Sending a Meatier Message

I lived for many years in an Iowa town that had a large pork meatpacking plant (Cargill Meat Solutions), a good employer and active participant in the community. I toured it once and took note of the cleanliness — and the cold workplace temperature. In a later conversation about the visit, a couple employees joked that being taken through the sections that made bacon and cut large slabs of meat was one thing. Had I gone to an area that puts together sausage, I’d have a better sense of how many diverse pieces of a hog could be put together and packed into a casing.

Communication in government is kind of like sausage. You have a final product, but the components are incredibly diverse and you might not be impressed with all of them.

Often it’s not how to get the word out that is complicated or contentious it’s reaching the decisions that will be crafted in a message. Who you bring into the process, perhaps even the alliances you form in so doing, affects what you decide and how you convey it.

I just finished In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson, which is a well researched account of the life of U.S. Ambassador William E. Dodd and his family when he served in Berlin from 1933-37. It seems incredible today that the U.S. and other nations took such great pains to placate Hitler and his Nazi Party. As Larson brings various diaries, memoirs and State Department correspondence into focus, you get a clearer picture. There is the “surely he will be ousted” component, and the “don’t do anything to imperil getting repayment on the German debt from World War I” element. There is also a clear depiction of prejudice against Jews within the U.S., and you are left to wonder if the U.S. government would have acted faster if Hitler had continually limited the freedoms of, for example, Germans who worked in the Dresden glass industry.

All that aside — and it is incredibly important — what stands out in reading the book is how ineffectual Ambassador Dodd was in communicating with others in the Department of State and elsewhere. Initially, he did not want to believe Hitler capable of the atrocities to follow (probably could not have contemplated them), so he talked to Hitler about the need for peace and thought they had might have similar broad goals. However, long before others at State were willing to see the evil for what it was, Dodd became convinced. After Roosevelt fired Dodd in 1937, he dedicated the rest of his life to conveying the truth about Nazi Germany.

Dodd marginalized his message through his reticent nature, inability to employ traditional practices within the diplomatic environment, and his constant correspondence to Washington about the need for frugality in embassy expenditures and others’ lack of interest in this important (to him) issue. He found his voice after he left office, and you could postulate that the firing by his friend Franklin Roosevelt may have stimulated courage in a way nothing else could.

Had Dodd conveyed his opinions more forcefully, maybe he would have been fired in 1935. We’ll never know. However, the impression I took from the book was that if he had been able to work within the State Department mechanisms more effectively he would have been taken more seriously, and so might his message.

As public managers in 2012, most of us outside the military or law enforcement aren’t called upon to convey information that has life or death implications. We may not even feel able to say what we think, certainly we cannot talk to the media unless directed by a very senior official.

Even so, what we say and how we say it can make a difference. If we focus on minor points or simply spend too much time getting to the point, we risk making sausage with lots of pieces, not so much meat. And a lot of people are turned off by it.

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