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Some Free Advice for the Convention Planners

Politics:Nothing the Democrats can do or say will ever please the anticipated convention protesters.

May 23, 2000|STEVEN SCHLEIN | Steven Schlein is a crisis communications manager in Los Angeles

Here's some friendly advice to the Democratic National Convention planners as they get ready to respond to protests at August's presidential convention: Do not follow the example of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. In spite of months of warning, these institutions developed no communications plan, never understood the nature of the protests and left it to others to respond in the media.

If the Democrats are not prepared to win the communications war with the protesters, the "popularity bounce" their nominee typically would enjoy following a convention will be lost.

To win the communications war with the scores of protesters who are united under the banner of "anti-globalization," Democratic planners must understand these basic rules: Nothing you say will ever be right. Nothing you do will ever be enough. The protesters will even criticize your attempts to appease them (never sufficient).

Peter Huber describes this predicament in his book, "Hard Green, Saving the Environment from the Environmentalists," as, "The only soup that is just right is the one not yet on the table." The goal of the protesters at the convention this summer will be to get publicity, not to work toward real solutions.

The National Journal's Michael Kelly bluntly described the new protest movement as "a generational imitation of a form of politics that was once reserved for matters of life and death and is now reserved for that space between spring break and summer vacation, and between the last body-piercing and the first IPO."

This is not to brush aside every complaint that's been leveled against convention planners. Nor is it to suggest the impacts of global environmental and economic policy don't deserve a hard-nosed critique. If mistakes have been made, admit them and fix them the best that you can.

But let's face reality. To the protesters, the convention is just a prop in a well-orchestrated play. The directors need a villain and you're it. The public fireworks have little to do with the Democrat politicians and presidential politics. It has everything to do with opportunistic activists.

So, what's my advice?

* Don't expect gratitude. Mark Twain once joked, "If you pick up a starving dog and make him prosperous, he will not bite you. This is the principal difference between a man and a dog." Your good work on a broad range of issues has been noteworthy. That needs to be better explained. But don't expect high-fives.

* Job No. 1: Bolster morale. There's no way all of the fuss out in the street won't damage the morale of Democrat legislators and other office holders. Emotions surely will range from guilt to outrage. These are your front-line communicators. They need a clear sense that leadership is hanging tough, there's a message and a plan, and the party is forging ahead. A little introspection is healthy; but the eyes on top-level leaders are searching for steely resolve, not equivocation.

* Play to win. Did I miss something or were the World Bank and IMF spokespersons nearly absent from media coverage surrounding the protests? Don't be missing in action. You know months in advance that there will be a ton of news coverage of the protesters. This is a huge opportunity to get out front and tell the world your record on issues. Make no apologies.

* Be careful about "dialoguing." That's a fancy way of hoping that if your opponent is talking, they're not attacking. I'm all for it. But choose carefully among your attackers. Most have no interest in compromise. And all will talk and attack at the same time.

* Don't be afraid to swing back. Did you hear Tony Blair dressing down global capitalism protesters who vandalized London? "Their actions have nothing to do with convictions and beliefs and everything to do with mindless thuggery." OK, so you can't talk exactly like that. But if you don't show a little outrage at the distortions and posturing, who will?

Finally, wrap your messages in a principle, not facts. When all is said and done, what do you really stand for? No one will be convinced by a fact sheet. Find a principle that defines who you are and stick with it. It's values, not logic, that shape minds and motivate. Identify your principle and articulate it proudly.

You have less than three months to prepare for the Los Angeles convention protests. The clock is ticking.

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