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What did we learn this week?

Wikileaks-001We learned that journalism, as practiced by the much maligned and slowly dying mainstream print media, is still important. 

Ironically, it took a massive data dump by one of the online upstarts, Wikileaks, to make the point. 

As you probably know, Wikileaks published some 92,000 "secret" documents about the war in Afghanistan on Monday. It was hot stuff and ignited protests from the White House to President Karzai's compound in Afghanistan.  

Pundits on all sides seem to think the leak would undermine already uncertain public support for the war.

But for the average reader, much of the Wikileak itself was military gibberish like "TF 2-2 using PREDATOR engaged with 1x Hellfire missile resulting in 1x INS KIA and 1x INS WIA." 

All in all, it was the kind of stuff that could confirm whatever pre-conceived notions were rattling around in a reader's head. That's where the mainstream media proved its usefulness.

The New York Times, the Guardian of London, and Der Spiegel of Germany had all been given advance copies of the material by the WikiFolk.  By the time the Wikileaks themselves landed on people's hard drives, those three perpetrators of mainstream journalism were not only providing an English translation of the military jargon, they were  putting it all in context. 

Wikileaks demonstrated, as few experts could, that the most important role a journalist can play is to mediate between the raw unspooling of events and those of us who would understand them.  

One of the gravest dangers we face -- and perhaps a major source of society's increasing polarization and alienation -- is that we now have the technology to tap into events as they occur, but not necessarily the capacity to understand them.

As we learned this week, that's what journalism is for.

Willfulness & willingness

Change ahead Can people change? 

Twenty-five pounds ago, I had my doubts. But then I stumbled onto a principle of change that seems counter-intuitive. 

Willfulness -- as in "I will do this" -- is less important than willingness -- as in "I'm willing to consider it." 

I ended a cruise through Asia at an all-time high, weight-wise. Luckily a new friend I met on the cruise was in the same shape, and we got to talking about it over dinner and, later, over drinks.  In fact, for a while, we found ourselves talking about it during every meal.  (Could that have been the source of our problem? Different topic.) 

The point is that by talking about our weight gain, we opened our minds to the possibility of shedding a few pounds. 

I realized all this when I read a recent paper by three researchers who devised an ingenious way to test the relative effectiveness of willfulness and willingness. 

In one experiment, they recruited people for handwriting research.  Half were asked to write "I will" over and over; the others, wrote "will I" the same number of times. All the participants were then asked to predict the level of physical exercise they planned to undertake during the coming week.  

Those who wrote "will I" expressed a much higher commitment to exercise than those who wrote "I will" over and over.  

What's more, when asked why they planned to exercise, the "will I" group said it was because they wanted to take responsibility for their health. The "I will" group said it was because they would otherwise feel guilty. 

The researchers say the results from this and three similar experiments demonstrate that "interrogative self-talk is an important motivator of goal-directed behavior." 

In other words, an open, questioning mind can foster self-directed motivation, while simply asserting a determination to meet a goal can actually close off possibilities. 

As to my friend and I, we lost more than fifty pounds between us. 

I like you, you're like me

DifferentJust in time to ensure that Otherwise doesn't turn into a slog up semantic hill, three scientists at Yahoo Research have published a paper that looks at the "us" and "them" phenomenon mathematically. Or as they put it so succinctly

Pr(zi = 1) = logit-1(μ + λu[i] + ηq[i]    + αq[i] × discuss[i] + βq[i] × strength[i] +γq[i] × overall.agreement[i] + δq[i] × reality.agree).

Reams of social research have documented the so-called "homophily principle" (i.e., like associates with like).  That's what explains all those "blue states" and "red states." 

The Yahoos used Facebook to survey 2504 people about their attitudes on a range of issues, as well as their friends'. The resulting paper shows how elastic the homophily principle is.  

It seems that we tend to over-estimate just how much our friends agree with us.  In fact, knowing that they're like us on one issue, we tend to assume that they agree on all issues. 

