Movin' On

Movin onIf you subscribe to this blog, you may have noticed that I haven't posted to it in a long time. Initially, the reason was because I was researching, writing, and promoting a book. Then, another. And then because I got out of the habit. And finally I have to admit it's because I've turned my attention elsewhere.

I doubt this leaves much of a gap in anyone's reading list, but if you would like to continue following my thoughts on marketing and public relations writ large, I'd like to encourage you to sample my work on Medium in a publication called "Beyond Buzz."  You can find it here

The current installment is a series of postings examining why the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol happened and what we can do about it.

Thanks. I hope to see you there.


Balanced information diet

BalanceWant a balanced information diet? Here are some tools to help.

PolitiEcho is a Chrome browser extension that will analyze the political leanings of all your friends on Facebook as well as the political leanings of your newsfeed. Then it invites you to share the results on Facebook.  (If your's is as blue as mine, you may hesitate at that point.

If you're alarmed by the results, the only alternative in Facebook, besides getting new friends, is to improve the diversity of views in your newsfeed.  Happily, help is at hand.  Another browser extension, Escape Your Bubble,  seeds your Facebook feed with opposing political views, less the negative ranting that makes it so hard to stomach.

And if you're brave enough to wander outside the Facebook walled garden, here are two sites that do a reasonably good job of explaining conservatism without sinking into ad hominems or crackpot conspiracy theories. 

Reason is basically a libertarian publication, funded in part by the Koch family.  Its writers have never met a tobacco or oil company they don't admire. But befitting its title, their positions on policy issues are invariably well-reasoned. And they are ideologically consistent. Its writers are not afraid to call "foul" when partisans on either side of the political divide base their arguments on patent lies. See this piece reacting to a proposal President Trump made in his recent address to Congress.

The American Conservative is another thoughtful and well-written website. Although some of its writers spend a lot of time worrying about issues like who should use what bathroom, they usually do a good job of presenting their arguments cogently. Much of its writing is intelligently nuanced and measured. See this piece on heated rhetoric's relationship to hate crimes. 

People trapped in a bubble that leans right should occasionally read the columns of Paul Krugman and Bill Galston.  The former appears in the New York Times; the latter, in the Wall Street Journal. Both lean left, but they present their arguments intelligently and compellingly.  





How to pierce your Bubble

Filter-bubbleI went to a dinner party last night and, as I imagine is happening at many social gatherings these days, the conversation almost immediately turned to the national obsession -- Trump.

Our chatter was largely negative, from the president's thin-skinned and bullying Tweets to his staff's lack of respect for the office (putting one's feet on the Oval Office sofa).  But none of that is the point.

It struck me that it was all so one-sided. My dinner companions were a diverse group of straight and gay, Caucasian and Asian, retired and still-on-the-job men and women. But we all shared the same political ideology and roughly the same socio-econimic status.

Then it hit me -- this must have been what it was like to be anti-Obama between 2008 and 2016. Those poor souls must have been just as bewildered, angry, and frightened as us (of course without the same justification).

Right-wing conservatives don't have a monopoly on ideological bubbles. I live in one too.  Maybe you do as well.

So, over the next few posts, I'll be listing a few websites and apps you might try to see just how far out of the "mainstream of middle America" you are swimming and to sample current thinking outside your normal bubble.   

Start with a 25-question survey constructed by the "PBS Newshour" that will tell you just how thick your bubble is.   

If you want to see many of the apps and websites at once, read Amanda Hess's terrific story in The New York Times.





Martin's Rule of Thumb

Rule-of-thumbWhen people forward an email that confirms their previously-held opinion, the chance it’s false or slanted is at least 51%.  

The likelihood of its falsity rises in proportion to the sender’s narrow mindedness multiplied by the email's apparent authority, because the thrill of confirmation reduces the likelihood the sender will check the email's veracity.  

Consider the following email which is making the rounds of inboxes far and wide.

Begin forwarded message:

From: Redacted to save the sender deserved embarrassment 
Date: February 22, 2017 at 2:00:13 PM PST
To:Redacted because we can't always control what enters our inbox


What is meant by the modern term referred to as 'POLITICAL CORRECTNESS’.. 

