The Times, They Are A-Changing…

Nixon JFK DebateThe 1960 televised debate between Vice President Richard M. Nixon and Senator John F. Kennedy was a turning point. It forever changed politics. The power of the visual image to emphasize sizzle over steak was initially a surprise to political scientists. Kennedy’s win, attributable to his superior performance in the debate, wasn’t supposed to happen.

And TV also changed the way Americans experienced the world. Suddenly, TV was the medium of social cohesion.

Cronkite JFK is DeadWe watched as Walter Cronkite wiped a tear and announced to a stunned nation that President Kennedy had died.

Moon LandingCronkite VietnamWe watched as Cronkite provided live commentary on the moon landing. And we watched as he pronounced the war in Vietnam unwinable. Vietnam became the first “living room war,” playing out on our TVs.

I believe that history will look back at the 2008 election and declare that it too represents a turning point. Just as 1960 is the moment in which politics, social cohesion, and how we understand the world changed because television came of age, 2008 represents a similar tectonic shift. Social media is just coming of age, and its effect on the body politic is unexpectedly becoming decisive. It has already begun to change commerce. It is now changing journalism, politics, and our relationships with the rest of society and with each other.

I am indebted to Joe Trippi for giving voice to this idea, with which I’ve been struggling uncomfortably for some months. Joe Trippi

Joe, with characteristic clarity, helped me see the change as it’s happening. Joe and I have the good fortune to serve on the advisory board of Brodeur. Joe is fresh from being a senior advisor to the Edwards for President campaign. In 2004 he was national campaign manager for the Howard Dean campaign.

At the Brodeur advisory board meeting last week Joe described the difference between social media in the 2004 and 2008 campaigns. Joe described the Dean campaign – seen as breakthrough in the use of what we now call social media – as the Wright Brothers’ Kitty Hawk test, that proved that a new technology is viable. Wright Brothers Kitty Haws

Apollo 11 Launch

Four short years later we’re seeing the political equivalent of the moon launch.

According to Trippi, one reason Senator Barack Obama’s momentum is seemingly unstoppable is that his support is viral: it is voter-generated, and not dictated solely by some central authority.

Obama Rally

Senator Hillary Clinton’s support, on the other hand, is still in the TV paradigm: radiating from a central authority, who provides command and control.

Hillary Clinton Rally

The two paradigms couldn’t be more different.

In the TV age, the cult of the leader prevailed. Walter Cronkite, Uncle Walter, as he was known, provided comfort when he told us, “That’s the way it is.”

As my colleague Laurel Hart has blogged on this site, journalism today is morphing with the blogosphere, creating user-generated news where increasingly journalists collaborate with readers, offering: “This is what I know; this is what I don’t know; what do you know?”

In commerce customers are designing their own products, in their own ways. They’re even reprogramming electronic gadgets. Social media is also changing how we relate to each other, and to society in general.

Any change of this magnitude is hard to see up close. We miss the contours of the change. Distance is often necessary to fully understand the change and its implications.

Just as in 1960 it took a while for the TV paradigm to be recognized widely, it will take some time for the new paradigm to become part of the public consciousness, even to get a catchy name. For now, though, it is enough to be attentive to the changes going on around us. These aren’t changes of degree. They are changes in kind. The game is changing in fundamental ways.

Business as usual will continue to exist, but business the new way will quickly overtake it.

We need to be ready.

I, for one, will pay even closer attention. I invite you to as well.

We’ll blog more about leading indicators that the change is taking place.

4 replies
  1. jt
    jt says:

    I’m not a fan of either Obama or Clinton, but they both seem to be doing the same thing politicians have always done–trying to get voters interested enough to show up at the polls. Obama’s a far better speaker, of course, but Hillary’s “centrally controlled” organization hasn’t done a bad job of turning out a lot of warm bodies on election days. That’s why the two candidates are neck-and-neck.

    Incidentally, let’s remember that Joe Trippi’s flagship candidates have never actually WON anything. (The Daily Kos endorsements have an even more spectacular track record of losses.) Social media is a great concept, but it would sure help to have some legitimate evidence that it produces more than just talk among cult members.

  2. Rosemary Bray McNatt
    Rosemary Bray McNatt says:

    Really great post, Fred. If you haven’t already, check out David Brooks’ column in the NYT today, where he talks about Obama’s reframe of the campaign in somewhat similar terms.

    Question: Are you still “struggling uncomfortably?” What’s the challenge for your work (and mine, for that matter) in this new paradigm?

    Just being nosy!…


  3. Helio Fred Garcia
    Helio Fred Garcia says:

    Toni, jt, thanks for your comments.

    Rose, great question.

    I have no problem with the new paradigm.

    The uncomfortable struggle was with the gnawing feeling that things were different, and that old ways of doing things weren’t working the way they once did. And I didn’t know why, where it was going, and what to do about it.

    E.g.: Journalism is different. Politics is different. Commerce is different. And in our line of work, the way crises emerge is different. There are no more secure secrets. What used to be private behavior is now public. The way companies used to handle crises is no longer sufficient. Engaging stakeholders is now different. There’s no more time to reflect; there are lots of fact checkers and critics who have instant access to stakeholders and can hold a company’s statements up to scrutiny, ridicule, or praise. Instantly.

    So my discomfort was in figuring out what was happening, what it means, and what we can all do about it (or how we can adapt ourselves and our clients to it).

    I don’t believe that we have the answers at all. But I think we’re stumbling upon a direction.

    Either way, it should be a fun ride…


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