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The Bin Laden Effect

Bin laden Erik Nisbet, at Ohio State University, was surveying attitudes toward Muslim-Americans when a team of Navy seals dispatched Osama bin Laden to party with virgins in the great beyond.

The before and after data represented a unique opportunity to gauge how Bin Laden's death affected American attitudes toward Muslims. The results were surprising enough to warrant a separate report, titled "The Bin Laden Effect."  In short: 

Americans found Muslims living in the United States more threatening after bin Laden’s death.

Positive perceptions of Muslims plummeted. For example, in the weeks before bin Laden’s death, nearly half of respondents described Muslim Americans as “trustworthy” and “peaceful.”  But only one-third of Americans did so after the killing.

And they were less likely to oppose restrictions on Muslim Americans’ civil liberties.

Political liberals and moderates were the most likely to change their attitudes toward Muslims, becoming more like conservatives.

Nisbet offers this explanation: 

The killing of Bin Laden created a "focusing event" that led to an extremely high level of news coverage and public discourse about terrorism and Islam in general for several weeks.

All that news coverage reminded people of the 9/11 attacks and primed them to think about Muslims in terms of terrorism.

We experienced something of the same effect when I was at AT&T (though we didn't have a name for it).

One of our researchers -- Bruce Jeffries-Fox -- noticed that favorable attitudes towards the company declined when we were the subject of negative news. That wasn't terribly surprising. (And you may recall that this was frequently the case in 1996 and from 1998 - 2002.)

But his next observation was startling: favorable attitudes declined even more if we happened to be running a higher level of advertising at the time.  

It seems that advertising -- like price discounts or warm and fuzzy messages -- reminded people of the bad news. No amount of good news could counter-balance the bad. 

The data was so compelling that even our advertising colleagues took notice and tried to adjust their media schedules when trouble brewed.

The larger lesson: attitudes are contextual. That's why individual readings should always be taken with a grain of salt.






What's your CQ?

One of the issues I explore in my upcoming book, Otherwise, is 
that the changing demographics of the U.S., as illustrated to the left, have made it more important than ever to understand the "ways and whys" of others.  

In fact, with the added pressures of globalization, it may be one of the most critical management skills of the 21st century. Now three rsearchers at Harvard and Columbia universities have written a paper that lays some academic rigor under my argument.

 A series of four experiments showed that people with "high cultural metacognition intelligence," (or CQ) are not only better at relating to people of other cultures, they also engender higher feelings of trust that makes it easier to resolve disagreements.

 Apparently, people with a high CQ "adapt their styles appropriately, taking into account cultural differences, yet not assuming more differences than truly exist." This helps create the feeling that they're all “on same wavelength.” Such feelings of rapport enhance creative collaboration.

But in the end, the researchers warn that "acquiring knowledge about other cultures, although important, may not be sufficient for effective intercultural work." Book learning has to be complemented by reflecting on real-world experience.

In fact, in an unusually practical recommendation for an academic paper, they suggest that managers systematically document their insights and the lessons they learned in a journal.

"Keeping a journal would help managers identify strengths and weaknesses in their past intercultural experiences," they advise. It would force managers to "consider what they could have done differently and what they can do differently the next time, and hence cultivate the habit of cultural metacognition."

Not bad advice. 




Brand America reconsidered

Label I
f only to get off Murdoch-related postings for a bit, I turn my attention to an update on my book Rebuilding Brand America.

You will recall that when it was published in 2007, the reputation of the U.S. around the world was fairly miserable.

My book was an effort to explain why and to suggest what we could do as business people and as individuals to restore the country's rep.

Well, there's good news and bad news on that front. The good news is that -- outside most of the Muslim world -- America has significantly improved its standing.

According to a Pew Research Center report, "opinion of America is largely favorable on balance." The 2011 readings, especially in Western Europe, generally represent a significant improvement over those in 2008. In some countries -- like France and Spain -- U.S. favorability is better than it was pre-9/11.

