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MESSAGE AND STRATEGY MEMO: The Dangers of the Jingling Keys

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More than ever, we’re a short attention-span society.

I can see you reaching to click over to Facebook or BuzzFeed, already.  Stick with me.  This is worth it, if you want to improve your messaging and overall communications game.

Nowhere is this shortening attention span a worse development than in progressive political messaging.  It hurts us from within, and from the outside.  I call it the “Dangers of the Jingling Keys.”

More and more, people are like cats.  We’ll play and focus on a ball of yarn, but forget all about it when jingling keys are shimmering above us.  In fact, while writing that sentence, I got distracted by an article about Uber and another one about Mark Hamill returning to Star Wars.  So, none of us is really immune to the jingling keys.

Politics, especially given the sharpness of microtargeting, is getting more and more full of jingling keys.  Noam Chomsky explains how this can be used by outside interests:

“The primary element of social control is the strategy of distraction which is to divert public attention from important issues and changes determined by the political and economic elites, by the technique of flood or flooding continuous distractions and insignificant information…”

Now, Chomsky is writing about how the media uses this tactic, but it really can (and has) been used by a wide variety of interests.

On the fringe right, for instance, why do you think “Benghazi” keeps coming up, every time a real issue starts being seriously debated?  Because, right now, it’s one of the shiniest set of keys that the power brokers on the right can shake, to distract their base.  It’s why, year in and year out, the “War on Christmas” is at the top of their news.

Conservative candidates will use it all the time, too:

  • Want to talk about their close ties to corporate interests?  They want to talk about the “culture of life.”
  • Want to talk about their vote to defund child programs?  They want to talk about “the sanctity of marriage is under attack.”
  • Want to talk about them voting against a living wage?  They want to talk about Mexican terrorists with Ebola coming through our borders, or some other nonsense.

In short, every time to want to talk about things that might make their constituents think less of them, they jingle those keys to get their constituents to look the other way.

That’s how dangling keys are used from the outside.

The danger is that progressives end up chasing those keys, too.  Sometimes, there’s no choice but to, like when Todd Akin makes a disqualifying comment, like about “legitimate rape.”  It’s a knock-out blow.

But, then there is the danger progressives often fall into – chasing after conservatives and the keys they’re dangling, because those issue positions just make us so darned angry.  Heck, I’m sure just reading the term “War on Christmas” got your blood boiling.  But, progressives can’t get tempted to chase those debates.  Not only do we end up debating on their turf, but we allow the focus to be taken off the core issues we should be paying attention to.

Take defeated Colorado Senator Mark Udall’s campaign.  His campaign thought a debate over his conservative opponent’s stance against women’s reproductive rights was so worth chasing, that Udall became known around the state as “Mark Uterus.”

As we say in the Tribe: Oy vey ist mir.

On top of it, we progressives often create and jingle our own keys, distracting ourselves from what we’re trying to achieve.

I don’t think I saw a better example of this than with Occupy Wall Street.

It started as a simple idea.  In the wake of the financial crisis that put families across the country on edge, take over part of the financial capital of the world to bring attention to how the power brokers rigged the system to enrich themselves, and punish everyone else, financially.  Or, as it quickly became explained in shorthand – the “99 percent vs. the 1 percent.”

Wonderful, focused campaign.

However, by the time the group put out it’s first press release, it was taking on, literally, any issue that progressives could possibly be concerned about.  Their statement of grievances (not to be confused with Frank Constanza’s Airing of Grievances) included some of the following charges against the 1 percent:

  • They have poisoned the food supply through negligence, and undermined the farming system through monopolization.
  • They have profited off of the torture, confinement, and cruel treatment of countless nonhuman animals, and actively hide these practices.
  • They have used the military and police force to prevent freedom of the press.
  • They have deliberately declined to recall faulty products endangering lives in pursuit of profit.
  • They purposefully keep people misinformed and fearful through their control of the media.
  • They have accepted private contracts to murder prisoners even when presented with serious doubts about their guilt.
  • They have perpetuated colonialism at home and abroad.
  • They have participated in the torture and murder of innocent civilians overseas.
  • They continue to create weapons of mass destruction in order to receive government contracts.

That’s not to say that these issues aren’t important.  Hell, it takes a real son of a bitch to torture animals! There’s no doubt that big corporations do that, with unnecessary animal testing.

But when everyone starts shaking their own set of keys, the proverbial cat (in this case, people we’re trying to join our cause or campaign) will get overloaded, confused, and run from the room.

When you pick a message and a focus, stick to it, no matter how tempting it is to take on “just one more issue” or how many times you try to rationalize expanding the range of issues you work on “because it will broaden our reach.”

This isn’t to say that you only ever talk about one issue and stick your head in the sand about everything else going on.  But, always come right back to your core message.  Your turf.

In the end, Bill Clinton’s campaign manager James Carville’s posting, in the 1992 campaign office remains genius.

Carville had a campaign filled with smart Democrats, who were tempted to take President George H.W. Bush on about everything, and a candidate who was so smart that he wanted to debate everything.

So Carville posted a note in the office:

  1. Change vs. more of the same
  2. The economy, stupid
  3. Don’t forget health care

It was a simple reminder – “this is our message, nothing else.”  There were times when the campaign (and candidate) started to stray, but all Carville had to do was point to that sign, the campaign would refocus, and we all know the rest.

If I had to give one piece of advice to any progressive campaign, or cause, it would be to not chase the shiny keys from the inside or out.  Remember who you are and why you’re there and stick with it.  Drill it, day in and day out.  And when the other side tries to drag you one way, you drag ’em right on back.

Author: Eric Schmeltzer

That progressive guy. Very different from that Progressive Girl (aka "Flo"). Also an independent PR consultant.

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