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Open the gates

Private-communities_1The Trayvon Martin tragedy has become rich fodder for newspaper editorials, Sunday sermons, political science papers, and blog postings like this one.

It has the full range of contemporary hot buttons: racial attitudes, class divisions, vigilantism, even hoodie as signal of gangsterism.  

It also put a little sunlight on another topic worthy of discussion: the rise of so-called "gated communities."

In 1970, there were about 10,000 private communities in the U.S., housing about 2 million people. 

In 2009, more than 60 million Americans lived in about 300,000 gated communities with an estimated value approaching $4 trillion, almost 20 percent of the value of all U.S. residential real estate.

Whether these communities were established to preserve real estate values, to deter crime, or to create a haven for like-minded people, gated communities represent a separate world from the larger political system.

They provide many of their own services, such as security and trash collection, control access to public spaces, and set their own rules.  Their residents tend to focus on life within the gates rather than on issues within the larger city or town.

Gated communities have, almost by definition, an aura of “exclusiveness” that exaggerates differences between residents and non-residents.  In separating themselves from the larger community, they send a signal to others that they’re “different,” implicitly “better,” and certainly on a different social track.    

People on different sides of the gate have fewer interactions with each other, which inevitably  reduces trust to the lowest common in-group denominator. 

If we only trust people who are just like us, we will only associate with our own kind, which will make us even more suspicious of others.  And round and round we will go in a vicious circle.

Trust that makes no room for the Other is no trust at all.  It’s symptomatic of a society on the verge of a nervous breakdown. 




The Talk

The Talk.008Wherever the investigation into Trayvon Martin's death comes out, one thing is certain.

Because of what happened to Trayvon, thousands -- maybe millions -- of African-American parents have had to have "the Talk" with their kids.

In researching OtherWise, I sought out the advice of a good friend who happens to be Black.

As an executive at two of the largest companies in the U.S., she could afford to live wherever she chose, to send her son to whatever prep school would offer him the best education. 

And yet even she found it necessary, when he was preparing to leave for college, to warn him, “Now don’t you forget where you come from or you’ll be hurt.”

She felt it necessary to remind him that he was Black and that some people would be suspicious of him – or even rude towards him – because of it.

ABC News reports 60 percent of Black people are aware of being followed when they’re shopping.  The practice is so common in some high-end malls that it has a name – “shopping while Black.”  And there’s a mobile version of it too, called “driving while Black,” in historically white neighborhoods.

Apparently, it even extends to "walking while Black" in some neighborhoods.

One study discovered that, from 1980 to 2007, African Americans were arrested on drug charges three to six times more frequently than white people, even though black and white people engage in drug offenses—possession and sales—at roughly comparable rates.

"Because black drug offenders are the principal targets in the ‘war on drugs'," the study explains, "the burden of drug arrests and incarceration falls disproportionately on black men and women, their families and neighborhoods.”

Hence, "the Talk."

Maybe it's time for white parents to have a talk with their own kids.

Studies show that white parents don’t talk to their kids about race.  They want their kids to be colorblind so they avoid discussing skin color or anything associated with the sad history of Blacks in America. 

As a result, the understanding most white adults have of the Black experience is picked up haphazardly and polluted with stereotypes. 

By contrast, most parents have no trouble discussing gender stereotypes from the earliest age.  They tell their kids women can be doctors and lawyers or bricklayers and plumbers. But what Blacks experience? It's too uncomfortable to talk about.

The really uncomfortable truth is that race still matters in America. It's not right.

And studies show that talking about the realities of discrimination and racial prejudice in an age appropriate way actually helps children learn to get along with others who are different than them. 

That's the talk white parents should be having with their kids. 


My week with Ralph

Stick figure at computerI recently got myself involved in an email discussion of the Affordable Care Act.  

Maybe I was channeling an unconscious desire to participate in the Supreme Court debate. Maybe I was just venting. Whatever.

In any case, I decided to see how long it would take to get frustrated discussing the issue with someone who openly admitted he had never read the Act, but had loads of opinions about it.