The implications for Otherwise will be interesting to consider.

Stirring the pot

Lee Atwater.059Political operatives love to stir the pot.

Of course, you have to know what to do with whatever floats to the top. And the master chef in that regard was the late Lee Atwater. 

He knew how to use emotional issues as a wedge to divide and conquer the opposition. And he used the technique quite successfully on behalf of a long list of Republican candidates in state and national elections.  

His acolyte Karl Rove further refined the practice by using direct mail and "push polling" to move stealthily under the radar.  

But GOP operatives don't have a corner on the tactic.  Some Democrats have tried to use issues like stem cell research to capture support from people whose stance on social issues is normally more conservative. 

Of course, there's nothing wrong with drawing a distinction between your position and an opponent's on an issue of importance.  But the temptation to exploit people's emotions on social issues such as abortion or gay marriage doesn't leave much room for rational discussion. 

Demonizing the other side has become just another step in the recipe for getting elected.  By definition, wedge politics are divisive and contribute to the polarization of America. It also makes for entertaining news coverage.  

The media love a good fight, especially if it looks like it might go for more than two or three rounds.  In fact, when Syracuse University political scientist Thomas Patterson studied recent presidential campaigns, he discovered that three quarters of the 1960 campaign's coverage was favorable in tone; since 1980, more than half of campaign coverage has been negative. 

Just before he died of a brain tumor in 1991, Atwater himself tried to change the recipe for political campaigning.  "My illness helped me to see that what was missing in society is what was missing in me," he wrote, "a little heart, a lot of brotherhood.”

Correcting false rumors

Rumors  If the Internet makes it easy to spread rumors, it also makes it relatively easy to check their veracity.  

All you have to do is go to sites like or

So why worry?

Surely no one believes a rumor after it's been disproved.   Here are a couple of examples that show how hard it is to correct misinformation.

On the liberal side:  

When John Roberts was nominated to the Supreme Court in 1995, a Right To Choose group ran a television ad attacking him for ruling in favor of a man on trial for bombing an abortion clinic. 

The ad was false.  The case in which Roberts ruled had nothing to do with bombing; it was about legality of blockades.  Roberts ruled that abortion clinics couldn't use an 1871 federal anti-discrimination statute against anti-abortion protesters who tried to blockade clinics because such blockades were already illegal under state law.  Eventually a 6-3 majority of the Supreme Court agreed with him. 

When the group that created the ad realized this, they withdrew it and admitted that it was inaccurate.  What’s interesting is how it affected attitudes of people whose mind was already made up about Roberts.  

Before the ad ran, 56 percent of Democrats opposed Roberts' nomination.  After the ad, their opposition increased to 80 percent.  But when the ad was withdrawn and repudiated by the very group that ran it, their opposition declined only to 70 percent, 25 percent higher than before the ad ran.

On the conservative side


Political scientists Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler provided two groups of volunteers with the Bush administration's prewar claims that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. 

One group was given a refutation -- the comprehensive 2004 Duelfer report that concluded that Iraq did not have weapons of mass destruction before the United States invaded in 2003. 

Thirty-four percent of the group given only the pre-war claims thought Iraq had hidden or destroyed its weapons before the U.S. invasion, but 64 percent  who heard both claim and refutation thought that Iraq had the weapons. Correcting the misinformation  increased pre-existing beliefs by 88 percent!  

The refutation, in other words, made the misinformation worse. 


In the Roberts case, the emotional content of the initial misinformation persisted long after the rational content had been corrected.  In the second case, it seems that some people actually harden their position when presented with information they consider contradictory.  

In other words, people simply believe what they want to believe. Political operatives had discovered phenomenon long before social scientists.  It's another way, we get culled into camps of "us" and "them."

Looking back

Change  When I joined the work force in 1970, straight out of graduate school, the world was a lot simpler. (Of course, you could also pick up a week's groceries for $20, but that's another story.)  

