What can engineering draw from a US government communications course to meet challenges such as the Techlash, trade tariffs and an often sceptical customer base? Quite a lot.

In 2008, a group of marketing and communications specialists was asked to develop a course for the State Department. The US government was concerned about how effectively diplomats were delivering Washington’s message. The result was the United States Marketing Communication College (USMCC). A new book, ‘Crafting Persuasion’, describes an up-to-date version.

Bob Pearson, one of its three authors (with Kip Knight and Ed Tazzia), brought a technology background to the USMCC. He has worked for pharmaceutical giants such as Sanofi and Novartis and in 2006, as Dell’s vice-president of communities and conversations, led its early efforts on social media.

Pearson, today a strategic advisor to digital marketing agency W20 Group, says that Crafting Persuasion aims to spread the lessons captured within the course because what goes for diplomats’ skills goes for many others – including engineers.

“Diplomats have a lot going for them – they’re very bright, they have diverse interests. But they’re not trained in how to do something as simple as expressing themselves so they build a story in a way that’s successful,” Pearson says. “And you can say the same for a lot of C-suite folks. They might come out of finance or engineering or somewhere else, but they aren’t classically trained in communications.”

Serendipity is also playing a role in the book’s release. The tech community is lobbying Washington over the Huawei ban and the trade war with China (the US Trade Representative’s Office began public hearings on the tariffs this week). Meanwhile the global ‘Techlash’ continues, seeded by social media controversies and raising calls for tighter regulation.

As technology originally informed a course for civil servants, it would appear timely now for technology to check out what tools it gives those civil servants, as well as how it might use them.

In that specific context, Pearson believes technology should have done better at averting the Techlash. He does not buy into arguments that social media platforms grew at a rate that overwhelmed their managements.

“I think saying that you’re overwhelmed is an excuse,” he says. “If you’re just two years into a startup and you’re going crazy, you don’t have a lot to think about other than just succeeding. I get that.

“But when you’ve a couple of billion users, you crossed that threshold a long time ago, and you have to actually be asking yourself, ‘Am I doing the right things?’.”

One big reason why Pearson believes the social media giants are in trouble is found in the core ‘ABCDE’ communications model within ‘Crafting Persuasion’: ‘A’ for ‘Audience’, ‘B’ for ‘Behavioural objective’, ‘C’ for ‘Content’, ‘D’ for ‘Delivery’ and ‘E’ for ‘Evaluation’. It’s at the initial ‘A’ and ‘B’ stages where he thinks companies initially fall short.

“What you find is that most people skip ‘A’ and ‘B’. There’s a natural instinct we all have to go, ‘OK, let’s just create content, figure out where we’re going to put it and then we’ll create some metrics out of thin air.’ All of that, as opposed to asking, ‘Who is my audience? What do they actually want? How do we align with them? And what behavior do we want from them?’” Pearson explains.

He describes how two of the bigger social media players suffer from such sins of omission.

“Let’s take Facebook or Twitter. You can look at them and ask, ’Do they really understand who their audiences are other than for the purpose of advertising to them? And I think the answer is, ‘No’,” Pearson says.

“They’ve only been looking at how to reach them to monetise them. They have not been looking at how to reach them to understand how to form a dialogue, build trust and show authenticity – and that last one is important because we aren’t dumb, we can sense when something is inauthentic.

“The problem is that if you don’t do that early on and then try to catch up, it’s exceptionally hard to catch up quickly. It becomes a multi-year process. Just because you start saying the right things doesn’t mean that people are going to start caring right away. So the Techlash is real and I think it will be a long-lasting, multi-year thing too.”

The focus on profit is something that Pearson sees manifesting itself as a dead hand elsewhere. He credits some companies with doing a good job. The strategies of companies such as not just Dell, but also IBM and, from the consumer world, Proctor and Gamble, informed the USMCC, after all. But he broadly marks the technology sector ‘Could do much better’.

“A lot of the tech industry unfortunately still thinks just about selling, selling, selling, as opposed to, again, building the story by looking at what the audience wants,” Pearson says, and cites the example of the mailing list or follow.

“You sign up – social media, email, whatever – with a typical company thinking you’re going to get some good information. But all you get are emails telling you about the deals you can have or someone calling you trying to sell you a system you don’t need. All that, rather than the piece of thought leadership that you really wanted on the future of 5G, say.”

A back-end to all this is that while technology is selling huge amounts of Big Data products, it is not making that good a use of them itself. ‘E’ for ‘Evaluation’ is another concern.

“What I like about social media is you can’t hide, you know. But if you want to listen, your customers are telling you exactly what they think. If you do the right analytics, you can see exactly how to reach them. And you can learn exactly how to communicate properly, if you listen to them and follow some of the steps we lay out. To not do that is – well, you’re making a decision that you don’t prioritise that. It’s hard to see why you’d do that,” Pearson says.

“Some companies are listening, but most aren’t. They’re just kind of hoping the customers don’t bother them. And that hopefully policymakers won’t bother them. And that maybe legislators will ignore them. Well, that’s not a good strategy.”

So, problem statement over. How does ‘Crafting Persuasion’ help get you closer to the audience and, thereby, success?

Obviously, the ‘ABCDE’ model provides a linear strategy. It is described in detail and plain English. There is practical information about the use of analytics, the avoidance of bad actors, adapting to cognitive processes and case studies from successful marketers and communicators from a range of industries.

‘Crafting Persuasion’ is also designed around mnemonics, so you do not just read it and forget it. It is there to inform processes as you face future communications challenges and look to bring others to your point of view – as well as learn about theirs.

The greatest praise I can offer is that as you read it, its lessons are not just clear but also feel blindingly obvious – only then do you wonder why you are not doing these things already. And for technology in particular, it does look like there is still an awful lot of doing to be done.

‘Crafting Persuasion’ by Kip Knight, Ed Tazzia and Bob Pearson will be released by 1845 Publishing on 1 July. It is available in the UK as a Kindle download. There is also a website with information on and accompanying collateral for the book.

Bob Pearson will give a keynote speech at the colocated SEMICON West and ES Design West semiconductor design-chain conferences in San Francisco on Wednesday 10 July in the Yerba Buena Centre for the Arts at 9:05am.