A word from our sponsor

This blog is a real-time report on research and thinking for the articles and books I'm writing. My latest book, on public relations ethics, was written with Don Wright, head of the public relations department at Boston University's College of Communication. You can learn more about it, and my other books, in the sidebar to the left of this blog.

To subscribe to this blog,enter your email address in the column to the left. If you work in corporate communications, you may also be intertested in my Twitter feed, @PrReader, which provides links to articles relevant to the practice of strategic public relations.

Oppo research

Oppo resOpposition research is one of those sexxy-sounding hardball tactics politicians use and some corporate CEOs covet when they're under attack. The temptation to dip your toe into it is almost too hard to resist, particularly when your boss suggests it's what "the pros" all do.

Two exercises in opposition research within the same week of November 2014 demonstrate the dangers. In one, the Edelman public relations agency proposed to research a client’s opponents; in the other, a senior executive of the Uber car service proposed to research a reporter who had been critical of the company.

Edelman’s client had proposed to construct an oil pipeline across Canada. Greenpeace, which opposed the pipeline’s construction, somehow got its hands on a copy of Edelman’s public relations strategy, which called for developing “detailed background research on key opposition groups,” and posted it online. That prompted the New York Times to characterize the whole affair as an attempt “to spread any unflattering findings about the opposition.” 

Meanwhile, as reported by Buzzfeed, a senior Uber executive attending an industry dinner “outlined the notion of spending ‘a million dollars’ … to dig up dirt on its critics in the media—and specifically to spread details of the personal life of a female journalist who has criticized the company." The executive who made the suggestion later explained he thought he was speaking “off the record.” He said he “regretted [the remarks] and that they didn’t reflect his or the company’s views.”

There is nothing unethical about analyzing what reporters have written to better understand what they think of your company and its industry. Nor is it wrong to track public details about a reporter’s life or information he or she is willing to share, such as a spouse’s name, children, alma mater, and hobbies. Such information can help build a stronger personal relationship with the reporter. But digging for embarrassing information is clearly unethical.

It is a violation of the reporter’s privacy. It muddies the waters of public discussion by casting irrelevant aspersions on the person reporting it. It's not responsible advocacy by any measure.

The key word here is “relevance” and that could be the safe harbor for Edelman.

If its background research was intended to reveal relevant information about the pipeline’s opponents, such as conflicts of interest or extreme positions they have taken in the past on similar projects, it could be ethical.

As Edelman’s own plan suggested, “To make an informed decision on this project, Canadians need to have a true picture of the motivations not only of the project proponents, but of its opponents as well.”

Ethical or not, the publicity embarrassed TransCanada and it parted ways with Edelman within a matter of weeks. The Uber executive was publicly rebuked by the company's CEO for remarks that "showed a lack of leadership, a lack of humanity, and a departure from our values and ideals." Thrown under the Uber or not, he's still with the company.



The politicization of PR

Democrats and RepublicansA story in today's Wall Street Journal lifted the veil on a disturbing trend -- some political operatives are bringing their bare knuckle tactics to the business world.

According to the Journal, for example, "America Rising, the unofficial research arm of the Republican Party, has launched a for-profit venture aimed at helping companies, trade associations and wealthy individuals push back against detractors and navigate sensitive shareholder or public-policy fights."

Its Democratic counterpart, American Bridge, says it isn’t looking to do private-sector work, but admitted to doing work for public policy allies like Planned Parenthood. One wonders if the next steps won't be trade associations, followed quickly by corporate lobbyists and then the rest of the C-suite.

As The Donald would say, "Not good."

CEOs have been enamored with the techniques of political campaigning ever since the days of Ronald Reagan, who was the most CEO-like politician to occupy the White House. But Reagan's communications techniques were relatively benign: message discipline, repetition, controlled appearances with dramatic backdrops, policy framed in homey anecdotes, etc.

Today's political operatives are decidedly more rough and tumble, whose stock in trade is compiling dossiers on opponents’ vulnerabilities and finding ways to exploit them without leaving fingerprints.

I can't do better than Tim Penning, a professor of public relations, who posted this in the Journal's comment section:

"... implicit in 'opposition research' is the underhanded use of ad hominem attacks on those with alternative views and agendas. It damages the civility of debate and robs the public of the ability to make genuinely informed decisions, which is the moral role of public relations in society. In the end, as negative practice becomes common, it will damage all companies' reputations."

To which I say, "Amen."



What PR can learn from j-school

Data literacyA lot of public relations people are feeling smug because their ranks are growing while reporters are being laid off right and left.  At last count, there were five PR people for every journalist in the U.S. And we all know at least one reporter who has made the jump to public relations, however uneasily.

But don't count the working media out just yet. A recent study describes how many journalism schools are preparing budding reporters to flourish in our new digital world. Spoiler alert: they aren't training them to write stronger ledes or to sell space on the side. They're teaching them something called "data journalism."

The report defines data journalism this way: "using data for the journalistic purpose of finding and telling stories in the public interest. This may take many forms: to analyze data and convey that analysis in written form, to verify data found in reports, to visualize data, or to build news apps that help readers to explore data themselves. The ability to use, understand, and critique data amounts to a crucial literacy that may be applied in nearly every area of journalistic practice."

In words that will sound familiar to most public relations people, one student journalist told the study's authors “A lot of students are scared of ‘that math thing'." Nevertheless, according to the study, the majority of accredited journalism schools already offer at least one course in data journalism. And many plan to increase their offerings.

“What we’re really seeing now is that this is a durable change in the structure of information," wrote Steve Coll, dean of the Columbia Journalism School, "and therefore a need to durably change a journalist’s knowledge in order to carry out their core democratic function. Not to build a business model, not to reach more people, not to have more followers, but to actually discover the truth—you need to learn this.”

I think the same can be said of public relations. The Page Society's most recent white paper highlights how data analytics will transform the Chief Communications Officer's role in the years ahead. Yet the Page white paper also indicated that data analytics was one of the areas of expertise least claimed by 200 senior practitioners who participated in a Page-sponsored online discussion forum.

Many people go into public relations because they're more comfortable with words than with numbers. But those who want to be more than wordsmiths need to get over their fear of "that math thing." 

Data literacy is a crucial skill in understanding the needs, values, and aspirations of our customers and stakeholders. It's also increasingly critical in building enduring relationships with them. And if reporters are going to subject your client's business to in-depth data analysis, you'd better be prepared to match them spreadsheet for spreadsheet.  

In its 2015 report, the Commission on Public Relations Education identified "data analytics and insights" as "knowledge needed by an entry-level public relations practitioner." Anyone know how public relations educational programs would stack up against journalism programs on this score?







What's PR?

What is pr?I'm either on a roll or in a rut. Yesterday's posting tried to explain who is practicing public relations. Today's tries to describe what they do, without the benefit of Census Data.  

Not that the good folks over at the Census Bureau didn't take a whack at defining public relations for the purposes of their survey.  They did, and here it is: "Engage in promoting or creating an intended public image for individuals, groups, or organizations. May write or select material for release to various communications media."

Add that to the estimated 500 formal definitions various practitioners and academics have devised. There’s no canonical definition of public relations. It’s 117,499 people doing essentially the same thing and explaining what they’re doing in 117,499 different ways.

Underlying all these definitions are two major theories.

The first is the horn-blowing, publicity-centered version of public relations portrayed in popular media -- the world of flacks and spin doctors. Academics call that “asymmetrical symbolic interpretation.” Its goal is to inform and persuade. Or, as the Census Bureau put it, to "create an intended public image."