Back then, there were no cell phones, pagers, personal computers, email, and not even many fax machines. Cable TV was just starting. Outside the big cities, few families could receive more than three stations.

Of course, dinosaurs also roamed the canyons of Manhattan in those days.  But you don't have to go back that far to demonstrate how much our world has changed. 

When I retired from AT&T in 2003, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and the like didn’t even exist. Now, social media networks are bigger than some countries.  Facebook alone would rank among the three most populous, right after China and India. Everyone has a Facebook page (though some of us don't know exactly what to do with it.)  

But with all this media fragmentation, according to Forrester Research, no single medium has a stranglehold on our attention.  More than half the people watching TV are also readingFour out of ten are on the Internet. And more than a third of people on the Internet are also listening to radio or watching television. 

About one third of households have become their own TV programmers, using digital video recorders to build their own viewing schedules.  Many skip TV sets entirely, watching programs on the web through YouTube, Hulu, and other sites. 

Change has never happened faster. It took 38 years for radio to reach 50 million people; 13 years, for TV to reach that many;  6 years, for the Internet; and only 3 years for the iPhone.    

Marketers obviously need to rethink all their old formulas. As Ogilvy Chair Shelly Lazarus told me, "New technologies have unleashed changes in people’s behavior. They have different habits, whether they’re shopping, working, or just hanging out at home."  

But the larger question, to me, is how all these changes have affected the way we relate to each other.  One effect is increasingly obvious: our political and social polarization have never been greater.  

Rumor mongering

Internet rumors.042 One of the more unfortunate byproducts of the Information Age is a steep rise in the rate and velocity of rumors.

People have been gossiping about each other since Cain and Able. And political rumors have an even richer history as a weapon of influence. Designed to  reinforce pre-existing opinions, as well as to sow doubt, they herd people into camps of "us" and "them."  

With the Internet, rumors have gained even greater currency, bouncing from computer to computer and eventually echoing through the so-called mainstream media which itself is rapidly becoming a fun-house mirror of incendiary blog postings and reckless email.


    Internet rumors.042

  • During George W. Bush's eight-year presidency, tracked 47 separate rumors about him.  Twenty proved to be true; four, partly true; 17, false; and six were neither verified nor disproven.
  • During the first two years of Barack Obama's presidency, Snopes has tracked 87 rumors about him, only eight of which have proven true; 17 partly, true; three, undetermined; and 59 false.

What did we learn this week?

Sherrod We learned an old lesson this week -- think before you speak.  And certainly before you fire someone. 

There is admittedly little more to be said about the Shirley Sherrod soap opera.  

If you're reading this, you are probably sufficiently plugged in to know the full story.  

Act I, a right-wing blogger posts a highly edited excerpt of one of her speeches to demonstrate that racism cuts both ways and the NAACP is as guilty of racism as the Tea Party it has recently attacked.  

Act II, Fox News picks up the story and gives it wide play.  

Act III, the Obama administration fires Ms. Sherrod. 

Epilogue: people finally get around to viewing the entirety of Ms. Sherrod's speech and are surprised to discover that it makes exactly the opposite point that the blogger set out to demonstrate.  Ms. Sherrod's speech was actually about reconciliation, not division.  

Embarrassment and apologies all around. Can beer at the White House be far behind?

The New York Times published an editorial scolding the Obamans for their "rush to judgment." Countless media watchers scolded the blogger who set this off for playing fast and loose with the facts. (He, of course, professed innocence.) Others tut-tutted about the recklessness of the new media and everyone who consumes it.  

As a good friend pointed out, every publication and broadcast outlet drew a lesson that reflected its own idiosyncratic worldview. But the Wall Street Journal may have unintentionally come closer to the mark than anyone.  

