Leadership in Effectively Communicating for Causes or Issues
By Ali Greatsinger
In a rapidly changing media landscape that is facing unprecedented distrust and accusations from many sides, working in political communications and keeping up with the 24/7 news cycle has never been more demanding. Tackling these complex shifts in media narratives, mediums, and culture requires expertise and guidance, and few can provide more experience than Karen Finney and Douglas Heye, two veterans of politics and policy. Karen Finney, who served as Senior Advisor for Communications and Senior Spokesperson for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign, and as Communications Director for Vice Presidential nominee Tim Kaine, has an unparalleled insight into communication strategy. Her wide range of experiences in media and politics include serving as Communications Director for the Democratic National Committee and hosting her own television show on MSNBC called Disrupt with Karen Finney. Doug Heye has been a leader in politics and communications since 1990, serving as Deputy Chief of Staff for Communications for House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in the House of Representatives and other leading communications positions in the George W. Bush administration, United States Senate, and Republican National Committee.
Neither are strangers to sharing their stories at Harvard — Finney currently serves and Heye previously served in Fall 2015 at the Harvard Institute of Politics. These two communications specialists joined Dr. Meredith Rosenthal, Professor of Health Economics and Policy and the Senior Associate Dean for Academic Affairs, for a conversation on October 4, 2017 as part of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health Voices in Leadership Series. They outlined best practices for clear and effective public communication and discussed how to navigate the increasingly contentious and scrutinized role of the media in contemporary politics.
On Communicating with Integrity and Consistency
Throughout the conversation, these leading communications experts reiterated how important integrity and consistency were in communication and politics. Finney and Heye spoke at length about how, for any communications position, it is paramount that communicators always strive to be seen as authentic in their beliefs and constant in their messaging. “When we talk about media, remember what we’re talking about: it’s television, it’s radio, it’s multimedia, it’s the social media platforms,” Finney explained. “Everything is in an instant. It’s 24/7. It’s around the world.” Consistency is crucial in building credibility with the public — and it is the critical responsibility of the communicators to respect and preserve that trust. Finney cited her experience leading communications for the New York City Board of Education at the time of the September 11 attacks and the challenges she faced when addressing parental concerns about air safety at schools near Ground Zero. She noted that being forthright is especially important when communicating technical health and safety information to the public, saying,
“Even if you can’t give them the answer they want, I think people need to know that you’re trying to do the best you can to give them the best information.”
Heye agreed emphatically with Finney, pointing out that integrity and consistency are key to building strong relationships with influential press outlets like the White House Press Corps that are vital to a successful career in political communications. “In politics, relationships last a very long time,” Heye explained, “and they certainly last a long time with reporters.”
Communicate Better by Listening
Finney and Heyes also spoke of challenges they faced while managing communications teams in Washington and lessons learned along the way. They observed that a crucial, if often unrecognized, responsibility of a communications director or press secretary is working with a politician to understand how their words might sound to voters or their constituents. Heye explained how this particularly was a concern for most Republican politicians, who are “very fearful of being called mean.” Working with these political members in these communication roles involves explaining that,
“What people hear is more important than what they say, and how they channel that is as important as anything else.”
Finney agreed that audience perception is reality — what an audience hears is ultimately more important than what a message was intended to say. Therefore, for those in communications, she explained that “you want to make sure you’re helping the person say what they’re intending to say, and some particular audience doesn’t have a reason they would hear it a different way.”
Having the Tough Conversations
Though Finney and Heye agreed that effective communication depended on building strong relationships with the audience, the two experts had different perspectives on how to best to communicate with respect to America’s legacy of racial oppression. Speaking of her own family’s complicated history, Finney advocated for the importance of having honest conversations with friends and family members about current issues concerning race and injustice, and being willing to engage even if it is uncomfortable. Heye did not disagree, but instead called for increased media attention on progressive Republican actions around race, saying “Where we get it right, we need to highlight that, because when we get it wrong, it gets highlighted for us by the media.” He contended that intense focus on these mistakes meant that less attention was paid to better voices in the party, pointing to Nikki Haley’s removal of the Confederate flag from the South Carolina statehouse as one such example of getting it right.
Even with the challenges to traditional media, these experts both highlighted that, fundamentally, political communication is about establishing connection and recognizing shared values. Bipartisan conversations that are effectively communicated can go a long way in making the distance between the two sides of the aisle seem a little bit smaller. As Finney noted,
“We can legislate, we can make great policy, but it’s really that interpersonal level where I think real change happens.”