My correspondent was not someone I know. He is a friend of a friend. Let's call him "Ralph."

I only became aware of Ralph's existence when he responded to an email my friend had sent out recommending a Washington Post story listing "five myths about the Act." 

I responded to Ralph's reaction (which I can summarize as "what a lot of hooey") and a vigorous email exchange followed.

I'll spare you the details. Let's just say that Ralph presented the Act as "socialized" or "quasi-socialized" medicine, and I countered with provisions from the Act itself and studies by the Congressional Budget Office on its financial impact.

It all ended when Ralph presented his final argument: Obama was born in Kenya, the Act is a stalking horse for a single-payer system, it is designed to put private insurance out of business so the government can take over, let's discuss it again in four years when all this comes true.

To which, I am inclined to say, "Amen."

But if I truly aspire to be OtherWise, I can't leave it there. I need to understand why Ralph feels so strongly that the Affordable Care Act is a socialist plot.

I know little about him, except that he is a Cuban immigrant, male, in his 60s or 70s, has a business background, and lives in Miami.

Much of Ralph's opposition to the Affordable Care Act is tied up with his suspicion of President Obama himself. Ralph believes Obama has no legitimacy, was born in Kenya, and is among the most divisive presidents we've ever had.

"Obama’s style and speech have systematically pitted various groups against one another," he wrote, "which accounts for much of the social and political divisiveness we have today."

Furthermore, Ralph believes that Obama's real intention is to impose a single-payer system on us.  The Affordable Care Act is just a way-station to that end.

"The only way to 'save money' while bringing 45 million more people into the game," he wrote, "is by either lowering product quality, or rationing services  … which can only happen under a government mandated monopoly."

What's really going on here? There is plenty in the Affordable Care Act not to like. And Ralph mentioned some of it -- a lack of real tort reform, no competition across state lines, etc. 

Ralph's opposition could also be an entirely rational belief that there is a better way. A way that will unleash competitive forces strong enough to bring the cost of healthcare down to a level that everyone can afford.

But I'm convinced that the actual provisions of the Act are incidental to Ralph's opposition. His basic problem is a deep-seated suspicion of the government and especially of this president.

Perhaps his experience in Cuba colors his perception of politicians who seem to get by on oratory. In that sense, another friend has observed that many Cubans consider Obama a "carbon copy" of Fidel.

Perhaps, he conflates the effort to extend health insurance to the poor with Fidel's pandering to the Cuban underclass. 

Perhaps, like many Cubans, he thinks Democrats are soft on Communism, as demonstrated in Kennedy's "betrayal" of the Bay of Pigs invasion and by Clinton's "betrayal" of Elián González.

Perhaps Ralph's disdain for Obama reflects unconscious racism. Skin complexion is considered a sign of class in some Hispanic communities. People with African or indiginous backgrounds rank lower on the social scale than those with "pure" Spanish bloodlines.

Perhaps Ralph's opposition to the Act reflects a belief that it is intended to redistribute wealth from those who work hard to those who don't. 

My money is on the latter point, which makes this a moral discussion, where "facts" carry less weight. 

But that doesn't mean the task is hopeless. On the contrary, it means that instead of emphasizing the benefits to the uninsured of expanding coverage, we should emphasize the benefits to the already insured. 

If everyone has to have coverage, healthy people will help fund insurance for the uninsured, which will help pay for their emergency room visits (or keep them out of emergency rooms in the first place). Ultimately, that will lower everyone's costs.

I plan to present that argument when I resume this discussion with Ralph. As he suggested, in four years.






What's fair?

Photos-scotus-acaThe U.S. Supreme Court is hearing arguments on the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act (also known as "Obamacare"). 

In a sense, the case has already been heard in the court of public opinion. In the three years since the law was first proposed, public opinion has consistently opposed it, as described in this Washington Post article

Political scientist Daniel Hopkins has studied surveys asking people why they support or oppose the act. He's narrowed the results down to six clusters of words like "cost," 'taxes," "affordable," "government," "socialism," and "insurance."

