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We Weren't Listening

Hillary Yaffe

The results of the US presidential election surprised Americans. Donald Trump is going to be our next President. What does this mean about our country? Was it his rhetoric that got him elected?

Of course there are those that always vote pro-life, pro-gun, etc., but there must be more to it. How is it that more than 60 percent of white women voted for Donald Trump? Why did total voter turnout hit a twenty year low at a mere 58 percent? As many Americans sat in shock and discussed what is to come, I set sail for Summit at Sea along with more than 2,500 like-minded individuals who were overwhelmed with shock, confusion, sadness, and fear.

Spending three days processing the election results and engaging in meaningful discussions with both brilliant and creative minds was exactly what the doctor called for. The power of curating and telling stories was a significant thread across the content sessions I attended. As PR professionals, we are trained storytellers. We write, shape, refine, and communicate messaging that supports particular narratives that we craft for individuals, organizations, policy issues, etc. Those of us who have worked in the political sphere know that there are really only two campaign platforms. There is one of change and then there is the other of continuing the path, which preaches more of the same. It is really that simple.

So what can we learn from the outcome of this election? The importance of active listening in effective storytelling.

Having a voice is imperative. We all have our own unique voices, but let’s not forget the importance of listening to other voices that come from different perspectives and life experiences. All of our voices are important and have the right to be heard. Instead of just calling more than half the country ignorant racists and bigots, we need to listen – really listen to who they are and what they are saying. Academy Award nominated producer Stacey Sher put it well last Thursday when she said, “we live in an echo chamber.” We, as PR professionals, counsel clients that in order to effectively craft a narrative and supporting messages, we need an understanding of the intended audience and how to properly reach them. Hillary Clinton and her campaign did a fantastic job speaking to the converted, but ultimately were ineffective as they failed to acknowledge and listen to the viewpoints and struggles of the rest of the population, those she needed to win over. Those voters wanted change rather than the status quo.  

Consumer advocate Erin Brokovich captivated those who attended her session with her ability to both discuss and illustrate the water crisis in the US. She remarkably told the story of the shockingly third world-like water system that millions of Americans live with in a way that captured the very essence of the forgotten populations of Americans. The people living with filthy, chemically saturated water flowing through their pipes. It got me thinking. These voters don’t care about transgendered bathrooms or free college, they care about their basic human needs. Think Maslow, people. The unemployed voter who formerly worked in the oil, automotive or manufacturing industries doesn’t prioritize progressive social issues. They care most about paying their bills and taking care of their families. These Americans needed to feel heard and as actor and comedian Orlando Jones poignantly articulated last Thursday, “Donald Trump was authentic in his insanity.” He reached the forgotten populations with his “straight talk”. Our country learned something that PR professionals have known for some time. Simplicity is king. In this case, quite literally.

We need to engage with, rather than dismiss, those with differing views and perspectives in order to have an impact. Our comfort zones are killing us. Figure out a way to talk to the person you hate. Listen with open ears and try and understand where there perspective comes from. Hear their struggles and seek to find common ground. Then, tell your story. One of the most incredible and inspirational people I’ve ever met is Haben Girma, the first deaf-blind graduate from Harvard Law School and an international activist for those with disabilities. In discussing with her the plight of those with disabilities, she emphasized the importance of appreciating that alternative ways of doing things are just as viable and how as a society we can achieve spectacular things through connecting across our differences and forming truly inclusive communities. Let’s not live in that echo chamber Stacey describes any longer.

Erin said it well: “within change is opportunity in disguise.” The Trump presidency is a wake-up call to all of us. What won Trump the presidency was the anti-establishment sentiment and desire for change across the country. Income disparity is at a peak and a clear majority of Americans feel forgotten by their government. Voters turned out to cast their ballot against the system that has perpetuated their abandonment. They are tired of being forgotten and having their struggles ignored.

Forget Clinton and Trump. It’s time to move forward. We’ve been complacent for too long. Let’s stop being bystanders and listen to others with an open mind and heart. Form educated opinions. Have a voice. Tell your story. Help articulate and share the stories of the forgotten populations as it is only through learning, understanding and collaborating that we can effectuate change and genuine progress can be made in this country.

Let’s put our talent to work.  

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