That certainly describes the first 100 years of PR’s history, which was largely concerned with informing and persuading people of something.

But “persuasion” has always made some academics uncomfortable. So they’ve developed a theory that is more genteel and socially redeeming.  They call it "two-way, symmetrical or dialogic communications." Its goal is to mediate interests.

The idea is that PR can help an organization enter into a dialog with its publics to build common agreement on issues of mutual concern. It’s a notion rooted in a sociological concept called systems theory. But it shows up in academic journals much more than in practice, where it seems concentrated in highly regulated industries or non-profits.  

In the real world, public relations is practiced along a continuum, from sharing information to mediating interests. Practitioners move between the two ends of this continuum at different gaits. But they share a common goal, rooted in another sociological theory – social construction.

The idea of social construction is that people’s understanding of the reality around them is heavily influenced by their environment. What we call the "meaning" of words and symbols is shaped by the context in which they are encountered. And that meaning becomes the currency with which information is shared, minds are persuaded, and interests are mediated.

In a very real sense, public relations is all about creating meaning.

Joye Gordon, a PR professor at Kansas State University, latched onto this back in 1997 and suggested PR is "active participation in the social construction of meaning." Think about it: isn't that what PR is all about?  We’re working with people’s current feelings and understanding to construct a new meaning. Ideally, a meaning favorable to our client or brand.

Meaning isn't imposed on others; it's created in a collaborative process. It's not pulled out of the air like a slogan; it's constructed from our client's actual capabilities and the public's real needs, aspirations, and values. 

Meaning grows out of a brand's purpose, which is essentially the job it promises to do for customers. That job can be functional, emotional, or aspirational. But it has to be real and something customers value.

As marketing professor Philip Kotler put it, purpose has to serve both customer and society. "Marlboro was the most popular brand of cigarettes," he points out. "It delivered taste and high satisfaction. But it also could deliver a heart attack, liver damage and 'bads' to others in the smoke vicinity."  Not exactly beneficent. 

So that's what public relations people do: they participate in the social construction of meaning around a client or brand's beneficent purpose.


Who is PR?

Keep-calm-i-m-a-pr-specialistPublic Relations is one of those "knowledge businesses" where the company's assets go down on the elevator every night. So it's surprising how relatively little we have known about those assets on an industry-wide basis.

But now the MIT Media Lab's "Data USA" app has made Census Bureau data accessible enough that even a liberal arts major can begin to get a better handle on just who is practicing public relations.

It's also possible to analyze occupations from actuary to welder and to explore such questions as "the characteristics of powerful occupations." (Spoiler alert: PR specialist is not among them.) 

The data on Public Relations Specialists is mostly drawn from the Census Bureau's latest American Community Survey. Here are some highlights:

  • There are 117,499 public relations specialists in the U.S., most of whom (20%) work for agencies. The second industry with the largest proportion of PR people is education. About 8% of us work in colleges and universities.
  • On average, PR specialists are 39.9 years old. Men are an average 5 years older than their female counterparts. There are more women in PR than men, accounting for 63% of positions.
  • On average, women appear to age out at about 30 years old; men, at 55. On the other hand, according to the Census Bureau, 21 female PR practitioners have an average age of 95; 20 male practitioners have an average age of 88. At the other end of the scale, 60 men in PR have an average age of 16; 20 women, an average age of 17. 
  • PR specialists make $77,147 a year, a little less than locomotive engineers and a little more than market researchers. Interestingly, wages are more evenly distributed in the public relations industry than in the overall workforce.
  • Wages for PR specialists are highest in Delaware, Virginia, and Connecticut, undoubtedly reflecting where people live rather than where they work. The region with the highest concentration of PR specialists is Washington, D.C.
  • The highest paying industries for PR specialists are motion pictures ($185,000), electronic stores ($184,000), banking ($149,000), and telecom ($143,000). The lowest paying is retail ($27,000).
  • 83% of PR specialists are white, compared to 75% of the overall workforce. Only 8.5% are black, compared to 11% of the overall workforce. And only 3.5% are Asian, compared to 5.6% of the overall workforce. On the other hand, the PR industry does well by people of American Indian heritage -- they account for 0.8% of PR specialists compared to 0.5% of the overall workforce. (Note: "white" appears to include Hispanic, for whom there is no separate category.)
  • The three most common college majors PR specialists pursue are communications (39%), social science (11.8%), and business (11.7%). On the other hand, a relatively high proportion of PR people majored in cultural and gender studies. 
  • According to an analysis by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the two most valuable skills PR specialists are expected to have are social perceptiveness and speaking. Close behind are critical judgment, reading comprehension, time management, decision making, and active listening. Curiously, writing skills are only the 8th most desired skill, about as important as persuasion and negotiation.

My take-away? Public Relations is a young business, skewing female but with fewer people of color than it should have.

If the future belongs to those with skills in human behavior and data analysis, as a recent Arthur W. Page Society paper suggests, we have a long way to go. Only 11.8% of PR Specialists majored in social science; 4.6%, in psychology; and 1.6% in computer science. 


CEOs and Politics

SwitzerlandWhen it comes to politics, most corporate CEOs are Switzerland, with no enemies and friends on all sides.

But now two academics have taken to the pages of the New York Times to suggest CEOs might want to step up their game. They suggest that, as brands seek to "personalize" their relationships with consumers, "adopting a political orientation might be part of closing the deal."

As they put it, "In an era of political polarization, corporate neutrality may be outdated. Perhaps it is better in 2016 to be intensely loved by a few than inoffensive to many."

They even see evidence CEOs can contribute to political change when they take a public stance "on controversial issues like race relations and gender equality that are unrelated to their core businesses." And they think this new outspokenness can increase sales at the same time.

Aaron K. Chatterji of the Fuqua School of Business at Duke and Michael W. Toffel of Harvard Business School admit their position is based largely on anecdotal evidence.

For example, after the chief executives of Intel, Salesforce.com, and Unilever opposed a “religious liberty” bill allowing faith-based businesses to discriminate against same-sex couples, Republican Gov. Nathan Deal of Georgia promised to veto it. 

That was consistent with an earlier field experiment they conducted when Apple CEO Tim Cook expressed opposition to a similar bill in Indiana. 

In that experiment, when voters were exposed to a statement of Cook's position, support for the bill declined among all but opponents of gay marriage. Interestingly, purchase intent for Apple products increased among gay marriage supporters.

While it's important for CEOs to demonstrate they care about issues important to their customers, I don't think they should drag their companies into controversies "unrelated to their business," as the good professors put it. 

From a practical, dollars and cents point of view, why would a company want to alienate any customers and stakeholders? From an ethical perspective, spending shareowner money on something many might oppose, without a compelling business reason, is questionable.

Having said that, I would argue that gay marriage -- part of respecting the human dignity of gay people -- is important to any company's core business, as are race relations and gender equality.

No company can afford to ignore or marginalize employees, customers, or other stakeholders simply because of who they are. Not only would that be a serious violation of their rights, it would waste their talent.

The same logic applies to a number of other hot-button "cultural issues," depending on the company. Starbuck's, for example, has a legitimate reason for barring guns from its stores even in states with open carry laws. 

Every company needs to make that judgment for itself. And while it may sound complicated, there is one fool-proof test. Before taking a position on an issue, ask yourself this: if the poop hits the fan on this, are you willing to go to the mat on this issue, to do whatever it takes to win?

If you can't say "yes" to that question, save yourself some grief and stay out of the fight.