US Favorability

But there's bad news too:  Significant pluralities in almost every country believe that China "will or has replace the U.S. as the world's leading superpower." And the percentage has been increasing at the same time that our overall imaging has been improving.
China US

More than half of Western Europeans think that the U.S. will take a back seat to China. Nearly half (46%) of Americans agree. To be fair, most people in Eastern Europe, Latin America, and Asia still consider the U.S. to be the world's leading economic power.

But it's interesting to ponder the reasons for America's apparent decline among developed countries.  

Is it a reflection of people's envy -- i.e., it's easier to like us when we're no longer on top? A decline in favorability towards China seems to support this notion.

Or does it reflect an objective analysis of the facts -- i.e., the U.S. is a debtor country and China holds a lot of our paper? 

Or something else?  

What do you think? Please don't tell me you blame Rupert Murdoch.




Defining PR

What-is-public-relations (1) H
ere, from Jeff Jarvis, a blogger about media and news at, is a pretty darn good definition of PR:  

"True public relations -- like marketing -- must represent the public -- the customer -- and not the company."

Not bad.

Some will want to nit-pick the definition, but it aligns with my experience at AT&T -- I spent at least half my time explaining the public to company executives and the other half trying to explain the company to the public.

I won't pretend that was simply an exercise in "transparency," i.e., throwing all the doors and windows open to anyone who wanted to rummage through our files.

But it wasn't an exercise in manipulation and "spin" either.  

We honestly tried to put our policies and practices in context so people could understand them.

We defined "telling the truth" as giving people the information they needed to make intelligent decisions.

And to be honest, while I was never asked to tell a lie, I did sometimes have trouble doping out exactly what the truth was. That's part of representing the public too.








The News of the News of the World News

Imagesizer I'd like to promise that this will be my last post on the News Corporation hacking and bribing scandal.

But I've noticed that traffic to this blog has doubled ever since I began writing about it.

Since the august New York Times seems to be unembarrassed riding the same wave (they published five separate news stories, plus an op ed just today), who am I to scorn popular opinion?

So here are a couple of interesting links:

Scientific American puts Mr. Murdoch's travails within the context of evolutionary psychology. We smile when people we envy have problems because it eases our psychological pain.

The Harvard Business Review thinks it's all an example of the moral hazard businesses expose themselves to when they hire third parties. So much for outsourcing.

Over at the Wall Street Journal, Holman Jenkins argues that the hacking scandal "leaves the world a better place, just as Nixon did with Watergate," because it uncovers even larger misdeeds by the London police. I'm not making this up.

Meanwhile, in the same pages, two former Republican Justice Department officials, argue that applying the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act to bribery in the course of news gathering threatens the First Amendment. 

Finally, I was struck by the coverage given to what was widely and inaccurately described as the "left hook" Wendi Murdoch delivered to the pie thrower who rose from the audience towards the end of the parliamentary hearing. 

It appeared in almost every story yesterday afternoon and today.  (Best headline: "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Wendi.")  See photo sequence nearby.  That's Wendi in the pink jacket, delivering what is clearly a right cross.

Some people speculated that the Murdochs themselves were behind the whole incident.  Indeed, it displaced what would have been column inches on her husband's doddering performance and was the only good break they had all day. 

But to me it offers further proof that coverage of this scandal belongs in the Sports section, along with a lot of other stories that purport to be business stories.





People are crazy

Psychology Some people have apparently interpreted yesterday's post as a defense of Rupert Murdoch.

But I was making a different point, namely that, as human beings, we are maddeningly irrational. 

In becoming Otherwise, it helps to keep that in mind.

Psychologists (not to mention ministers and bartenders) have accumulated impressive evidence that the most sober and deliberate of us can be dependably irrational in some of the most important aspects of our lives.

We all suffer from a toxic muddle of cognitive deficiencies that cause us to give greater weight to the most recent data we saw (recency and anchoring) or to the data that is easiest to get (availability bias), or that agrees with our pre-existing opinion (confirmation bias), or that confirms what everyone else thinks (bandwagon effect), or failing all else to simply assume that things will continue to go the way they’ve been going (disregard of regression toward the mean). 

