In information warfare, events are effective weapons

Call it my inability to abandon my breaking news background as a former TV journalist. But I’m enamored with the notion of a “news peg” to galvanize attention around a particular issue.

Our MCDM program did it with Wikileaks in December with “Open Secrets” and the news gods have smiled upon us again, ahead of our conversation tonight “Who Owns the Pipes?” as it relates to content creation and net neutrality. That’s because the federal government just gave its blessing to the Comcast/NBC merger. We delved deeply into what this ruling means for content creators as lines are drawn around control and regulation of the Internet. Indeed, framing the issue this way struck to the heart of net neutrality, as ISP’s might content that it’s online video that strains their infrastructure the most. And if we’re talking about “transmedia” storytelling, access to the internet via cellphones to access this bandwidth-heavy content begs a whole other set of questions. That’s why the FCC created a mobile broadband exception in its December 2010 net neutrality rules.

News pegs make even more sense today as we all battle for each other’s attention. We’re caught in an interesting paradox that as the explosion in digital communication technology facilitates the promulgation of new voices, we’re also losing our ability to listen — because there are so many voices. So what’s going to grab people??

Obviously, we’ve focused our entire graduate program around creating trust and persuasion in other to communicate and transact in the 21st century (especially when framed as a story). But digital media is just a part of an overall strategy to win hearts and minds. This recent New York Times article refers to it as the “information wars”:

For Mr. Maldonado, who said that “the information wars are won before work,” that means rising early to browse all of the major newspapers, new polling data, ideological Web sites and dozens of news alerts needed to equip his bosses with the best, most up-to-date nuggets.

“Our executives walk into meetings and they’re doing battles, whether it’s on health care or cap and trade, and information is power, and my job is to make sure they’re armed with the most powerful information,” he said. “It’s reading the 1,000 stories in the papers and Hill rags, and finding that one needle in the haystack that’s going to matter.”

But to me, it’s not about using information to wage war. Rather, I believe that the digital revolution has pitted information against itself — and the strongest ideas prevail only due to those who have the strongest communication strategies. I finally grasped this when reading Atlantic Magazine’s profile of Republican Senate Leader Mitch McConnell:

McConnell nevertheless manipulates the press masterfully, using methods that are head-smackingly obvious and yet still elude most politicians. He knows exactly what he wants to say, repeats it with emphasis, then stops. He will not be drawn out, and has no compunction about refusing questions. He would never make Boehner’s mistake, because he won’t entertain hypotheticals. “We don’t issue a whole lot of currency,” his spokesman says. What McConnell does say makes news.

At the press conference, reporters jockeyed to throw him off message and extract some further bit that might drive the story forward. His unvarying reply when asked about Boehner was: “It does not make sense to raise taxes in a recession,” a phrase he uttered nine times in barely as many minutes. The effect was like watching a swarm of mosquitoes encounter a bug zapper. After he wrapped up the proceedings, the reporters broke their huddle and scurried to button­hole individual senators. McConnell ignored them and walked off. The story soon dried up. No vote took place. And the elections were, as McConnell intended them to be, an unadulterated referendum on President Obama.

We’re inundated by ideas, messages, creeds, sales pitches, visions — a veritable jungle of information. Does it not make sense then that a Darwinistic “survival of the fittest” is descending upon this wildest of ecosystems? And as such we should use whatever tools and tactics that will throw our tidbit of communication to the top of the heap?

So how do I apply this philosophy specifically to my own communication endeavor? As Director of the Master of Communication of Digital Media, my objective is to persuade the world that we offer a high-value graduate degree — and that we’re the best at what we do. Yes, we could buy advertising and publish swanky brochures. Sounds like an expensive way to lose the war.

Rather, my strategy has been to place the MCDM at the heart of our region’s media and technology community. We started with regular events (face-to-face information sharing gatherings hold great currency in the digital age), culminating in the hugely successful TEDx Seattle last year. Now we have Media Space TV (which, compared to its YouTube counterpart’s somewhat anemic views, is building far more attention capital through its blockbuster ratings) feeding into our new Four Peaks franchise (monthly salons and a fall summit). We’re convening community, sharing our expertise, and soliciting the expertise and creativity of others. In doing so, we’re engaging our constituents in a much larger vision. It’s ambitious. It’s epic. But in this age of easy, disposable communication, it just may stick.

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