Monday, December 07, 2009

Communicator in Chief

President Obama’s December 1st speech was much anticipated by American and international audiences, waiting for both the content and broader context of the President’s remarks. This speech offers some interesting examples of strategic communication, including examples of multivocality – the “art of saying different things to different audiences in one speech.”

Strategic communication encompasses not only the words of a message, but its presentation and medium as well. For example, President Obama deliberately waited to give his speech until after the Thanksgiving holiday. While specifics of the decision regarding future US involvement in Afghanistan had been largely decided, and disseminated through the media prior to the holiday, he waited until after the collective celebration, and undoubtedly Black Friday shopping, to make an announcement regarding military action that will cost both money and American lives.

Furthermore, President Obama could have released a statement through Robert Gibbs, through an official white house statement, or he could have given a message from the Oval office, but instead he chose to do speak at West Point. This venue portrays future military leadership and also voluntary service. The Academy invokes a sense of reverence and is a more palatable image of US military, as opposed to those in battle dress. Clearly, strategic communication is very purposeful in context beyond the content of a message.

Regarding content, consider the following excerpt:
Because this is an international effort, I have asked that our commitment be joined by contributions from our allies. Some have already provided additional troops, and we are confident that there will be further contributions in the days and weeks ahead.

This passage signals to the domestic audience that our involvement is legitimate in eyes of world, because we have partners in the effort; we are not acting alone. For the international community, this is an appeal, signaling what we are willing to do, but that the gravity of the situation requires that they step up to aid in this collective effort.

Another example:
This effort must be based on performance. The days of providing a blank check are over.
These statements can indicate to democrats – we’re going to do better than the Bush administration. However, it can simultaneously say to republicans – we’re going to be fiscally conservative. This is a masterful use of multivocality.

And finally:
…we must draw on the strength of our values - for the challenges that we face may have changed, but the things that we believe in must not.
President Obama addresses the idea of values, but without elucidating certain ones, and the invocation can be open to any person’s core values. Therefore the call challenges collective adherence to whatever values we hold, regardless of differences among the listeners.

President Obama uses strategic communication, especially multivocality, as an effective tool; but his audience is complex and diverse. Ultimately, we need to be strategic listeners so that we can interpret all possible messages and their implications. To be an engaged citizenry, we must listen with as much purpose as the President speaks.

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