Political campaigns generate sound bites as the preferred mode of communication. Few people are motivated to listen to long-winded speeches, so the goal is to simplify messages in the extreme. Politicians have been way ahead of Twitter. Television news is complicit in favoring one-line easily-digestible capsules of semi-information. The news people suppose that viewers have the attention span of gerbils, and so they must continually get on with something else. The news people are probably right, but there are stories that simply cannot be reduced to sound bites. The oil spill disaster is a case in point. The scope and complexity of the problem defies the sound bite treatment either by politicians or the news media.
Let’s imagine that the government decided to go long-form and built a website devoted to covering issues related to the oil spill. What might be included?
1. Current analysis of the causes of the spill
2. Efforts to stop the leak, status, and future plans
3. The extent of the spill, the areas in which fishing is restricted, the affected marshes and beaches, and forecasts of future impact, all frequently updated
4. Data on job losses and economic impact on business, broken out by local area along the Gulf, all frequently updated
5. The current state of the clean up, broken out by number of workers, type of effort, and location; all frequently updated
6. Forms for filing claims, help, and a way to track the status of claims
7. New or unused technology to assist in the clean up, it’s current status, availability, and plans for use
8. Foreign assistance in clean up efforts
9. Legal implications: lawsuits, fines
10. Interactions with major parties: the States, BP, various federal agencies, Congress
11.Impact of a drilling moratorium, present and anticipated
12. Regulatory changes, new legislation, Congressional hearings
In each category, the responsible people would be identified along with a way of sending them messages. People in at least four states are directly affected, and in each community people are intensely interested on how fisheries, beaches, and tourism are be affected and are likely to be affected. People across the nation would like to know the progress and total costs.
This information is not adequately represented by campaign slogans like “we are doing everything possible” and “BP will be held accountable.” Slogans fail because too many people are directly affected, and each person wants information on how the situation will effect them. Slogans fail because, unlike a campaign, there are actual details to be exposed; it is not a matter of mere promises.
President Obama’s major skill is campaigning, and he has filled his administration with campaign operatives. They have no ability to do anything other than craft sound bites. Television news picks off sound bites of the real news in each category, but the big picture never emerges.
If the entire disaster were tracked in an organized way the information could then be summarized in a useful way. “Currently, x miles of beaches are threaten by oil spills within the next month and y percent of them are protected by booms and barriers.” That’s a sound bite of sorts, but it has useful content because it draws upon a much larger body of underlying information.
Getting all the data and presenting it is a massive job. Don’t worry, the disaster will be with us for a long time. The way to approach the job is to quickly present the best information available in each category. For example, there are university-types who study ocean currents who can make rough estimates of how the oil will spread and where it is likely to come ashore. Those estimates can be put on line quickly, with refinements and computer animations to follow. No one knows definitively what caused the spill, but there was Congressional testimony by the drilling people about the basic sequence of events. That can be presented immediately.
No one wants to make a mistake in giving wrong estimates, so BP and the government are now holding back. That’s the wrong approach because people need to act based upon the best information available. That’s better than having to act based upon little or no information.
The main function of an executive is to facilitate communication. That is because the technical expertise to solve problems does not live at the top of the organization. People will do their jobs if they understand the situation. Sound bites are the wrong form of communication because they do not provide information that can be used to solve problems. That’s why the sound bite approach is wrong. Too bad it is all our government leadership and our news industry knows how to do.