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Joseph E. Ryan

Communication Skills for Elected Officials
Developing a 'Good Narrative'


Joseph E. Ryan
Public Information Director,
City of Bayonne

see caption below
A good narrative is a clear, believable and understandable story about who you are, what you've done, what you are for and what you are against. If you cannot articulate these things, you are in the wrong line of work.

New Jersey’s local elected officials can improve their communication skills by learning from their national counterparts of the past and present. They can also make use of some recommendations offered by former U.S. Labor Secretary Robert Reich.

After John Kerry’s defeat in the 2004 presidential election, the country’s political pundits agreed that he had failed as a communicator during the campaign. The pundits developed a solid consensus that Kerry did not have what they called “a good narrative.”

What is a good narrative for a candidate or an elected official? A good narrative is a clear, believable and understandable story about who you are, what you’ve done, what you are for and what you are against. If you cannot articulate these things, you are in the wrong line of work.

Kerry’s presidential campaign narrative was weak. It emphasized his Vietnam War record, while it skipped over almost his entire 35-year political career. The Kerry narrative was short on what he had done as an elected official. His narrative also confused voters about who he really was and what he would really do as president. Kerry’s policy pronouncements were too changeable and too nuanced for the voters to follow. By contrast, George W. Bush’s policy lines were simple. As Bush put it himself, “I’m from Texas. We don’t do nuance.” Texas won and nuance lost.

Like their national counterparts, New Jersey’s local elected officials need good narratives about themselves, in order to win elections and remain in office.

Where can you go to get a framework for good narratives? We are fortunate that Robert Reich, who was Secretary of Labor in the Clinton Administration, provided an outline for a narrative strategy in an article that he wrote in March 2005 in the New Republic magazine. I would like to describe Secretary Reich’s recommendations for national politics, and then apply them to our situation at the local level in New Jersey.

Robert Reich offers four themes for a successful communications strategy.

Two themes are positive and two themes are negative. He says these four themes are like mental boxes that the voters expect the candidates to fill with good narratives.

Reich’s positive themes are “the triumphant individual” and “the benevolent community.” His negative themes are “the mob at the gates” and “the rot at the top.”

Reich tells us that the triumphant individual is the person who works hard and makes a successful life. Clearly, both Jon Corzine and Doug Forrester presented themselves as triumphant individuals in the 2005 gubernatorial campaign.

Reich describes the benevolent community as “the story of neighbors and friends who pitch in for the common good.” Since Hurricane Katrina, numerous elected officials across America have cited the benevolent community theme in speeches about those who have volunteered or contributed to hurricane relief efforts.

According to Robert Reich, the mob at the gates theme suggests that where we live is “a beacon light of virtue in a world of darkness, uniquely blessed but continuously endangered by foreign enemies.” During the past century at the national political level, Nazis, Communists, terrorists, and other foreign enemies have played the role of the mob at the gates.

Reich says that “the rot at the top” theme concerns “the malevolence of powerful elites. It’s a tale of corruption, decadence and irresponsibility in high places—of conspiracy against the common citizen.” During the past century, successful national politicians have identified the rot at the top with the elite groups who support the other political party. In the most recent election, both Corzine and Forrester suggested that the other guy was the rot at the top.

How can each of Reich’s themes be used at the local level in New Jersey?

The Triumphant Individual The triumphant individual is the taxpayer of humble origins who has worked hard to get ahead and succeeded. The ideal elected official in New Jersey is one of these triumphant individuals, or must make a sincere effort to identify with people like that in every speech.

If you are born a multi-millionaire, the rags-to-riches story of the triumphant individual theme does not work for your narrative. Some readers may remember the late Nelson Rockefeller, who served as Governor of New York and Vice President of the United States. Rockefeller knew that the rags-to-riches theme was impossible for him, so he tried the opposite. He campaigned like a regular guy, and talked like a streetwise New Yorker.

Comedian David Frye’s version of the Rockefeller regular guy routine went something like this: “My kids are just like everybody else’s kids. They love to play with blocks…51st street, 52nd street!”

The triumphant individual theme worked much better for Bill Clinton, who was born in very modest circumstances in the small town of Hope, Arkansas. When he ran for president for the first time in 1992, his campaign produced a brilliant biographical film, “Bill Clinton: The Man From Hope.” That film showed his rise from humble origins. At the end of the film, Clinton stressed both his optimism and his enduring small-town roots when he said: “I still believe in a place called Hope.”