Based on his analysis of these clusters, he believes the 41% who support the act do so principally because of dissatisfaction with insurance company policies, such as the exclusion for pre-existing conditions.

Similarly, he believes the 52% who oppose the act do so pricipally because of its presumed cost and the government's increased role in healthcare.

In Hopkin's view, this isn't particularly surprising. "The federal government’s role in the health-care system has been a recurring political issue for generations," he writes. And indeed, one can find such arguments as far back as when Medicare was was first discussed and passed.

But one shouldn't take comfort from this long view.

The Obama administration built support for the act by attacking insurance industry practices such as exclusions for pre-existing conditions. That won support in many quarters and put complex reform in terms the average person could understand.

But like all legislation the act is ultimately evaluated on the most basic concepts of fairness. And on that score the act's supporters have presented  an overly narrow case.

The act's supporters believe it's unfair for health insurance to be beyond the reach of some people. Opponents believe it's unfair to increase people's taxes to expand health insurance coverage, which they see as the act's ultimate result.

Arguments over the nature of "fairness" are futile. Both sides have logical arguments. And trying to convince people they are "unfair" is an unrealistic and self-defeating goal.

A better approach is to broaden the application of fairness to all those people who don't buy health insurance but expect the rest of us to pay for their care when they get sick.

That's the ultimate unfairness of our current system. According to a 2011 study, the cost of treating the uninsured was $49 billion in hospital bills that had to be picked up by the rest of us.

One study estimates that the cost of providing healthcare to the uninsured adds $1,100 a year to the average family's health insurance premiuns.   

Fair? I don't think so.



Us > Them !

Me>youWhy aren't other people as smart or as good or as generally great as we are? 

How can they believe that socialist/fascist claptrap?

We've all said something similar -- why don't others don't think or, better, vote as we do? It's so obvious to us.

That's more than an academic question.

My new book, OtherWise, suggests that developing the wisdom of understanding people unlike ourselves will be the key to personal and professional success in the 21st century.

The first step in developing that wisdom is understanding why we are the way we are. That inevitably leads to the discovery that the people we think are so different are really just like us in more ways than we suspected. They just operate from a different set of assumptions about what makes people tick.

Exhibit One is the political polarization that divides the U.S. And there is no better guide to those competing worldviews than Jonathan Haidt's new book, The Righteous Mind.

Haidt (pronounced "Height") might have called his book "The Self-Righteous Mind" because both worldviews assume they are the one and only Truth.

I used a lot of Haidt's earlier research in writing OtherWise, and he has since updated some of his findings and theories. But his general observation still holds -- liberals and conservatives base their political beliefs on a different mix of intuitive moral judgments. 

For example, liberals give a lot of weight to issues of fairness and care, while conservatives also give weight to factors such as what is good for the larger group, what authorities have said, and what is pure and sacred.

Liberals and conservatives even interpret these principles in different ways. Liberals tend to think of "fairness" in terms of "equality" while conservatives think of it in terms of "proportionality." So while liberals believe it's only fair for the government to tap the rich to help the needy; conservatives think the government is unfair when it rewards failure and punishes success.  

There's lots more. If you want to understand why your neighbor or brother-in-law can have such crazy political beliefs, Haidt might be able to help.







A new PR model

PR.003Like the proverbial shoemaker's children, the public relations industry suffers from the worst imaginable PR.

At best, PR is widely considered superficial and obnoxious; at worse, mercenary and mendacious. And that's on its better days.

That could change. Working on the principle that what you do matters more than what you say, the Arthur W. Page Society has just issued a report recommending a new model for the practice of public relations.  

Full disclosure: I was once on the board of the Page Society, whose membership consists of the heads of PR for some of world's leading companies. Indeed, the society was named after one of my predecessors at AT&T -- Arthur W. Page was the first person responsible for PR to be named an officer of any corporation back in 1926.