From Barnum to Trump

Barnum & Trump.001Public Relations people like to think they not only outlived P. T. Barnum, they outgrew him and his outrageous publicity-seeking techniques.

Not quite.

Those techniques live on in the more juvenile corners of the practice. And in one presidential campaign.

Strictly speaking neither P. T. Barnum nor Donald J. Trump can be categorized as PR people. But so many techniques of the craft have been so central to their success, they serve as appropriate and rich case studies.

Barnum and Trump share more than the same hairline, less comb-over. They're both teetotalers, though Barnum came to sobriety after a period of dissolution and, while Trump doesn't drink wine or vodka, he peddles them. 

Barnum entered politics late in life, serving as a state legislator and as mayor of Bridgeport, Conn. Trump was in his late 60s when he decided he wanted to be president.

They both amassed great fortunes. Barnum was one of the first millionaires in the U.S. Trump claims to be worth $10 billion. They both also made good use of the bankruptcy statutes.  

Both have been best selling authors. Trump wrote The Art of the Deal, telegraphing his approach to domestic and international issues. Barnum wrote the more straightforwardly titled The Art of Money Getting

And they can both credit much of their success to their genius at generating publicity. In fact, just 4 days before he died, Barnum wrote a friend, “All I have, I owe to the press.”  Trump could say the same, although he would probably add “those disgusting, dishonest human beings.”

Disgusting or dishonest, Trump knows how to deal with the media. His strategy is fairly simple and Barnumesque in its own way. "One thing I’ve learned about the press is that they’re always hungry for a good story, and the more sensational the better," he wrote in The Art of the Deal. "If you are a little different, or a little outrageous, the press is going to write about you."

And write they do. Sometimes, just turning on their TV cameras and watching him in front of adoring crowds.  Over the course of his campaign, Trump earned nearly $2 billion worth of media attention — twice Hillary Clinton’s $746 million, more than all the other GOP candidates combined, and 190 times more than he spent directly. 

Now, you would think volunteering for all that attention, Trump has been playing with fire. But he learned how to handle the media in his real estate days, as he explained in his best seller. "When a reporter asks me a tough question, I try to frame a positive answer, even if that means shifting the ground," he wrote. "If someone asks me what negative effects the world’s tallest building might have on the West Side, I talk about how New Yorkers deserve the world’s tallest building."

In the trade that's called "bridging" or evading a question by answering the question you wish had been asked. Like Barnum, who posted signs reading “this way to the egress” to keep people moving through his sideshows, Trump is a master of misdirection. 

He has also been more prolific than any other candidate in “shared media,” accumulating about 7 million Twitter followers and tapping out more than 32,000 Tweets and re-Tweets. That’s more significant than it seems. At the beginning of the 20th century, people like Walter Lippmann believed newspapers played a key role in telling people what to pay attention to and how to think about it. In the 21st century, social media has usurped that role.  

Like Barnum, Trump knows what ordinary people want. "I play to people’s fantasies," he wrote. "People want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular. I call it truthful hyperbole. It’s an innocent form of exaggeration — and a very effective form of promotion." In the trade, that's called "spinning," making the good look better and the bad look good.

Barnum.001Barnum called it “Humbug” -- "putting on glittering appearances by which to suddenly arrest public attention and attract the public eye and ear." In fact, he called himself the "Prince of Humbugs.” He would have seen kindred royalty in Donald Trump. 

Few of the attractions Barnum promoted came close to the outrageous buildup he gave them, but people were so entertained, they didn’t feel deceived. The lie was part of the entertainment. He sewed the body of a fish to the torso of a monkey and presented it as “a scientific curiosity” called the Fee-Jee Mermaid.

More troubling, Barnum’s “Humbug” exploited the prejudices, racism, and belief in eugenics common in his day. He promoted the deformed, disabled, and different -- like “General” Tom Thumb, Jo Jo the Dog-Faced Boy, and conjoined twins Cheng and Eng. He promoted a mentally disabled black man as “Pinhead,” the missing link between man and ape. And even though he was an abolitionist, he bought a slave and presented her as Washington’s 161-year-old nanny.

In a way, Trump is following the same playbook, exploiting people’s fears and anger. He appeals to people who feel disenfranchised by globalization, stagnant wages, and demographic change. They like his brashness and directness. Whatever he says is always clear enough for a 4th grader to understand. And it’s expressed in simple, angry terms that can fit in a Tweet with plenty of room for exclamation points.  

It’s a proven formula. Anger and fear are easy to evoke because they come from people’s unconscious. And once aroused, those feelings are immune to rational argument.  People who are scared and angry don’t want someone to tell them they shouldn’t be. They want someone to listen, play back what they’re saying, and give them an easy, quick solution.  

As unlikely as it may seem, blue collar billionaire Donald Trump has become that person.  He doesn’t talk like a politician, but says what the guy on the next bar stool is thinking but afraid to say. He’s “authentic.” 

Politifact reports nearly half (47%) of what Trump has been saying on the campaign trail is completely false. Another 21% is so outlandish it's scored as "pants on fire.”  In 4.6 hours of Trump speeches and press conferences during one week in mid-March, Politico found more than 5 dozen untrue statements, or one every five minutes.

Despite this, polls say 60% of Republicans think Trump is honest and trustworthy. How can that be?

His supporters aren’t listening to the semantic meaning of what Trump is saying; they’re listening to its emotional and symbolic meaning -- what his words mean to them, beyond their dictionary definitions.

For example, in his Florida victory speech, Trump said that under the Iran nuclear deal, "we give them $150 billion, we get nothing." In reality, the money was already Iran’s to begin with, just frozen in foreign bank accounts under economic sanctions. In return for releasing it, Iran curbed its nuclear program and submitted to independent monitoring.

But Trump’s supporters knew what he meant is "we didn't get enough for releasing the embargoed money." That’s more opinion than statement of fact. Who's going to quibble about the details?

Do Trump supporters really think he can clear the country of undocumented immigrants in two years, or get Mexico to pay for a border wall? No.  And they don't think he does either.  He’s just underlining the threat of so-called “illegal immigrants” and promising to be ruthless in addressing it. 

Like Barnum, Trump is an entertainer, playing a role. He has less in common with politics than with professional wrestling. 

And like performers in World Wrestling Entertainment, Barnum and Trump have operated in a largely fact-free zone. Sometimes, their free-wheeling way with the truth is relatively innocent puffery delivered with a wink, as when Barnum claimed something was “the greatest" or "the rarest.” Or when Trump declared he has "one of the world's best memories." 

But Barnum also perpetuated the basest prejudices toward people who were disabled, mentally challenged, or of a different race. Barnum’s so-called “freaks” may have been complicit in his exploitation of them, but it’s hard to justify the social cost.

Trump.001Trump’s major ethical failing is similar. He demonstrates a lack of respect for voters by pandering to their resentments, validating and reinforcing them rather than seriously addressing their underlying causes. 

He campaigns in heated rhetoric, offering little substance on policy other than promises he “could get a better deal.” 

He disregards the consequences of his divisive rhetoric, accepting no responsibility for violence at his rallies but offering to cover the legal fees of anyone arrested for roughing up protesters. Or at least did until it looked like the bills would keep piling up.

The way Barnum and Trump have practiced public relations may have filled their bank accounts, it may even get one of them a nomination or, God forbid, the presidency, but it is  literally de-meaning because it robs whole groups of people of meaning, reducing them to a cliché, a punchline, or a menace.