The Benevolent Community This is an easy theme for candidates and elected officials, because it enables them to identify with popular citizen initiatives, such as local charities and fundraising drives. This is a theme that makes a community feel good about itself. Ronald Reagan used this theme very frequently, and always had a benevolent community person sitting in the balcony during his State of the Union speeches, someone he could use for an applause line. The Reagan balcony hero technique was very effective, and was named “the Skutnick” after its first honoree: “We saw the heroism of one of our young government employees, Lenny Skutnick, who, when he saw a young woman lose her grip on the helicopter line, dived into the water and dragged her to safety.” The benevolent community theme doesn’t get any better than that.

The Mob at the Gates The mob at the gates theme may vary by community. For example, voters in a poor community may view wealthy developers who want to gentrify their city as the mob at the gates.

By contrast, in a wealthier town, affluent voters may view the poor people in a neighboring town as the mob at the gates. If you don’t have a favorite mob at the gates, careful polling may help you discover whom your voters view as the mob at the gates.

The Rot at the Top The rot at the top is a theme that probably works best for first-time candidates who are challenging entrenched office-holders. It is easy for challengers to describe the incumbents as the corrupt and spoiled elite. If you have been in office for 30 years, do not despair. You, too, can use the rot at the top theme. Indeed, at the national level, Republicans have won seven of the last ten presidential elections, yet they have managed to convince the voters that the rot at the top is somebody else – federal bureaucrats, Hollywood liberals, the news media, secular humanists, and even Spongebob Squarepants.

If you suspect deep down that you are the rot at the top, you need to communicate to the public that you believe someone else is a much more outstanding piece of rot than you are. For example, in 1992, the corrupt Edwin Edwards ran against former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke for Governor of Louisiana. Some readers may remember the pro-Edwards slogan: “Vote for the crook. It’s important.” Edwards won by suggesting successfully that he was the lesser of two evils and that Duke was the evil of two lessers. Do not worry about being the lesser of two evils. After all, in election after election, the lesser of two evils has been a very successful candidate.

Learning from examples of past campaign successes and failures, and using the framework of Robert Reich, New Jersey’s public officials can put together successful communication strategies for the future.


NJLM - Developing Good Communication Skills

407 West State Street, Trenton, NJ 08618  (609)695-3481
 NJLM logo 

William G. Dressel Jr, Executive Director - Michael J. Darcey, CAE, Asst Executive Director
Change Font Size
Larger
| Smaller

Joseph E. Ryan

Communication Skills for Elected Officials
Developing a 'Good Narrative'


Joseph E. Ryan
Public Information Director,
City of Bayonne

see caption below
A good narrative is a clear, believable and understandable story about who you are, what you've done, what you are for and what you are against. If you cannot articulate these things, you are in the wrong line of work.

New Jersey’s local elected officials can improve their communication skills by learning from their national counterparts of the past and present. They can also make use of some recommendations offered by former U.S. Labor Secretary Robert Reich.

After John Kerry’s defeat in the 2004 presidential election, the country’s political pundits agreed that he had failed as a communicator during the campaign. The pundits developed a solid consensus that Kerry did not have what they called “a good narrative.”

What is a good narrative for a candidate or an elected official? A good narrative is a clear, believable and understandable story about who you are, what you’ve done, what you are for and what you are against. If you cannot articulate these things, you are in the wrong line of work.

Kerry’s presidential campaign narrative was weak. It emphasized his Vietnam War record, while it skipped over almost his entire 35-year political career. The Kerry narrative was short on what he had done as an elected official. His narrative also confused voters about who he really was and what he would really do as president. Kerry’s policy pronouncements were too changeable and too nuanced for the voters to follow. By contrast, George W. Bush’s policy lines were simple. As Bush put it himself, “I’m from Texas. We don’t do nuance.” Texas won and nuance lost.

Like their national counterparts, New Jersey’s local elected officials need good narratives about themselves, in order to win elections and remain in office.

Where can you go to get a framework for good narratives? We are fortunate that Robert Reich, who was Secretary of Labor in the Clinton Administration, provided an outline for a narrative strategy in an article that he wrote in March 2005 in the New Republic magazine. I would like to describe Secretary Reich’s recommendations for national politics, and then apply them to our situation at the local level in New Jersey.

Robert Reich offers four themes for a successful communications strategy.

Two themes are positive and two themes are negative. He says these four themes are like mental boxes that the voters expect the candidates to fill with good narratives.

Reich’s positive themes are “the triumphant individual” and “the benevolent community.” His negative themes are “the mob at the gates” and “the rot at the top.”