The Page Society's report -- which is entitled "Building Belief: A New Model For Activating Corporate Character & Authentic Advocacy" -- draws on insights in the fields of cognitive and behavioral psychology. But its purpose is not to manipulate people into paying attention to things that don't matter, buying things they don't need, or thinking things they don't really believe.

On the contrary, the new model is built on ensuring that everyone in an enterprise understands and acts on the purpose for which it was formed in the first place, a purpose centered on satisfying specific, unmet needs.

That "differentiating purpose," and the mission and values that stem from it, are what constitutes the enterprise's "character." And the "definition and activation of corporate character" is PR's first responsibility.

That gives PR an integrative role within the enterprise, ensuring that all its employees and representatives "think" and "act" in tune with its character.  

It's only when an enterprise achieves such a level of integration that it can create "shared belief" with the people it serves -- customers, investors, employees, and citizens. 

 And only then will that shared belief be a springboard to action -- buying a product, accepting a job, supporting a policy, investing money, etc.

When those actions are satisfying, it gives people confidence in their actions and opens them to the possibility of spreading what has now become a shared conviction. They become advocates, building shared belief among their friends. 

Obviously, communications can facilitate this whole process. But under this new model, PR has a much broader role in the day-to-day management of the enterprise. Ironically, it's a role closer to the one Page played at AT&T in the first half of the 20th century.

So in that sense, we may be coming full circle, albeit in a business and social environment Page would not recognize.

The report itself carefully avoids suggesting it is the last word on the subject. On the contrary, it presents its new model as a "hypothesis."

All I can say is that of such hypotheses, entire industries have been born and (hopefully, in this instance) reborn.



Wrecking a category

Partisanship (1)The biggest divide in American politics is not between people who lean left or right, but between those who are engaged and those who are not.

For example, according to the Census Bureau, about 60% of Americans are registered to vote, but only 42% cast ballots in the last national election.

Presidential elections draw more people -- about half of eligible voters typically turn out when the White House is up for grabs. On that score, the 2008 election had the biggest turnout in 40 years -- 56.8% of eligible voters cast ballots.  

We'll soon see if that was the start of a new trend or an aberration.

Meanwhile, social scientists argue that our political divisions are actually a sign of health. We have become better at sorting ourselves by ideology rather than simply going with our family, social or ethnic flow.

Only about 10% of voters don't lean towards one party or the other. That has made partisan voting blocks more disciplined. But it has also made bipartisan cooperation much more difficult. That's undoubtedly reflected in the lowest levels of trust in the federal government since Gallup has been keeping score.

Hyper-partisanship has also contributed to any marketer's nightmare -- a general poisoning of the category. 

I saw this first-hand when I was at AT&T during the long distance wars.  AT&T, MCI, and Sprint got into a price war that led to billions of dollars of advertising in which we essentially accused each other of lying.

In time, all we accomplished was to convince the public we were all liers. 

As hyper-partisanship foments a general decline in public trust, it's taking the rest of civic life with it.

The percentage of Americans who participate in a community group of any sort is even lower than the proportion who vote.

Only 35% of American adults belong to a religious, civic, school, social, or even recreational group. And barely a third (32%) perform some form of community service such as volunteering, attending public meetings, or working with neighbors to address local issues.

There have been many theories to explain this, ranging from the effects of increasing diversity and two-income families to the proliferation of cable channels and new digital media. 

To that list, let me add this -- hyper-partisanship is destroying public life as a category of honorable activity. 


Sort of Big Sort?

Sorting housesThis blog has two purposes.

First, to report on research I'm doing for whatever book I'm writing.

And second to offer "second thoughts" and updates on books I've already published.  

This posting has a foot in both. OtherWise doesn't come out until June, yet I've already come across some research that throws into question one of the sources I cite.

To wit, I make much of Bill Bishop's finding that Americans are "sorting" themselves politically into different neighborhoods.

In his book, The Big Sort, Bishop presents an analysis showing that the vote in most counties has become increasingly lop-sided to one candidate or the other. For example, in 1976, only 27% of Americans lived in counties where one presidential candidate won by a "landslide" of 60% or more. By 2004, Bishop says, nearly half (48%) of Americans lived in such counties.