The definition is found in 4 telegrams at the Truman Library and Museum in Independence, Missouri.  The following are copies of four telegrams between President Harry Truman and Gen Douglas MacArthur on the day before the actual signing of the WWII Surrender Agreement in September 1945..  The contents of those four telegrams below are exactly as received at the end of the war - not a word has been added or deleted!  

(1) Tokyo, Japan   0800-September 1,1945 

To: President Harry S Truman 

From: General D A MacArthur 

Tomorrow we meet with those yellow-bellied bastards and sign the Surrender Documents, any last minute instructions?  

(2) Washington, D C   1300-September 1, 1945 

To: D A MacArthur 

From: H S Truman  

Congratulations, job well done, but you must tone down your obvious dislike of the Japanese when discussing the terms of the surrender with the press, because some of your remarks are fundamentally not politically correct!   

(3) Tokyo, Japan  1630-September 1, 1945 

To: H S Truman 

From: D A MacArthur and C H Nimitz  

Wilco Sir, but both Chester and I are somewhat confused, exactly what does the term politically correct mean?  


(4) Washington, D C  2120-September 1, 1945 

To: D A MacArthur/C H Nimitz 

From: H S Truman 

Political Correctness is a doctrine, recently fostered by a delusional, illogical minority and promoted by a sick mainstream media, which holds forth the proposition that it is entirely possible to pick up a piece of shit by the clean end!  

Now, with special thanks to the Truman Museum and Harry himself, you and I finally have a full understanding of what 'POLITICAL CORRECTNESS' really means…..

It took me one minute on Snopes to establish that the email above is 100% FALSE and has been floating around the Internet since at least 2006.

Which brings me to Martin's corollary: the longer something is being forwarded around the Internet, the less likely it's true.

All in the interests of media literacy.



Information diet

DIET.039Why is public discourse so divisive these days?

I'm increasingly convinced it's due to the information we consume.

As Clay Johnson put it in his book, The Information Diet, "Just as junk food can lead to obesity, junk information can lead to new forms of ignorance."

Of course, one person's junk food can be another's gourmet feast. And everyone is entitled to a few guilty pleasure, whether its Lay's potato chips or the latest issue of People magazine.  

And I'm less concerned about people who major in the Kardashians than about those whose principal source of news is cable TV or social media.

Sadly, according to the Pew Research Center, those were the two primary sources of political news in the 2016 election.


Cable's position as people's primary news source may be the product of all their wall-to-wall coverage of Trump's rallies.  

But hidden within these results are some troubling statistics. "Republicans are far more likely to count on Fox News (36%) for campaign information than are Democrats (11%)," Pew says. "Democrats are much more likely than Republicans to rely on CNN (26% vs. 12%) and MSNBC (17% vs. 5%)."

This continues a dangerous information diet of only consuming what we like. People increasingly live in echo chambers where all they hear is their pre-existing opinion reflected back to them.

My suggestion? If you're a liberal Democrat, tune into Bill O'Reilly occasionally. If you're a conservative Republican, watch Rachel Madow now and then.

If you're a regular reader of the New York Times, read the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal. And vice versa. To get really worked up, read the "comments" online.

You'll disagree with 98 percent or more of what they say. 

But if you take the time to try to understand why they believe what they do, you might find a value or a principle that you can share.

That is the beginning of becoming OtherWise. You'll be free of the echo chamber.







Quieting the echo chamber

Echo chamberPsychologists and social scientists have long known that when people of like mind gather to discuss a controversial issue they emerge with even more extreme views.

The phenomenon is known as group polarization.

The fragmentation of media has created "suffocating echo chambers" in which our pre-existing views are reinforced and magnified.

Living in such an echo chamber can also make us deaf to information that contradicts the noise reverberating in our head. 

Fox News and MSNBC may be the most obvious examples of media leaning in one political direction of another. But we all have personal echo chambers courtesy of platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and even the "comments" sections accompanying some articles in the Times and almost all in the Wall Street Journal.