That’s the real danger in the three-ring circus surrounding Trump. At best, it’s trivial and superficial humbug designed to get attention.  At its worse, it cynically exploits voters’ resentments towards whole classes of people. It is de-meaning, which is the darkest use of public relations.




Ingredient or warning?


GMOlabelThe state of Vermont wants food containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs) to be clearly labeled. The food industry worries that will feed paranoia about the safety of GMOs and wallop their bottom line.

Who's right?

On the one hand, while it's premature to declare a scientific consensus on the safety of GMOs, the World Health Organization, the American Medical Association, the National Academy of Sciences, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science have all declared there’s no good evidence GMOs are unsafe. Hundreds of studies back up that conclusion.

If the risks are unclear, proponents can point to clear benefits. Genetically modified cotton, for instance, contains genes from a bacterium found naturally in the soil. The bacterium produces a toxin that targets cotton bollworm, a pest that infests millions of acres each year. That makes it unnecessary to spray the GMO cotton crops with insecticides, many of which are carcinogenic.

Furthermore, nearly half the world’s soybeans and a third of its corn are products of biotechnology. Since genetically modified crops were first planted in 1996, humans have consumed trillions of servings of foods made from them without a single documented case of illness as a result.

But other experts take a more measured approach. "If used wisely, GMOs could ... alleviate hunger and disease worldwide," according to the educational web site of Nature magazine. "However, the full potential of GMOs cannot be realized without due diligence and thorough attention to the risks associated with each new GMO on a case-by-case basis."

And an industrial-strength lobby is pressing the case that all GMOs are dangerous to our health, the environment, and God's plan. Google "gmo." The majority of the results on the first page will be anti-GMO of varying degrees of hysteria.

So what's an ethical company to do?

Where there's a clear scientific consensus on a matter of public interest, as in the advisability of childhood vaccinations and the validity of climate change, ethical considerations compel us to recognize and honor it. Where no consensus exists, it obligates us to open and respectful dialog.

So companies like Mars, General Mills, and Campbells are free to press arguments that genetically modified foods are safe. They're also free to continue using them. And by voluntarily labeling their products as containing GMOs, they are respecting their customers' right to know what's in the products they're buying and consuming.

But a company's ethical obligation doesn't end there. Only open and clear communications can keep an ingredient label from becoming a baseless warning. 



The Ethics of Mac 'N Cheese

Mac n cheeseSometimes you can lie by not saying something. Sometimes you’d be lying if you did.

That was the position Kraft found itself in when it eliminated artificial flavors, preservatives, and dyes in its venerable mac and cheese. To keep its yellow-orange hue, Kraft substituted natural spices like paprika, annatto, and turmeric for yellow dyes number 5 and 6. Instead of chemical preservatives, it uses salt.

In fact, the new ingredients showed up on 50 million boxes of the stuff before Kraft called attention to the change. No claims of “we’re going natural,” no “new, improved.” What gives?

The company actually announced its intention to make the changes way back in April 2015. It even announced the changes would take place in January 2016. But then it said nada.

Like generations of marketers, the good folks at Kraft and its ad agency were seriously spooked by the brouhaha surrounding the introduction of “New Coke” back in 1985. They had nightmares about people pouring the “new” Kraft mac ‘n cheese down sewer grates, millions signing Facebook petitions to “bring back the old mac, and supermarket shelves piled high with iconic blue and orange boxes nobody wanted.

So they pulled a fast one and waited the introduction out. Some would call that a “soft launch.” Others might wonder if it’s even ethical.

To my mind, it’s perfectly ethical. Kraft announced its plans in advance. But it also knew that making a big deal about the changes would cause many consumers to perceive a change in flavor that wasn’t really there. In fact, some people claimed the product “tasted different” after the 2015 announcement, even though nothing had changed yet.

Waiting to confirm the recipe changes had been made protected consumers (and the company) from that psychological quirk. The proof that it was ethical is that no one noticed. Of course, if lab tests had found taste differences, or if it had substituted potentially harmful ingredients to save money, this would have been a whole other story.

But as it is, Kraft responded to many parents’ concerns about artificial ingredients. And that’s an ethical practice in itself.

Trumpian ethics

Trump-o-meter.001Politifact reports that nearly half (47%) of what Donald Trump has been saying on the campaign trail is completely false. Another 21% is so outlandish it's scored as "pants on fire."

From what I can see, the folks at Politifact do their job as objectively and carefully as anyone could. But the accuracy or truthfulness of Trump's rhetoric is really beside the point. 

Anything a politician says has three levels of meaning -- semantic, pragmatic, and symbolic.

The semantic is the literal meaning of the words, whether they conform to reality and are factual. That's what Politifact is measuring.

The pragmatic meaning is the "why" of the statement. What motivated the candidate to say it now and in this particular place? This meaning is harder to nail down, but no less important to the intended audience. If the pragmatic meaning is well-chosen, the audience will get it even if it flies over the heads of the rest of us.

The third meaning is symbolic. It's what the candidate's words signify to his listeners, what they mean beyond their dictionary definitions. In Trump's case, that's the real meaning. Whatever he says is always clear enough for a 4th grader to understand. It's brash and direct. Trump says what his followers are thinking. His words say "I'm with you."

Do Trump supporters really think he can clear the country of undocumented immigrants in two years or get Mexico to pay for a border wall? No. And they don't think he does either. It's enough that he's expressing the same frustration and anger that they've been experiencing.

They're so fed up, they're willing to take a flyer on a guy with a bad combover, hot wife, and hefty bank account. At least he'll shake things up.

The ethics of Trump's campaign has less to do with how well his political statements conform to reality than with their larger meaning. There's not much room for nuance in a political speech. For example, it's not true that under the Iran nuclear deal, "we give them $150 billion, we get nothing," as Trump claimed in his Florida victory speech. In reality, the money was already Iran’s to begin with, just frozen in foreign bank accounts under economic sanctions. In return for releasing it, Iran curbed its nuclear program as confirmed by independent experts.

But what Trump could have meant is that we didn't get enough for releasing the embargoed money, which is more opinion than statement of fact.

If that sounds like an unnecessarily generous interpretation, it's simply meant to put more emphasis on the larger ethical issue at play in Trump's campaign -- his lack of respect for voters' intelligence and his disregard for the consequences of his divisive rhetoric.

Trump has assumed no responsibility for the violence levied on protesters at his rallies. And he continues to campaign in sound bites and heated rhetoric, offering little substance on policy or programs. He's pandering to voters' resentments, reinforcing them rather than addressing their causes.

That's the biggest ethical lapse of all.






Rubio consults a Bible

RULES FOR RADICALS.001As I walked into church yesterday (right on time), my pastor delayed the entrance procession long enough to admonish me for being "kind of hard" on the presidential candidates in these postings.

I'm pretty sure he was kidding. But it does make you think.

My goal, of course, has never been to change anybody's vote. For one thing, I've written before about how hard it is to change a mind that is made up. For example: here and here. For another, that's not the purpose of these occasional musings about public relations and related topics.

But there is no better laboratory than an election to explore the nature of public opinion. For example, pundits and political consultants have been amazed that Donald Trump can say the most outrageous thing without suffering any loss of support. On the contrary, the majority of Republicans (60%) consider him trustworthy and honest, even though he says things that are demonstrably false. That makes it kind of hard for his competitors to rebut him.

Marco Rubio seems to have hit on a formula that could work. His supporters won't like to learn this, but it's a technique taken straight from the Bible of the radical left, Saul Alinsky's Rules for Radicals

Rule 5: “Ridicule is man’s most potent weapon.”

