Avoid stony indifference: prime your audiences directly

When it comes to communications planning, organizations of every ilk seem to spend a lot of time fussing about messages, tactics and products.

Communication, however — the very thing we are hoping to facilitate with this planning — only happens between people who are already connected and attending to each other — giving and sharing their attention.

In other words, a well-crafted message is only a message if people are ready to receive it and understand it. Otherwise, it is one more tree falling noiselessly in a forest.

The need to prime an audience for a message or story is the central insight of effective media relations. The very best people working in media relations build and nurture relationships with reporters and editors, to ensure they are ready to hear a pitch when it is made. The relationship — not the press release, key message or holding line — usually makes and shapes the story.

However, the story, much like the well-crafted key message, is only a story if people are ready to receive and understand it.  

Today, all of your audiences are very much like reporters and editors. Thousands of people are clamouring for their attention every minute of every day. Thanks to social media, they also have the means to reach thousands of people any minute of any day.

However, the influencer’s social media post, like the reporter’s front page story and your well-crafted message, is meaningful only if people are ready to receive and understand it.  

Thinking again of the example of effective media relations, we know the relationship is the most important consideration when it comes to priming an audience for a message. Relationships, we also know, happen between people. They can, in some cases, be nurtured digitally but nothing will ever surpass the effectiveness of regular and face-to-face interactions.  

This means, I think, that the people in an organization who most often directly interact with the organization’s primary target audience must be empowered to nurture the kind of relationship that will prime the audience to receive and understand the organization’s message. If it works for the media, it should work for other audiences too.

The challenge, of course, will be to nurture as many individual relationships as possible and to do it as efficiently as possible.

This goal has always been the siren song of media relations and, more recently, of social media influencers. A well-placed story or Instagram post, it is assumed, reaches a larger audience much more efficiently.

While this might have been true once upon a time, we now know that the chance of reaching a target audience through these means is much more of a gamble and not a sure thing. It is also much more difficult to control the message that is delivered. An organization’s own employees, I think, are in a much better position to prime its audiences effectively.

The other important consideration is operational.

Who in an organization is ultimately accountable for ensuring that all employees who engage with the organization’s audiences are empowered to prime them for its message?

Because this outcome involves communication, many different parts of an organization could share the responsibility. Crucially, however, if no one part of it is definitively accountable, the organization’s approach will be neither uniform nor coherent and ultimately piecemeal.

If your audience is hearing multiple messages from different parts of the organization, it won’t hear any of them or only those it wants to hear.   

Ultimately, there are many paths to your target audience, but, if your audience is not ready to receive and understand your message, it will not be communicated. The path taken will matter little.

If it makes good sense to prime journalists and editors and social media influencers to hear your message, it makes good sense to prime your target audience directly, relying on the employees who most often interact with it.

If no part of your organization is specifically accountable for ensuring that all relevant employees are empowered to prime your audience, it is likely that no one is doing it or, at best, it being done piecemeal or as an afterthought.

If that is true, your organization is overlooking the most important piece of the communication puzzle. Without the charitable attention of your audiences, your messages, tactics and products will encounter only stony indifference.



Another Important Discovery! February 2009. A Tuesday. Eleven-ish.

In a previous post (this one here), I suggested — rather formally — that it is a mistake to try to interpret another person’s understanding of the world, her intentions, and her behaviors by simply assuming her understanding of the world, her intentions, and her behaviors are much like one’s own. People are different and, as a result, think and act differently.

It again seems to me a rather trite point to make, but I guarantee  — I guarantee! — 99.99% of all people do not fully understand this point and / or do not  normally act in accord with its implications. I, for one, often need to remind myself both of the point and of its implications  — and I write about it!

At any rate, it occurred to me yesterday that there is a kind of corollary to this claim. It is this :

A person can’t control how another person will interpret his understanding of the world, his intentions, and his behavior.

In other words, even when a person is honest, clear, and direct, there is no manner, method, or style of communicating that can compel another person to understand what is communicated in a single specific sense. All that one can hope for is a charitable interpretation of what one communicates and even then how that interpretation falls out in actual practice will largely depend on the person doing the interpreting. After all, even a charitable reading of what a person says or does may not accord with what a person is intending to say and do. 

Now I want to make it clear that I am not suggesting that it is impossible for people to understand each other. People can and do understand each other but my point is that a full and mutual understanding takes effort, diligence, and good will amongst all parties involved — it doesn’t “just happen”. Moreover, for most people who think “they just get each other”, I am prepared to speculate that these people are generally misunderstanding each other or generally not understanding each other at all.

A Kind of Love Letter and Fair Thee Well to New Zealand

NB: I wrote this a couple of years ago. I think what I say here about Kiwis may apply more generally than I first thought. It may also be the work of someone who doesn’t quite get another person or group of persons because he fails to understand him, her, and/or them on their own terms. I won’t know for sure until I visit again. The play to which I refer is Paris is Dead


I recently finished writing a play inspired, in large part, by my experience of living in New Zealand for almost five years. In it, I offer the following stage direction:

The characters use any part of the stage, but do not ever intentionally interact. They can and do interact, but only as a matter of accident or coincidence. The overall feel of the act should be something akin to an argument.

Although I had not originally intended it as such, I can think of no better description of social life in New Zealand today. Let me explain.

In New Zealand, a person is never alone. No matter how far one travels, no matter how remote a place may seem, someone is bound to turn up sooner rather than later—and probably will bring a dog. And yet, despite this perpetual proximity, I have never known so lonely a people. Even amongst family and friends, a lonely silence surrounds everyone and everything. It is not a literal silence, of course. Many talk endlessly in the wordless moments provided by others; the birds are almost never quiet; the perpetual sound of the surf is ever-present; and always there is a car growling in the near distance. Instead, it is a silence of the uncommunicated and, curiously, it exists, I think, only because Kiwis love each other so very much.

