Frank Pignanelli & LaVarr Webb: Political persuasion depends on the fundamental message

Thanks to technology, demographics and underlying anger toward politicians and government, political dynamics are more unpredictable than ever before. The upheaval in the presidential race is clear evidence of this. It proves that one fundamental element is crucial in political persuasion — the message.

Good communications makes all the difference in politics. Interesting messaging examples include the Outdoor Retailers discussion about abandoning Utah, antagonism toward Mayor Ralph Becker, criticism of the Utah Transit Authority and the public relations triumphs of Attorney General Sean Reyes. Lessons to be learned?

Pignanelli: “One of the interesting things about politics is how quickly politicians can tailor their message to the prevailing winds. They would be great at ocean racing.” — Jack Citrin

Whether it's my students, interns or children (I know, the thought of me teaching any youngster is scary), I emphasize that style is equal to or greater than substance when delivering a message.

The public lands debate is all about messaging. Environmental activists utilize the statements and actions of officials seeking control of federal land to paint them as insensitive (causing angst with Outdoor Retailers). Countering efforts to describe the feds as incompetence in management, in contrast to states’ quality stewardship, have struggled but are improving.

Utah is blessed with a legacy of political messaging wizards: Govs. Michael Leavitt and Scott Matheson, Congressmen Jim Matheson and Jason Chaffetz (who has shrewdly pivoted persona from inquisitor to a deliberative statesmanlike committee chairman). This list includes Reyes who — with his brilliant communications director Missy Larsen — consistently broadcasts messages to Utahns that he is fighting against sex trafficking, an incompetent EPA and white-collar criminals.

As we noted in prior columns, the Becker administration has not effectively messaged on successes in the city, thereby missing an opportunity to establish a presence in the minds of voters. Without a strong perception, the police chief controversy undermined Becker’s reputation. Conversely, Jackie Biskupski has been masterful in messaging that defines her and Becker.

Lessons for politicos abound.

Webb: The old saying that perception is reality is absolutely right, especially in politics. Small symbols often overshadow far bigger, more important and more substantive things. The Utah Transit Authority, for example, has been enormously successful. It’s the best-run transit agency in the country. Its visionary and capable leaders have saved taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars. But its critics have focused on the emotional symbols of salaries, bonuses and travel (all justified, in my opinion) to damage the agency’s image.

It’s unfortunate, but any politician or public entity must be as attentive to image, symbols and perception as to real substance and accomplishments.

Whatever presidential candidates Donald Trumpand Bernie Sanders say — no matter how bizarre — is resonating and propelling them to amazing success in the polls. Are they that good or just lucky?

Pignanelli: Two presidential contenders with the most momentum fulfill the maxim: "It's better to be lucky than good." Sanders' socialist anti-establishment theme would have faltered in other election years, but the current environment of anger and despair is fertile ground for him. There is little consistency to Trump, but disparaging those who disagree with him is playing well to right-wing audiences. While neither candidate is likely to secure the nomination, they are influencing the 2016 elections.

Webb: Trump and Sanders have tapped into fringe, protest elements of the parties who don’t really care about good public policy or ultimately winning. It’s like an absurd movie that develops a cult following not because it’s good, but because it’s so bad. Protest candidates will always have a following, but they will never win the presidency.

A political savior who will miraculously solve every problem and appease citizen anger simply by grandiose pronouncements is attractive to alienated people, no matter how intellectually dishonest the candidate is. Trump has been able to defy all the political rules because he has become a symbol himself, able to avoid accountability for untruths and mistakes. He gets away with being illogical, inaccurate, inconsistent, completely impractical and sometimes offensive. He has no political principles and changes his positions on a whim. His disciples ignore all that and see only a political savior.

Good messaging is a constant requirement for political success. So how will technology impact its delivery in the future?

Pignanelli: Success in political communications now requires the quick construction of a statement that does not exceed 140 characters (for Twitter) and certainly no more than two minutes for a YouTube video. It is a wonderful development that technology is increasing accessibility to information for Americans across the political and economic spectrum, but it's also deteriorating the attention span of audiences.

Webb: For now, newspapers, TV and radio can still set the agenda with good reporting. But direct-to-consumer mobile messaging is taking over, allowing candidates and organizations to bypass traditional media and communicate directly to voters. Mass media is much less important. I’m just glad I’m really old and don’t have to learn all the new stuff.