Monthly Archives: October 2013

The Ethics of Political Communication

All the Sturm und Drang over Obamacare and shutdowns has filled the air with overheated political rhetoric to the point that many people are completely turned off by government and political debate.  “You can’t believe anything any of them say.”    
While such a public reaction might make the study of political communication more interesting, it also makes the practice of ethical political communication more challenging.  

The terms ethical and political communication shouldn’t be mutually exclusive.  Nearly all political communication tries to persuade.  But there are limits on how far the ethical communicator can go beyond completely neutral, fact-based arguments that present both sides of an issue in cold, objective terms.  And that line between ethical and unethical communication can sometimes be quite faint.  Let’s explore both sides of the line.

Spin is not inherently unethical.  It generally refers to accentuating the positive without mentioning the negative.  We’re all used to it.  Every good sales pitch is spin.  In politics and public affairs, we hear spin every day when people says something completely biased to describe an event or viewpoint.  Ironically, politicians often accuse each other of spinning while they’re busy spinning themselves.

Why do they spin?  Because they’re selling.  Most political communication takes place in a world of competing ideas, priorities and agendas; a world in which “winning” is the goal.  That doesn’t mean honest political communicators shouldn’t try to persuade; shouldn’t try to marshal compelling and convincing arguments to win people over.  It’s an overreliance on persuasion —on empty hype without substance — that weakens the public’s belief and trust in their leaders and institutions.

Is “spin-free” political communication even possible?  Possible maybe, but extremely unlikely…and it would be seriously dull and passionless.  Imagine a political debate in which opposing debaters just presented facts and data and said nothing to try to persuade the audience to support their viewpoint.  Imagine if no politician ever spoke with zeal and conviction.  Imagine the interest and participation in our political system if nobody was ever stirred or motivated to participate.

The word itself brings to mind some of the most cruel and repressive regimes in history: Hitler’s Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union under Stalin, Maoist China and today, North Korea under Kim Jong Un.  It reeks of dictatorships and mind control.  But the fact is propaganda was not just a tool for totalitarians, and it did not die out with the fall of Berlin or the Berlin Wall.  It is alive and well in America, among other places.  

The problem with propaganda is that it tries to directly influence people’s opinions rather than communicate facts.  What sets propaganda apart from other forms of advocacy is a willingness to sway people through deception and confusion rather than persuasion and understanding.  Propaganda frequently relies on subtle, even insidious ways to shape opinion, such as calculated attempts to evoke strong emotions or by suggesting illogical relationships between concepts.

Lies aren’t spin. They’re just lies. But, the pervasive use of spin by politicians and its tacit acceptance by the media and to a large extent, the public, have created an environment that tempts political communicators to try to dress up flat-out lies as spin.  And that’s the real tragedy: more elected officials and candidates are willing to simply make it up to win an election or a public policy debate.  

We used to count on the news media to patrol the borders of truth and fact, and sound the alarm when someone crossed the line.  Unfortunately, with the dramatic changes in media and political reporters, politicians have learned they can lie with virtual impunity; that they will rarely be called on it.  Fewer reporters have the institutional memory to know when a politician is telling a whopper or the tenure to feel secure in calling them on it when it occurs.  And I’ve been told by reporters on the Hill that being the “honesty police” is the job of PolitiFact and FactCheck.
Political Communication Ethics
It’s really pretty simple.  What separates propaganda and lying from honest political discourse, more than anything else, is the intent of the communicator.  And intent is governed, more than anything else, by that communicator’s professionalism and ethics.  

You may someday be put in the position of having to decide whether you’re willing to cross the line or not.  It could even be a matter of keeping your job.  What would you do?  

By Dave Helfert



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Sorting Things Out

Thursday, October 17th has been officially declared the day the U.S. Government “runs out of money to pay its bills.” As the heat under the issue continues toward a rolling boil, the volume of political messages — in quantity and loudness — grows daily. But like jalapeño peppers in a pot of chili, more isn’t always better.

