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Find the balance between objective and subjective messages

December 18, 2015
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When I was engaged in small business advocacy with the Small Business Association of Michigan and the National Small Business Association, I was consistently pushing a more aggressive stance on the issues. It was my opinion that what moves people to action, such as contributing to a PAC, was emotion: Scare them. Make them angry. Set into them an emotion that will lead to action.

I may have been right on how to attract people’s attention, but I may have been wrong on how to get results. The current presidential primaries are a case in point.

The Democrats demonize the Republicans on the issue of Syrian migrants by saying the Republicans are afraid of women and children. If you have any sense at all, you know Republicans are rightly concerned about terrorists mixing with the families and getting within our borders.

The Republicans want to portray Hillary Clinton as a socialist: She is an entrepreneur of the first order. Her ties to Wall Street will keep her from overreaching. Their rhetoric is based on the need to get through the primaries. After the primaries, we will see both sides’ true colors.

So here's the connection to small business. When does promotion or advertising become propaganda? Propaganda as I understand it is misleading the customer or public through the media.

Advertising and marketing should portray the best attributes of your product or service. The focus should be on what you have to offer. Attacking your competition may work in the short run but in the long run a customer’s experience with your business will determine your company’s success. 

In politics, absurd accusations and assertions are expected. In business, there is supposed to be truth in advertising. Can you or your product honestly deliver what you say? If you can, you’re advertising; if you can't, it is propaganda.

I can't think of a better example to make my point than Donald Trump. He gets attention by being an interesting character. Why would reporters follow an intelligent, analytical, policy wonk who would make a good president when they can report on an outrageous, arrogant billionaire who makes questionable judgments on policy issues? Whether you agree with him or not, you have to give him credit for pushing his agenda. 

I had my own experience with pushing to get an issue noticed by taking a different approach.

Several years ago, I was asked to testify before a House committee on taxation in Washington. Having attended these hearings in the past, I knew what to expect. They are boring beyond belief: CPAs, college professors and attorneys read their printed testimony in monotone voices.

I asked the CEO and the chairman of the National Small Business Association if I could give my testimony my way. They looked terrified but said OK.

After five presenters droned on about statistics and analysis, it was my turn. I started off by thanking them for enhancing my income. Then I said I was going to name my new Boston Whaler fishing boat the AMT, acknowledging my revenue enhancement due to the complexity of the alternative minimum tax. For about a half hour, I bantered back and forth with the committee as we exchanged stories about the absurdities in the tax law.

Trump has gotten a lot of attention and has led in the polls by a substantial margin because he moves people to action by his presentation, not his substance.

My testimony at the tax hearing did not contain superior tax information. I made the small business tax abuse case in real-life terms. I believed the members of Congress would remember my emotional appeal longer than they would remember somebody reading tax code.

If you can get people to laugh and relate to the problem — to people they know, then maybe you can accomplish change. I was supposed to have five minutes; we exchanged horror stories for a half hour. One member of Congress even related how much it cost in accounting and legal fees for his mother’s estate.

When I first started working, I heard the advice: “Sell the sizzle, not the steak.” Showing an uncooked piece of meat is not going to bring in customers like the depiction of a well-prepared steak. You have to find how to create a feeling in a potential customer or PAC donor — an emotion that will cause them to join you in a process.

In the beginning of this article, I mentioned being wrong on how to get results. Many people helped me over the years to understand the need for control and balance.

As a small business advocate, our supporters were generally Republicans. Early on, I demonized unions and Democrats. As I became more involved, I began to realize unions and Democrats have valid issues. Balance is needed. Make friends with and listen to both sides.

It is easy to give a rabble-rousing speech and motivate the press to cover your story. It is really hard to work out compromises that focus on the welfare of everyone.

As either a consumer or producer of information, the balance between objective and subjective messages in business or politics should be acknowledged.

I grew up in the auto industry. The Detroit Auto Show was a huge event. The new cars were surrounded with beautifully dressed models who were there to attract people to look at the car. Once you were looking at the car, the model’s job was done and the product had to sell itself. As the quality of the product deteriorated in the 1970s, customers left in droves.

If the steak turns out to be hamburger, no amount of PR sizzle will save you.

Paul Hense is the retired president of local accounting firm Hense & Associates and the past chairman of the Small Business Association of Michigan.

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