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One of the things that was very difficult for me when I made reentry to civilian life after working on a high-powered campaign was how oblivious most voters are to the sophistication of the political and corporate messaging machine. People simply didn't believe me when I tried to discuss it. See, most people see themselves as invulnerable to that type of programming, and it's easier to pretend it doesn't exist. The fact that Frank Luntz is still working is proof enough, isn't it? The owners will use every tool they can to win:
You're going to hear a lot about "shared sacrifice" from the NHL in the days and weeks to come. That's the word from inside a secret emergency PR focus group, in which a top Republican Party strategist tested pro-ownership messages on a captive audience of hockey fans. One of those fans shared the documents with us, for a sneak preview of the propaganda campaign the NHL will be unloading on the public as the lockout drags on. Here's a look at the bullshit on the menu before the league serves it to you.
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"When I say 'the NHL,' what's the first thing that comes to mind?"
That's how 30 people were greeted as they filed into a comfortable, well-lit room in a nondescript office building in a DC suburb Friday evening. They were there not because they were genuinely eager to give their opinions on the lockout, but because they were being paid—$100 for three hours of their time, three hours' worth of feedback to help the NHL shape its message to get the public back on its side.
As the lockout claimed its first games last week, the NHL hurriedly turned to the experts on shaping public debate: Luntz Global, the multinational market research firm that proudly proclaims, "It's not what you say, it's what they hear." CEO and founder Frank Luntz is one of the Republican Party's chief strategists, and he appears regularly on CBS and Fox News as an analyst. But his biggest impact has been behind the scenes. He's played a key role in framing the GOP's message over the years. When global warming was recast as "climate change," that was Frank Luntz. When the estate tax became a "death tax," that was Frank Luntz. When the Affordable Health Care for America Act was held up as "a government takeover," that was Frank Luntz, too.
[...] Luntz Global bills itself as leaders in "language research, creation, and innovation," and language is at the forefront of Frank Luntz's strategy. (Words That Work is the title of his book.) After a discussion or a video, Luntz would disappear behind the one-way mirror, presumably to check the results of the dial testing. Then he would re-emerge, and ask participants to listen to him give a speech as if he were an NHL executive. His speech would use the key terms that rated well with dial testing, and repeatedly hammer them home.
From the content of these speeches, one participant gleaned the phrases and concepts the NHL might use going forward. The league is eager to portray individual players as not in step with the union, claiming that the majority of them don't believe or don't buy into the rhetoric used by Donald Fehr and NHLPA leaders, and that they just want to play hockey. "The players are not the enemy," the NHL may very well tell you. "The union is the problem."
As for the owners' slogan, one laughable phrase kept coming up: "Shared sacrifice."
"Maybe we asked for too much at first," Luntz's mock-NHL-exec speech went, "but we're willing to give. The NHLPA has to be willing to give as well, if we're going to give the fans back their hockey. There's no way we're going to do this without both sides bringing something to the table."
Geeze, it sounds like the Obama administration is using Luntz, too! "Skin in the game" and "shared sacrifice," anyone?
The NHL is losing the publicity war. While most fans categorize the negotiations as the rich vs. the richer, there's almost no sympathy for Bettman and the owners for promulgating their third lockout in 18 years. That's a perception they're desperate to change. While concessions will come at the bargaining table, the court of public opinion will dictate which side feels the most pressure to compromise. And, of course, when hockey does come back, the league doesn't want fans to feel so bitter that they stay away from the game. That's where Luntz's research fits in. Most fans, ignorant to the ins and outs of revenue sharing and the like, just want hockey back. It's within the league's power to win the PR war, and portray the NHLPA as the villains behind the work stoppage.
As the research session came to an end, the group was asked to respond again to the first question from their packets. On a scale of 1 to 10, whom did they side with, players or management? One participant gauged the mood in the room, and spoke with his fellow guinea pigs afterward.
"No question," he says. "The group had a much better opinion of the owners."