Students of communication during such epic political battles have the luxury of analyzing the fight while it’s still going on. We get to take a close look at who’s saying what and how the messages are evolving; consider what messages could have been sent but weren’t that might have affected the ultimate outcome or longer term strategy, and identify message opportunities completely missed. It’s like a military historian getting to observe Yorktown, or Gettysburg or the Battle of the Bulge while the bullets were still flying.

The list of combatants keeps growing. You almost need a program to identify all the players. You have House Republicans versus the White House, and House Republicans versus Senate Democrats. It’s the House Democrats versus Senate Republicans; and House Republicans versus House Democrats. It’s some House Republicans versus Senate Republicans. It’s a few Senate Republicans versus other Senate Republicans and all the Senate Democrats. And it’s the White House versus a few Senate Republicans, but pretty much leaving the rest of the Senate Republicans alone. And it’s a few Senate Democrats trying to act like they were somewhere else. Then you have corporate financial and business interests sending messages to House and Senate Republicans, and getting messages from the White House. You have conservative ideological interests sending messages to House Republicans and a few Republican Senators.

Got all that?

In a free-for-all like this, it would be tough to decide who’s winning the message battle. About the best you can do is check to see how any of the messaging might have changed since the fight broke out, and pretty clearly, it has. Some of this reflects changing ground and changing circumstances.

The White House is now a bit more open to discussions with Republicans over some elements of Obamacare. The argument is over when discussions occur.

House Republicans have backed way off their earlier demands that the White House defund, then delay, then delay parts of, then modify Obamacare.

More of the ‘Old Guard’ Senate Republicans want the whole thing over. They’re looking at public opinion, which blames Republicans in Congress more for the stalemate than Democrats. They’re afraid the fight will only hurt their chances for a majority in both Houses of Congress anytime in the foreseeable future.

The Republican’s financial and big business supporters are telling their political friends that threatening the full faith and credit of the United States is bad for business.

The ideological folks are yelling, “No Surrender!” They want House Republicans to continue the stand-off; some are unconvinced that refusing to raise the debt limit will have any effect on the country’s credit rating.

Senator Ted Cruz of Texas apparently thinks he’s winning the battle.

Missed message opportunities? Might have been nice for some authoritative, credible source to translate all the Hill babble — CRs; conferencing; Regular Order — into English and explain to the public what exactly is going on here.

And the White House could have had Health & Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius explain how in the world all the Obamacare computer screw-ups happened, what’s being done to to fix them and who will be held accountable. If they did this while the public’s attention is focused on the government shut down and debt limit fight, it wouldn’t be looming as yet another contentious issue as soon as this one’s over.

The battle continues.

By Dave Helfert


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Putting the Pieces Together

Each class I teach in political and governmental communication lasts about three hours.  But preparing to teach the classes took me more than 30 years, mainly because the operative principles behind the skills I teach aren’t in textbooks.  They weren’t in any of the journalism or communication classes I took as an undergraduate.  The theories and concepts behind them were only addressed tangentially in graduate school.  And even then they were cloaked in scholarly discussions in an alien tongue punctuated by parenthesized cites of other scholarly discussions in alien tongues.  So, it took me a while to put the pieces together about the practice of effective public (government and political) communication because I had to learn most of it by doing it. 

Here are some of the pieces:

  1. Effective public communication has one purpose: to persuade people to agree with the communicator, to win an election or win on a public policy issue. 
  2. Winning in politics and government means you must not only persuade a majority of the public, voters or decision-makers to agree with you, but motivate them to take an action as well.
  3. This persuasion can only occur when the message makes enough connection with the audience to be received, considered and, if the communication is effective, accepted.
  4. Part of making that connection is communicating in words, phrases, signs and symbols that your audience understands.   