Today, it published an op ed by Democratic Senator Jim Webb that argued against affirmative action.  Webb made the same point as Sherrod -- it's not about race, it's about rich and poor.  Poor people come in every color. "Nondiscrimination laws should be applied equally among all citizens, including those who happen to be white," he wrote. "The need for inclusiveness in our society is undeniable and irreversible, both in our markets and in our communities." 

Webb's op ed is nuanced and thoughtful.  Not surprisingly the 189 comments posted by the time I started writing this are all over the map.  

Interestingly, many self-described "conservatives" and "liberals" both thought he agreed with them.  And many thought he disagreed.  Were they reading selectively? Or was their comprehension clouded by their predispositions?  I think the latter.  

Big lesson learned?  In the land of "us" and "them," emotion trumps reason every time.

Social media and the "other"

Social-media-logos The advent of television in the 1960s made “imagery” the dominant tool of communication and persuasion. 

In the last five years, the rise of social media has made “community” the new model.  

Instead of using one-to-many, mass communications, today’s marketers must learn to cope with many-to-many communications over which they have little direct influence.  

Marketers' primary function is still to create meaning, but they now share that responsibility with the very people whose needs, desires, and values they seek to serve.  

That requires a different mind-set.

It requires an ability to relate effectively to publics who often share little more with them than mutual distrust. It requires more than new technologies; it requires a new kind of intelligence – the wisdom of the other. 

All the news to pull us apart

Us-tee-shirtRed and Blue states were just the start. America is in for even finer-grained polarization. We're turning into a nation of "us" and "them." 

Before talk radio, cable news channels, and the Internet, Americans consumed a relatively consistent news package, fostering a common collective intelligence.  

·   In 1993, 60% of the American public reported watching network broadcast news on a regular basis, and the network news audience reflected the political makeup of the country.

·   By 2004, only 34% of Americans watched network news.  And the political makeup – and content – of the cable news channels most people do watch has become strikingly partisan. Fox News’ audience is largely Republican/conservative; MSNBC’s, Democrat/liberal. 

People are filtering their news to exclude opinions they don’t agree with, reinforcing their sense of separateness and making it more difficult to trust others.  In 1997, more than half of consumers claimed to trust major brands; today, only one out of five do.  In 1960, two-thirds of voters trusted government “to do the right thing;” today less than 20 percent do.

To be sure, people’s faith in business and government has been severely rocked by a long series of betrayals, from accounting fraud in major companies and sexual scandals in our churches, to salmonella in our peanut butter and human growth hormone in our baseball players.  But patterns of news consumption are also contributing to the polarization of America and the subsequent decline in trust.

Emailing fear and loathing

Classroom_flag_I get more than my share of email and my spam filter does a pretty good job of protecting me from the worse junk.  I haven't been solicited to help a Nigerian widow in months.

But every now and then I do get some chain letters from one cause or another.  Some of them send me to because their charges are so unbelievable. Invariably, they prove to be bogus.  

By the way, neither end of the political spectrum seems to have a corner on mis-leading emails, but for some reason the ones that plop in my inbox tend to come from my more conservative friends.

What bothers me most about these emails is not only the misinformation they spread -- though that's bad enough -- but that they seem designed to deepen the chasm that separates one end of the political spectrum from the other by frightening or firing up people who already agree with them.

Here's a case in point.  I received the following email from someone who I know is intelligent and usually fair-minded.

"This is just sickening.  Only 62% have voted on the FOX poll to NOT ban the flag in school and something like 29% voted YES, to ban it.  What is going on in this country???  Read below.

"Fox is running a poll about whether the flag should be banned in schools in order not to inflame Hispanic students. The poll is being sandbagged by 
SEIU [i.e., the Service Employees International Union] and we should mount a counter action if you agree with me that the flag should be taken down for no one.

", Organizing for America, and SEIU have been twittering today to go to Fox Poll and vote to ban the Flag .... and right now it is working.
"SHOW THEM WHAT TRUE PATRIOTS BELIEVE!!! Let's flip those numbers and show the leftists we are organized and on the move... flip the numbers now-FLIP THE HOUSE in November!
"GO HERE:  ..........and then pass it along!"

