Considerations on political communication

I found quite interesting the constant stream of books and articles about how Internet is challenging communication processes- albeit a little bit too long on hype, and too short on substance.

I am no real theorist- cultural anthropology and archaeology were some of my hobbies as a teenager.

But the inspiration for this short article comes from observing political campaigning during the transition from the pre-TV era to the free-to-air TV.

1950? No, I was born in 1965. But in Italy I remember the first political campaign that I saw, in Calabria, in early 1970s, when Italy still had one or two state-controlled TV stations, and few state-controlled radio stations.

It sounds like some other country? Well, look at the current debate in Italy (use translate.google.com, as usual) on the freedom of speech and Internet, and you will see that old habits never die.

In late 1970s, through a loophole, Mr. Berlusconi was between the first to create a private TV station, at a time when also free-to-air radios were cluttering the air.

Why is this relevant?

Because pre-TV and pre-radio political communication was based on events- and impromptu/planned meeting with people (“pressing the flesh”), beside the obvious back-stage meetings and negotiations (but those have not been replaced by the Internet).

Then as now, the communication wasn’t the usual “canned” question & answer that you are used to watch on TV.

Of course, at the time the communication channels were tightly controlled- therefore, an impolite reaction from a politician to criticism wasn’t immediately communicated to everybody who bothered to read.

But communication for public consumption was still on at least two levels: “position” and “background”.

It was relatively easy in the 1970s, as most politicians in Italy were selected and groomed by one of the few existing political parties, each one with a faithful cadre of in-house experts.

Often, these in-house experts were the same politicians- or pundits writing for newspapers that were the “house organ” of each political party (surviving courtesy of the generosity of the Italian state).

If you want: the Italian state subsidised not only the political activity and campaigning, but also the think-tanks who generated the material needed to allow politicians to express themselves on an endless list of subjects.

And, in pre-TV time, you had to be a little bit knowledgeable about multiple subjects.

If you want- each political representative actually behaved as the CEO of a “business unit”, using the centralized research facilities to craft his (because at the time in Italy they were mainly men) positions about the subject of the day.

And the “background” variety?

Well, not everything can be scripted in open events: therefore, part of the role of the “background researchers” was to prepare something on everything and monitor and evolve positions, following some general guidelines.

Why the guidelines? Because you have to maintain a certain degree of “consistency”- avoiding to be called a “flip-flopper” way too often.

The sound-bite approach, introduced by TV and, more relevant, by free-to-air radio, allowed to create some curious phenomena, such as politicians who, whenever asked about current events, were able to skid back to their “canned one-liner” in few seconds.

At the time, the comments were just shared between friends, as the best politicians were able to seamlessly integrate their canned answers within a simple rephrasing of the question- and sound as if they had actually expressed an opinion.

The worst? Well… they were the laughingstock- sounded like Peter Seller in his last movie.

What is the difference? Just visit my business/pro-bono page on Facebook, PartnershipIncubator, and you will see a flurry of instant reaction to each and any single word uttered by a politician.

Because Italy used to be a country where each Monday everybody was a football coach, and after every election everybody could be a better Presidente del Consiglio dei Ministri.

According to the Italian mindset, nothing is what it seems (and, quite often, they are right; read an interesting book by an English journalist).

So, can you imagine those poor Italian politicians, living in a country where almost anybody able to read is a natural-born Kremlinologist, able to use Twitter and Facebook?

No wonder that instead of giving free Internet access, the Italian government for a time said that it was going to cut the funding for broadband Internet.

More seriously, as you cannot reverse the arrow of time, it is not the “24 hour news” that will be challenging- but the “24/7 voting with their feet” that requires a different approach.

Just a thought- but maybe trying to pretend to be an expert in everything is not what really voters are looking for.

Solutions?

Well, admit that politicians are humans- with limited time and knowledge.

And that their main role is being able to connect all the dots and look for the potential side-effects,
while representing their constituents’ interests, “surfing” between the backbone (what they got elected for) and the daily events, and offering also their interpretation of a complex reality to their voters.

And organize communication accordingly.

Before I forget: happy St Valentine!

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