A lot of veteran political and government communicators insist that all you need to do to is give people facts; the data; even the fiscal impact in trillions of dollars over ten years.  “The public isn’t stupid.  They’ll figure it out.  They know what’s important.” 

The public is absolutely not stupid.  But most people are pretty focused on their own lives, their family, their career, their next rent or house payment, how the car’s running, retirement, friends, their church, their next vacation, etc.  A government policy, even something very important, is probably about 43rd on their list of things to worry about.  But, connect what you’re talking about to people’s lives and they’re a lot more likely to pay attention.

When you’re trying to communicate with people, talk like people talk.  Policy communication is frequently filled with authoritative data, legal, budgetary details and history or other supportive and content information.  Professionals need to thoroughly analyze potential policy solutions, kick ideas and concepts back and forth looking for weaknesses, incorrect assumptions or additional approaches, and weigh possibilities against needs.  These conversations are quite naturally conducted in the language of their issue, using jargon, shorthand phrases and acronyms that all the participants understand.  

Communication problems occur when those participants assume the general public also speaks their language, and that their own familiarity with abstract concepts and technical information is universally shared.  That’s how we wind up with public discussions of education policies that agendize, aggregate or disintermediate differentiated lessons and engagement structures to ensure constructivist, assessment-driven and mastery-focused curricula that are maximally impactful.

Most people don’t talk like that, and if you do, most people will have absolutely no idea what you’re talking about.  The policy message needs to be translated into language for broader audiences. 

Making a message effective may include adding a bit of emotion.  You don’t have to evoke white-hot anger, abject fear or make children cry.  Just a bit of real human connection can make a policy message much more interesting to the public and therefore more effective.

After you’ve developed a devastatingly brilliant issue or political message, you need to be sure it’s going to reach the right people.  The most lethal ammunition in the world isn’t worth squat if it doesn’t hit what you’re shooting at.  What are the best ways to target your communication to the right audience?  Do you have multiple audiences?  Do they all get the same message, or are there different messages for different groups? 

These and a lot of other real-world lessons may be in a textbook somewhere.  I’m still looking.

By Dave Helfert


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October 9th Speaking Event about the Government Shutdown

Hello Everyone,

I am pleased to announce an impromptu speaking event that will take place on October 9th from 7:00 to 8:00 p.m. Eastern (see below).  We’ll talk about the government shutdown.  This event is open to the public, so feel free to share this announcement with as many people as possible (  It will be an interesting conversation!

Dr. M

Memi Miscally, DrPH, MPH

Academic Program Director

Master of Arts in Communication


The Government Shutdown: What Is It and What Does It Mean?

We’re facing a government shutdown that will have a domestic and global impact on many levels.  What do we do next?  Without a guidebook, we must make up the rules as we go along.  Join a conversation with Professor Scott Schmidt and Professor Melissa Schwartz on Wednesday, October 9, from 7:00 to 8:00 p.m. Eastern.  Professor Susan Allen will moderate.

The event will take place at 1717 Massachusetts Ave., NW, in Room LL7.  Light refreshments will be served.  Those who cannot attend onsite can join online by clicking on the following hyperlink:

This event is free and open to the general public.  It is relevant to anyone in the communication arena.  It is sponsored by the Johns Hopkins University, Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, Advanced Academic Programs, MA in Communication program.

To RSVP, please email Memi Miscally at  Indicate whether you will attend onsite or online. 

Scott Schmidt, MPP, currently serves the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Oversight and Government Reform as the Deputy Director of Digital Strategy.  During the 2008-2009 housing crisis, Mr. Schmidt served as a speechwriter for the Assistant Secretary of Housing at HUD where he managed editorial oversight for major industry speeches.  In 2007, Mr. Schmidt joined the George W. Bush Administration where he served as Special Assistant to the Secretary of the Navy.  Prior to this he was a policy assistant at the U.S. House Committee on Energy and Commerce.  Mr. Schmidt began his career in Washington, D.C. at the U.S. Senate working in communication.  He holds a B.A. from the University at Buffalo and an M.P.P from the George Mason University School of Public Policy.  He currently resides in Washington, D.C.  

