[June 26, 2020] Past U.S. President Ronald Reagan is known as the “great communicator.” Like Reagan, all leaders want to clearly and accurately communicate their thinking through speech or the written word. That does not, however, always work out as intended. Conflicting messages are common, and I will address five important reasons here.
- There is no consistent and central message. Protests over the past few weeks in the United States, following the police killing of George Floyd, have been about demands for justice, stopping systemic racism against people of color, and inequality. There are several other, lesser reasons. Some examples are a demand for slavery reparations, voter suppression, free college tuition, defunding police, etc. It has been challenging to keep up with a growing list of demands. One thing is clear, and that is message control is now lost. What is the message today? It seems to change by the day.
- When everybody is in charge, no one is in charge. Conflicting messaging occurs when there is no unified leadership. For any group of people who want their message heard, working with those of similar ideas is necessary. There is power in numbers, but only if there is a central, repeatable message. Leadership makes a difference in how the message is received. For example, Martin Luther King, Jr. was the leader of the U.S. Civil Rights Movement. His message was clear, legal protection against racial discrimination, and his method was peaceful protests.
- Violence will conflict with any message. The protests we see daily in the news are intermixed with rioting and looting. Murder, theft, arson, and assault are occurring side by side with protests; much of it directed at successful businesses. Some of the largest cities with increasing violence rates have, through their municipal leadership, allowed the destruction to continue while saying they agree with the protests. Such city leader talk confuses things evermore. The newest perception is that there is no such thing as “peaceful” protesters but that they are genuinely violent and will stop at nothing.
- The failure to connect the message with mainstream values. No one in the U.S. would seriously deny that justice is wrong or that racism is a good thing. We all want the same thing in this regard. Everyone agrees that American values of hard work, integrity, loyalty, and caring for all citizens, regardless of race, religion, gender, and background is the right thing. We also believe that the law is to protect us against injustices. Demands for slavery reparations, free stuff, and getting rid of the police are unacceptable ideas. It goes against our collective grain. Rioting and looting are also intolerable outlets for protesting.
- Emotional outbursts detract from the message. Degrading sarcasm, name-calling, profanity, and a host of emotionally-laden words are a distraction from the real message. When our emotions get the best of us, we are less likely to use clear, straightforward language and are more apt to exaggerate, distort, as well as insult other people. Such emotion means our message can be lost in a barrage of verbal garbage that obscures what we are trying to say or do.
When good messages are conflicted by failures in leadership, violence, emotional outbursts, and inability to connect to our value systems, the messages will be mixed or lost. Failure is only a burnt police vehicle away. President Reagan understood. He emphasized that it was not just “my rhetoric or delivery” that carried him to the White House and a successful presidency, but that he spoke fundamental truths that the average American instinctively recognized, like the necessity of preserving individual freedom. “What I said simply made sense to the [man] on the street.”