Of all the downsides of our drenched-in-media, cell-phone-addicted culture, the upside is we all have finely attenuated bull sh*t detectors.

We can tell when we’re being played.

So, in public communication, that makes authenticity the coin of the realm.

Take the rise, out of nowhere, of Pete Buttigieg:

A thirty-seven year old, little-known mayor of a small city in rust-belt America, who in a field of 20 candidates is now polling in the top three. The other two have been in public life longer that he’s been alive!

That happened because Mayor Pete knows who he is, what he believes in, and what he wants to do in public life, and can talk about those things in concise, cogent sentences that always pivot toward the positive.

Sounds simple. It isn’t.

There are a lot smart people who can’t do what Mayor Pete does — and at the head of the class is Hilary Clinton.

The big myth of the 2016 U.S. presidential election is that Donald Trump won.

He did not.

His was a losing campaign at the beginning, in the middle, and at the end. And everyone associated with Trump’s campaign knew it. He had no platform, no ground operation, and he never spent a night on the road. (Seriously – he went home every night! It was a like a throwback to the 1800s, when candidates campaigned from their front porches.)

No, Donald Trump did not win the 2016 election – Hilary Clinton lost it.

There’s an old adage about political communication that applies to all communication: it’s not what you say, it’s what they hear.

What your audience wants to hear is the truth.

It may be a profound truth, or it may be a simple truth. But for it have any credibility, it has to be a truth you own.

When we at LRC present to professionals, we remind them that the act of communicating doesn’t mean you’ve communicated.

For example, Jeb Bush’s presidential campaign spent $130 million reaching out to primary voters and ended up with two delegates out of more than 2400. They talked, but no one heard what they had to say. They hadn’t figured out the truth of their campaign or their candidate.

PR professionals can work with their clients to find and tell their truth, but they still aren’t necessarily where they need to be. If you only connect with your audience intellectually, you aren’t being heard. That only happens when you connect with your audience emotionally.

And then, you enter a kind of relationship with each other.

The last presidential election proved that this relationship can withstand an extraordinary amount of stress.

That’s the real lesson of the Trump phenomenon.

Often, he crossed the line and should have made himself unelectable. By questioning John McCain’s status as a war hero. For attacking a Gold Star family. And then, finally, for his boastful description of his atrocious treatment of women. After that last scandal broke, I was sure he had lost the female vote. And, as any political scientist or pollster will tell you, women decide elections.

Yet Donald Trump won 42 percent of the women’s vote. He lost the popular vote overall, but won enough states to claim the Electoral College and the presidency. So the fact that he still held over 40 percent of women was instrumental to his narrow victory.

So the question is why they stayed with him.

The truth they heard him speak connected with them so powerfully that it overruled all other concerns

The answer, I believe, is that the truth they heard him speak connected with them so powerfully that it overruled all other concerns. They heard his glib descriptions of what amounted to sexual assault and were repulsed. But some were willing to look past even that because his simple, four-word message moved them:

Make America Great Again.

The operative word in that phrase is ‘great,’ because it can mean anything. Modified by ‘again,’ it becomes the perfect catch-all for both aspirations and resentments. It’s an empty frame that everyone in the audience can fill with any image, idea or emotion they want. And then, it’s theirs. Your slogan has become their mantra.

Contrast that with Hillary Clinton’s slogan:

Stronger Together.

That’s a perfectly lovely sentiment, but does anyone believe for a second it’s what has motivated Hillary Clinton’s decades-long involvement in politics?

A more honest slogan would have been “I’m Smart, I’m Qualified, and I Really, Really Want It.”

Of course that’s a slogan that couldn’t connect with any audience outside of a comedy club. But it has the ring of truth, doesn’t it?

And that’s the dilemma for leaders of all stripes — the public’s deeply held view that they are only in it for themselves.

I’ve worked with politicians for years, and I can honestly say that most are motivated by a belief in public service as a high calling. Of course, there is also an element of ego involved. Most of us recoil at the idea of seeing ourselves on television or standing up in front of thousands of strangers, asking for their support.

In my experience, about half of politicians love it. Walking in to a room full of strangers and turning them into an army of advocates is the greatest thrill they call imagine. Bill Clinton falls into that category. He’s easily the most naturally talented politician of his generation. And Hillary is easily one of the least.

So why did she, and the other unnaturals like her, do it?

Again, largely because they believe in public service.

They recognize that they benefited from those who came before them, the public servants who built the schools and roads and hospitals that made their lives and success possible. They sincerely believe they are obligated to do the same for others.

Hillary Clinton could have lived a very private, very successful life. She chose not to out of the belief that public service is how you change the world. And that’s what she wanted her life’s work to be, and if she had to repeatedly step out of her comfort zone to do it, then that’s the burden she’d have to bear.

That’s a compelling truth, and she told it, to an extent.

She admitted to not being a natural politician. But she should have gone a lot further.

She should have said, “I don’t love campaigning, but it’s the best way I know to connect with all of you. I don’t love politics, but it’s the only way I know deliver the change we need. I don’t love asking for votes, but I’m going to anyway, because your vote is your voice, and I need you to join me in speaking up for our future and our kids’ future.”

Going that route would have taken tremendous courage and carried real risk, of which Hillary Clinton is famously averse. So instead she ran a much more conventional campaign driven by voter data that completely missed the groundswell of voter resentment in rust-belt states like Michigan and Wisconsin.

Trump’s four phrase battle cry tapped into that anger to an extent that even his own campaign underestimated.

For all his faults and all his missteps, Trump’s simple message carried the day. It allowed his voters to imbue it with all their anger and all their hopes. He spoke, but they heard.

Now, a lot of the same people are listening to a gay mayor from a small town with a name that’s hard to say and harder to spell. Instead of lies, he’s speaking his authentic truth. Instead of anger, he’s stoking hope. But he is proving the same point – communication only happens when you connect with people where they live.

And you can only do that by being your own true self.

Let’s talk about how we can help you tell your truth: james@lloydrang.com


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