Jan 22, 2009

Paying attention to the power of symbolic messages

Posted by: Marian Salzman In: "The Obama Effect"| American life

Standing out among President Obama’s seemingly impeccable instincts is his understanding of symbolism’s role in sending powerful messages. He started his Presidential campaign in Springfield, Illinois, where Abraham Lincoln once honed his political skills. Last week, Obama followed Lincoln’s Inaugural train route from Philadelphia to Washington, D.C. And at yesterday’s Inauguration, he laid his hand on the same Bible used to swear in Lincoln in 1861. How’s that for sending a message?

President Obama not only evoked the spirit of President Lincoln, but also gave the much-neglected railroad (and eco-friendly mass transit) his seal of approval. When did you last see any celebrity riding the rails, let alone a U.S. President?

Contrast this with the notorious travel gaffe of a couple of months ago, when the CEOs of Detroit’s ailing Big Three automakers inadvertently prompted howls of outrage by arriving in Washington, D.C., via private jet to petition for a bailout. They may not have seen any symbolic message in their travel arrangements, but their critics sure did.

Colleagues often talk about needing just the right car for client meetings: not too upscale (sending the message that your agency bleeds money or is expensive to retain) and not too ordinary (sending the message that you don’t care for detail or recognize good taste). They have a real point. Cars aren’t just a means of getting from point A to point B.

In the anxious times ahead, leaders and their advisers will need to be especially smart about the symbolic messages they employ, intentionally or not.

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