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Wednesday, March 14,2012

Michigan AARP President

PR man Bob Kolt takes on a new cause: the needs and wishes of the state’s seniors

by Lawrence Cosentino
Bob Kolt’s buttery baritone is butteriest when he’s on message, and that’s always.

“I embrace ‘spin doctor,’” Kolt said. “I get called that all the time. I don’t think it’s pejorative.”

Kolt, a longtime Lansing public relations man, has worked for some big clients, but now he speaks for the state’s demographic 800-pound gorilla. Last week, Kolt was named president of the Michigan chapter of AARP. Kolt has belonged since he became eligible at 50, when his wife gave him a membership as a birthday present. Now, after just three years, he is state president.

“Frankly, after the vetting process, it’s easier to become secretary of state,” he joked.

The talking points are already absorbed in his bloodstream.

“We’re beginning a national discussion: ‘you’ve earned a say in Medicare and Social Security,’” he said on City Pulse’s radio show, taped Monday and set to be aired today.

After the show, he stopped to talk about the new gig and his life as a P.R. man.

“My goal is to inject some enthusiasm into this age group,” he said. “Mick Jagger on stage is having a blast and he’s making money, too.”

Kolt is a bit of a rock star himself. He’s juggling the AARP post — a two-year voluntary gig — with his professional life as a public relations consultant and a 19-year career teaching P.R. techniques at MSU. By his own count, he graded 2,143 papers last term.

“The more I do, the more energy I get,” he said.

He’s not the kind of pro who hides the toolbox.

“There are a lot of factors in effective persuasion communication — statistics, drama, emotion, testimonials,” he explained. “Timing and context are factors.”

Don’t forget “repetition.” Kolt used the phrase “behind closed doors” to describe the national debate over Medicare and Social Security four times in a half hour.

Now that AARP has launched its “you’ve earned a say” campaign urging seniors to get more vocal about preserving long-established entitlements, expect to hear the phrase again, especially if Kolt is at your party.

But does he really want that? Kolt knows that whenever the health care debate goes public, things have a way of getting ugly. If you’re a reformer, the word “care” is nailed to the back of your name as a badge of scorn. Talk of “death panels” is inevitable.

“An open, public debate is sometimes hard for the public to listen to,” Kolt said.

Kolt zeroed in on Michigan’s new pension tax, enacted in January. AARP wants it repealed.

“Seniors are an asset here,” Kolt said. “Why would we be the first place they would look for taxation?”

Kolt figures that seniors’ growing numbers made them an attractive target.

“The governor is an accountant,” Kolt said. “I believe he did it because it’s the biggest growing area of income in the future.” There are 100 million 50-plus people in America. “It’s the only growing demographic,” Kolt said. “37 million are AARP members — 1.4 million Michigan residents.”

After swinging the statistics, Kolt ran the rest of the toolbox, from the appeal to policy to the appeal to fairness, climaxing with gentle threats.

“It’s bad policy,” he said. “It’s just not fair.” (A quick twofer.) “Seniors spend $37 billion in Michigan in income, 90 percent in the state. We already contribute in so many ways, and now to tax pensions!”

Then came the threats.

“Seniors are filing their taxes now,” Kolt said. “It’s an easy decision. ‘Oh, I’ll just change my residence to Florida.’”

He added one more.

“Seniors may delay retiring,” he said. “What does that do for new people coming into the work force?”

Never mind that those two threats — seniors fleeing the state, taking their spending power with them, and seniors staying in the state and hogging jobs — seem to contradict each other. Kolt is still on message.

He snuck one more tool out of the box: the untestable proposition. “We think seniors should be at the center of that debate, because they care most about future generations,” he said. Even with a Care-o-meter, it would be hard to determine whether seniors care more about future generations than those generations care about themselves, but let it pass.

With all his duties, Kolt manages to get up at 5 a.m. to read. He just finished Dick Cheney’s memoir, “In My Time.” He was fascinated by Cheney’s account of the run-up to the Iraq war.

 “They were convinced there were WMDs in Iraq,” Kolt said. “They even made the case well after the fact when there weren’t WMDs. Dick Cheney would defend it. ‘We did find materials, we did find things.’ It was fascinating.”

Kolt is a perceptive man. He could see the next question in my eyes.

“Dick Cheney used communication in almost a propaganda way,” Kolt said. “That’s information to deceive or control.” Kolt sees public relations as a very different thing.

“Persuasion communication is very ethical, but you have to be honest.”

After our talk, Kolt headed to dinner and a senior meeting in Holt with MSU Trustee Dianne Byrum. The happy warrior is flourishing on his new field of battle.

“I’ll be the last guy out of the room,” he said.

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