Now, this fell into the category of "too bizarre to be believed" as far as I was concerned.  So I checked it out.  Fox News was indeed running a poll asking people whether or not flags should be banned from schools.  And when I checked about two-thirds of respondents were in favor of banning the flag.  

As my kids would say, WTF?  Well, here's the background.  

No one is proposing that flags be banned from schools. This all came up because five kids in California (where else) decided to wear tee shirts and bandannas emblazoned with Old Glory to protest a Cinquo de Maio celebration at their school. 

The principal thought it was purposely provocative and designed to irritate the Hispanic kids.  He asked them to put something else on and sent them home when they refused.  

The principal was wrong on all counts and I don't know anyone who thinks otherwise.  That's it.  End of story.  

Fox decided to run a poll on the subject for reasons only they will ever understand. It should have ended there, but apparently some people who are probably not regular viewers of Fox News are reloading their browser to register a "vote" in favor of banning the flag.  All to tweak Fox News and get its viewers upset.

It would all be good fun if it weren't feeding negative attitudes towards immigrants in general and Hispanics in particular.       


Otherwise Logo.002 Otherwise.003  

I've just agreed to write a fourth book for the American Management Association. 

The topic was inspired by my friend, Marilyn Laurie, who passed away recently.  When Marilyn received the a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Institute for Public Relations, she gave a typically timely and provocative address.  

The entire speech is worth reading, but the line that struck me most was that one of the toughest challenges we face as a nation is "to grow our capacity to deal with 'the other' -- the immigrant at home, the stranger abroad."  

It seems to me that one of the most critical business skills of the 21st century is understanding people who are not like us.  Business leaders need to acquire the wisdom of dealing with "the other."  They need to become "other-wise."

Globalization, media fragmentation, demographic change, political polarization, the rise of non-governmental organizations, and the growth of online communities have created publics so unique they constitute new “others.”   They are first and second-generation immigrants, acculturating to their new home and developing traditions from both cultures.  They are non-traditional families born of continuing sexual and cultural revolutions.  They are single-issue activists, passionate about rights they believe are being trampled or groups they consider ill served.  They are strangers in far-off countries with their own histories, values, and customs. They are people of strong principle who disagree with the business community’s values and question its true motives. They are “the other.”

Their influence has grown along with their sense that they stand outside the mainstream.  They are not passive observers of business; they are passionate advocates for their point of view. And they demand accountability.  Companies have never been under greater third-party scrutiny. 

Businesses have no choice but to deal with these new publics, not only because they threaten a company’s operating flexibility, but also because they represent a new opportunity.  The companies that learn how to engage “the other” productively will gain a competitive edge in developing new markets and in creating products tailored to these new publics’ needs.  Conversely, those that act as if everyone sees things just the way they do are asking for trouble.

Marilyn was excited by the prospect of collaborating with me on this new book and I was looking forward to it too.  We talked about it on the phone several times, but neither of us realized we had so little time left.

So I'm tackling the book without the benefit of her direct participation.  But one of the biggest lessons I ever learned from Marilyn was the value of collaboration.  As smart and creative as she was, she always believed that she could be even better if she tapped into the talent of the people she worked with.  That produced a lot of meetings, which some admittedly barely tolerated.  But I think it also resulted in better ideas and better execution.  

I plan to use this blog as a means of involving others.  I'll be posting research and draft thoughts here as I work on the book.  And I'm inviting you to contribute your own thoughts and reactions.  

I can't offer much in return, but if I use any of your contributions, I'll send you a free copy of the book when it comes out.  Thanks for considering it.  



Dating Tip

Dating I'm the wrong guy to offer dating tips. 

I've been with the same woman for nearly 40 years and I've never really understood exactly how I managed it. 

