Monday, January 18, 2010

The Wonder of King

I sit here today, enjoying a beautiful afternoon, having taken the dog swimming, not too much on my plate to deal with, and watching a documentary on Martin Luther King Jr. on the History Channel (one of my favorite stations ever, by the way). 

I thought about not posting today.  I also considered posting something about the power of social media to create a virtual "flashfire" of pop culture from time to time.  The focus was going to be the "Pants on the ground" song that seems to be everywhere I turn, and, inexplicably, more popular that even Simon Cowell could have imagined, even after he prophetically claimed the song could become a "hit".  And so it came to pass.

And I think I will still make a comment on the phenomenon of "Pants on the ground," only I'll juxtaposition it with a look at the the historic accomplishments of MLK Jr. 

Just as in the tragedy of Haiti, and even the viral explosion of "Pants on the ground", there are lessons to be learned from what King and his civil rights movement achieved in the turbulent 60's.  Small business owners, and particularly non-profits, can look at the movement made over a relatively short period of time and adopt some of the strategies used by King to promote their own agendas, whatever they be. 

The Lessons of King:

Just as generals and CEO's of today study the lessons and techniques of Sun Tzu's "Art of War," business owners of today and agents of social change (non-profits) can study the lessons and techniques of King, even though the times, and methods, have changed drastically.

I'll get into the differences in a bit, because the differences matter.  In some cases, the changes empower us more than ever.  In some cases they hinder us more than we might have been 40 years ago. 

But let's look at the basis for success that King used that still matter today, and will forever matter when it comes to meeting success.

King had a vision - He knew what he wanted to accomplish.

King had a planHe knew how to achieve his vision, and stuck to his plan even when things went wrong.  He certainly adapted his plan when necessary, but he never wavered from his overall plan, nor from his overall goal and vision.  His plan of peaceful resistance, made famous by Ghandi decades earlier, was successful, perhaps even beyond his expectations.

King had infrastructure - King built an organization with leaders spread out across his target states who helped in making decisions, and organizing the youth and activist members of the community into a single, unified force.  He was the leader, but he delegated and communicated with all the leaders within his organization.

King picked his fights - King knew what he wanted to accomplish.  He knew he couldn't change the hearts and minds of all bigots and racists in America.  But he knew he could help enact legislation to protect and uplift minorities.  He didn't fight everywhere, he chose his battles and more often than not, won them.

King was inclusive - Listen to the "I Have a Dream" speech if you have time.  More than once, he spoke of justice for everyone.  Not just African-Americans, but for all the downtrodden, the poor, Protestants, Jews, Catholics, White, Black, Hispanic; all people of America.  His message wasn't just equality for Blacks, but equality for everyone.  A message the resonated with a great portion of the American population.

King used his contacts - Obviously, MLK had contact with the President of the United States, whether it was Kennedy or Johnson.  He communicated with them and used his contact with the most powerful men in the world to help create legislation that eventually became law of the land.

King listened - MLK had his visions, his goals and his plan, but he also listened to what those around him were saying.  He wanted to be informed at all times.  He not only listened to those he was trying to help, but also to his advisors, he listened to his enemies, he listened to those with power and without.  He listened and he digested, and he moved forward with all of this information in hand.  He rarely moved forward without being informed from all camps.
King sacrificed - I'm not sure I need to explain this at length.  Safe to say, MLK sacrificed time, money, energy, blood sweat, tears, freedom and even his life, to achieve his goals.

King believed in what he was doing - Simply put, it's outrageous to think he, or anyone would have done what he did without truly believing, deep down, that what he was doing was right. 

Look at that list, and I'm sure I missed some things that should be included, and understand how all of those characteristics can be directly applied to success in any venture you take even today.  If you're a small business owner or a non-profit, if you apply these same characteristics to your organizations, it's more likely than not, you'll be a success, particularly in your public relations and social media efforts.  If you truly believe in what you are promoting, have a plan, stick to that plan, listen, communicate, sacrifice, pick your battles, remain inclusive and use your staff effectively, your outreach campaign will succeed, period.

Media then, media now:

But one has to wonder how a single man was able to mobilize millions of Americans in the mid-60's without the use of the internet, a small budget and little to no advertising.  Seriously, ask the best PR person you know and ask them to create and grow a national grassroots movement with those restrictions, and they'll laugh you out of the room.  And yet, this man from humble beginnings, accomplished all that and more.

And let me be the first to say, I'd laugh you out of the room as well for the simple reason that it can't be done today.  America is a different place now than it was four decades ago.  It's dramatically different than it was just ten years ago.  Americans today have more options about where they get their information.  Today we are bombarded with messages from all around us.  We are more picky, more cynical and more distracted than ever before. 

