Talat Hussain anchor person and Columnist Latest column in Jang Akhbar.
Shut up and listen
Search any website. Read any book. Pick up any media journal. Every piece of advice on the subject of leadership communication has one strong message to deliver: shut up, dial down, listen more, speak less. Of course there are other valuable traits of leadership: vision, charisma, organisational wisdom, consensus building, interests aligning talent etc. These are absolutely vital for any class of leaders to achieve their goals. However, open ears and minds and tightly regulated tongues remain the most significant of them all.
Regrettably, this advice falls on stony ground in today’s Pakistan. There is maximum premium on tongue-wagging and dishing out an endless stream of words. The art of holding back is almost extinct. This has become a disease-like situation, afflicting both the high and mighty and the ordinary. In an earlier article, we had called it Statementitis, which is now rampaging through the land.
To be sure, Statementitis is not propaganda. This much-maligned term – propaganda – is a sophisticated system of communication that has well-defined rules of engagement with the public, identifiable goals, assessment of the receptivity level of the audience, and a built-in capacity to be toned down or turned up. It is not a free-fall into the depths of inanity without a rope to climb up with. That would be Statementitis.
Seen in this context, last week’s storm in the media created by Imran Khan’s chief spokesman Naeem ul Haque is understandable. He is a reasonable person, who knows the art of conversation with a sense of humour. But that day he tied himself in crazy knots alleging that the former chief of army staff, General Pervaiz Ashfaq Kayani, along with Saudi Arabia’s rulers (the king we have to assume) and Washington (the White House of the CIA) conspired to bring the present government to power. Without adducing any proof in support of his statement (he said the party did not need to prove anything in this regard), he insisted that this grand conspiracy denied the PTI 60 percent seats (at the least) which was their due.
The reaction, both on the record and behind the curtains, was swift – and less than 12 hours into this bizarre allegation, Naeem ul Haque was fumbling his way out of the morass of confusion, making it only worse. His belated take that this was his “personal opinion” and not that of the party was a poor attempt at damage limitation. In another few hours, more holes were drilled into his astounding claim. Inevitably, he went quiet. Predictably, the party went quiet. In the end, the strategy worked: these days there is no need to correct a verbal wrong by apologising to express regret – you just need to wait it out and let the storm blow over.
What happened to Naeem ul Haque was classic Statementitis: pure, raw, and directed at national nerves, besides of course at the personal integrity of the accused. But it had no rhyme. Nor any real reason. To be fair, Naeem ul Haque has neither invented the disease nor perfected it. He is just another one of the endless stream of victims that are found making fools of themselves. The disease is old. It makes the afflicted think that he or she can say anything and get away with it. We have seen the spectacle so many times in the last many years that it sounds almost unfair to point one man and one incident out of the whole lot.
But the spread of the disease and the frequency of its cases do not lessen the need to discuss its origins and its impact. It mostly originates in the vacuum of reason and thrives on the emptiness of empirical evidence. Leaders or their representatives have to be more responsible than those who indulge in bar talk. That at least is the theory. Sadly, in the age of Trump, it is no longer the guiding principle of leadership. The new fad is to speak first and not even think later because all consequences of indulgent talk can be neutralised by more indulgent talk.
The fact that Trump has as much truth content in his allegations against his opponents as there are calories in diet drinks has not prevented him from persisting with his vicious attacks. We have a strong native flavour of Trumpism, which is quite original. Here incessant talk is not even directed at achieving any particular political goal: it is by habit. Leaders speaking out of habit of speaking are far more self-defeating than those given to occasional outbursts. Or who lie for a cause.
That’s because they are soon discovered to be hollow without any substance to add to anything of national import. The hollowness leads to aggressive stupidity which involves saying anything and everything under the sun just to prove that they have something to say. Audiences are malleable. But they are not permanent slaves to empty-drum beating or mindless repetitiveness. There is a reason why in the world of marketing (driven by the motive of profit through projection) warning signs are placed everywhere about “audience fatigue” and “over-saturated viewers”. Even the most amazingly made advertisements that have all the ingredients of catching the audience’s eye, ear and heart become tedious and boring if they don’t engage those whose decisions matter for the product’s marketability.
Communication experts also warn of the narcotising dysfunction effect. This seemingly complex-sounding theory is simple at heart: over-expose your audience to any particular issue and they will become apathetic and will not be motivated to do anything that is action-oriented. You may keep on hammering the same point over and over again but, other than passive listeners, there will not be much out there for the drum-beat.
However, Naeem ul Haque’s claims had a problem larger than being repetitive (we lost the elections because a conspiracy). It was pure fiction in which not even imagination was involved. That he could trot out a thesis as marvellous as he did with supreme confidence and utter disregard to how these will be received by the audience shows another level of Statementitis. The thought that anything that rolls off the tongue automatically becomes a word of wisdom or natural truth stems from disconnect from public opinion trends. It holds audience intelligence in utter contempt and assumes a status that not even messengers of sublime messages had obtained. It is disastrous for parties, leaders and anyone group interested spreading the word across when they are unable to understand the realm that they are directing their words at.
Understanding the sensitivity of the audience is key to engaging them. Lies and fabrications can walk for a while but after the first mile they limp and fall flat. It is understandable why leaders are not too keen on promoting truth-value in their claims. Politics is war, and everything is considered fair game in it. Yet some tactics boomerang. And none more destructively than those that are not grounded in reality. At least some reality, which in his case was totally missing.
The ultimate cost of ad nauseam repetitiveness and fabrication is not loss of audience but loss of credibility, which builds as silently as it goes away quietly. Holding the audience through an engaging message is one thing but to earn their long-term credibility of the given message is quite another. Spicing up the message at the cost of credibility is a poor deal. There is a reason why even in this age of Trump, sober leaders and their spokespersons read from prepared script and issue statements that are well-thought-out and deliberated upon before being made. Anyone can create a temporary stir by shouting robbery from the rooftop. That however is tamasha. Political communication has to be better than tamasha.
The only guard against the spread of Statementitis is sober reflection. There can be fewer victims of the disease if only more could give their mouths a break and open their ears and minds. In other words, if they could shut up and listen, Statementitis won’t strike.
The writer is former executive editor of The News and a senior journalist with Geo TV.