Recapping a Summer Unlike Any Other Read More

Tom Davis, Vice President

Some of you may have noticed a small news item reporting the death of Frank Buckles. Frank was the last remaining “doughboy”, a World War I veteran who lied about his age to join the Army at age 16. Among the youngest of the nearly 5 million Americans who served during World War I, Frank became the last of his kind. Of the many memories the war left him, one that stood out was going to a wine shop in France one evening, and encountering a group of French soldiers having wine and enthusiastically singing the Marseillaise. When he asked about the occasion, he learned they were going back to the front. The scene stayed with him for the rest of his life.

The first months of 2011 have wrought extraordinary change in the Middle East. First Tunisia, and then Egypt were witness to an outpouring of pent up resentment and yearning for a better life from long suffering populations. Leaders in many of the neighboring nations are scrambling to avoid similar fates, and the struggle for change has reached Africa, where Libya’s erratic strongman Moammar Gadhafi is clinging to power while much of Libya remains in the hands of opposition forces.

Events are moving at such a rapid pace that is it difficult to fully understand the various elements that are contributing to the uprising. Much has been made of the role played by social media in the overthrow of the governments of Tunisia and Egypt. The evidence available suggests that the internet and cell phones were important tools in both countries, and the fact that Egyptian authorities “pulled the plug” on both the internet and blackberry devices tells us the Egyptian government saw both as very threatening.

The fact that tens of thousands of people can be inspired and motivated through social media provides a compelling communication lesson. Those of us in the communication business spend enormous amounts of time and energy looking for ways to achieve the kinds of results we have just observed in Tunisia and Egypt. Likely, we’ve all had our successes, and we’ve had those initiatives where the results were not what we hoped to achieve. What distinguishes the most successful from the others lies in the ability to effectively tap in to deeply held beliefs and motivate people based on those beliefs.

A couple of years ago, on Thanksgiving, we helped about 150,000 people text messages of thanks and support to the men and women who were serving their nation in uniform, many of whom were far from their families while those of us who were not serving assembled to share the warmth typically associated with that holiday. It was a simple ask that engendered a significant response, and it worked because it appealed to a very basic human emotion. We do appreciate sacrifices made by others in our behalf and we do believe it is appropriate to say “thank you” to people we perceive are doing things for us.

The people who poured out into the streets of Tunis and Cairo, who were willing to put their lives on the line, believed that they could make a difference for themselves, their families, their futures. The people who were organizing the protests simply need to direct the energy. From a communications perspective, it was an exercise that should remind us of the need to ground our appeals in basic human needs and desires. When the last doughboy was serving in France, carrier pigeons were one of the primary methods of communication. Frank Buckles lived long enough to have his own facebook page. He saw generations of new technology, but he always remembered those young French soldiers, and the patriotic feeling inspired in them by singing the Marseillaise on their way back to the front.