Communicating in a divided America

In such a polarized environment, smart communications counsel is required more than ever before – but it has to be extremely nuanced and take account of all viewpoints and stakeholders.

Rudy Giuliani's crazy press conferences are just one sympton of an increasingly polarized country. (Pic: Getty Images.)

America is a divided country.

While a record almost 80 million people voted for President-elect Joe Biden in this month’s general election, nearly 74 million voted for President Donald Trump – the second-highest figure ever posted by a U.S. electoral candidate.

Look at a map of the country based on voting choices and it tells the story: A stark picture with blocks of Democratic blue on both coasts and swaths of red in the middle of the country.

Down the ballot, it was also a pretty positive story for the Republican candidates, with the red corner picking up eight seats in the House of Representatives and the Senate hanging on a knife edge that will be decided by two runoffs in Georgia in January 2021. So, Biden has a mandate - but it's certainly not unequivocal.

It’s safe to say that only the Biden candidacy would have drawn together the amount of support required to carry the presidential race, and the Democratic Party clearly realized this earlier this year when they all rallied behind him, however much that may have galled them to do so.

It’s easy – extremely easy - to mock the continuing resistance to accepting the election result from the Trump campaign, with the latest bizarre illustration of it being the crazy 90-minute press conference at RNC HQ in Washington, DC yesterday fronted by the president’s personal lawyers and advisers Sidney Powell, Jenna Ellis and Rudy Giuliani.

Following on from his starring role at another eccentric presser at Four Seasons Landscaping in Philadelphia two weeks ago, this time Giuliani’s hair dye ran down his face under the hot lights of the podium and he acted out a reconstruction of a scene from the film My Cousin Vinny to illustrate his point.

Powell even managed to trump Giuliani’s rhetoric with allusions to the “massive influence” of communist money through Venezuela, Cuba and, likely, China in interfering with the U.S. elections, particularly via Dominion Voting Systems technology created in Venezuela at the direction of that country’s former president Hugo Chavez to make sure he never lost an election. She also worked in conspiracy theory references to George Soros and the Clintons.

Vanity Fair described the press event as “batshit-crazy” and “possibly the most insane 90 minutes Giuliani‘s ever been involved in, and that includes his scene in the new Borat movie.”

Whatever it was, it certainly wasn’t a lesson in effective media relations. Even Fox News apparatchik Tucker Carlson poured scorn on it, though clearly he has his own agendas for doing so.

The problem is that, while this voter fraud rhetoric is rightly derided in many quarters and no real hard evidence has yet been produced to explain how it could in any way make up the 6 million vote difference between the two presidential candidates, there are still a significant amount of people who buy into this narrative.

For many of these people, even Fox is no longer hard line enough to satisfy their ideological leanings. They are decamping to far-right outlets such as Newsmax and OAN and the Parler social network.

Newsmax’s 7pm Greg Kelly Reports show is regularly attracting almost 1 million viewers. Former White House press secretary Sean Spicer’s Spicer & Co. show has spiked from fewer than 100,000 daily viewers to almost eight times that figure.

On powerful social media and other digital platforms such as Facebook and YouTube, the voter fraud conspiracy theories are trending among the most-engaged-with topics.

CNN’s Brian Stelter describes it as “two Americas with completely different assumptions and expectations and information sources.” “One track is rooted in the reality that Trump was never a popular president, was unable to expand his base, and was voted out of office," he adds. “The other track is a fictional story … that says the election is not over, Trump is going to win, and if he doesn't, it will be because the Democrats and the media stole it from him.”

MSNBC's Chris Hayes wrote on Twitter: "The thing to remember is that literally no matter what Trump does, and I really mean that and all it implies, 40-45% of the country is gonna be with him."

Meanwhile, a record number of people are being infected by COVID-19 each day – another area where conspiracy theories run riot on the same channels as the voter fraud rhetoric – and, while the prospect of vaccines appearing on the horizon is cause for optimism, America’s hospitals are once again overflowing with victims of this horrible pandemic.

This all has big implications for communicators and marketers.

Few brands can afford to ignore 40-45% of consumers, so messaging has to be extremely nuanced to cater to this divided America and communicate to such a polarized population.

For PR firms, there will be staffers and, especially, clients on both sides of the divide. In-house teams will have representatives all over the U.S. and the rest of the globe, with similarly divergent views.

Much of the wealth of America exists on the two coasts and many people view these coasts as elites that have no idea how the rest of the country lives and what they believe in, especially around hot-button issues such as climate change, religion, diversity, education, purpose and energy.

While those PR pros sitting in New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Chicago may trend toward being left-leaning in their world view, if you want to serve all your stakeholders and work across a range of businesses and regions don’t assume that applies to every staffer or every client – you need to be apolitical in your outlook, however difficult that might be at times.

Language must be nuanced and advisers should be careful how they counsel their clients and audiences. Online communication, both personal and brand-led, must also be handled very sensitively.

It would be nice to think that everything will settle down once the new administration is installed and that the country could return once again to an environment where people can agree to disagree but still remain on cordial terms.

However, I don’t think that genie is going to be very easy to be put back in the bottle and the polarization of America – and other parts of the globe – is set to continue for some time yet.

The new Democratic administration will need to navigate this and not drop back into a party of infighting and radical agendas that don't resonate with half the country if President-elect Biden is to make good on his promise to govern for all Americans, not just those who voted for him.

In these surroundings, smart communications and reputation counsel is required more than ever before, but exceptionally nuanced and skilled counsel. In fact, it is a big business opportunity for PR firms and the brands they advise.

But, remember, as one senior PR agency leader told me this week: “We’re in the business of making friends, not causing offence.”

And, as with Biden, that means making friends with all Americans - not just one half of this divided country.

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