Admittedly, a Kiwi’s love is not a poet’s love, recited in metered and measured words. Nor is it an actor’s love, ritualistically performed in public with scenes of passionate embrace. No, it is a driving, stubborn, hardworking love, more apt to mend a fence then present a bouquet of flowers, and it resonates in and through every feature of the impressive country carved into this beautiful land. Only a people who loved each other very much could make the necessary sacrifices to make a country like this possible and it could only have ever been done by a people for whom there is no greater expression of love than to provide material comfort, security, and personal freedom.

There is, however, a father-knows-best paternalism behind this love and, if ever questioned, it only ever offers one reply, often expressed without recourse to wasteful words: “this is the way you’ll be loved, until I decide otherwise, and you better like it.” Unfortunately, in this universe of equilbriums, paternalism, however well-intentioned, always has unforeseen consequences. In a father-knows-best society of personal security and freedom, where all persons are free to come and go safely as they please, conflict is never resolved, it is only relocated. If you don’t like working here, go find another job. Can’t handle the flat, shift. Don’t like this town, relocate. Don’t shake the boat, find another. When everyone knows everywhere else is as safe and as comfortable as anywhere else, it becomes too easy to say “get lost” and far too easy to walk away.

In the wake of the restless movement that results, easily and almost inadvertently, the body corporate and its self-appointed executive committees come to dominate the different spaces and places of society. Newcomers are expected to ingratiate themselves, learn where the line is and toe it, or carry on somewhere else. Communities, clubs, and social networks become introverted and isolated. Diversity gives way to homogeneity and, eventually, society fails to weave like a fabric, and it coalesces into something more akin to bubble wrap.

Confronted with the choice of staying put or going somewhere else very much the same, other habits and patterns emerge. Persons learn to communicate nothing, ignore everything, and resist all attachments. After all, communication leads only to conflict, what goes unknown sometimes doesn’t hurt, and attachments lead only to sorrow when the inevitable moving-on occurs. When direct communication evaporates into meaningful silences and pointed omissions, when misdeeds are overlooked but never forgotten, when everyone is protected by a moat of emotional distance, persons fall away from each other, and proximity rather than intimacy becomes the only measure of association, friendship, and love. Silence descends over everything and rules wordlessly over all.

Of course, from a world-historical, geo-political perspective, the very existence of this tiny agricultural nation is an absolute absurdity. That the country exists at all—nevermind its genuinely world-famous personalities and achievements—is something like a catholic mystery. It makes no sense to believe but in believing, one comes to understand its truth. So, if a little lonely silence is the price to be paid for peace, security, freedom, and a disproportionate affect on the world stage, it is very tempting to say, “so be it.” After all, it very well may be this lonely silence that fuels the fire of Kiwi achievement. When one knows there is always a net of unquestioning security in which to fall, the risk of noisy success must seem for some far less great, and high achievement almost inevitable.

Nevertheless, I can’t help but claim that there is something wrong here in New Zealand—or, at least, not quite right. In what can easily be called paradise on earth, everywhere there is this sad and unexpressed loneliness which is endured, I think, only because no one realizes it could be very different. Or, perhaps, New Zealand’s long and enviable history of personal economic sacrifice for the greater economic good of all has been unwittingly transferred to its emotional and social life. Only, in this instance, it is not so clear what greater good is being served by the personal emotional sacrifices of so many.

Yes, as I’ve said, New Zealand’s unexpressed loneliness may fuel Kiwi achievement, but it also fuels tagging, reckless driving, alcoholism, drug abuse, heartless promiscuity, problem gambling, petty crime, bashings, self-mutilation, mental illness, and suicide. What good are New Zealand’s achievements if its people cannot honestly express to each other how they feel, what they think, or what they dream. What good is a country of material comfort, security and freedom, if its children feel compelled, even in this information age, when everything in the world can easily be brought to their doorstep, to flee its shores in search of something not found here. What’s the point of a home and hearth, if no one feels any attachment to it and no one ever feels its warmth.

The short answer is Kiwis need to realize that they can and deserve to love each other as deeply as their hearts will allow and they need to realize that love involves much more than the provision of food, water, and shelter. It involves work and effort; it involves engagement, constructive criticism, and compromise; mutual and shared vulnerability; and, above all else, it involves honest expression, careful listening, and on-going dialogue—not pointed silences or imperial, self-certain, and unanswered monologues. Above all else, Kiwis need to choose not to be so afraid of each other and the full range of human feeling and they need to work together to figure out some way to cope with feelings—both good and bad—other than stoic suppression and hardened indifference to the occasional emotional explosion. Not being fussed at each other’s indiscretions is not the beginning and end of human interaction and experience.

Most importantly, Kiwis need to let themselves feel that love they all have for each other, that love everyone knows is there, but no one ever seems able to access. Sometimes, I catch glimpses of it, when everyone is too drunk to control themselves, too drunk to be worried or afraid, and just drunk enough to feign amnesia the morning-after. The distance between people, both physical and emotional, collapses, and there for all to see is this stubborn, honest, hardworking love, glowing and resonating in and between people instead of being redirected toward the land, a meal, the home, or a salary. I have seen it and maybe—just maybe—have felt it and that’s why I bother to say any of this, when all experience suggests it will be too easily disregarded as the unwanted observations of an outsider. Nevertheless, I say it because sometimes—just sometimes—it is the outsider who can speak what everyone else wants but is afraid to say.