Let's take a look at the media world in which MLK lived in during his civil rights movement.  Outlets of information were limited at the time.  Television was essentially just hitting its stride as a major influencer of American life when King began his campaign.  Kennedy was the first President to truly realize TV's potential and to use it to help become elected.  King learned from Kennedy.  At the time, the big three networks dominated news and information.  Every city had one, maybe two major paper and most likely one or two major news radio outlets.  What did this mean?  It meant King and his organization didnt' have to reach very far to reach the majority of Americans. 

Get covered on NBC's Nightly News, or ABC with Walter Cronkite, and you've reached a vast majority of the American population with your message and story.  King didn't have to do much to sell his story, obviously, because what he was doing was truly newsworthy, historic, in fact.  It was a no brainer for news executives at the time, much like it would be today.  The difference is, today the message would get lost, muddled and possibly obscured in the swirl of constant information being pumped out daily by television, cable, radio, satellite radio, magazines, online sites, blogs, podcasts, vodcasts, social media websites, ezines, daily and weekly newspapers and various other focused publications.  It's nearly impossible today to reach the kind of saturation that King's movement reached in the 60's.  Even if an event were able to reach that level of awareness and coverage today, the ever-changing news cycles would quickly make it a non-story in a short period of time.

By being able to catch and maintain the focus and attention of the handful of major media outlets in the U.S., King was able to capture the imagination of a new generation of Americans and spread his message fairly quickly.  He was then able to use his on-ground grassroots organization to recruit participants for his marches.  He was able to publicize his struggle through effective use of the few major media outlets available to him at the time.  On top of that, the media of the day had fewer news cycles.  Once a major story or personality emerged, the news of the day took more time with a story, went more in-depth, gave the viewers, readers and listeners more to digest and understand.  King and the Civil Rights Movement remained a major news generator for years, something very hard to do in today's media environment.

Look at another historic sea-change taking place in America today.  Agree or disagree with the current administartions plans to change health care, one has to agree that a change of this magnitude is historic.  It's a complete paradigm change in how the U.S. handles health care for its population.  It should be a constant presence on news outlets everywhere, everday.  But it isn't.  It shows up every now and then when a vote is taken, or when something major happens, otherwise, it gets ignored or buried in the middle somewhere behind the latest Hollywood wedding.

And yet, these same media outlets that make King's kind of movement nearly impossible today, also can be used to inspire an outpouring of emotion, wonder, amusement, social change and assistance never before seen in our history. 

Going Viral:

Social issues such as conservationism, aid to Haiti, support for Olympic athletes, local schools, the war on poverty, the legalization of pot, all have been relatively successful in terms of getting their message out online and organizing grassroots movements through social media.

And this is where "Pants on the ground" comes into play.  I have been shocked, amazed and bemused at the explosion of popularity for this snippet of a song, based on the short performance of a man on "American Idol".  I received several postings of it on my Facebook page, as well as Twitter.  It was even sung by Brett Favre, the QB for the Vikings in the locker room after their big win over the Cowboys in the divisional round of the NFL playoffs.  It blew up, but big.  And why was that?

Only one answer is adequate; the internet.  People saw it on TV during the broadcast, the AI folks put it up online and let human nature and social media take its course.  I'll admit the song is quirky, it's unique, it's slightly funny.  Like the opera singer from Britain, the video made the song and its performer an instant success.  But, like most pop culture fads in the U.S. today, it has no lasting power.  Within a month, the song will be long forgotten, replaced by some other overnight sensation.

This is the kind of thing that would hinder MLK today, and it's the kind of "flashfire" phenomenon that makes your job doing pr and social media for your organization both easier and harder than it's ever been.  You not only have to figure out a way to get your name and message out to the masses.  But once it's out there, you have to figure out a way to KEEP it out there.  And that's really the hard part.

You CAN organize successful grassroots movements using social media today.  You CAN reach a large portion of the public using traditional and new media outlets today.  You CAN keep your name in front of your potential audience using proven PR and community outreach methods today.  The trick is using them all together and using them wisely. 

What this means to you:

Perhaps, from a basic PR and communications standpoint, that's where we can learn some valuable lessons from Martin Luther King Jr.  His basic strategy was successful then, and something tells me, given his charisma, intelligence and drive, it would have been just as successful today.  Something to think about for anyone considering trying to implement social change in the U.S. today.  Certainly Obama is trying.  He's the most successful online President so far, and others will follow.  Even non-profits are figuring it out.  One need only look at the Haiti online presence to know that it's changing how Americans respond to those in need and get the message out for social issues. 

The reality is that the online world homogenizes and empowers us all to make change, to find happiness, and pursue our own vocations, vices and pleasures as we see fit, regardless of who we are or what we look like.  Perhaps today we are closer to MLK's dream than ever before, and it's thanks, in part to a world and technology that no one 40 years ago could ever have imagined. 

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