But now political scientists Samuel Abrams and Morris Fiorina have challenged Bishop's analysis.  Abrams and Fiorina argue that presidential voting is not a reliable indicator of partisanship, as voting may depend on idiosyncratic features of candidates. 

Better, they argue, is party registration, which more reliably measures people’s underlying partisan preference (if any). On that score, they point out, fewer people live in counties where party registration has increased.  For example, in the 21 states that have party registration, more than 70% of counties 10% or fewer independents. By 2004, the situation had reversed: more than 70% of the counties had 10% or more independent registrants.

Across the 1,200 counties in these states, average independent registration increased from 12% to 18%. Average Republican registration increased from 33% to 39%, and average Democratic registration fell from 55% to 42%.

The proportion of counties where Republicans have a 20% or more registration edge (i.e., a “landslide” in Bishop’s term) almost doubled, rising from 7% to nearly 13%, while the proportion of counties where Democrats have such a large margin halved, falling from 38% to 18% (no counties have a landslide independent registration edge).

"Thus, at the county level what has occurred is not counties increasingly polarizing into Democratic and Republican categories," the authors note, "but rather counties becoming less Democratic and more Republican and independent."

They are quick to note, however, that their analysis doesn't disprove Bishop's theory. In fact, the rise of independents may indicate that party registration is less important than it used to be in determining how people vote. That would make Bishop's analysis by election results more salient, despite its weaknesses.

Abrams and Fiorina don't dismiss Bishop's thesis; they simply argue it needs more empirical study. On the other hand, they suggest that, even if neighborhoods are becoming more politically homogeneous, it may not matter much.

"Neighborhoods are not important centers of contemporary American life," they point out. "Americans today do not know their neighbors very well, do not talk to their neighbors very much, and talk to their neighbors about politics even less."




Political gas

Gas PricesOne of the oldest tricks in the rubrics of persuasion is to associate an opponent with something negative, especially if it evokes a strong emotional reaction.

Emotion is motivational. Emotions bubble away under the surface even when the stimulus that ignited them has been removed -- or disproved.

For example, economists pretty much agree that the president of the United States doesn't have many levers to lower gas prices. And those he has, have been pulled. This article provides a good summary. 

Nevertheless, the Republican presidential candidates seem to believe that, if they can link rising gas prices to the president, his approval will fall and he won't be reelected. 

The evidence for that assumption is mixed at best. Obama may not be reelected, but few political scientists think rising gas prices will be the cause.

But count on that trope to be added to others in the GOP quiver, along with "Obama the Food Stamp President" and "when I'm president, I won't bow to a Saudi King."

Incompetence-by-association is easier to pitch than a factual brief.

Democrats have also been known to condemn by association. They've kept Romney's dog on the roof of that car far longer than I thought possible. And whatever Santorum thinks about contraception and pornography, I doubt it will shape major intiaitives in his presidency.

Politics today involve more misdirection than a game of Three Card Monty. 


Happy Pi Day!

Circle_diagram1As you know, pi is the Greek letter π, which stands for the ratio of a circle's circumference to its diameter.

Numerically, that is 3.1415926535… and so on forever without repeating.

(See the illustration above. No matter how big a circle is, it's circumference will always be 3.141592 etc. times its diameter.)

March 14 is celebrated as Pi Day by mathematicians around the world because today is 3-14 in numerical notation. Imagine what the celebration was like in 1592.

(Actually, the symbol π wasn't used for this famous ratio until 1706, but the ratio itself -- or a close approximation -- has been known for more than 4,000 years. For more, see the history of pi.)

You are a mathematician if you find the following joke funny: "Pies aren't square, they're round!"

If you didn't find that funny -- or didn't even get it -- but are still reading, you have a good chance of being OtherWise.

Who else would have enough curiosity to want to know what gets a mathematician's juices flowing?


The OtherWise pill?

