Dialogue can trump anger in the impeachment age

A new initiative wants chief communications officers to lead the way in encouraging business to improve the level of civil discourse.

This week's launch of President Trump's impeachment inquiry attracted wall-to-wall TV coverage. (Pic: Getty Images).

A colleague of mine was this week sent a "Rage Rider" scooter to promote the Angry Birds mobile gaming and film franchise.

The Droga5-produced e-scooter operates by being shouted at, and the louder you scream, the faster it goes. It’s part of a "Bring the Anger" integrated marketing campaign to mark Angry Birds’ 10th anniversary.

Just what we need in New York City you’re thinking – more yelling...

Although, as m’colleague pointed out, perhaps it’s a powerful yet innocent outlet for rage that could do damage if channeled in a different direction. On social media for example.

It set me thinking about Bob Feldman’s launch this week of the Dialogue Project, an initiative designed to encourage chief communications officers to engage their companies in efforts to improve civil discourse.

Long-time comms pro Feldman, a veteran of high-profile PR firms including Burson-Marsteller, Ketchum, GCI and PulsePoint Group (now ICF Next), sent a letter to 400 CCOs with a view to compiling research on the subject by the end of June next year and presenting to the Page Annual Conference three months after that.

"The idea is, on a global basis, to identify those initiatives companies are undertaking and share them with others so we can encourage more companies to contribute," explained Feldman.

It’s an important topic and one that has been fueled by the rise of social media, where it seems agreeing to disagree in a respectful manner is anathema in an age where polarized views brook no space for discussion and exchange of views.

On Twitter and in cable news-land – even in the venerable halls of The New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal - everyone seems to have entrenched points of view and is not for turning. They just want those views reinforced and constantly reiterated.

In this context, it was somewhat ironic that Feldman’s initiative launched in the same week as the opening of the historic public impeachment inquiry against President Donald Trump.

Not only is this episode a microcosm of the entrenched belief systems on both sides of the political divide, the TV and social media coverage of the impeachment process also highlights the febrile and polarized nature of public discourse better than any other example.

As the aforementioned Washington Post correctly pointed out, what viewers learned about the impeachment inquiry depended entirely on which TV channel you watched, with different party lines existing in a pretty much one-note echo chamber.

Axios showed the different chryons on the lower third of the screen on three main cable channels at 8:00pm on Wednesday night. On Fox, by far the most popular TV channel for Republican supporters, the banner read "Deep state against Trump from the start on Russia".

On the left-leaning MSNBC, the presentation of exactly the same events stated: "Testimony on first day of impeachment hearings ties Trump to Ukraine pressure," while CNN framed it as "Key witness reveals staffer overheard Pres. Trump asking Amb. Sondland about ‘investigation’."

Now I’m unfortunately old enough to remember back in August 1974, as a kid back in England, watching on a grainy black and white TV the even more historic resignation of President Richard Nixon after a similar impeachment process to the one President Trump is experiencing now.

It was amusing to listen to comms veterans and political junkies Mike Fernandez and Gary Sheffer on their The Crux podcast reminiscing about spending that hot summer indoors watching the inquiry rather than being outside playing with their friends. It was a seminal moment in their fascination with politics and set them on their path to their future careers.

While the Nixon hearings were shown live and captivated a country not used to seeing such behind-the-scenes machinations, the pre-internet media coverage back then seemed more minimal and considered than the modern-day real-time wall to wall maelstrom within which Trump’s inquiry exists. The daily write-ups by the Washington Post, New York Times and New York Post were still many people’s vehicle for following the story.

President Clinton’s impeachment hearing in 1999 was largely conducted behind closed doors and the details only emerged following the publication of the Starr Report. By that time it had become evident that Clinton was going to be impeached, but also just as evident that he wasn’t going to be removed from the presidency because he was going to be acquitted by the Senate.

In a Washington Post piece this week, Bob Thompson, a media studies professor at Syracuse University, noted the fundamental difference between the Nixon and Trump impeachment hearings: "What’s like nothing I have ever seen before is that it’s like there’s no such thing as a bombshell anymore."

With Watergate, he said, "these were incredibly exciting little bits of data, dramaturgical explosions." But with Trump, "we’ve had plenty of these already in this story, and they cease to have their narrative impact." "It’s like we’ve come into a new age of storytelling," he concluded.

Of course, in previous impeachments there was no social media and the president couldn’t pick up his cellphone and tweet out his thoughts on a constant basis as a backdrop to the public hearing process.

Time will tell whether we’re headed for another impeachment and whether, if we are, that will lead to the removal of the president from office. We don’t know whether a witness will reveal something as earthshattering as the taping system Nixon had installed in the White House and the Saturday Night Massacre after the president refused to hand over the tapes.

And, if that happens, will this "new age of storytelling" mean no one really cares because nothing is going to sway people from their ingrained beliefs and point of view.

I would hope there are still enough people out there who can adopt a non-partisan attitude to events and base their opinions on the facts. And that’s where the demeanor we take on in the workplace can usefully benefit the debate.

In today’s febrile social and political environment, some say work has become an oasis of calm where people go to escape the external uncivil world, a sanctuary if you like.

The Dialogue Project’s Feldman explains that businesses convene hundreds of millions of people from very different walks of life every day to work together. He believes that, in an age where there is a seeming vacuum in society and politics, work is an environment that can foster a more understanding culture.

"Most efforts by companies are entirely focused on their impact on an organization, the corporation and the company’s various stakeholders," Feldman said. "I’m suggesting it’s not that big a leap that kind of training might [have] relevance outside the four walls of the company."

Some might consider that a naïve and fruitless mission, but in my view it’s a noble cause that deserves support and engagement with a view to achieving something greater than the sum of its parts.

Angry Birds is trying to convince us that anger can be a positive force for good. And, if you’re really set on that course, there is a public Rage Rider event you can attend in NYC’s Times Square on November 21.

But I’d say the philosophy behind the Dialogue Project sounds more productive in the long term – though maybe less cathartic – than powering a scooter via loud yelling.

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