Don't attack an opponent head-on, if he holds a superior position. Cut him down to size first. Mockery is the great leveler. Plus, it's consistent with Rule 6 -- “A good tactic is one your people enjoy.”

Rubio seems to be enjoying the tactic plenty, though he may have taken it too far for some when he edged into blue material over the weekend.

But for the ultimate takedown of Mr. Trump, take a look at John Oliver's report last night over on HBO.


Mr. Oliver should be glad he's not a parishioner in my church.  



Bashing Big Business

BWThe strikingly profane cover of this week's Bloomberg BusinessWeek suggests everyone is peeing on business.  

Or as Peter Coy put it more decorously in his accompanying article, "negative sentiment about Big Business" is rising.

Coy puts his finger on the source of all this negativity. "Fairly or not, Big Business is taking heat for the stagnation of living standards and the widening gap between rich and poor."  

But why, he asks, has the business community only "responded to the accusations with murmurs"? Why hasn't it mounted a vigorous defense?

Coy suggests "there are similarities between today and the years immediately after  the Great Depression." The difference now, he says, is that "business is less outwardly focused this time around." 

Why isn't it fighting back?

Coy suggests many CEOs have assumed an attitude of "this too shall pass." Others worry that sticking their head up is the quickest way to get it scalped.

Fair enough. But an even better question is how the business community should respond.

One former Congressman suggests "Business needs to do a better job of making clear how its priorities -- freer trade, less regulation, etc. -- will benefit the public." The head of the Business Roundtable says, "We need to end this class warfare and get busy getting back to a fundamental economic rule, that a rising tide really will lift all boats."

Therein lies the problem -- a suggestion that these negative feelings are really a perception problem.  

If Big Business wants to mount a vigorous defense, it needs to acknowledge the real reason ordinary people are fed up -- in recent decades, rising tides may have raised yachts but they left row boats and dinghies in the mud. That's not a perception, it's a well documented, sad reality.

If Big Business wants to regain public trust, it should follow suggestions set forth in a report issued by the Arthur W. Page Society and the Conference Board in the aftermath of the 2008 economic meltdown. They set out to study "the current landscape of public trust." What they found was "deep anxiety about whether or not the public still trusts capitalism to be the best form of social cooperation." The current presidential primaries suggest that anxiety hasn't exactly eased.

Among many constructive suggestions, the report identified "mutuality" as a key component of trust. Mutuality is shared interest and shared risk. 

Now think about all the ways corporations have shed risk in recent decades. Defined pension benefits morphed into defined contribution plans. Employer provided health insurance morphed into high deductible plans with ever-rising premiums. The yawning gap between CEO and worker compensation has grown inexorably. Job security is a fading memory.

Think about all the ways the interests of corporations and workers have diverged. Not only in companies' increasing dependence on downsizing and outsourcing to improve earnings. But also in the way corporate leaders are spending those higher earnings on stock buybacks and higher dividends to goose their share price, rather than on capital investments to increase productivity and grow jobs. Financial engineering is the new R&D.

The public is not peeing on Big Business because it doesn't get it. Big Business is playing a different game than it used to. Want to regain trust? Change the game.



The Meaning of Trump

Trump.001Donald Trump hit another jackpot in Nevada yesterday, giving political scientists plenty to chew on while establishment politicians nurse an upset stomach. But there are a couple of important public relations lessons here too.

And they all have to do with the essential strategy of any winning campaign -- to create meaning.

What the candidates mean to us is the context within which we judge their competence and within which our feelings or affinity for them are formed.

Competence, affinity, and meaning are the basic elements of trust, which is critical to winning their vote. 

Competence is a largely rational judgment of someone's capabilities. It's necessarily second-hand so it's heavily influenced by network effects. The more people believe a candidate is competent, the more competent he appears to others. 

Affinity can be based on shared values, common goals, admiration, or any association that make us feel close to someone. It's appearing to share someone's cares and "caring about people like me." It has to be genuine, but it's also heavily influenced by network effects.

Meaning is what the candidates represent to voters, i.e., their significance or import. It can be shaped by a candidate, by the candidate's opponents, by the media, or by exogenous events. But it has to be credible or at least plausible, grounded in something you can point to both in behavior and words. Most importantly, it has to matter to voters, reflect their biggest concerns.

Gov. Bush -- who is clearly a competent and likable man -- tried to build meaning around his experience and proven ability to fix things. But while many voters believe Washington needs to be fixed, they are looking for an outsider to do it. And what Bush meant to them is "more of the same." 

Mr. Trump, who is too brash to be very likable, has amassed enough money in business to wear the mantle of competence. But more importantly, he has acquired the meaning of "getting things done," without letting something like "political correctness" stand in his way. He's like the guy on the next barstool, saying out loud what everyone is thinking. People may not feel personally close to Trump, but they feel he's close to them

Messrs. Rubio and Cruz, meanwhile, have been struggling with their meaning.

Rubio's biggest stumble came when he allowed another candidate to define him as a robotic candidate programmed to repeat the same applause lines over and over, questioning both his authenticity (a key component of likability) and his competence. Rubio eventually regained his footing by admitting he had a bad night and promising to do better. 

Mr. Cruz has allowed other candidates to define him as nasty and unlikable. Mr. Cruz tried to rehabilitate himself by firing his communications director. Time will tell whether it works. Unfortunately, a long trail of questionable campaign tactics make the accusations look at least plausible. 

On the Democratic side, Secretary Clinton is clearly competent, but she's only "likable enough." Her biggest failing to date has been an inability to create meaning in a way that makes her seem less calculating and more relatable. There are early signs she's trying to change, but she still has a way to go.

Bernie Sanders, on the other hand, couldn't be more curmudgeonly, which isn't exactly a likable trait. But everything he says and does (e.g., habitually flying coach in a middle seat) demonstrates he is for the little guy and against the fat cats in finance and politics. Like Trump, he speaks his mind (though with less profanity) and seems sincere. Voters like him so much for sharing their concerns, they're willing, for now at least, to ignore questions about his ability to govern, i.e., actually achieve his goals. 

All of which suggests that the biggest challenge facing the second and third place candidates in the primaries is to redefine the leader.  And whichever two candidates emerge victorious from the primaries (or conventions), they need to create meaning around their competencies in a way that makes voters in the general election feel good about them.   





Lab Lessons

LabPolitical campaigns have long been R&D labs for corporate public relations people.

Tactics that seemed to work on the campaign trail swiftly made their way into day-to-day PR practice. 

Teddy Roosevelt invented the practice of issuing bad news on a Friday afternoon, Dick Nixon gave master classes in opposition research,  Jack Kennedy turned news conferences into televised pseudo-events, Bill Clinton taught the value of rapid response, George W. Bush (under the tutelage of Karl Rove) harnessed the power of micro-targeting, and Barack Obama rode to the White House largely on the power of social media.

But as important as these developments were, they are tactics not strategies.  

For strategic discoveries, PR people should pay close attention to what's happening in the GOP primary contest.

Donald Trump's once unlikely position at the top of the polls is due to a single factor -- affinity. Trump says out loud (sometimes very loud) what many voters have been quietly thinking, even when it's unpopular (or as he puts it "politically incorrect"). He loudly shares voters' cares. 

As a result, his supporters really like him -- maybe not enough to let it slide if he shot someone on 5th Avenue, as he recently suggested -- but enough to stick by him through all the derision and disbelief thrown his way by professional pundits and the party establishment. 