Melissa Schwartz, MA, is the Vice President for Strategy and External Affairs at The Bromwich Group, a strategic consulting firm in Washington, D.C.  She has more than a decade of strategic and crisis communications experience in government, the private sector, and at nonprofit organizations.  She has developed and implemented strategic communications planning on local, state, federal and international levels.  Ms. Schwartz was tapped by the Obama administration to manage crisis communications for the federal agency responsible for the regulation and oversight of offshore drilling in U.S. federal waters following the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill.  Other federal government experience includes serving as the Senior Public Affairs Officer at the Department of Justice, where she served as communications advisor and spokesperson for the Associate Attorney General, acted as primary public affairs liaison to the 94 U.S. Attorneys’ offices, and managed public affairs for agency-wide initiatives including the 15th anniversary of the Violence Against Women Act and the department’s tribal justice initiative.  Ms. Schwartz spent more than three years as Communications Director to U.S. Senator Barbara A. Mikulski, serving as chief spokesperson and media strategist for the senior woman in the U.S. Senate.  An alumnus of Johns Hopkins University, Ms. Schwartz was among the first students to enter and earn her M.A. in Political Communication from this program.  She graduated summa cum laude from the University of California, Berkeley with a B.A. in American Studies and a minor in Dramatic Arts.

Susan Allen, MA, is the Assistant Director of the Advanced Academic Programs Communication program at the Johns Hopkins University.  Currently, she is completing her dissertation research at the University of Maryland on conflict resolution in public relations.  Her other research projects have involved intercultural negotiation, persuasion in terrorist media messages, public relations activities of civil rights organizations, personal arguments among employees, and perceptions of American Muslims on their acceptance within the larger American culture.  Ms. Allen has studied and taught in Madagascar, Ireland, and Algeria as a way of understanding how people communicate across cultures.  In addition to teaching at JHU, she is President-elect of the Central Chesapeake Chapter of PRSA and is actively involved in the Mid-Atlantic Region programs of that organization as well.  

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How to change people’s minds

I noticed that one of the points I made in my first blog post that generated some interest was the idea of “changing people’s minds” through communication.

After all, as a nonprofit communication person, that is ultimately my job. So, I am going to lay out what I see as the five basic steps to using communication to change people’s minds about an issue.

1) Just the facts, ma’am. One of, if not the first, things you need to do is make sure you have out the facts out there about why behavior X is better than behavior Y. Data is cold and heartless and is never sufficient for changing someone’s mind, but it is necessary to supplement everything else you are doing. In our case, we make sure folks know that, on average, when children grow up without fathers, they face a variety of risks across various measures of well being.

2) Give them something to do. When trying to end one set of behaviors, you can rarely make someone stop without giving them something to replace those behaviors with. Moreover, as I said in one of my replies to the first blog post, it is easier to act your way into a new way of thinking than to think your way into a new way of acting. That is why fatherhood skill-building is a huge part of what we do. We make sure that we are actually helping dads build their skills (communication, parenting, relationships, etc) and giving them practical ideas for every day involvement in their kids lives.

Image3) Inspire them with “fluff.” From time to time it is important to supplement the facts and the action with inspirational messages and stories to keep folks motivated. There has been much written about the power of telling good stories, so I won’t go into that here, but just know that showing (via stories) is often more powerful than telling (such as using data). There is also the concept of “social learning,” where people learn by watching others. So, in our case, the more we can show examples of fathers being involved in their kids lives, the more we can hope to inspire other fathers to do the same.