Reich tells us that the triumphant individual is the person who works hard and makes a successful life. Clearly, both Jon Corzine and Doug Forrester presented themselves as triumphant individuals in the 2005 gubernatorial campaign.

Reich describes the benevolent community as “the story of neighbors and friends who pitch in for the common good.” Since Hurricane Katrina, numerous elected officials across America have cited the benevolent community theme in speeches about those who have volunteered or contributed to hurricane relief efforts.

According to Robert Reich, the mob at the gates theme suggests that where we live is “a beacon light of virtue in a world of darkness, uniquely blessed but continuously endangered by foreign enemies.” During the past century at the national political level, Nazis, Communists, terrorists, and other foreign enemies have played the role of the mob at the gates.

Reich says that “the rot at the top” theme concerns “the malevolence of powerful elites. It’s a tale of corruption, decadence and irresponsibility in high places—of conspiracy against the common citizen.” During the past century, successful national politicians have identified the rot at the top with the elite groups who support the other political party. In the most recent election, both Corzine and Forrester suggested that the other guy was the rot at the top.

How can each of Reich’s themes be used at the local level in New Jersey?

The Triumphant Individual The triumphant individual is the taxpayer of humble origins who has worked hard to get ahead and succeeded. The ideal elected official in New Jersey is one of these triumphant individuals, or must make a sincere effort to identify with people like that in every speech.

If you are born a multi-millionaire, the rags-to-riches story of the triumphant individual theme does not work for your narrative. Some readers may remember the late Nelson Rockefeller, who served as Governor of New York and Vice President of the United States. Rockefeller knew that the rags-to-riches theme was impossible for him, so he tried the opposite. He campaigned like a regular guy, and talked like a streetwise New Yorker.

Comedian David Frye’s version of the Rockefeller regular guy routine went something like this: “My kids are just like everybody else’s kids. They love to play with blocks…51st street, 52nd street!”

The triumphant individual theme worked much better for Bill Clinton, who was born in very modest circumstances in the small town of Hope, Arkansas. When he ran for president for the first time in 1992, his campaign produced a brilliant biographical film, “Bill Clinton: The Man From Hope.” That film showed his rise from humble origins. At the end of the film, Clinton stressed both his optimism and his enduring small-town roots when he said: “I still believe in a place called Hope.”

The Benevolent Community This is an easy theme for candidates and elected officials, because it enables them to identify with popular citizen initiatives, such as local charities and fundraising drives. This is a theme that makes a community feel good about itself. Ronald Reagan used this theme very frequently, and always had a benevolent community person sitting in the balcony during his State of the Union speeches, someone he could use for an applause line. The Reagan balcony hero technique was very effective, and was named “the Skutnick” after its first honoree: “We saw the heroism of one of our young government employees, Lenny Skutnick, who, when he saw a young woman lose her grip on the helicopter line, dived into the water and dragged her to safety.” The benevolent community theme doesn’t get any better than that.

The Mob at the Gates The mob at the gates theme may vary by community. For example, voters in a poor community may view wealthy developers who want to gentrify their city as the mob at the gates.

By contrast, in a wealthier town, affluent voters may view the poor people in a neighboring town as the mob at the gates. If you don’t have a favorite mob at the gates, careful polling may help you discover whom your voters view as the mob at the gates.

The Rot at the Top The rot at the top is a theme that probably works best for first-time candidates who are challenging entrenched office-holders. It is easy for challengers to describe the incumbents as the corrupt and spoiled elite. If you have been in office for 30 years, do not despair. You, too, can use the rot at the top theme. Indeed, at the national level, Republicans have won seven of the last ten presidential elections, yet they have managed to convince the voters that the rot at the top is somebody else – federal bureaucrats, Hollywood liberals, the news media, secular humanists, and even Spongebob Squarepants.

If you suspect deep down that you are the rot at the top, you need to communicate to the public that you believe someone else is a much more outstanding piece of rot than you are. For example, in 1992, the corrupt Edwin Edwards ran against former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke for Governor of Louisiana. Some readers may remember the pro-Edwards slogan: “Vote for the crook. It’s important.” Edwards won by suggesting successfully that he was the lesser of two evils and that Duke was the evil of two lessers. Do not worry about being the lesser of two evils. After all, in election after election, the lesser of two evils has been a very successful candidate.

Learning from examples of past campaign successes and failures, and using the framework of Robert Reich, New Jersey’s public officials can put together successful communication strategies for the future.


Article published in March 2006, New Jersey Municipalities

 

 

 

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