My friend Mike McCurry has an interesting viewpoint on communications within the nonprofit arena. He recently penned the following “excerpt” as part of a foreword to my soon-to-be-published book “We Must Speak: Rethinking How We Communicate Faith in the 21st Century”. I am particularly struck by his comments about fact versus opinion in today’s 24/7 media arena.
Most of us remember (at least if we are Baby Boomers) the classic Paul Newman movie “Cool Hand Luke,” in which the jailer grabs Newman by the scruff of the neck and proclaims, “What we have here is a failure to communicate…” Much of the work I have done since leaving the White House in the 1990s involves helping nonprofit organizations communicate more effectively because, frankly, many of their efforts result in nothing short of failure.
There are many reasons for this. Organizations doing good work for noble causes often believe their worthiness is self-evident. Surely anyone can see the goodness in their labors. Often an “aw shucks” humility causes an organization to refrain from tooting its own horn, again believing the world will see the merit reflected in its good works. Then there are the budget issues: Many organizations under-invest in communications in favor of putting more resources where the program can help those in need.
In theory, those are good reasons to put communications lower on the list of priorities. But they represent bad thinking when one considers the enormous challenge of trying to advance a cause in the public marketplace of ideas and keep it current in the eyes of an ever-distracted public.
We know a lot about the changes that are happening in the bewildering world of technology and communications. “Mass communications” as we once knew it no longer exists. Yes, network television reaches millions with news reports every night at 6:30, but the audience share has contracted significantly in the last 10 years. Yes, daily newspapers still count, but circulation is down and readers under age 35 are far more likely to read the “daily paper” online rather than in print. We do not gather for “appointments” with those who deliver important content. We want the content when we need it, and we expect it to be online, available 24/7, and accessible without hassles.
What we are not sure about is whom we can trust to get the story right. So many sources, so many blogs, so many Internet sites, so many loud and angry voices on cable TV and talk radio tell us what to think. Our heads spin with constant bombardment from messages designed to sell, persuade, incite, provoke, and arouse. We don’t get much comfort. We don’t get much context. We don’t get people helping us put information in a framework that allows us to ponder the important things and choose the right things.
My old boss in the U.S. Senate, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, once said, “We are entitled to our own opinions but not our own facts.” Yet everyone seems to have “facts” supporting the incontrovertibility of their own “opinion.” And the information is overwhelming and oppressive. As another friend of mine, Joe Nye, writes: “We live in an era with a plentitude of information but a paucity of understanding.” Too much opinion. Too many facts. No one to help us make sense of the mix. That lack is the root of the failure to communicate.
The “failure to communicate” can prove fatal to many a good and worthy cause. We cannot let the failure to communicate effectively impede the work of The United Methodist Church. Our cause is just too important. We are about saving souls. We are about bringing disciples to Jesus Christ and transforming the world. We are about spreading the gospel good news, and that sacred trust means we must communicate effectively and relentlessly because everything in our being cries out that the world needs to hear the great, great story of Jesus and his love.
Mike McCurry is former press secretary to President Bill Clinton and an active lay leader in The United Methodist Church. He teaches Sunday school, serves on the board of governors of Wesley Theological Seminary, and is finishing his graduate work there for an M.A. degree. He was twice a delegate to General Conference from the Baltimore-Washington Annual Conference. He is a member of the General Commission on Communication and the executive committee of the denomination’s Global Health Initiative and its Imagine No Malaria campaign.