This was all knowable.  In the 2012 election, exit polls showed Mitt Romney winning on policy issues, from leadership skills to values. But he lost the election because Obama trumped him 81 percent to 18 percent on the crucial issue of “cares about people like me.”

The pundits and professional politicians may have forgotten that lesson, but the voters haven't. In the early days of the primary season, back in June 2015, one poll showed three quarters of both Republicans (77%) and Democrats (75%) said it was "highly important" that a candidate "cares about people like me."  Eight out of 10 (83%) Trump supporters considered it even more important.

Turns out they were right, evn though they were a lonely bunch back then -- representing only 9% of voters.  Bush, Carson, and Rubio beat Trump in that same poll, with 16%, 14%, and 11% support respectively. In fact, more Republicans (40%) thought unfavorably about Trump than any other Republican candidate. Even Socialist Democrat Bernie Sanders did better; only 38% of Republicans were unfavorable towards him.

But Trump -- a bona fide member of the 1% -- channeled the fears, resentments, and anger of the least well-off 80%. And in language the guy on the next barstool might use.

As a result, the 9% who supported Trump back in June of last year have quadrupled to 36% nationally. 

An important social development is behind those numbers. While we used to speak of "trust gaps" in generational terms, it is now the product of other socioeconomic factors. The better-educated, higher-income "elite" have higher levels of trust than ever before. Most of the rest of us aren't inclined to trust anybody.

"In more than 60 percent of countries surveyed for the Edelman Trust Barometer, the trust levels of the mass population are below 50 percent," Richard Edelman reports. "By contrast, trust levels of the elite population are at the highest levels, with double-digit jumps in the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Italy and Mexico."  

There is a huge gap between how elite and mass publics feel about all institutions, particularly businesses. 

"Inequality of trust has important consequences," Edelman writes. "The most obvious is growing receptivity to politicians who prey on fear instead of offering solutions. Examples include assertions that refugees are a major security threat and that unemployment can be addressed by stopping foreign trade. Trust inequality seems to be a major pillar in the campaigns of Donald Trump in the U.S. and Marine Le Pen in France."

All of which reflects three strategic lessons:

  1. Affinity matters. Trump is leading because a large segment of Republican voters identify with him and his message. Even though he isn't the typical back-slapping pol, voters like him -- sometimes for the very things that make him so unlikable to others. 

  2. Meaning matters. "Making America Great Again" isn't much of a slogan. But it perfectly captures the public mood. Combined with Trump's high affinity and assumed competency (based on what the general public knows of his claimed business success), it's enough to engender an unusually high level of trust.  

  3. Public trust matters. What's happening in the GOP primary is also happening to a lesser extent on the Democratic side between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. But more worrisome, it's happening across the economy. The stagnation in middle class wages, along with well-publicized corporate scandals and greed, are creating a toxic environment for business. 

Donald Trump's candidacy could implode any day. But until it does, public relations practitioners should learn from its example. These are lessons we can't afford to leave in the lab.


Elements of Trust

Murray at davosFortune magazine editor Alan Murray hosted a couple of dozen CEOs at dinner last Friday. They were all at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, and apparently in a philosophical mood because the topic for discussion was "what big business can do to rebuild its trust with a global public that has clearly grown skeptical."

The topic is not too surprising: it's one of Murray's favorite questions. But the first suggestion to come from the discussion is promising.

As Murray reported it, his dinner companions quickly agreed on the importance of "putting purpose as well as profit at the center of a company's strategy."

That's promising on two scores. First, purpose is by definition long-term, and if this means CEOs want to take a longer view than next quarter's financial results, we'll all be better off. 

But even more importantly, it signals CEOs understand that "purpose," defined as what companies and brands actually mean to their stakeholders, is an essential element of trust.

But purpose or meaning is only one leg of the stool. The other two are competence and affinity.  And all three are defined, not by companies, but by their publics.


Trust starts as a judgment of someone’s competence to accomplish a specific task. Trust is context specific. I would trust my cardiologist to administer my electrocardiogram and to recommend changes to my lifestyle as a result.  But I’m not sure I’d trust him to fix my car.

Competence is largely a rational judgment, but it has an emotional undertone. It not only refers to people’s judgment of someone's capacity to accomplish a task, but also of the sincerity of their willingness to do so.  I know my doctor is competent – it says so right on his Board Certification. But my trust in him is also based on the judgment that he sincerely wants to keep me healthy. 

And that’s where trust leaves the realm of the purely rational. 


Affinity is more than familiarity, it’s likability. It is sharing something with a brand at a deep psychological level. In some cases, it’s a feeling of security; in others, the bond of common values; in still others, a strong sense of identification.

Some brands have been around so long they have a strong emotional connection with consumers right out of the chute. How people feel about Coca-Cola, for example, can actually be seen in a functional magnetic resonance machine. Newer brands have to work hard to make those emotional connections. For example, everything from Red Bull's labeling and packaging to its advertising and sponsorships associate it with young people's unconscious appetite for rebellious fun.  

Affinity, like competence, is context-specific. And the context of both depends on a brand's meaning.


Meaning is purpose, but purpose as others see it, not as a brand defines it. What role do people think a brand plays in their lives? This may be the most consequential question a brand can address. Harvard Business School professor Ted Levitt famously said, “People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill. They want to buy a quarter-inch hole.”  

A former student and disciple, Clayton Christensen expanded this insight into a jobs-to-be-done framework. He suggested the traditional ways of segmenting markets by demographics, geography, psycho-analytics, etc. misses the point. People don’t base their purchase decisions on factors like those. On the contrary, they hire products to do a job they want to accomplish.

That job can be functional, like a quarter-inch hole. Or it might be emotional, social, or even aspirational such as appearing to others as a professional wood worker. That's the brand's real purpose, its meaning.

Public relations and marketing are all about creating meaning. Finding a product’s most meaningful purpose is an essential step. Procter & Gamble, for example, found a way to give everything from Pampers diapers to Pringle’s potato chips salient meaning. Pampers are not just a container for solid and fluid waste. They’re an article of clothing that plays an important role in baby’s development, from her first days in the hospital nursery to her last day of toilet training. And Pringle’s might be of dubious potato lineage, but customers have no question it’s slice after slice of unexpected joy.

Trust elements

Meaning, competency, and affinity are the elements of trust. But they only work when they are in alignment. And that alignment begins with definition of higher purpose, as portrayed in the drawing above.

For a fuller description of the Elements of Trust, see a paper I wrote for the Journal of Business StrategyTowards A Model Of Trust.  




What CEOs are thinking

From Fortune magazine's editor Alan Murray in his daily newsletter:  "On Friday evening, FORTUNE assembled nearly 30 corporate leaders for a discussion that focused on what big business can do to rebuild its trust with a global public that has clearly grown skeptical. ... The single table conversation covered the need to put purpose as well as profit at the center of a company's strategy, the importance of transparency in an age of social media, the value of engaged employees in spreading a company's story, and the need to build customer trust one person at a time."

New Koch, Old Questions

New KochJane Meyer's New Yorker piece on the Koch Brothers "rebranding" strategy does a nice job of describing what public relations can do while raising legitimate questions about whether it should be done.    

On the tactical side, she puts her finger on the two factors that weigh most heavily on the Koch Brother's reputation: affinity and meaning. (Competence, the third leg of trust, is more-or-less a given when you're a billionaire.)

Affinity is not only likability, but also a sense that someone cares about you, that they identify with your cares.

As American Enterprise Institute president Arthur Brooks explained, only a third of Americans believe Republicans care about people like them and fewer than half think Republicans care about the poor. 

