Where’s the Message? Who’s the Messenger?

Progressives need to sharpen their message. The left – be it Socialist, Democrat or Labour – lacks a clear voice. The messages of an Orbàn, Erdogan, Kaczynski, Johnson and Trump have captured the times with few convincing countervailing forces. How to respond?

Images are supposed to be the modern way of communicating. The photo of the screaming Vietnamese girl running in pain from napalm re-enforced public opinion against the war. A photo of a drowned Syrian boy found off a beach in Turkey was hoped to change opinions about the desperate plight of refugees fleeing across the Mediterranean. While the first photo remains a defining judgment about the war’s inhumanity, the second has had less influence. An outpouring of empathy for those fleeing or the millions stuck in refugee camps has not happened.

All organizations – governmental, private or non-governmental – are concerned with their images. With social media expanding, getting the message across via Facebook, Twitter and all have become necessary parts of institutional survival. Already in the 1960s, Marshall McLuhan, a Canadian philosopher and early expert on media theory, declared that “The medium is the message,” implying that the form of the message was as important if not more important than the content.

Where are the communication pros on the left? Who are the people able to get a progressive message across?

Greta Thunberg is a tremendously successful communicator. But she is no information warrior. Despite rumors, she stands alone with no help from major public relations firms. She is not a pro, yet she has been tremendously influential in having people around the world march and governments change their positions.

How has Greta succeeded? There is no question that the press has been influential in publicizing her and her message. She was, after all, Time magazine’s person of the year. The press was also influential in rediscovering Henry Dunant and the Red Cross movement and helped him to win part of the 1901 Nobel Peace Prize.

What is Greta’s appeal? She is a young girl, with simple statements, convinced that her life and the future of the planet are at stake. The Joan of Arc of environmentalism? While it is easy to belittle her as a fanatic, there is no question that she has been able to get a message across.

Is it necessary to be a Greta to get a message across? This is the crux of the matter. For if we turn to those who were successful in getting messages across, the simplicity of the message is clear. And, Greta’s simple message about the environment reflects the simplicity of her personality. Greta and her message are not rocket science.

Look at President Ronald Reagan’s “Tear down this wall,” addressing Mikhail Gorbachev in Berlin. Study Joseph Welch castigating Joe McCarthy with the withering question: “Have you no sense of decency, sir,” during the Army-McCarthy hearings in 1954. Replay Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream,” speech to see how it captured the civil rights movement. Listen to Greta’s “How dare you. You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words,” excoriating leaders at the UN Summit in New York to understand the rage of environmentalists. The ideas presented are not complex. What’s behind the quotes may be complicated, but their effect is clear and simple. There is a certain moral imperative behind all four moments.

Where is the progressive message today that can be expressed simply and clearly? Granted the moral compass has changed to a new normal, but that compass exists and has to be re-established. And this will not be done by rebranding or tweaking Twitter or Facebook. The content is important. Contrary to McLuhan’s pronouncement, the medium is not the entire message. Form and content cannot be separated.

And, it will take people like Greta, people who have a certain moral compass, to present convincing progressive messages that are easily understood by the general population. The failure of Hillary Clinton to connect with the American people is a classic case study; Elizabeth Warren could be another.

Go back to Kofi Annan’s speeches. It was the warmth and sincerity of his personality that was convincing and elevated him to Nobel Prize status. It was not his studies at the Graduate Institute in Geneva or Macalester College or MIT and certainly not his service as head of UN Peacekeeping Operations during the Rwandan genocide that endeared him to the world.

The more Donald Trump misspells in his tweets, the more he becomes popular with a significant American audience. “Make America Great Again” was a winning message, simple and to the point.

Where is the progressive message and who is the messenger today? These are simple questions, not to be answered by fancy PR communication strategies or rebranding.

“When things get weird, the weird turn pro,” is a famous quote from the American journalist, author and iconoclast Hunter S. Thompson. Today, when things are truly weird, the normal should turn pro.

Daniel Warner is the author of An Ethic of Responsibility in International Relations. (Lynne Rienner). He lives in Geneva.