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Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Message Madness: Catholics & Democrats Struggle for Relevancy

Forget March Madness. It’s Message Madness time. Still smarting from November’s loss, the Democrats know it and are stuck. In wake of the Pope’s death Friday, the Catholic Cardinals are tackling it. How to articulate a clear message that is relevant and influential to your audience.

Consider the advice that’s being published:

  • “If we want to make progress we need to focus on constructing a set of clear and concise principles and values that centralizes and homogenizes our message, but not our members.” Letter to the editor, New York Times, Sunday, April 3, 2005
  • “The church is self-consciously struggling to make its message relevant.” Page one article, New York Times, April 4, 2005
  • “The major challenge facing the church is to articulate the message of the faith in a way that’s actually influential and convincing to people.” Bishop Gerald Kicanas of Tuscon, New York Times, April 4, 2005
  • “Democrats Getting Lessons in Speaking Their Values” Democrats believe that the absence of a unifying theme or clear message cost them the election last November. New York Times, Feb. 11, 2005

Overcoming the obstacles to great messages
Creating relevant and influential messages is hard work, which is why so few organizations and companies have effective ones. My advice to the Catholics, Democrats and anyone in the corporate world wrestling with a “message makeover” is this:

Do a listening tour among your most influential and committed members. Then talk with influential former members. Ask for their advice and opinions. Really listen to their words and emotions. Why do they still belong? Why did they leave the flock? Tape record the conversations so you can go back and listen again for the nuances and language. That the Catholics are locking up Cardinals in the Vatican to select the new Pope and discuss associated implications to the Church’s messaging is a bad sign. That the Democrats are enlisting a bevy of diverse consultants and perspectives is more hopeful.

Beware of copycats and fraidy cats. When you’re losing votes, members and revenues, it’s time to take calculated risks to turn around the situation. Don’t try to copy your competitors’ messages. They’ll still be their messages and not yours. Ban fraidy cats from the messaging process. At best they’ll support incremental change; more likely they’ll suck the energy out of the process. (Note to Democrats: Beware of quoting the Bible and talking about moral values – despite some of your consultants’ advice. That’s the Republican angle. You need your own platform. I vote for “Personal Freedoms. Community Responsibilities.”)

Go to the organizational attic and review the founding vision and values. You just may find some insights worth re-exploring in context of what’s most relevant today. While my religious training was quite limited having preferred Carol Ann’s donut shop to Sunday school, I do remember being taught that Jesus was forgiving, nonjudgmental, and lived by few rules. Maybe there’s an angle here for the Catholics if the Unitarians and Congregationalists haven’t already co-opted that message. As for the Democrats, remember that Thomas Jefferson founded the Democratic Party in 1792 to fight for the Bill of Rights.

Take a hard look at the issues that are most relevant to your members today. Map them out to really see what issues are increasing (or decreasing) in relevancy, and take a look at what issues are most closely connected. A visual view may help you see informative, new patterns. Then adapt your message – without altering your values – to today’s context. (Note to Catholics: preaching against birth control and condom use makes your organization appear outdated and highly irrelevant – even in areas like Africa where membership is growing.)

If your message isn’t relevant, it won’t be influential. As Louis B. Mayer once said, “If people don’t want to come, there’s nothing that we can do to stop them.”