And getting more data doesn’t necessarily help. Recent fMRI research reported in Newsweek has demonstrated that the part of people’s brains involved in rational decision-making and controlling emotions actually switches off when presented with too much information.

 Furthermore, psychological experiments have demonstrated that our behavior is easily influenced by external events outside our consciousness. For example, in Experiments in Ethics, Princeton philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah has pointed out that people standing outside a bakery with the smell of fresh bread in the air are more likely to help a stranger than someone standing outside a “neutral-smelling dry goods store.”

Finally, and perhaps most relevant to Mr. Murdoch's travails, scientists have also discovered that schadenfreude – one’s secret happiness at another person’s loss – has biological underpinnings. It registers in the brain as satisfaction comparable to that of eating a good meal.

That being the case, the News Corp scandal is a virtual banquet for many.


The scandal that can't stop titillating


News-of-the-world-closes-bottom How
 did the News of the World scandal so quickly threaten to become Rupert Murdoch's Waterloo?

If there are any lessons to be drawn from this transatlantic kerfuffle, they may lie in the answer to that question.

After all, in the grand scheme of things, the News of the World was little more than a remote, though raucous, backwater of the Murdoch empire.

Finding those tabloid waters polluted was about as surprising as discovering SuperFund sites along the New Jersey Turnpike. 

Still, it's the scandal that can't stop titillating. Just this weekend, heads rolled from New York to London at both News Corporation and Scotland Yard, the FBI opened an investigation, Congress promised hearings, Parliament began inquiries. 

To be sure, hacking into people's voice mail is not only illegal, but wrong. So is bribing a Bobby -- or worse, the people to whom they report.

But why is it such a Big Story on both sides of the Atlantic?

I'm no fan of Fox News or the New York Post.  And I preferred the Wall Street Journal before it became a general interest newspaper (though there are things I still admire about it).

But I suspect that what feeds this story is the thirst among some people for further confirmation that Rupert Murdoch is the reincarnation of Jack Sparrow -- a swashbuckling and ruthless buccaneer on the waters of modern media.

Maybe he is.  I have no idea.

But psychologists have essentially proven that we human beings naturally search for information that confirms our beliefs and ignore what contradicts them. Anthropologists have even suggested that confirmation bias, as this tendency is called, serves an evolutionary purpose -- it makes for stronger arguments. 

In fact, two cognitive scientists have even speculated that our vaunted reasoning faculties are not designed to enable us to find the "truth" about anything, but to argue more forcefully whether we're right or wrong. Winning arguments is a distinct advantage if you belong to a species that depends on clans and tribes for survival.


"Reasoning has evolved and persisted mainly because it makes human communication more effective and advantageous," they write. "The function of reasoning is .. to devise and evaluate arguments intended to persuade." 

The News of the World scandal has legs simply because it's such a rich and delicious vein of bias-confirming intelligence.

AT&T's former CEO, Bob Allen, played that role back in 1996 when people were worked up about downsizing and corporate greed.

And, as was the case back then, Mr. Murdoch won't be excused from the barrel until someone or something else displaces him as a richer source of bias-confirming argumentation.




History repeats itself

Deja-vu-218x300 Pardon my sense of deja vu.

Anyone who still wonders how the old "new" AT&T could have gotten into such a financial mess in 2001 - 2002 should read "Is Facebook Worth $100 Billion?" in the July 14 Wall Street Journal.  

The paper "talked to people from Main Street to Wall Street to weigh in on what Facebook is worth."  

Ignore the lady whose "boys are Facebook fanatics," the privacy advocate, the ad woman, and the management guru. Focus on the venture capitalist and the securities analyst who bookend the piece.  

Their "conservative estimate" puts Facebook's value in 2015 between $140 and $234 billion.  That spread is breathtaking.  

 So is the methodology they use to get there -- a series of off-the-wall assumptions, rules-of-thumb, and wild-ass guesstimates (e.g., the company's estimated 50% profit margin will not decline, the online ad market will grow $45 billion in 2015 with Facebook retaining a 7% market share, Facebook's price to earnings ratio in 2015 will be 25, etc.)  

