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Government control

Government-controlThe Pew Research Center issued a report today that may help explain why so many people are willing to believe "news" like that reviewed in yesterday's posting.  

For the first time, a majority (53%) of the public says that the federal government threatens their personal rights and freedoms. Only 43% disagrees.  A full analysis of the report is here.

Nearly three quarters (76%) of conservative Republicans feel that way. But so do more than a third (38%) of Democrats.

Not surprisingly, people who own guns are much more likely to believe the federal government is a threat to their personal freedom --  62% of gun owners feel that way versus 45% of people without guns. But that figure hasn't changed in three years.

So why the fear that the federal government's ultimate goal is to control people's lives?  

My theory is that attitude is the unintended consequence of the Reagan Revolution. It was Ronald Reagan who once said: “Runaway government threatens … the very preservation of freedom itself.” 

He was referring primarily to the size of government, as well as to its increasingly frequent intrusion into people's lives. And he hit a responsive chord. 

Freedom, after all, is one of the most basic American values. 

Many people resent being told they have to wear a helmet when they ride a motorcyle, that they can't fill in wetlands to expand their home, that they can't smoke at work or in restaurants, etc. They consider "nanny state" regulations like those an infringement of their freedom.

In fact, many people now believe government and freedom are mutually exclusive. And the giant deficits the government has run up in recent years have convinced them that government -- the enemy of freedom -- has become too big.

There's more than a little irony in this. Under President Reagan, government spending increased 2.5% annually. By the end of his term, the national debt had more than doubled. Still, people remember what Reagan said -- "Government is not the solution; it's the problem." -- more than what he did.

Joblessness, stagnant wages, rising wealth inequality, and a perception that the government works harder for some than for all have exaggerated the healthy skepticism with which Americans have traditionally viewed government.

At the extreme, those feelings lead to a willingness to believe the government was involved in everything from the 9/11 attacks to the Newtown tragedy.

Reality Check

Reality-checkIn case you missed it, you should know that President Obama is purging the military of any officers who will not fire on U.S. citizens when asked to do so.

This is in preparation for the coming effort to confiscate everyone's guns. Which is motivated by the fear that armed Americans will rise up when Obama completes his plan to impose Marxist socialism on America.

This "shocking information" is courtesy of Dr. Jim Garrow via a posting on his Facebook page and an interview with the Next News Network.

If this is news to you, you probably don't read media on the outer fringes of the far right. Like me, you may not even know such media exists. 

Sadly, it does. And it appears to be thriving. Dr. Garrow estimates that more than 375,000 people saw his interview on the Next News Network alone. 

He did a similar interview on the Alex Jones radio show. And stories have appeared everywhere from Patriotic Moms and the Reagan Coalition to the Sleuth Journal and the Tea Party web site.

In fact, a quick Google search for "Garrow, military, shoot Americans" spits out more than 500,000 results. Curiously, not one is a story in the mainstream media. CNN, NBC, Fox, New York Times, Washington Post -- you guys awake?

Maybe word hasn't reached the old media yet. After all, it first appeared only a week ago.

Even Snopes seemed to be caught flat-footed. Its relatively brief report focused only on the so-called "litmus test," questioned Garrow's credibility, and concluded the claim was "probably false." 

(When I reported this news to my nephew -- who had posted Garrow's claim on his own FaceBook page -- he replied, " 'probably false' means 'it could be true'.")

If you're shaking your head at this point, consider this: Dr. Garrow may have only an honorary degree from an unaccredited school of theology in North Carolina, most of his credentials may be phony, and he may even be a Canadian, but lots of people are inclined to believe him.

In fact, many are also worried that FEMA is building concentration camps around the country to house dissidents like themselves. They're worried the federal government plans to insert microchips under our skin so we're easier to track. And they're pretty sure the 9/11 attacks were staged by our own government to make the public more pliable. 

The man who interviewed Dr. Garrow -- Gary Franchi -- happily ascribes to and promulgates all these conspiracy theories.

Anyone who has tried to discuss these theories with a true believer knows how frustratingly pointless it can be. But I wonder, do we really understand what motivates them?

They often seem to live in an alternate reality. Well, maybe they do.

Maybe if we could figure out the contours of that reality, what shaped it, we could find common ground. 

It won't be easy. Those are bullet scars on the sign above.


Spinning_topPR people are often called "spin doctors."

I've always considered that a slur because it suggests PR is all misdirection and manipulation.

Good PR people don't engage in illusions. (And by "good" I don't mean "virtuous." I mean "effective.") Their goal is not to hide the truth, but to ensure that it sees the light of day.  

By "truth" I mean the information people need to make informed, rational decisions. That's not as easy as it sounds. Ask UN Ambassador Susan Rice.

