Does the Middle Still Exist? Strategic Communications in a Polarized World

One of the more talked-about commercials from this year’s Super Bowl is the Jeep commercial, narrated by Bruce Springsteen, which encourages us to “meet in the middle.”

“The middle has been a hard place to get to lately, between red and blue,” the commercial reminds us.

As strategic communicators, we constantly monitor and measure the self-segregating between audiences. There is no one-size-fits-all message – we calibrate content for each audience sector. It is considerably more work, and requires considerably more discipline.

The shift is dramatic enough that we have included it in our MBA crisis media training course this quarter at Wharton.

What’s different about communicating in 2021?

Polarization keeps peaking. Debate happens between extremes; it seems nothing is apolitical. Audiences are cynical and self-segregating. They continue to self-regulate facts. They are more skeptical toward authority, more likely to question motives and more resistant to changing their minds.

At the same time, journalism is becoming more activist, and the most passionate voices are the biggest influencers. Bias and subjectivity – what used to be called “opinion columns” – have infiltrated all news platforms. As local news outlets close down or sell to media conglomerates, audiences are forced to get news elsewhere: either from large national outlets (more removed from the realities of their daily lives) or partisan publications funded by special interests.

Where is the middle?

A core idea in public relations and marketing is “the moveable middle.” Imagine your audience as a bell curve. On one end are those who are unflinchingly on your side, 100% loyal to your brand or fully supportive of your organization or position. On the other are the polar opposites, those who are adamantly and unwaveringly opposed.

In the middle are the moveable audiences, people who are neutral, or who lean one way or another, but can be persuaded. That’s where strategic communication is most effective.

The moveable middle, however, can be a hard place to bring ourselves. We tend to listen too much to those who oppose us, letting them get under our skin. And, conversely, we find it easier to speak to those who are already on our side. That risks putting too much emphasis on shouting into the wind and preaching to the choir while leaving the moveable middle unmoved.

Moving the middle calls for empathy

Public relations – communication with purpose – means we strive to reveal, influence or shift opinions. It seems increasingly difficult to do that when reason gives way to “truths” shared only by smaller cultural groups. But, as Theodore Roosevelt supposedly said more than a century ago, “Nobody cares how much you know until they know how much you care.”

Before you present reason and logic, acknowledge your audiences’ concerns – find what they care about. In the Jeep commercial, Springsteen challenges us to find our common ground. We find common ground not through rhetoric but empathy and understanding.

Of course, there will be those who cannot be persuaded, no matter how respectful you are of their perspective. Neil deGrasse Tyson wrote, “You can’t use reason to convince anyone out of an argument that they didn’t use reason to get into.”

This is why we always start by identifying and learning about all your audiences, not just those you are already reaching – and mine the stories that will most powerfully influence a bigger segment of the moveable middle.

This is how we connect with our audiences at their most human, with feeling and purpose.

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