Meaning is what people think you stand for, and Brooks diagnosed the brothers' weakness there as well.  The Democrats are “the fairness guys,” he said.“They’re the ‘helping-the-poor guys.’ Who are we? We’re the ‘money guys’!”

So the Koch Brothers have been on a tear to make themselves more likeable and broaden what they stand for. For starters, they hired former Burson-Marsteller executive Steve Lombardo as Koch Industries' chief communications officer.

Meyer apparently didn't speak to Lombardo, but she quotes extensively from a piece he wrote for O'Dwyer's newsletter in which he said the key to building a positive brand is to "to reach the public’s subconscious mind,” and the most effective “pathway” to the subconscious is “storytelling,” in part because it taps into emotions. 

I can't argue with Brooks or Lombardo. I've said many of the same things in this blog.

But Meyer's article does raise a couple of ethical questions.

When does "tapping into people's subconscious" constitute emotional manipulation?

And assuming your "storytelling" is truthful in every sense of the word, what if its intent is misdirection, that is, to distract from a larger truth?

As to the first question, it seems to me that appealing to people's emotions is ethically legitimate as long as you don't overwhelm people's capacity to reason. Some political candidates have crossed that line in appealing to people's fear of such groups as immigrants and Muslims. I've seen no sign Koch Industries' re-branding campaign has been guilty of anything like that.

The second question is more problematic. Meyer says some Koch strategists want to reframe their free-market ideology as "a movement for well-being," all while admitting that their real goal is to eliminate regulation to raise profits. To me, that's where reframing becomes Orwellian spinning. On the other hand, she concedes that the brothers' efforts on behalf of criminal justice reform predate the rebranding effort.

So call me undecided on the ethics of working for the Koch Brothers.

As Harold Burson once told me, "I believe that every institution, every person is entitled to have public relations representation,” but “I do not believe that I am compelled in any way or manner to be the one who provides that representation.”

In the end, the ethics of any engagement depends on a client’s goals, as well as the way practitioners try to achieve them. If a client’s purpose is unethical, nothing a practitioner does can compensate. 




The Angry American


Esquire and NBC News teamed up to take the American public's temperature. As the magazine put it, "We the people are pissed. The body politic is burning up."

The whole thing is worth reading. But here are some highlights:

  • Half of all Americans are angrier today than they were a year ago.
  • White Americans are angrier than any other group.
  • 73% of whites say the news makes them angry at least once a day, compared with 66% of Hispanics and 56% of blacks .
  • The level of women's anger has increased more than men's.
  • Black Americans are more optimistic than whites.
  • Whites are more likely than blacks to say their financial situation today isn't what they thought it would be when they were younger.
  • Republicans are most angry about the dysfunctional Congress (84%).
  • Democrats are most angry about policemen killing unarmed black man (80%).

I think these results help explain the poll results in the Republican primary, as well as Bernie Sanders' unexpected showing on the Democratic side.

Additionally, some of the survey results concerning the economy have major implications for businesses of all sizes:

  • Only about a third (35%) say they make enough to save and buy some extras.
  • About one out of five (18%) say they don't make enough to pay all their bills.
  • 74% believe the gap between rich and poor is getting worse and many blame banks and financial institutions (18%), capitalism in general (17%), and globalization/jobs going overseas (17%). 



Buzzwords of 2015

Buzzword.001Every year has its own buzzword.  Some make it into the dictionary ("selfie"). Some were already there but repurposed ("narrative").

In 2015, "narrative" had to be one of the top 10, edged out perhaps by "Big Data," "Millennials," and "Internet of Things (IoT)." 

"Narrative," or less pompously, storytelling, is important for our purposes because of its double-barreled power to persuade and to deceive. The latter is not necessarily a feature of storytelling, but the potential is always tantalizingly close. 

Maria Konnikova demonstrates why in her compelling New Yorker article "How Stories Deceive."  Briefly, storytelling can pummel our emotions so vigorously there is neither space nor time for reason.

"When we’re immersed in a story, we let down our guard," Konnikova warns. "We focus in a way we wouldn’t if someone were just trying to catch us with a random phrase or picture or interaction... In those moments of fully immersed attention, we may absorb things, under the radar, that would normally pass us by or put us on high alert. Later, we may find ourselves thinking that some idea or concept is coming from our own brilliant, fertile minds, when, in reality, it was planted there by the story we just heard or read."

Konnikova herself demonstrates the technique by framing her thesis within a compelling and emotional story. 

But it's not deceptive because she is clear about her goal -- to warn readers about the dangers of being sucked into an emotionally moving story. And most importantly, because her goal is clearly in her readers' best interests. Plus, she hasn't made any of it up.

Deception is more than lying. It's also failing to respect people's right to reason for themselves, which is a form of stealing.

Let's make "respect reason" the buzzword of 2016.


Death by cellphone?

Cell-phone (1)Could your cell phone be killing you?

One of the points we make in Public Relations Ethics is that practitioners have an ethical obligation to reveal potential dangers in any product or service they promote. In fact, if the danger is near-certain, as in the case of smoking or climate change denial, it would be unethical to promote it at all.

This story in the New York Times demonstrates how difficult it can be, to assess product risks, especially when experts can't agree.

Cell phone use is now so ubiquitous, there are actually more handsets than people in some countries, such as the U.S., Brazil, and Russia.  But almost from the beginning, some studies purported to show a link between cellphone use and brain tumors.  

Other scientists reviewed the data and deemed the links tenuous at best. For example, some studies bombarded tissue in a petri dish with far more radiation than anyone would experience in normal use. And as Jane Brody pointed out in her Times column, "While the incidence of brain tumors has risen slightly in recent years, there has been no disproportionate increase in tumors near the ears, despite a meteoric rise in cell phone use."

Still, no one can prove conclusively that cell phone use is risk-free. As the Times' story demonstrates, that situation hasn't changed much in since I first faced it at AT&T in 1993.

What we did then still seems like the ethical approach. We acknowledged the controversy, pointing out that there was no conclusive evidence on either side. We funded more independent research. We offered free earphones for anyone who wanted to eliminate even the possible risk. And we cautioned customers about the very real -- and provable risk -- of driving while talking on a cellphone handset, as opposed to handsfree devices.  (Today, the risk of texting is even higher.)

So, yes, no one can prove your cell phone won't make you sick or even kill you. But the risk it will happen while you're texting while driving is a near certainty. 





Living in a divisive world

Divided_society-620x330A friend asks what we can do about the partisan, obstinate, and frequently snarky state of public discussion, especially when the topic touches on politics or so-called "cultural values."

Her concern is heightened by research showing it's nearly impossible to correct even obviously erroneous information when it confirms people's pre-existing beliefs.

I wish I had a simple answer. But I did suggest a few concrete steps we can all take in OtherWise: The Wisdom You Need to Succeed in a Diverse and Divisive World.

Here are five things we can each do:

  1. The first step  is to better understand oneself -- all the unconscious biases and prejudices that we carry around, the psychological mechanisms that cloud our judgment and decision-making, and the stone-age legacy that shapes our social life. Not to mention the stereotypes through which we evaluate people rather than considering them as individuals. And our unconscious fears, anger, and resentments.  If all this sounds like something to which you're immune, consider taking the implicit bias test at www.yourmorals.org.
  2. The second step is to better understand the people around us who have a different culture, racial background, sexual orientation, political allegiance, religious belief, or who we consider "different" in some other way.  Ironically, the trick at this stage isn't learning more about their differences, but about all the ways they are just like us. What we have in common. The best way to discover that is to engage with them. For example, we could take someone of a different political bent to lunch or for a drink. Get to know them and the lens through which they see the world. 

