In academia, they say “the medium is the message.” That’s how communications theorist Herbert Marshall McLuhan put it in “Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man.” (I know this because a very hungover me skimmed my room mate’s Cliff Notes of this book right before an ill-fated college exam. I didn’t understand the rest of the book, but I did get that part. By the way, I now prominently display a copy of this book on my office bookshelf to create the illusion of substance.)
In politics, they say, “only Nixon could go to China.” That is, only an ardently anti-communist pol like Richard Nixon could get away with, gasp, talking to commies. If George McGovern had gone a panda watching, he would have been discredited as “soft on communism.” But Nixon’s anti-communist resume made him largely immune from such criticism. “Only Nixon could go to China,” therefore, has become an analogy to explain the unique ability that hardline politicians have to change seemingly unchangeable viewpoints of their ideological soulmates, and the moderate middle.
In the entertainment world, the say “we can make the obscure cool.” Actually, they don’t say that at all, but they should. Because when Bono talks about third world debt, Jessica Lange talks about commodity subsidies or Charlton Heston talks about gun show exemptions, many previously indifferent citizens become persuaded.
Whether in academics, entertainment or politics, the concept is the same – WHO is speaking often matters more than WHAT is spoken.
The latest and localest example of that phenomena is Governor Pawlenty’s much hyped eco-tourism excursion to the South Pole to essentially skim Will Steger’s Cliff’s Notes on climate change research.
Now, if Amy Kloubachar had announced such a trip, reporters and the rest of us would have either yawned, rolled our eyes, or cried “boondoggle.” But when our little McCain maven makes the same announcement, it’s front page, above the fold, months before a single pair of mucklucks is even packed.
…as it should be. Because “conservative listens to scientific consensus” has gotten to be sort of a “man bites dog” kind of story. Unexpected, and therefore newsworthy.
Whether you approve or disapprove of the Governor’s position on this issue, this is a good reminder to communicators of all stripes to spend less time word-smithing for predictable messengers, like our clients or employers, and more time finding surprising, credible messengers who will actually get noticed and heard.