David Rehr Explains How Communicators Can Cut Through the Clutter
The Professor of Policy and Government Discusses Advocacy in Today’s Political Environment
Doug Simon spoke with David Rehr in preparation for Truth on Trial: Implications for Communicators, the third installment in a series of events looking to get a conversation started about truth and communication in today’s political, business and social climate. David Rehr has over 25 years of experience in advocacy, public policy, and governance. Among many other accomplishments, he was the former CEO and President of the National Association of Broadcasters, and directed the industries $1.2 billion marketing effort to create awareness for the digital TV transition. Now, he is a professor of policy and government at George Mason University.
Doug: David Rehr is professor of public policy here at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University, where he’s author of the Congressional Communications Report the most in-depth study ever on communications habits of congressional staff. He’s also a leader and advocacy before Congress as well as a past president of the National Association of Broadcasters. Really impressive. Thanks so much David.
David: Thanks for having me.
Doug: Sure. So given the intensity of divided and less predictable government. How can advocacy be effective these days?
David: I think advocacy in today’s environment has to be authentic as to be anticipatory and has to kind of understand the perspective of the person that they’re going to advocate before even more so than in past days.
Doug: Great. And you’ve studied communications habits of congressional staffers issued a report. What can you tell us about that and for people who are trying to work with Congress on issues? What are the lessons inside that report?
David: Yeah there are a couple different lessons. Number one I’ve been studying this for about eight years. I did it as a result of being up in Congress and advocating wondering numerically what worked and what didn’t. Rather than just the myths of you stand in a corner and hold your foot up at three feet and some senator or congress woman we’ll talk to you. So I tried to be very very methodical about it. I looked at where congressional staff looked for information what they liked what they didn’t like what they used and then how they made their decisions. And I found a couple of interesting things. Number one age demographic there a big discrepancy between the age and experience of lobbyists and those who work on Capitol Hill. Almost 50 percent of Capitol Hill has been there for 18 months or less and generally is under the age of 35 where its lobbyists tend to be in their jobs for 15 years or more and they tend to be older. So there’s kind of a discrepancy when you’re communicating or you’re trying to communicate your advocacy issue to younger people they may not have the same kind of experience level that you have just as kind of a case in hand. I mentioned to somebody Gilligan’s Island and they looked at me they said what’s Gilligan’s Island. And it realized made me realize you know the people that I’m speaking with and communicating with don’t have the same kind of experiential level that I might have. And therefore I shouldn’t assume anything to be an effective advocate.
Doug: That makes a lot of sense, and I won’t talk about my favorite Moody Blues Album in this discussion either. CEOs of association, very important, how do they cut through the clutter and build their brands in this environment?
David: Well there is a tendency I think among associations to be similar. And in this environment you have to be unique. You have to as I mentioned by a lot of people but you have to really think out of the box. How do you grab someone’s attention. And then how do you hold it and how do you then communicate this story in an ongoing way. I think for association CEOs just the one sheer recognition of the competitive marketplace for ideas is important. Number two then thinking about how they differentiate themselves and their brand or their go to their service or what their association does. And then three do that in a way that’s easily remembered not try to be too complicated about it not try to be too clever about it but do things that are interesting for younger people who tend to make the decisions for members of Congress.
Doug: I mean a great example of what you’re talking about is especially for associations and non-profits, let’s partner with a celebrity to get media coverage now unless it’s a top a listener who’s in major news media would actually prefer to interview someone from within the organization who’s had that experience so it not only saves money but helps their leadership grow in influence, and as a former CEO yourself of the National Association of Broadcasters. Obviously one of the top of mind issues is the divisiveness within the media to the business community to the political community. So what’s the best practice for media to defend themselves and should they not defend themselves if it risks them becoming part of the story.
David: I think that’s a double edged sword. I think it’s important for people to defend themselves when their integrity is on the line or when they’re being questioned about their motivation. But I think you should You should try to stay out of the story if you can. That is to say that the CEO the media outlet should not be come the story and be scrutinized. One of the challenges that we all face today is that people are prejudging words and inflection points how we look how we act before we even say anything. And of course because of social media it’s expanded the opportunity for people to provide input on the one hand but on the other hand it allows for kind of a crowd mentality where people can pick on other people and there’s a lot more criticism and cynicism about ideas and about issues and everyone. I shouldn’t say everyone. Many people generally think that you’re just bad to begin with and therefore you have to prove yourself that you’re good. Which is very problematic for people to do.
Doug: That is a challenge so we’ll make sure to not complain about social media to the millennial staffers working on Capitol Hill, if we want to be successful. Thank you for your awesome insights and being part of this truth on trial program.
David: Thank you .