03/21/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

It's Not What You Say, It's What They Hear: Why the NY Post Is Wrong Without Being Wrong

We tell all of our clients the same thing: Intent doesn't matter in communication; interpretation does. If your audience is likely to "hear" a certain message from what you say, then that is the message that matters. End of story.

And that is where the NY Post got it wrong.

I have no doubt that the Post's explanation is both earnest and accurate. I am sure the artist was at once making fun of the chimp shooting incident and our Congress' attempt to revive the economy--not trying to compare President Obama to a monkey. This should not be turned into something bigger than it is for the sake of political grandstanding.

But, regardless of the cartoonist's intent, this reaction was entirely predictable. It is too easy to see why many would misinterpret the cartoon. Especially if you give a moment's thought to our nation's sordid past with race relations and the significance of President Obama's recent election. Of course, all of this begs the question, if so many people "mis"- interpret it, then it really isn't a misinterpretation at all, is it?

The point here is simple: know your audience. To communicate effectively, you must think like your audience. You must understand the baggage they bring to any situation and not just appreciate their perspective on the world but adopt it as your own, even if only momentarily.

We see this with our corporate clients every day. They tell customers, employees, and the market what the company wants to say. Yet they often fail to consider what their target audience will actually hear. And that's the fine point, which leads them to wonder why people don't react how they wanted them to in the first place.

If the NY Post wanted to run something funny and timely, they missed the mark. If they wanted something controversial - kudos to them for doing it exactly right.