They might as well be reading Zuckerberg's entrails via virtual colonoscopy.  

The biggest falacy in these hallucinatory ravings is that 2015 will be just like 2010, which is the base year of most of their calculations. Hell, 2011 isn't even like 2010.

That's essentially what happened to AT&T.  

Investment banks valued the cable companies AT&T wanted to buy the way a real estate agent values a split-level, using prior sales of comparable properties.  "Time Warner paid $3200 per subscriber for the last cable system they bought so you should be willing to pay a comparable price," was the essence of the "fairness opinion" they gave the Board.

For that, they collected hundreds of millions in fees.  Then they lent the company $60 billion to finance the deals, collecting more fees. And they projected that income from the company's only profitable service -- consumer long distance -- would cover the interest expense until the cable systems themselves became profitable.  

That assumed that consumer long distance (anyone remember that?) would continue cranking out cash more or less at the same level. The worse case scenario assumed a decline of one or two percent for the next five years.  

By the time the last deal closed, the projected decline was in the double digits and the company was facing a liquidity crisis. AT&T had to choose between funding the capital requirements of its high-growth cable and wireless businesses or making its interest payments.

In the end, AT&T had no choice but to unwind all its acquisitions and return to the standalone long distance business, setting itself up to be acquired by SBC which quickly became the "new, new AT&T."

Should management have known better?  Probably.  But it's biggest mistake was following the advice of investment bankers who made money even if the deals they promoted cratered, and then picked up more fees in correcting their original mistakes.




Let's put on a news show

Polls_mickey_rooney_judy_garland_3058_218214_poll_xlarge The network evening news programs are dead. All that's left is to bury the bodies.  

Scott Pelly, Brian Williams, and Diane Sawyer were all cut from the same cloth as Huntley, Brinkley and Cronkite -- tightly scripted voices of God.  

The people who run these shows know that they need to find a new formula -- their core audience is literally dying.

Some may follow the path of their cable counterparts and adopt the techniques of talk radio, replacing the news reports on their Teleprompters with partisan diatribes.

But there's another model, and it's best example is probably the Wall Street Journal's "AM and PM Reports," twice-a-day online videos that are remarkably fresh, informal, and even entertaining.  

The AM Report is usually hosted by the paper's sassy "Ahead of the Tape" columnist, Kelly Evans.  Simon Constable, a Dow Jones news columnist, hosts the PM Report in a slightly frantic style that belies his British accent. (Maybe he's an Aussie by birth.)

Both are more than pretty faces.  They're knowledgeable enough to operate with little more than a run-down of their roughly 20-minute report as they whip from one reporter to another, getting briefed on the top stories of the day, asking intelligent questions, and offering their own take.

Some of the reporters are on set, standing just an elbow poke away, and the interplay looks as real as if you had wandered into the newsroom.  Others are brought in over Skype from wherever they happen to be -- in a far-flung newsroom or in their own bedroom.  (The framed photos on the dresser in the background kind of gives that away.)

The whole show has an immediacy and authenticity that is addictive.  

If the powers that be at the three big TV news networks want to see their future, they might tune in.  If so, one of them will probably scoop Kelly up. Let's hope they don't try to force the mantle of yesterday's news anchors on her.

She's talented, but what makes her so good is the low-cost, seemingly improvised format the Journal stumbled upon. It's as if Mickey and Judy said, "let's put on a news show" and then got all the smartest neighborhood kids involved.  





Modern morality plays

Mphellmouth J
ames Carroll, writing in the Boston Globe, wonders what drives our insatiable appetite for celebrity scandals.

Noting the transnational nature of the tabloid culture, he suggests the obsession may, in fact, have universal implications.

I knew Carroll when he was chaplain at Boston University's Newman Center. He later left the priesthood and became a full-time, and successful, author. His writing is animated and informed by a keen understanding of human nature.

"Every human must navigate the triple labyrinth of animal impulse, rational awareness, and moral choice," he writes. In other words, we revel in stories of great people cut down to size because we need morality tales to help us fight our own demons.