  3. And if a "touchy subject" comes up, we shouldn't ask for the check or reach for a clever put down. We should honestly probe for greater understanding. And in that process, look for common ground -- something on which we can both agree.  This will be easier if we've already taken steps to broaden our worldview.  For one thing, we should refuse to live in an echo chamber, where everything we read, hear, or see confirms our point of view. We should regularly seek out opposing views to better understand them. We can also increase our cultural and religious literacy by reading foreign literature and by making a point of meeting local people when we travel.

  4. But intellectual learning is not enough; we also need emotional learning. If nature made us hostile towards strangers, it also gave us a powerful emotion to keep our tribe together -- empathy. Empathy comes naturally in dealing with family and close friends. We need to learn to draw that circle of empathy larger by trying to see the world through the eyes of others unlike ourselves. To be OtherWise is to see ourselves as others see us and to see ourselves in the Other. 

  5. The final step should be easiest, but requires the most discipline. We should refuse to go along with "otherizing" people who are different. We should object when someone tells a sexist or racist joke, not out of political correctness, but because it perpetuates a culture of "us" and "them." It's literally de-meaning because it robs people of their individuality.  That doesn't mean papering over disagreements.  It means being able to disagree with people without demonizing them. We should make questioning people's motives, intelligence, or patriotism as inappropriate as picking our nose in public. Not only should we avoid doing it ourselves, but we should call each other on it. 

These five steps may not make the world more harmonious, but they will make it less likely we become part of the problem. Wouldn't that be a good New Year resolution?

Exploiting anger, fear, and hate

Anger_by_michaelogicalm-d95ew0gBack in the 1950s, Vance Packard accused the advertising and public relations industries of "the systematic creation of dissatisfaction," making women anxious about their appearance and exploiting men's sexual urges to sell everything from home freezers to automobiles.

Packard also expected political candidates to sell themselves the same way. They would use warm and fuzzy "imagery" to evoke deeply held values like family and patriotism. 

That didn't sit well with everyone. “The idea that you can merchandise candidates for high office like breakfast cereal ... is the ultimate indignity to the democratic process,” Adlai Stevenson complained on his way to losing the election. 

He didn't know how good we had it. That was when candidates were sold in a barrage of 30-second TV ads. These days, earned and shared media is where all the action is. And candidates are tapping into the darker emotions that drive sharing. 

As reported in today's New York Times, two professors at the Wharton School found news stories more likely to be shared if they elicited strong emotions. A psychology professor at the University of Hawaii found hate, fear, and anger relatively easy to evoke because they come directly from the unconscious. 

Enter Donald Trump and Ted Cruz. And to some extent, Bernie Sanders.

One has exploited the fear and anger some people harbor towards Mexicans and Muslims. The other, towards liberals on "cultural issues" like abortion and gay marriage. And the third, towards the wealthiest 1%.  

Whether that fear and anger is justified is irrelevant. Whether it's based on lies and exaggerations doesn't matter. Fear and anger are even immune to factual counter-argument. In fact, attack seem to solidify their hold on people.

Vance Packard predicted a soulless consumer society, but he missed how much our communications media would tear us apart from each other.



Still more housecleaning (auto division)

Car-being-repairedLast July, I took General Motors to task for its slow response to ignition problems that led to hundreds of deaths and injuries. I quoted a front page story in the New York Times that revealed the company knew more about the problem than it had been admitting.

In a book I co-wrote with Don Wright, Public Relations Ethics: How To Practice PR Without Losing Your Soul, I quoted another New York Times story that accused the company of not notifying customers it knew were eligible for compensation even though the application deadline was looming.

Those stories appear to have been accurate. GM extended the application deadline a week after the Times' story appeared. And while it is still unclear what GM's top executives knew about the ignition problem -- and when -- the company has responded aggressively.

It hired Kenneth Feinberg -- a lawyer who has developed a unique specialty in victim compensation.

In GM's case, he appears to have had an unusual amount of discretion. GM left all decisions on eligibility and awards to Mr. Feinberg. It didn't try to use the bankruptcy law to shield itself from compensating victims. And it put no upper limit on what it would pay.

Under Feinberg's direction, GM sent notices of the compensation program to 5 million current and former owners of vehicles with the faulty ignitions. Mr. Feinberg reviewed 4,343 claims, determined 399 were eligible for compensation, and awarded $594,535,752 in compensation. Over 90% of the awards were accepted by the claimants.

My opinion: GM's initial response reflected the turmoil of a company under siege, but in the end, it did the right thing. Feinberg's final report is here.



More housecleaning

Stable cleaningLast summer, I tried to figure out why Donald Trump was doing so well in the GOP primary polls. I suggested it was because nearly three quarters of voters were disenchanted with politicians. According to a 2012 Pew study, voters were saying, “it’s time for Washington politicians to step aside and make room for new leaders ... even if they're less effective than experienced politicians." 

Trump specializes in language and opinions that could have come out of the mouth of the guy on the next barstool. He says he doesn't have time for "political correctness." His followers don't think he needs to apologize for that. In fact, his most outrageous pronouncements reflect what they're already thinking in the darkest recesses of their minds.

Ted Cruz, who is running a close second in some polls, is cut from the same cloth, though with more of an evangelical weave. His supporters may go to church more often than Trump's, but they harbor the same resentments about the direction the country is taking -- an assault on marriage, preferences for minorities, children born out of wedlock, prayer banned from schools, threats to confiscate guns, etc.

Last summer, I was sure Trump would be a passing fancy and Cruz would be a niche candidate. I was wrong. Their combined poll numbers now constitute nearly two-thirds of likely voters in the Republican primary.

At this point, it's beginning to look like the general election will be a cage fight between establishment and non-establishment candidates. 

While I may have been wrong about Trump and Cruz's staying power and appeal, I think it proves my larger point -- the dangers of wrecking a category.

Political polarization led to the kind of brinksmanship and obstructionism that so disgusted voters in both parties they declared a pox on all their houses. As a result, Republicans may actually nominate someone who has not been part of the establishment, and many Democrats may opt out of the general election entirely.

This, I submit, is the product of short-term public relations and political strategies focused on the next election rather than the long-term health of the nation.




Housekeeping Department


Time for housekeeping. Between now and the start of the new year, I'll be following up on prior postings.

A few weeks ago, I posted about a firm that purported to practice "dark PR," generating negative stories about competitors, opponents, and anyone else who has crossed you or constituted an enemy. I was appalled, and so were many readers.

Now I've heard from the owner of that outfit. It turns out his firm specializes in Search Engine Optimization and the page to which I linked was simply a means of demonstrating his ability to manipulate Google results or, as he acronymically put it, "optimize search results."

"Please google 'negative public relations' or even 'negative pr,'  we are at the top, before wikipedia," he wrote. "The irony is that we are now, an 'authority' in negative campaigning." The irony, apparently, is that his firm doesn't actually do negative PR, it just claims to -- all in the interest of tricking Google. 

It seems his firm does help clients "clean up" negative information about themselves, but most of its work is optimizing search results. The promotional page he created simply took advantage of a quirk in Google's algorithm.  "Google loves negative information," he claims. "They rank it on top, because they make more money from negative search results, than positive."

All this was a relief on two levels. First, apparently his firm is not a gun for hire, spreading negative information across the web. And even better, I don't have to worry about being its latest victim.