Clinton’s alleged sexual escapades — sure to haunt Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential race, the post writers opined. (We’ll see Paula and Monica and the other “Bill Clinton women” on  parade over the coming years, they predicted.)

The Cosby camp did respond on social media — a Twitter post encouraged the Twitter-ali to go to a web page and post comments.  They did!  Oh, not the comments that supporters would welcome, of course.

The New York Times published an in-depth story on all of this on November 20 — “Cosby Comeback Unravels as Rape Claims Flare.” The Times noted the long tail of the controversy: “The current furor surfaced surrounding Mr. Cosby had its root in accusations brought in 2005 by Andrea Constand, a female staff member with the basket ball team at Temple University (Cosby alma mater).” Despite DA Castor’s declining to prosecute, she brought a lawsuit that would possibly involve up to13 other “Jane Does.”  That was the was the civil case settled.  The “Jane Does” we can presume are those coming forward – and those planning to do so in the future.

Context is important in these matters.  And as I compose this, the news headlines scream out another complicating factor that is shaping in various ways public opinion:  “University of Virginia Suspends All Fraternities” – this after the still-remarkably relevant Rolling Stone magazine published a report that a female student was sexually assaulted by seven Phil Kappa Psi members in 2012.  The university president — a woman, by the way, Teresa Sullivan — called on her board, students, faculty, alumni…to begin a conversation on all of this.

That can be alongside the conversation about allegations or the reality of wife and child abuse by National Football League players…these have been glossed over, ignored, diminished…until there was sufficient public outrage and an apology by NFL leader Roger Goodell.  The viral video of Ravens player Ray Rice shown beating his fiancé/now wife in a casino triggered the crisis, which had been brewing for years if you think about it as anti-domestic violence advocates do.

Consider the Bold Names – Collateral Damage

Take a few seconds to read upward — note all the BOLD names in the commentary. Think about the rippling effects of the Bill Cosby crises.  The NFL crisis. The crisis today at the University of Virginia — and other universities where similar incidents have been charged by female students.  .The corporations involved with brands and revenues on the line now. The other celebrities praising Mr. Cosby.

The Role of Social Media and the Internet

Back to the Cosby case:  why are decades-old, or at least five or more years old cases being brought front and center today?  I think a profound difference is the omnipresence today of social media.  Citizen media. Everyman (and woman) media. The challenge of old media (The Washington Post, The New York Times) by new platforms like Huffington Post, even Twitter (as news source for millions of user, specially younger populations)..

We still have venerable TV national news forums  like those in the evening on CBS, NBC, ABC. (With great anchors — Scott Pelley, Brian Williams David Muir).  But since the 1980s we have 24/7 CNN as well…and many young people get their news from other “anchors” like Bill Maher (HBO) and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert (Comedy Central).  And I would throw in Saturday Night Live! parodies on NBC. On these new news platforms, humor and satire are the staples and celebrities in crisis should expect to be skewered.

But citizen media (social media) is really now the key to setting the match to a smoldering situation.  That applies to be companies like BP and celebrities like BC. As The Times’ Bill Carter, Graham Bowley and Lorne Manley noted in their November 20th Page One story: “The reach of web and social media impact have provided a distribution platform for these accusations, which had surfaced before but never gained widespread attention.”

And Martin Kaplan of the University of California’s journalism school noted: “The combination of [today’s] social media and Mr. Cosby’s return to the spotlight had propelled the story to much greater prominence that when the accusation first surfaced.”

As I said up top…Chaos, confusion, complexity reign.  UC’s Professor Kaplan explained: “The fact that he was already in the spotlight and the fact that these charges have a much more powerful amplifier and echo chamber, gives people the sense that this is a big story…”

Going back to the basic principles for crisis management — if in fact the allegations of the women accusing Mr. Cosby of serious sexual misconduct have a factual basis, as a celebrity (and therefore a “public person”) it might have been better to continue one’s career in lower profile.  In crisis management, over and over again, the lesson for leaders is clear:”what is, is” – and will come out at some time.

What are your thoughts on all this? What are the lessons learned?