I've come to believe that we're hardwired to put ourselves at some people's feet, only to move to their throats when they inevitably falter.

That helps explain the modern industry of celebrity gilding and gelding. Celebrities -- and brands -- are the sometimes unwilling protagonists in their own morality play.

And, as in any morality play, the curtain will not fall until the protagonist has sinned and repented, i.e., admited guilt, resolved not to repeat the offense, and made an honest attempt at restitution.

The biggest difference today: the play's script is often coauthored by what Carroll calls a "vast, observing, empowered public."













The Murdoch in me

News-of-the-world T
he demise of the Murdoch empire's News of the World reminds me of a similar experience I had at AT&T.

It was a smaller-scale fiasco and had fewer earth-shaking implications for the companies involved, but ironically the same lessons apply.

An AT&T employee publication under my supervision ran a racist cartoon. (There's a long, involved explanation of the incident in Tough Calls, exerpted here, but for purposes of this posting that probably suffices).  

When employees saw the cartoon, their anger and dismay reverberated all the way to Washington, D.C., and into the pages of the Washington Post.  

The company's CEO was called to testify before the Congressional Black Caucus. The company was excoriated nationwide, even by many of the civil rights groups it had supported for decades. We apologized profusely and announced a redoubling of diversity efforts.

We followed time-tested crisis management techniques -- accept responsibility, apologize, and fix the problem. But nothing helped until we shut down the magazine and removed the editors.

The lesson: there's a fourth element to crisis management. You have to give something back to demonstrate your seriousness.  

In our case, it was closing the magazine. That was the pound of flesh people wanted.  James Murdoch seems to have come to the same conclusion.  

It will be interesting to see if it's enough or whether, as in our case, the top editor, Rebecca Brooks, will also have to go.  

Another point of similarity: apparently Murdoch was already thinking about closing the News of the World in the face of declining circulation.  Making the announcement now instead of a year or so hence was a little like giving the sleeves out of his vest.  

Similarly, when all this happened, we were thinking about closing the print magazine in favor of an electronic version.  Nevertheless, the decision was difficult because shuttering the magazine under these circumstances implied we were racist, which I knew wasn't true. The top editors had no involvement in placing the cartoon in the publication. It had been inserted by a lower level production manager, who happened to be Black, at the last minute. 

 "Removing" the senior editors meant moving them to other jobs out of employee communications, but they both considered it humiliating. I felt awful. I knew both editors well.  Neither had a racist bone in her body.  

I'm still not sure I did the right thing.  I suspect if Mr. Murdoch has to let Ms. Brooks go, he will feel the same way, if he doesn't already-- no matter what he's saying for public consumption.

That may be the final similarity in all this. 




Betting in this casino?

W_C_Fields An editorial in today's New York Times suggests that AT&T is using its philanthropic and political contributions to drum up support for its proposed merger with T-Mobile.  

To which, some might be tempted to quote W. C. Fields, "What?  There's gambling in this casino? I'm shocked."

But the facts are a little more complicated.

I have no idea how the AT&T Foundation is run these days. But when I chaired it from 1997 to 2002, we prided ourselves on the thick wall we erected between the Foundation's donations and the company's more quotodien interests.

For example, we batted down requests from the sales force to throw money at a favorite client's pet charity.

Our goal was to direct the Foundation's contributions of about $40 million a year to organizations that operated at the intersection of both the company's and society's long-term interests.

So we supported university engineering programs that produced the kind of computing and scientific talent we needed. We funded innovative arts programs that enriched the communities in which our employees and customers lived and worked. And yes, we contributed to organizations like GLAAD and the NAACP because they were helping to create a more inclusive environment in those communities.  

Our contributions were sometimes misunderstood. In perhaps the most infamous instance, donations to Planned Parenthood were interpreted as support for abortion rights, and when we subsequently stopped making them, both sides used the action as a political football. We were lynched from the goal posts on that one. 

But when the issue was central to our direct interests -- as in our determination to give gay and lesbian employees the full respect they deserved -- we had no problem turning a deaf ear to fundamentalist bigots, even when they started their own long distance service to compete with ours.

