I never thought I’d see the day.
Actually, that’s not quite accurate. In the early morning of November 9, 2016, I grabbed my coffee, kicked on my tablet and winced as I saw the presidential election outcome I’d feared. As a communicator, I recognized how effectively Donald Trump and his team had manipulated his base. I worried how that would play out over the next four years. Even that morning I wondered, just for a moment, if his hoped-for defeat in 2020 would spiral into violence. But being an optimist at heart, I forced myself to dismiss the notion. Feels a bit naïve now.
Still, there is good news: The vast majority of Americans of every political persuasion—yes, including ardent Trump supporters—seem to be appalled by what happened. That gives me hope that our nation’s fundamental principles and ideals endure.
But the dangers of false prophets and manipulative messaging remain. As a country, and as individuals, we must be diligent. Here are some things to consider, both in reflection and in resolve, from my perspective as a communicator:
Media in all forms remains a strong influence. Outside of cat videos and vacation pics, social media provides the disturbing means of creating echo chambers that nurture our biases or play on our fears. This has the unfortunate side effect of prompting some news media to mimic it, abandoning any pretense of “objective” reporting—whether such a thing ever existed is fodder for a different blog—in favor of building and feeding a chosen base. Fox News and OAN usually get fingered here, but the shift isn’t limited to television. (As usual, Matt Friedman makes an excellent case for radio’s role.) And it’s worsened by the continued shrinking of the Fourth Estate. I remain a strong advocate for legitimate news media and their vital role in our society. At the same time, there is much chaff to be shifted from the wheat, and each of us must take responsibility for doing so. Obi-Wan Kenobi’s warning is as relevant in our galaxy as in his.
We must ask thoughtful, powerful questions. It’s easy to blame news reporting when people embrace misguided ways. Yes, media bear some responsibility, but so do those who form the message and those who hear and respond to it. For months we’ve been inundated with unproven claims of a “rigged” election—claims lacking any compelling evidence and thus dismissed in more than 60 court cases to date. But a core number of people, certainly those who stormed the Capitol, continue to believe the allegations without question. Self-serving politicians played on this, repeating the falsehoods without thought of the consequences. When people were summoned to a “wild” gathering and urged to hold “trial by combat” with a march on the Capitol, violence was inevitable. As communicators, we need to confirm the veracity of our message and think through the implications of our words. As society, we need to ask hard questions about what we hear and what we’re asked to do—and even harder questions before we do it.
Calm, authentic leadership remains vital. While watching the riot on television, I was increasingly disturbed as the clock ticked by and no one in leadership spoke up. The President said nothing. Congressional leaders said nothing. (Yes, they were hunkered down, but at least one of them managed to get on the phone to a news agency to make sure viewers knew he’d begged the President for help. Not exactly inspiring leadership.) Finally, President-elect Joe Biden went on national television to simply, calmly and firmly demand an end to the violence: “Let me be very clear, the scenes of chaos at the Capitol do not represent who we are. What we are seeing is a small number of extremists dedicated to lawlessness. This is not dissent, it's disorder. It borders on sedition, and it must end. Now.” Biden—not yet President, not even a member of Congress—attempted to partly fill the leadership vacuum. While he could do little more than that, Biden knew the American people needed a voice of calm and reason in that moment. He stepped up when no one else would. After the chaos, when Congress gathered again, there were numerous after-the-fact efforts by Representatives and Senators to snatch back their leadership hats. They failed. Biden was the only person who displayed authentic leadership that day because he recognized how important that was to a stunned nation.
The path forward requires courage. In the wake of the riot, I noticed a lot of organizations issuing statements—usually in the vein of, “We’re shocked and saddened, let’s be better.” While I agree with that thought, the steady stream of safe sentiments began to feel disingenuous. “Bandwagon PR” is what I call it—making a statement just because others are doing it, not because you have something unique or compelling to say. In the face of one of the most heinous events in American history, organizations (and individuals) must show courage. One of my nonprofit clients decided to make a statement, but they started by asking themselves, “What needs to be said that we’re uniquely positioned to say? What will we call upon people to do that we’re uniquely equipped to help realize?” Out of that came a public statement that’s powerful, pointed and bold. On the flip side, there are organizations (not ones I work for) that could have spoken up but chose not to out of fear rather than relevance. These are difficult decisions, of course. But changing the course of our society and our nation will require greater courage.
All of us—every citizen, every community, every organization—will be vital to forging our way out of the years-long turmoil that led to January 6. Communicators hold a special role in helping us formulate the messages that will inspire healing, courage and resolve. When our nation is restored at last, I hope I can join with others in a new phrase:
I’m glad I lived to see the day.