After more than 30 years in business, I don’t get offended easily. Having navigated the study of engineering, then liberal arts, serving an early stint in politics and government, doing a tour of duty in corporate America and then co-founding a consulting company, I am also accepting of the reality that others may not understand or support my career choices.
That said, short-lived White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci — “The Mooch” — deeply offended me in recent weeks, both as an American and as a communications professional.
One of the great conundrums of our time is that it has never been easier to communicate (the digital revolution in all its wonder), and yet it has never been more difficult to be understood. The explosion of “information” being tweeted, e-mailed and caromed off satellites has completely swamped our individual and collective capacities to process it well.
In the 1960s and ’70s, many saw the world through the same filters: three television networks, two or three weekly magazines, daily newspapers — and the leaders of that era conducted themselves accordingly. Famously, Richard Nixon was an early victim of the emerging technological disruption. Much has been written about his 1960 loss to President John F. Kennedy because for the first time, people could “know” the candidates via television.
No such collective filters exist anymore. Most of us can now navigate our days without ever having to listen to or see people we don’t want to know.
There have always been unprincipled “spinmeisters” — and as a civilization, we’ve evolved to mostly recognize them from a distance and steer clear of their bombast, beyond perhaps observing them for laughs, the way court jesters were the entertainment of royal households. But the trajectory of politics — and with it, the strength of our democracy — is now trending so alarmingly downward that I think we need to commit to a collective reset on the topic of what work organizational “spokespeople” are supposed to be doing. And value the importance of their doing it well.
Effective communications starts with a commitment that an organization does, in fact, want to be understood. The better organizations’ authentic intentions are understood by key stakeholders, the more likely they will be supported — or at least be left alone to pursue their business. Only an organization or leader who doesn’t want to be understood would undermine opportunities to communicate effectively. Obfuscation, misdirection or outright untruths become the tools of such an organization.
In such an organization, the work of spokespeople and communications professionals becomes highly compromised. Former press secretary Sean Spicer took the job of a lifetime, yet seemed destined to fail from day one. And “The Mooch” has so soiled the ground in the West Wing that it will be very interesting to see who is willing to take on the cleanup assignment.
I believe in the power of words; I believe in the strength of our republic and the institutions that have guided our development as a great nation. We need and deserve leaders who want to be understood, and who empower communications professionals to help them achieve that goal.
Kathy Tunheim is president and CEO of Tunheim, a communications consulting firm with headquarters in Bloomington.