Michael Porter

The Intersection of Policy and Communication

With a little reflection, anyone who pays attention to the national news can recall a situation in which the federal, state or municipal government enacted a law that seemed unenforceable, ridiculous, unconstitutional, or all of the above. One might wonder how or why someone would have proposed the policy in the first place.

Consider that perhaps the “purpose” of the proposed legislation was never for the law to get enacted. What if the sole purpose was to generate what author Murray Edelman considers “Constructing the Political Spectacle.” For instance, Edelman suggests that sometimes in politics a “problem” is created because someone has a vested interest in seeing a “solution” implemented (i.e. – getting government to buy surplus ice makers for villages in the arctic). Or a “solution” is proposed to create a “problem” or simply to generate attention, without the expectation of the solution being implemented.

Basically he says some neatly constructed documents exist not to change government, but to call attention to the legislator, or some underlying agenda.

So, if the purpose of the proposed policy is not fulfilled in ratification, but in the furor its proposal causes, is the proposal actually legislation, or communication that supports building walls of smoke and mirrors for other purposes? Political gain. Diversion from other issues. Creating or diminishing the validity of unregulated positions or perceptions.

Let’s play with two ridiculous extremes. Two members of Congress on opposite sides of the aisle find themselves similarly ignored by the media, and both have sights set on future elections. In order to get attention, one proposes legislation to ban every device in the country that “uses chemicals, air or mechanical force to propel a projectile faster than 400 feet per second.” That’s a roundabout way of banning all guns, but bringing many other tools along for the ride. The media immediately reads between the lines and goes into a frenzy.

The second elected official seizes the opportunity to get her own coverage by cobbling together a bill overnight and holding a press conference before proposing legislation that would require every person with a social security number to provide “proof of ownership of a personal protection device,” as well as requiring such proof in order to get a social security number – in other words, prove your child owns a gun in order to get a number. More media buzz, and now both officials are getting plenty of attention within this “spectacle.”

Both bills would be completely unenforceable if enacted into law, but the originators don’t care. The purpose was attention.

This becomes scary when the occasional spectacular policy inexplicably gets through the process. There have been a number of completely unenforceable laws enacted in various states and cities in the last year that earned national attention.

Meanwhile, other people are managing to generate similar media attention by merely suggesting outlandish proposals. Often such veiled communication attempts to leverage deep emotions, like fear and loathing. This is powerful and often successful strategy when used as a political weapon.

With great power comes great responsibility. Hopefully, everyone using this ploy will be capable of following through on the responsibility part, because communicating an idea is only the beginning.