Four Lessons Companies Can Learn From the Midterm Elections

The morning after the mid-term elections it seemed anyone considering a run for office wouldn't need to hire a campaign manager. Every news site, every cable news channel, and your favorite blog told us the myriad "lessons" we supposedly learned from an event less than 24 hours old. A simple Internet search would turn up everything you need to know about the political environment for your pending candidacy. The analysis runs the gamut from silly to sophisticated.

But the election also yielded important lessons for companies. By studying the political conversation we've gained four key insights into the current national mood. Apologies to eye backers, but language is the real window to the soul.

1. Talk like you're not from around here. The strongest trend we saw in the campaigns was toward language and imagery that implies the speaker is an "outsider." For example, in his victory speech Wisconsin senator-elect Ron Johnson, who unseated 18-year veteran Russ Feingold, explained why "one guy from Oshkosh, a husband and a father, stepped up to the plate and decided to run for U.S. Senate." It was because "we're just simple Wisconsin folks here. We know what needs to be done if you're trying to get out of a deep hole." Translation: insiders don't know what needs to be done, so you picked me.

This doesn't mean computer companies should run advertisements with folksy engineers that don't put much stock in fancy book larnin'. But you'll want to communicate in language that shows you understand most Americans feel the traditional markers of authority aren't credible anymore.

2. Be realer. Authenticity is always an important quality for maintaining credibility (unless you're in the pop music business - looking at you here Lady Gaga). But authenticity can be a moving target. What Americans think of as "real" doesn't always remain the same. In this election it seemed to center on what jobs you've done before running for office. Politicians seemed engaged in a contest to out-gritty each other with previous occupations. Missouri's Robin Carnahan slopped some livestock [She lost though - need example of Dem who won]. Wisconsin's Sean Duffy chopped wood.

Again, we're not suggesting CEOs start engaging in public displays of downhomeyness. ("Hi. I'm Warren Buffet. And every morning when I'm cleaning my outhouse...") But messages that imply you're rolling up your sleeves and doing real work are going to do better right now than messages which name your bona fides, e.g. "the best-selling ____ in America," or "the oldest and most well-established ____."

3. Taking responsibility is necessary. Even if you're not to blame for something, if the public thinks you are, you might as well be. When President Obama talks about the deficit, he still attaches the caveat "that I inherited." People aren't buying it anymore.

It's not to your advantage to explain why you're not to blame. People are fed up with passing the buck to someone else. Your lawyers might fight you on it, but it will actually work to your advantage to say "We didn't do everything we could have done. We've learned from this. And here's our plan for the future."

The public doesn't want - or need - a set of lengthy arguments to determine fault. They want an adult to appear, accept responsibility and start moving forward.

4. The truth won't set you free. Just because the facts are on your side doesn't mean people will see it your way. There are more than enough facts to go around, and people will just pick the ones that fit the conclusion they feel is best.

Don't take my word for it. Just ask President Obama. Advisers of every ideological stripe assured him that the only way to save the economy was to pump stimulus money into it and prop up failing businesses. Just about every credible economic source still agrees those measures were necessary. Yet many voters now think of it as "overreaching."

What matters is how people feel about your brand, your product or your issue - not what might be true about it. This is not to say that the truth doesn't matter, but if your audience isn't open to hearing about your truth, a savvy communicator would be smart to find another line of communication.

The bottom line: what voters want from their politicians is often the same thing consumers want from the companies with which they do business. Today, that means being a little more Homer Simpson and a little less Homer. It also means recognizing that its your consumers' view of the world that matters most, even when that view seems illogical, irrational or just plain irrelevant.

Follow Michael Maslansky on Twitter: www.twitter.com/m_mas and www.twitter.com/WhatTheyHear

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