Although the Times' Nick Kristoff once suggested "the echo chamber effect is disproportionately a problem on the right," he conceded that the left often lives in a similar cocoon. But even that mild concession was too much for many readers who objected to what they called a "false equivalency."

"If you think MSNBC is the left, Mr. Kristof, you've been watching too much Fox News. MSNBC is what used to be called the center," wrote Kidipede of Portland, Oregon.  

Apparently finding the center of an echo chamber is impossible when you're in it.

Not a problem for tpaine of New York City who wrote, "I see no hope of compromise between a Party that beleives it is God - and, in fact, booed the mere mention of the word three times at their North Carolina National Convention - and a Party that knows 'God's Word' and the Laws of Nature and Economics are eternal."

Apparently possessing Revealed Truth frees the mind from further thought.

All this illustrates the difficulty of breaking out of our echo chambers. So I was intrigued by an old Collin Raney post in C-Notes. It offered a blueprint for at least getting a hall pass from the echo chamber.


The echo chamber "seems to generally occur when you’re reading too much of the same content from the same sources/network," Raney observed. "Changing either of those aspects could help you along, finding content through new sources or possibly seeing content from a new network." 

He points out that echo chambers are singular and personal. Content that simply reinforces my beliefs might be expansive for my friends. "To counter the echo chamber," he advises, "we each need to find a personal balance in the content we consume." 

I'm going to follow Raney's advice and start reading the Wall Street Journal editorial page. In time, I'll work myself up to Karl Rove's column. And then, who knows?



Social Issue of Our Time

Media LiteracyPublic communications is at a dangerous tipping point.

The Internet democratized media, making everyone a publisher, from the proverbial 400-pound loner sitting on his mother’s sofa to ideologues of every religious, political, social, and fabulist stripe.

Original reporting and writing is still done largely by the same pre-Internet news organizations. But those organizations are fewer, smaller, and poorer. Digital media have siphoned off their advertising dollars, but more significantly they’ve cheapened the value of content, turning it into a commodity measured in clicks rather than in substance.

Truth is no longer determined by conformity to proven facts but by how well it meshes with pre-existing feelings.  Fact-checking is attacked as whining and nit-picking and ultimately reinforces the very attitudes on which fake news feeds.

It’s not exactly news that the public is, at best, skeptical of public relations people. But now Gallup tells us Americans’ trust in journalists is at an all-time low.

Fully two-thirds of U.S. adults don’t believe the news they see, hear, or read. And it’s especially frightening when the most powerful man in the world attacks reporters as “the most dishonest people in the world” and calls some of our leading news organizations “enemies of the American people.”

Public relations people may have other ways to reach stakeholders, but if the credibility of the media is undermined, we all lose. Because there will be no check on the people who write the laws under which we operate and on the people who implement those laws.

Fake news may be aimed at political opponents today, but tomorrow it could just as easily target companies, brands, and civil society, poisoning the markets in which we compete.

The public relations industry can’t stand by and hope this situation will change.  Media literacy may be the social issue of our time. Addressing it is in our own interest.

For starters, we shouldn’t create or enable fake news in a misguided attempt to attract attention, as one entertainment company recently did. Nor should we hide behind phony groups and campaigns, as too many of us still do.  That may help limit the supply side of fake news.

But public relations has a role in addressing the demand side also. Understanding human decision-making and behavior is in our wheelhouse.  Few industries are better equipped to share that understanding with consumers in a way that makes them more sensitive to cognitive illusions like confirmation bias, tribalism, and implicit prejudice. 

The advertising industry has a mechanism for responding to social issues. It’s called the Ad Council, and for 75 years it has created ad campaigns to fight everything from forest fires and racial discrimination to drug addiction and obesity. All created by volunteer agencies and run in donated media.

Why doesn’t the public relations industry have an equivalent effort?

Individual PR agencies and client organizations devote hours to pro bono work on behalf of many causes. But we should be organized in a network of PR agencies and clients with a common strategy to address a cause at the heart of what we’re about -- teaching people how to be savvy media consumers.

We can use our skills to teach people how to fact-check emails, Tweets, and Facebook postings. How to respond to racist, homophobic, or hateful email and social media posts. How pictures and statistics can lie.