Propranolol_80mgThe book comes out in June.  Can the pill be far behind?

An Oxford University study has discovered that a popular blood pressure medication reduces people's unconscious racial bias.

Details of the study have been reported everywhere from the U.K.'s Daily Telgraph to Gizmodo so I won't repeat the details here, except to note that the sample size was quite small, all the participants were men, and no one knows if the effect was limited to racist attitudes or was more generalized.

However, the results are not too surprising on at least one dimension -- most bias springs from fear and, in addition to lowering blood pressure, the drug tested has been used to reduce anxiety and panic for years.

The drug acts both on nerve circuits that govern automatic functions such as heart rate, and the part of the brain involved in fear and emotional responses. So there may be a logical connection.

Can a drug to make people OtherWise be far behind?



Hate.011The Southern Poverty Law Center reports that the number of extremist groups in the U.S. has reached record levels. 

The report counts 1,018 hate groups, including neo-Nazis, white nationalists, racist skinheads, Klansmen, black separatists, and groups that target gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and trans-gender people, as well as Jews, Muslims, and immigrants. 

But that sad lot is actually out-numbered by the 1,274 armed militias and conspiracy-minded organizations that consider the federal government their enemy. That so-called  "Patriot movement" has grown by 755 percent over the first three years of the Obama administration.

In fact, the report speculates that “For many extremists, President Obama is the new symbol of all that's wrong with the country - the Kenyan president, the secret Muslim who is causing our country's decline." Indeed, overheated political rhetoric adds fuel to the fire. 

The same might be said of our country's changing demography, the pressures of globalization, and the growing wealth gap. 

Looking on the bright side, it's a big country, and all these groups together probably wouldn't fill Giants Stadium. But though relatively small in number, they do cast a large, dark shadow.   

And I wonder if the same fear, anger, and ignorance that drives them isn't reflected in the more casual intolerance and partisanship that characterizes so much of life today.



Telephone Day

PHONE-300x234Happy telephone day.

On March 7, back in 1876, Alexander Graham Bell received a patent for the telephone. Lots sprung from that -- a monopoly, patent wars, industry-creating innovations, lots of anti-trust suits, fortunes won and lost, etc.

But Bell didn't really appreciate the full import of what he had achieved. He considered it an improvement on the telegraph. He never imagined his device would end up in everyone's home -- and eventually in their pockets or pocketbooks.

The people who came after him saw that his innovation's true utility lay not in the devices themselves, but in the network that connected them.

That network ultimately collapsed geography, making the world a little smaller and bringing us all a little closer together. We have seen its effects in everything from bridging the distance between friends and family to the collapse of dictatorships around the world.

But even the greatest innovations have unintended consequences.  Bell's invention enabled telemarketing, after all. But it seems to me that we are on the threshold of something even worse.

In some implementations, the Internet is not only collapsing distance, it is also folding geography in on itself, like a digital black hole from which nothing can escape. 

With the right filters, we can avoid thoughts or beliefs we don't like. The global village is fast becoming a series of tightly wound personal cocoons, tailored to their occupants’ idiosyncratic tastes and opinions and connected only to others of like mind and passion.

Back in the olden days – i.e., the early 90s – most Americans got their news from three big broadcast networks. It was a fairly predictable, consistent news diet.  For all its shortcomings, it fostered a collective intelligence and set the agenda for conversation around the dinner table and the water-cooler. 

But with the advent of talk radio, cable TV, and especially the Internet, that has all changed. In 1993, 60 percent of the American public watched network broadcast news on a regular basis; now, only about a third do.

News viewers have fled to cable, where the content has become strikingly partisanIf Americans once dined on a relatively thin diet of news, they are now gorging on their pet opinions and arguments. The side dish has become the main course in most American homes.

And few people are passive diners.  They’re sharing the feast with others of like-mind by forwarding, commenting, Tweeting, Facebooking, and otherwise sharing news with others. What we used to call the “news” is becoming a lubricant of young people’s social lives. But as in all things social, it is highly tailored to their personal tastes and opinions.

