Failure to Communicate: Key lessons for progressives

With democracy and life hanging in the balance, David Fenton speaks out

Failure to Communicate: Key lessons for progressives

The following essay by Dr. George Lakoff will appear in “The Activist’s Media Handbook: Lessons from Fifty Years as a Progressive Agitator,” a forthcoming book by progressive public relations pioneer David Fenton. David is a lifelong activist who truly understands communication and has been an eyewitness to some of the progressive movement’s biggest successes — and failures — over the past several decades. Buy the book! David, a longtime friend and colleague, pulls no punches in explaining why progressives and Democrats have failed to win on some of the biggest issues of our time — and how we can do better. And if you live Seattle, San Francisco, Marin County, Los Angeles, New York or Washington, be on the lookout for David’s upcoming speaking engagements.

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If progressives lose the future, it will not be due to a lack of good policy ideas.

If we lose the future, ceding democracy to authoritarians or bad corporate actors, it will be due mostly to a stunning failure to communicate with people in simple language that connects with them on the level of their moral values. And it will be due to a stubborn rejection of tried-and-true scientific methods of mass communications — methods which conservatives have repeatedly deployed to winning effect.

David Fenton spent most of his life trying to convince Democrats and progressives to take the art of communication seriously. Long before others in the progressive movement understood public relations as a core function of social change, David grasped the power of unconscious thought, metaphor, symbolism and media strategy to shape the public discourse.

David understood the importance of presenting issues in a way that taps into the most deeply-held values of your audience. All politics are moral politics, and people act in line with their moral identities, not because they agree with a list of policies. Sound bites and slogans mean nothing if they fail to resonate with a person’s moral worldview.

With his deep understanding of how communication works, David pioneered the field of progressive PR, helping social change organizations to adopt professional communications strategies and tactics to win major victories for truth, freedom, democracy, the people and the planet. In 1982, he founded the first communications firm dedicated solely to progressive causes.

In this captivating memoir, David provides readers with a personal tour of his journey through recent American history. Starting as a 17-year-old photographer with the Liberation News Service, David had a front-row seat for some of the most tumultuous years of the 1960s. He covered protests against the Vietnam War, the trial of the Chicago Seven, the fight for People’s Park in Berkeley and the rise of the Black Panther movement. He documented the sea-change in American culture, politics and music.

Along the way, he learned from both the successes and mistakes of American activist movements. And he never wavered in his determination to tell the truth, challenge powerful interests and stand up for people.

The lessons David draws from his life as a pioneer of progressive communications expert remain urgently relevant for activists today. As we confront the rising specter of authoritarianism and economic injustice – as well as the rapid destruction of our common home due to global warming driven by greedy fossil fuel corporations – we must not forget the lessons of the past.

This book is essential reading for anyone who wishes to grasp the lessons of history and understand the crucial role of communications in changing minds and winning progress.

Further reading/listening:

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