4) Cut out the negativity. On the other side of the “inspiration” coin is “the word that is the opposite of inspiration.” I don’t have a thesaurus handy, sorry. But just like people can be inspired by a good story or an inspirational PSA, they can also be de-motivated or discouraged if they see too many examples of people engaged in the behavior they are trying to move away from. In our case, there are far too many examples of “bad dads” out there in the media, and far too many messages out there about how fathers are “replaceable.” We do what we can to discourage folks from producing those types of messages, and, if they are produced, from consuming them (eg, write a blog post condemning a bad sitcom).

5) Rinse and Repeat. I wonder how many people actually wash their hair twice, like the shampoo bottle suggests. But I digress. The point here is that you have to keep doing all of the above over and over again in order to help people really move from one attitude and set of behaviors to another. It is a long, tough process, but it is worth it! When we hear stories about how a dad turned things around and is involved in his child’s life, it makes all the effort worth it.

What do you think? Did I leave anything out? Would love to hear your feedback.


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Leadership Lessons from a Pixar Movie

To paraphrase one of my favorite movies, Disney Pixar’s Ratatouille, “anyone can lead.” Remember, Chef Gusteau’s mantra was, “anyone can cook.” In other words, when it comes to leadership, It is not a matter of title, position, or hierarchy. It is a matter of what kind of worker and, frankly, person (or cooking rat) you want to be.Image

At National Fatherhood Initiative, we have a culture of leadership. In other words, we expect everyone to be a leader, even people in entry-level positions. This culture has helped me grow as a leader, from the time I first started there answering phones to the present in my role as a VP. Thankfully, I’ve had several very good mentors teach me, mainly through their example, what leadership looks like. The staff here has also been encouraged to read books, attend webinars and seminars, and use other vehicles to learn more about effective leadership.

Why is this so important? In short, organizations, from the biggest to the smallest, from the most successful to the struggling, need good leaders, and they need them at every level of the organization, not just at the top. And there is absolutely no reason why you can’t be the leader that a particular organization needs.

So, I want to share a few things I have learned over the years about leadership, and how you can start today to be a better leader. Let’s call them my four S’s of leadership.

Be a servant – The concept of servant leadership has gained in notoriety in recent years, and I find it to be the most effective framework to truly understanding what leadership is all about. In order to lead people, you have to serve them. It sounds counterintuitive, but by serving people, you gain their trust and their respect. Without those things, you will never successfully lead them. So, show that you are willing to take on any job and help any person be better at what they do. Then, you will be seen as someone fit to lead.

Leadership can be situational – While it is true that you want to build yourself as a leader who can be counted on all the time, there are times when a certain situation requires someone to step up as a leader. Maybe a project is floundering. Maybe a task is being left undone. Maybe a staff member is disgruntled. Why don’t you be the person to step into that situation and resolve it? Don’t wait to be asked. Don’t worry that it is not in your “job description” or that, technically, it is someone else’s responsibility. If something needs doing, pursue solutions, and humbly work with others to make the situation better.

There are no substitutes – This is related to the above, but don’t wait around for someone else to be a leader, whether it is in a certain situation or in general. Remember, it’s not about job title, it’s about who is willing and able to lead.

Always ask the right questions – Ok, so this isn’t an “s,” but I couldn’t find a synonym for “questions” that started with an “s.” So, humor me. But I have honestly found over the years that often the best way to get to the bottom of a problem, or motivate a staff to tackle a job is to simply ask the right questions, Often, great leadership is not about having all the answers. It is about having the right questions, and then working with those you are leading to find the answers. When I look at the difference between the people in my organization who are on the senior management team and the rest of the staff, the primary difference is that the senior managers always know the right questions we should be asking ourselves as an organization. Often, everyone on staff contributes to the answers to those questions, but the leaders are the ones with the vision to ask them in the first place. So, to be a great leader, become a great question-asker!

There you have it, four Ss (or three Ss and a Q!).

Tell me, what you have learned about effective leadership? Do you agree with my ideas?  

by Vincent DiCaro, Vice President, Development and Communication, National Fatherhood Initiative


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