The Internet is a wonderful development in communications. You wouldn't be reading this if it weren't for the Internet. But it can be isolating.

Hopefully, you're not reading this blog just because it always reflects your own views. If that is the case, do yourself a favor and stumble over to the Drudge Report occasionally.

And instead of texting your friends, pick up a phone and call them. Synchronous conversation, that's the meaning of telephone day.


Air pollution

Rush_limbaugh_cigarWhat to do about all the lies, half-truths, factual errors, and misleading blather that issues from political bloviators like steam from a New York City sewer grate?

Political scientist Brendan Nyhan, who has made a study of this, despairs that is almost impossible to correct misinformation.

This is partly because we all filter information through the lens of our deep-seated beliefs. When presented with news that challenges what we believe, it's easier to doubt its accuracy than to change what we have long held true. 

Furthermore, once information is captured in our memory, it's very difficult to undo its emotional effect. And the more often we hear misinformation, its very familiarity makes it seem even more true.

So the more often a lie is corrected, the more it becomes familiar, and the more familiar it is, the more true it seems. As a result, corrections can have the perverse effect of reconfirming misinformation.

But Nyhan has come up with a last-stand strategy. He told PBS's Brooke Gladstone that he thinks the only real solution is "to shame the people who are promoting these things, who are putting them out there."

"At some point, people have to be cast out of polite society," Nyhan said. "You have to simply say, that is irresponsible and we're not going to give you our air time, our print to make that sort of a claim."

To Nyhan, it's kind of a free-market solution. "Politicians and talk radio hosts, they're going to push these things when it’s in their interest to do so," he said. "It’s a simple cost-benefit calculation. What I want to do is increase the cost." 

The cost of Rush Limbaugh's thoughtless and tasteless ranting increased last week when he slandered a Georgetown University law student who argued that all insurance plans should cover birth control.

He finally went so far over the line that advertisers were embarrassed to be associated with him. The CEO of Carbonite, for example, said, “We hope that our action, along with the other advertisers who have already withdrawn their ads, will ultimately contribute to a more civilized public discourse.” 

Let's be clear, this is not the same as trying to get someone fired because of who she is, as happened when the religious right protested JC Penney's hiring of Ellen DeGeneres. It's refusing to be associated with someone who consistently poisons the well in the center of the public square.

And let's be honest, for every Rush Limbaugh, there's a Michael Moore.



The Birther Index


Forget consumer confidence, housing starts, unemployment, and other measures of economic growth.

There's a new index in town.

It's the frequency of claims that President Obama was not born in the U.S.

And it's rising.

The S&P Birther Index was created by Harland Dorinson, an all-purpose expert created by comedian Andy Borowitz. His findings were first reported in the satirical Borowitz Report, but are destined to be picked up by scores of unsuspecting pundits because they make so much sense.

There's even a good chance the Birther Index will be challenged by the talking heads on Fox News at some point. Then it will really take off. It could even make it into the little crawl at the bottom of MSBNC's evening talk-fests. 

Indeed, the economy does seem to be getting better. And in recent weeks, Republicans have begun renewing their claims that President Barack Obama was not born in the United States.

As previously reported here, Republicans are about twice as likely as other voters to believe President Obama was not born in the U.S.

Coincidence? I think not. 

But, as Dorinson/Borowitz notes, “We won’t be fully in a recovery until the Republicans start calling him a Wiccan.”



Third wave PR

Waves 468Yesterday's post about the changing definition of public relations got me thinking about its practice. 

It seems to me that public relations has gone through three major waves over the years.

The first wave began in the 19th century when the telegraph enabled the first truly national media, allowing newspapers to cover news outside their circulation areas and expanding the market for national brands. This wave was all about promotion, getting attention for a product, a company, or an idea.

The people who rode that wave were expert in writing, theatrics, and other rhetorical tools. The earliest of them were ex-journalists, followed in later decades by film makers and television producers, and most recently, by experts in web and digital media. But whatever their medium, their goal was always the same – to kidnap and keep people’s attention. 