We can teach them how to fight the spread of hateful propaganda, whether from a neo-Nazi in his parent’s basement or a member of ISIS on a laptop in Syria. And how to disagree without being disagreeable.

But it won’t happen by itself. It will take the combined efforts of clients, agencies, and media. The result could be better informed consumers and a public relations industry demonstrating its true worth to society.

Note: I was honored to make these remarks when I accepted the Foster Award for Integrity in Public Communication from the Arthur W. Page Center. 


Opening Putin's hoodie

Putin-Hacker-481x230The U.S. security agencies' report on Russian hacking makes a pretty strong case that Vladimir Putin did his best to influence the 2016 election.  

President-elect Trump's change in tone suggests the classified section of the report was pretty convincing.

But the security agencies point out they "did not make an assessment of the impact that Russian activities had on the outcome of the 2016 election.” 

I personally doubt the Russian disinformation campaign had much effect on the election results.

After all, despite Russia's interference, Secretary Clinton won the popular vote by nearly three million ballots. There's little reason to believe the Russian propaganda campaign was more effective in the key electoral states she lost than elsewhere.

In any case, it's not the security agencies' job to make that assessment. And, while the Democratic National Committee will undoubtedly try to figure out what happened, they obviously have an axe to grind, making whatever conclusion they reach suspect.

But what's the point anyway?

It pains me to say this, but America cannot afford another president whose legitimacy is questioned from the moment he takes the oath of office. Like it or not, Donald J. Trump will soon be our president.

But that doesn't mean we should all pretend the 2016 election was normal. It wasn't. It represented a tipping point in in the social construction of meaning. 

The Internet democratized media, making everyone a publisher, from the proverbial 400-pound loner living in his mother’s basement to ideologues of every religious, political, social, and fabulist stripe.

Digital media wrecked the business model of most news organizations, not only siphoning off advertising dollars, but also cheapening the value of content, turning it into a commodity measured in clicks rather than in substance. Celebrity is the new credibility.  Fake news has become the muzak of the echo chambers in which too many people live. 

Vladimir Putin exploited these changes. But he wasn't alone and he won't be the last to don the hacker's metaphorical hoodie.

That's where we need to focus our attention and efforts.

Here's an idea: the advertising industry has an organization called the Ad Council that for 75 years has overseen the creation of advertising campaigns to fight everything from forest fires and racial discrimination to drug addiction and obesity. All created by volunteer agencies and run in media donated by publishers and broadcasters.

Why doesn't the public relations industry have a similar organization? Individual agencies do good pro bono work for a range of worthy causes. But a coordinated network of agencies, responding to an issue of this scope right within our own wheelhouse, would be much more effective.

It could teach people the basic skills necessary to be savvy media consumers, like how to fact-check emails, Tweets, and Facebook postings. How to respond to racist, homophobic, or hateful email and postings. How pictures and statistics can lie. And how to disagree without being disagreeable.

It could teach people the basics of cyber-security and how to fight the spread of hateful propaganda, whether from a neo-Nazi in his parent’s basement or a member of ISIS on a laptop in Syria.

But it won’t happen by itself. It will take the combined efforts of clients, agencies, and media. The result could be better informed consumers and a public relations industry demonstrating its true worth to society.




Philosophers: Back in style?

Philosopher_for_hire_green_mugHere's a startling prediction from the digital media experts at Ogilvy:  "By 2020, corporate demand for philosophy graduates will reach its highest level since Aristotle."

It isn't entirely clear Ogilvy is serious about this, but it builds a good case for it in Key Digital Trends for 2017.

To wit, they predict the rise of chat-bots, algorithmic-driven content delivery, and autonomous vehicles and appliances will result in a wholesale "abdication of ethical decision-making."  

We may be seeing some of the early signs already: serving content based on algorithms of users' pre-existing beliefs not only exacerbates people's confirmation bias, but also makes them ripe for exploitation by opportunists and extremists.  Think of the recent tsunami of Fake News.