Did our sales people draw their clients' attention to our corporate contributions as a sign of enlightened citizenship? They'd be idiots if they didn't. Did our lobbyists do the same with the public officials they were trying to influence?  No question. Did all these good works win us the benefit of the doubt?  I hope so.

But the AT&T Foundation was no casino, and we weren't betting on anything but helping to build a better society. I trust that's still the case.





Philosophically speaking

However you define it, philosophy has a reputation as the science people studied before science was invented.  

Instead of reasoning from empirical and measurable evidence, it fiddles with semantics and tortured parables.

So when a card-carrying philosopher contributes practical insight to political discourse, we should pay attention.

The philosopher in question is Gary Gutting of the University of Notre Dame and his contribution in today's "Opinionator" blog on the New York Times web site, goes straight to an issue that bothers many of us who try to understand people who don't agree with us, even when our arguments are laden with irrefutable facts.  

The problem, Gutting avows, lies in the difference between deductive and inductive reasoning.  

"All humans are mortal, Socrates is a human, therefore Socrates is mortal" is deductive reasoning. In logic class, we called this a syllogism. If the premises are true, the conclusion must be true.  Adding facts to the premises -- for example, Socrates is 99 years old and has a beard -- doesn't change the conclusion.  

Inductive reasoning uses premises that are generally true, but leave some room for exception. An inductive argument suggests the truth, but does not entail it.  

"Humans seldom live to the age of 100, Socrates is a human, therefore Socrates won't live to be 100," is inductive reasoning that moves from generalizations to a specific instance.  But in this case, the added information that Socrates is 99 years old, can change the conclusion.

Gutting points out that this is the problem with much of the political debate around debt reduction. All sides are marshaling the "facts" that support their position, but few of us trouble to ensure that we have gathered all the relevant facts.

"Ignoring relevant facts can give us false confidence in the strength of our positions in political debates," Gutting says.  "I put forward a barrage of indisputable facts that show, with a very high probability, that my view is correct.  But you construct an equally impressive argument refuting my view.  Each of us may conclude that the other is irrational or ignorant.  But we should beware of the sense of the inviolability of our own positions when what we really need is a serious effort to argue from all the relevant facts."

In other words, what's missing in our political debates, is a dose of humility.






Friend or Foe? (Part Two)

Homeless-feet A
friend who is a regular reader of this blog commented on yesterday's post.  

Looking at the illustration of a toothless, dirty man, "I felt more instinctive pity than fear or disgust," he said.  

Knowing the source of that comment, I was not surprised. He is an uncommonly empathetic person. In fact, many people are.

Studies show that most of us feel pity for the homeless and want to help them.  On the other hand, most of us are repulsed by drug addicts and want them to go away. Which do the feet to the left belong to?

The man in yesterday's posting could have been either or both. The difference in our reaction seems to be based on whether we see him as "friend" or "foe" and whether or not we believe he's responsible for his condition.  For a more technical explanation, see a paper by Susan Fiske here.

We are hardwired to make categorical judgments about other people, i.e., to stereotype them. Most of those judgments happen unconsciously and automatically. But the results are not always the same. People come to different conclusions based on their social context, culture, and experience.  

My friend, for example, expanded on his initial comment in a later email. "I had a fortunate experience," he explained. "On the bus between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv a few years ago, I was seated behind a degenerate-looking man.  He had no teeth, a wasted body and an annoyingly wet hacking cough that would not stop.  Like a true New Yorker, I was repulsed and thought about moving away from him.  

"Very soon thereafter a beautiful young woman got up from her seat, reached into her backpack, took out a bottle of water and offered it to the man.  He accepted it, drank and stopped coughing.  I was immensely impressed by the generosity and compassion of this woman's action.  

"The thought struck my mind that the man could have been someone's grandfather, a war hero or even a survivor of the death camps.  It was one of those coincidental, life-altering events for me.  From then on I have viewed people in similar distress far differently."

And that was exactly the point of my first posting -- biology is not destiny. Our experiences can trump our instincts if we're open to the possibility.