(I suspect our friends are just as mystified by my good luck.) 

But dating is not that far removed from marketing, and some recent research may help both undertakings. 

Some French researchers (who else?) recently demonstrated the aphrodisiacal properties of music.  They recruited a bunch of 18 to 20 year-old single females to participate in some research.  While waiting for the experiment to start, they pumped recorded music into the room where they were waiting. 

Five minutes later, a young male confederate came into the room, clipboard in hand and gave them a marketing survey. Later, during a break, he asked each woman for her phone number. 

The women who had been listening to "romantic" music were almost twice as likely to give him their phone number as those who heard some "neutral" music.  The full study is here

The marketing implications are obvious. And those of you who are still dating should reexamine their iTunes playlist.

Marilyn Laurie

Laurie  A good friend died today.  

Marilyn Laurie was a colleague and my boss at AT&T for more than three decades.  

She was also a source of energy, a reliable sounding board, and a loyal friend. I valued her creativity, her judgment, and her fearlessness. 

I will probably never know the full extent of her support.  Executive suites can be unfriendly places, especially for those of us responsible for telling truth to upper management and dubious boards, but she was always a caring and understanding boss.  

She influenced my life more than anyone since my parents.  I'll miss her.

Her official obit follows:



Marilyn Laurie, one of the founders of Earth Day who went on to become the highest ranking woman in AT&T’s history to that point, died at her home in Manhattan on July 14.  She was 71 and had been battling brain cancer for the past year.

Laurie was a stay-at-home mother of two young girls when she saw a notice in the Village Voice inviting people to a planning meeting for what would become Earth Day. Attendance at later meetings dwindled until she was one of only five people left. She assumed responsibility for communications and eventually convinced then Mayor John Lindsay to close Fifth Avenue to cars on the first Earth Day in 1970 so the crowds could hear speakers such as Paul Newman and Ali McGraw. “Woody Allen once said 80 percent of success in life is just showing up,” she once said. “My experience is that it’s really about sticking around and sticking to it.”

Her success in helping launch Earth Day led to a freelance assignment to write an environmental supplement for the New York Times.  That in turn led to a job offer from AT&T, then the world’s largest company.  She joined the company in 1971 and was assigned to create employee environmental education programs.

By 1987, she had risen to the company’s highest ranks. As executive vice president of public relations and brand management, Laurie was the first woman to join AT&T’s 10-person Executive Committee and counseled the company’s CEO on issues affecting its reputation, while also directing external and internal communications. In addition, she was chair of the AT&T Foundation, overseeing more than $40 million a year in grants to educational, social service and arts institutions.  Laurie retired from AT&T in 1998 to form Laurie Consulting, Inc., which developed branding and public relations strategies for corporations and non-profit organizations.

A native New Yorker, Laurie received her undergraduate degree from Barnard College and her MBA from Pace University.  She was vice chair of Columbia University, a trustee of  New York-Presbyterian Hospital, and a director of the New York City Ballet and New Visions for New York's Public Schools. She had also served on the executive committee of the New York City Partnership. 

Laurie was past president of both the Arthur W. Page Society and the PR Seminar, professional associations of the world’s most senior corporate communications executives.  She received numerous industry awards, including the Women in Communications Matrix Award, the Tribute to Women in International Industry Award, the Human Relations Award of the American Jewish Committee, the Women's Equity Action League Award and other public relations awards. She was named to the YWCA Academy of Women Achievers, was among the first named to the National Honor Roll of Women in Public Relations, and was the first woman to receive the Arthur W. Page Society’s Hall of Fame Award.

Laurie is survived by her husband of 48 years, Robert Laurie, her sister, Lois Schauber, of Westchester County in New York, two daughters, Amy Laurie, of Santa Monica, California, and Lisa Pott, of Long Hill, New Jersey, as well as three grandchildren, Andrew and Jessica Kovac, and Julia Pott.  

A memorial service is planned for September.