Another example: as automation plays a bigger role in our lives, the quality of human decision-making declines.  The FAA is already concerned that pilots' manual flight skills are being dulled by auto-pilot systems.  

"Handing over control doesn't just mean handing over the mechanical activities of daily life," Ogilvy notes. "It means handing over choices -- some big, some tiny -- about what's right and wrong."

What does this have to do with public relations and marketing?  According to Ogilvy, everything.

Automation will force ethical standards to evolve and brands will inevitably be caught between traditionalists and progressives.

Increasingly polarized stakeholders will make it harder for brands to stay true to a single set of values.

But brands have no choice: they can't pretend to be different things to different people.  They need to develop a process with broad stakeholder input to define the basic ethical principles manifest in everything they do and in every product or service they offer.

I don't know how many philosophers that will take, but I believe public relations leaders will have an increasingly important role, working with their C-Suite colleagues, in figuring it all out.  



Real-world ethics

Good Bad Choice"Why do good people do bad things?" need not remain a rhetorical question, thanks to a PhD dissertation by Christopher McLaverty at the University of Pennsylvania.

McLaverty interviewed 30 senior executives in India, Colombia, Saudi Arabia, the U.S., and the U.K. about ethical dilemmas they faced at work. His dissertation obviously doesn't pretend to be the last word on the subject, but it makes an important contribution to understanding it in a real-world context.

Among the author's findings:

The executives interviewed reported facing more than 50 ethical dilemmas over the last five years. (An ethical dilemma was defined as “a complex situation that often involves an apparent mental conflict between moral imperatives, in which to obey one would result in transgressing another.”)  

Few (16%) of the dilemmas involved headline-making issues like bribery, corruption, or anti-competitive behavior. More often, they resulted from competing interests, incentives tied to unrealistic goals, trade-offs between people and resources, and cross-cultural differences.  

Codes of conduct, regulations, and laws weren’t particularly helpful in managing ethical dilemmas. In fact, only a minority (29%) of senior leaders consulted their compliance officers in figuring out what to do. Even fewer executives (13%) said they had received training in making ethical decisions, even though 75% of their companies claimed to offer it.

Many senior executives felt poorly prepared for the dilemmas they faced and they made decisions they later regretted.




What happened?

WhathappenedMy New Year's resolution is to get back to blogging regularly.  So I'll start with last year's biggest story: an outsider, dismissed by practically every professional prognosticator as an amusing sideshow, won the presidency. How'd he do it?

I think he did it by exploiting an old marketing technique: build a fire under the question to which you are the answer.  

In the 2016 campaign, such a question was already smoldering, but too few candidates noticed the smoke. Whether by instinct, chance, or study, Donald Trump became a human, high-decible fire alarm.

Trump recognized that many voters were angry that the country's best days were behind it. He articulated those feelings in a slogan that would fit on a baseball cap: "Make America Great Again." And he threw gasoline on the question implicit in it -- "Why are our best days behind us?" -- by fingering the culprits voters already suspected, from bad trade deals and Wall Street speculators to out-of-touch elites and dishonest media.  

The big story of 2017 is likely to be whether the marketing strategy that was so successful in a political campaign will work in governance. 


Media Culpa?

OopsThe mainstream media is beating themselves up for not accurately predicting the results of the presidential election. (For example, see this.) Failing to pick the winner was clearly a failure. And it may take pollsters a generation to recover (which in politics apparently means two years, the time between election cycles).

But predicting election results was not why our Founding Fathers voted for the First Amendment. They had a slightly higher purpose in mind -- encouraging discussion that would result in an electorate that understood the issues at stake.

The media's abject failure to fulfill that duty is what should prompt an apology -- and a firm commitment to do better.

Everyone knows the media cover elections like a horse race, who's ahead, who's behind. Thinking back on the campaign coverage, I can't remember a single instance when a reporter -- or debate moderator -- pressed a candidate to really explain any hot button issue. Not his or her bumper sticker position on the issue, but its causes and the pro's and con's of alternative solutions. 

So will the media do better? Not judging by CNN's post-election interview of Bernie Sanders.

Wolf Blitzer asked him twice: "Are you running in 2020?"




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,, 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.