The following is adapted from our weekly newsletter. To get early access to bonus content, sign-up for it here.
If you ever needed a lesson about government incompetence, look no further than Thursday night’s *PRIMETIME* January 6 Committee Hearing.
No, this isn’t commentary on Trump or the January 6 riots themselves. People of all persuasions should agree that political violence is bad, regardless of who does it.
The incompetence that Congress displayed on Thursday was part of a bigger story: government’s obsession with fighting the last war instead of dealing with the challenges of the present.
Sometimes, leaders make this mistake in war itself. When the September 11 attacks occurred, the U.S. military was still designed for nuclear conflict, despite the decade that had passed since the USSR’s demise and ample evidence that non-state actors like Osama bin Laden were the true threat.
Other times, “fighting the last war” is more figurative.
Take the economy, for example. Earlier this week, POLITICO reported this about Joe Biden’s inflation problem:
“In 2009, BARACK OBAMA’s economic team made a fateful decision that its stimulus package could not be larger than a trillion dollars. They told themselves that they could always go back to Congress for more. They couldn’t, and an anemic recovery followed.
That experience set the stage for the subject of the great debate of JOE BIDEN’s year one: inflation.
He [President Biden] ordered up a stimulus package much larger than the economy required. It had two devastating effects: It made inflation worse.”POLITICO Playbook, June 4, 2022
In other words, President Biden has been ignoring the economic crisis at hand, and fighting the last war instead.
When it comes to our culture, January 6 Committee Co-Chairs Bennie Thompson and Liz Cheney made the same mistake on Thursday night.
They presented their findings in a live TV format that was clearly designed to recapture the “magic” of the Watergate proceedings. They were looking backwards for inspiration on how to persuade the American People when they should have been more focused on the present – an era where fewer and fewer people care about what’s on TV because they are addicted to their phones.
This also has important implications for style and format that the January 6 Committee missed on bigly. Cheney and Thompson fought the last war, Watergate, and because of that, you should be very skeptical that these hearings will achieve their intended results.
First, it’s important to understand how Americans process information.
It’s a fact that most of us get information on the Internet and through our phones. Every e-commerce company knows this and their marketing strategies reflect that reality.
According to Statista, the average American consumes 489 minutes of digital content per day, compared to 297 minutes of “traditional” media – print, TV, movies, etc.
Everyone knows how big Google is, but did you know that YouTube is the world’s 2nd largest search and Facebook is the 4th?
No matter who you splice it, the data is very clear that most Americans process most information through digital networks that live on our phones. So if you want to persuade Americans, that’s where you’ve got to do it.
That by itself isn’t a novel insight. But Congress’s inability to seize on it led to 5 critical failures by the committee that will cost them dearly in the court of public persuasion.
(1) They needlessly hyped their hearing as something that would “blow the roof off” the Capitol.
Congress used a marketing strategy that was designed to secure a live TV audience. They hyped the event like a prize fight when they should have teased the power of its unique, individual findings. Truly, a separate marketing campaign for every “bombshell” — forget the event itself.
“You’ll never believe what Jared Kushner said about Mike Pence” would have been better than, “it’s going to blow the roof off”.
That’s because the hearing’s findings can live online forever, years after the event itself is forgotten. But once tethered to a boring, unsatisfying event like Thursday’s, the urgency of the Committee’s findings themselves is diminished.
Aren’t politicians the ones who created the term, “under-promise and over deliver?”
(2) They formatted the hearing to fill the allotted time on TV
The hearing was larded with mind-numbingly dull statements from committee members like Liz Cheney and Bennie Thompson.
It’s not that their words weren’t important – they were – but there is virtually no chance that the casual viewers who they sought to persuade were able to watch more than 3 minutes of the hearing without changing the channel.
(3) There was no narrative to the proceedings
Contrary to popular belief, social media platforms like TikTok & Instagram have raised Americans’ expectations for content, not lowered them.
Algorithms only share your video when real humans do. So every time you log on to Instagram, TikTok, or YouTube, you are being served hundreds of videos that are absolutely Hollywood perfect. They might lack movie stars and production value but what they do have is a flawless narrative arc. That’s why they’re viral.
As a result, Americans now expect everything to be tightly produced with a clear narrative arc. All killer, no filler.
In the case of the January 6 Committee, there was no discernible arc to the proceedings. It was just as much stuff as they could fit into the allotted time.
(4) They buried their largest asset
A picture is worth a thousand words. But a video is worth a million. The January 6 staff produced a gripping video of never-before-seen footage of the riot. Cops being beaten. Glass shattered. Profanities. The whole thing.
But somehow, inexplicably, they didn’t air it until close to an hour into the hearing.
This was malpractice.
(5) They took inspiration from government, rather than the private sector
As we said above, it’s obvious that this hearing was a “Watergate Reboot.” What a catastrophic error. Why would you model a “primetime” show on something that government workers did 50 years ago?
Thompson and Cheney should have formatted this hearing like a product launch or a movie premier. Do what Elon Musk or Tom Cruise would. We know these formats work well because the most successful companies in the world use them.
So the next time Congress needs to prove that a former President was a crook, here’s some advice.
Avoid a wondering, 2 hour long snooze fest that’s geared towards a dying medium.
Instead, have the Chairman introduce the committee for a few minutes, and then play a tightly-cut video that synthesizes everyone’s hard work, and let the product speak for itself. That’s what Elon would do.
Make the video modular, so that you can split it up into pieces that suit the Internet’s many distribution channels. Use production value to create a narrative but also, leave some questions dangling in the air. When the video is done, open the floor to questions. And of course, have some premade GIFs and memes for the Internet that highlight the most important moments.
Trump’s opponents have always fought an uphill battle against him because he possesses two critical insights that most politicians don’t: an understanding of culture and marketing. It may be the reason why he escapes yet again.