Monday, October 24, 2011

The “Occupy Wall Street” Communications Gap


One of the principles of good communications is — communicate. Be strategic and be clear. Right now, the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement, which is spreading throughout the U.S. and the world, has something to say to business and government, however mushy its goals and confusing its messages. Business and government, however, are not communicating back.

The question is why? Further, if they did respond, what should they say or do?

People only protest when they are frustrated and the normal processes are not working. Perhaps there is no response because the message is not clear. But one point the protesters have made clear is that they are “the other 99%,” separated from the moneyed 1%. Whether you agree with it or not, the message stresses extreme income inequality in a challenging economy with a 9.1 % unemployment rate. Further, those listening should have seen enough surveys of the public that show substantial agreement with what they believe the goals of the OWS movement to be. A survey mentioned in Saturday’s New York Times article, “Occupy-apalooza Strikes a Chord,” revealed that 54% of Americans polled approve protesting against policies that favor the rich, the government’s bank bailout and the influence of money in our political system; 68% felt the rich should pay more in taxes; and 79% felt the gap between the rich and poor in the U.S. is too large. These findings are substantiated by other research.

Perhaps there has been virtually no response because business feels the constituency participating is too small, and therefore not worth paying attention to. Also, many in leadership financial firms have derided the participants as a bunch of hippies, college kids and ragged individuals who have nothing better to do with their time. And they might further diminish the worth of this group because of those joining the protests who are unaware of the economic mission and simply see it as a cool thing to do…a 21st century version of Woodstock at Zuccotti Park.

Regardless of the reasons, business and government are making a mistake not responding, just because of the growing size of the group and the media attention they are getting. In the same way that people were individually affected by the military draft during the Vietnam War protests, today’s taxpayers have been individually affected by the bank bailouts and the mortgage crisis. The Vietnam War protests grew exponentially, bringing significant social changes and, if nothing else, ended the draft and brought down a president. The current protests will pick up speed the longer there is no response.

While a handful of business leaders have come out in support of the OWS group, such as the CEOs of GE, Citibank, PIMCO, Wells Fargo, Starbucks and others, that is less important than their willingness to engage and discuss.

A blog written by E.D. Kain on the Forbes website stresses that “Corporate America has done a lousy job” marketing and explaining “the benefits of a market economy.” Business leaders, in particular, he says, need to engage “honestly…and sincerely,” addressing the protesters’ frustrations on points of genuine concern. That’s half the battle.

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