The second public relations wave overlapped the first, but it was more concerned with influencing people’s opinions than in simply getting attention. In part, this reflected the practice's greater maturity. But it also coincided with the government’s growing uneasiness with the size and power of some business enterprises.  The first companies to ride this new wave were the AT&T monopoly and the Standard Oil trust, followed by the likes of the banks and railroads, and eventually by any institution likely to attract notice simply by virtue of its size.

PR practitioners riding this wave used all the tools of the prior one, but added those of the political arena, including grass-roots organization, decision-maker-mapping, strategic philanthropy, social media, etc.

A third wave is just beginning to gather strength. It was always an undercurrent of the first two, but it has assumed even greater importance because of macro trends like the changing demography of developed countries driven by higher rates of immigration, the growth of new middle classes in emerging markets spurred by the globalization of economies, and the simultaneously liberating and isolating impact of new digital technologies.

Whereas PR’s first two phases focused primarily on advocacy, its third phase is principally concerned with ensuring an institution makes decisions in a sound context.

In philosophical terms, PR today is less about rhetoric and politics than about ethics. Less about explaining and winning permission for proposed actions than helping choose and shape the actions themselves, based on a clear understanding of the people they affect.

Those people – long dubbed “stakeholders” – have never been more powerful, never more diverse. Empowered by digital technologies, they have never demanded more transparency of the institutions that serve them. Nor have they ever lived and worked in an environment that is more fractious and divisive.

To most senior executives, many of these people are “other” -- so different from themselves, they appear unknowable. That's where the third generation of PR comes in.

PR people have always had to be smart.  Today, they have to be OtherWise, expert in the whys and ways of people unlike themselves.  

And, as it happens, I have a book they should read.


What is PR again?

PR-DefinedYou know you have an identity crisis when neither your mother nor your trade association can describe what you do with any specificity.

I retired as executive vice president of public relations for AT&T in 2003. For the 32 years I was there, my dear mother knew I worked for “the phone company” but she could never seem to grasp just what I did, beyond a vague sense that I wasn’t connecting calls or installing phones.

More recently, the Public Relations Society of America (of which I have never been a member) launched a contest to “modernize” the definition of public relations. I’m not sure modernization – much less definition – by popular vote is wise, but I thought they would have to do better than the New York Times’ media columnist, David Carr, who characterized PR as so much “slop.”

The consensus of the 1,447 people who voted was that “Public relations is a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics.”  That's a definition in search of a dictionary -- what is a "strategic communication process," and who are these "publics" (plural)? 

Still, it’s a marginal improvement over the previous definition that “Public relations helps an organization and its publics adapt mutually to each other.” Adapt mutually?

I personally prefer the definition my old boss, Marilyn Laurie, came up with when she first got the job as AT&T's head of PR: "The purpose of PR,” she told us, “is to bring the policies and practices of an institution into harmony with the needs and expectations of the public."

There's a faint resonance of her definition in the PRSA's obeisance to "mutuality." But I think her take on PR's purpose is more straightforward and puts the emphasis in the right place -- on affecting what an institution does, rather than on what it says.

Of course, since that is seldom what PR people do anymore, it probably isn't a realistic goal for the members of the PRSA.


Clothes make the person

Mmw-labcoat-022812Doctors have long known about the "white coat syndrome."

Healthy people produce higher than normal blood pressure readings when the person taking the measurement is wearing a white coat.

Now it seems wearing the coat works the other way too.

A recent series of experiments demonstrated that wearing a white lab coat identified as a "doctor's coat" improved people's performance on tasks requiring care and attention. Interestingly, the lab coat had little effect when it was identified as an "artist's coat."

The authors speculate that the "symbolic value" of the lab coat influenced the wearer's thinking and behavior. They have dubbed the phenomenon "enclothed cognition," undoubtedly kicking off a whole new field of study.

And perhaps raising a few questions in offices around the country about casual Fridays.