I was never asked to lie during my PR career, but I often had to struggle to figure out what the truth was. Not because people were hiding it, but because it was seldom evident. Carl Berstein defined journalism as "the best available version of the truth." That's often true even for the people inside a company.

A brief article in the winter issue of the Conference Board Review does a good job of putting the issue in the right perspective, using a crisis communications as their example. (Disclosure: I've written several pieces for the magazine myself.)

Finding the truth in a crisis is especially difficult, even for the people closest to it. But some version of the truth begins spinning through the media even before all the facts are known. 

"Instead of emphasizing the positive and de-emphasizing the negative, recognize the value of transparency," the authors advise. "Rather than releasing self-selected information to the public, commit to openness when you have information that is ready to be released." And then, obviously, release it. All of it. As quickly as you can.

They call this "counter-spin." 

I think it applies whenever communicating on behalf of an institution, especially if its prominent or in the news.

Whatever such an institution says carries two meanings: the semantic and the pragmatic. The semantic meaning is the literal answer to the question, "what did they say?"

The pragmatic meaning answers the question, "why did they say it?" which is always colored by "who are they?"

The pragmatic meaning always trumps the semantic, giving whatever you say a spin all its own.

So counter-spin is the proper attitude if you really want to communicate the truth. Or at least the best available version.



Practical philosophy

AristotleAristotle drew the fuzziest of lines between ethics, rhetoric, and politics.

In fact, he put the three disciplines under an umbrella he called "practical philosophy."

Were he alive today, he would call it "public relations."

I was reminded of that by a piece in today's New York Times on David Plouffe's departure from the White House.

Plouffe held the position of "senior adviser" to  the president, a somewhat fuzzy title in itself. Based on interviews with Plouffe and presidential historian Michael Beschloss, the Times described the job as "equal parts counselor, confidant, strategist and truth-teller."

Plouffe had his own twist on it. “An important thing is to view decisions through the prism of ‘Is this true to who we are?’” he said. “And that’s kind of an instinctive thing, a judgment on ‘Is this consistent with what we campaigned on, and who he is?’” That's not a bad basis for making ethical judgments -- deciding the right thing to do.

For his part, Mr. Beschloss said the job shows how the modern presidency has become kind of a permanent campaign. “Presidents have come to recognize that they do not have to worry about politics and their message only in election years,” he told the Times

The same could be said about any institution. Consumers vote at the cash register for one company or another nearly every day. In a world where consumers have unprecedented knowledge about the companies they deal with, their votes depend more on what those companies do than what they say. Wasn't it Aristotle who said, "We are what we repeatedly do"?

And in all that doing, every institution needs someone who takes the long view, while others worry about the day-to-day activities that get summed up in a quarterly report. As Plouffe put it, “It’s hard to describe. The role is really to make sure you’re thinking about things strategically, you’re thinking about the next move or two or three, you’re providing some guidance on messaging.”

That sounds like the job of a senior public relations counselor to me. Equal parts ethics, rhetoric, and politics. The institution's practical philosopher.



What good's PR?


Dirty Laundry.001Most of what passes for Public Relations these days is either promotion or crisis management.

Occasionally, the two intersect, as in Lance Armstrong's recent forgiveness tour.

But in reality PR's ability to create a good reputation is quite limited. And it's capacity to restore one is even more dubious.

Reality always trumps perception, even though many people confuse the two.

That doesn't mean I think PR is irrelevant to reputation management. On the contrary, it's essential.

But good PR flows from what you do, rather than what you say. A good reputatiton is built in the doing, not in the saying. And the same goes for restoring a battered reputation.

I explored these ideas more fully in a recent piece for the Conference Board Review's web page, which you can read here.   

Nobody likes their dirty laundry exposed. But rinsing it in bleach after the fact is hardly a cure.

Tin Foil Hat Alert

Tin_foil_hatThere are times when you have to wear a tin foil hat to keep your brain from boiling. 

This was one of those weeks.

I spoke to a group of retired business executives about OtherWise. They were very attentive and asked great questions.

One or two challenged some of my assertions, not only proving they were listening, but also giving me something to think about.

One man clearly wasn't thrilled with the large number of non-English speaking immigrants in the country. He cited a number of questionable "facts" -- most immigrants are here illegally, they're all on welfare, they've caused an increase in crime, they're stealing jobs from citizens, etc. 

If you've read OtherWise, you know that I debunk most of these claims in the first two chapters. 


But then he claimed that President Obama had conspired with the president of Mexico to encourage more illegal immigration by promising they'd get "free food stamps." That's why the number of people on food stamps climbed so dramatically since he became president. You can't make this stuff up.

I had to admit I hadn't heard that. I promised to look into it.

When I got home, it took about 20 minutes to figure out the claim was based on a Fox News story healined "Obama administration held dozens of meetings on food stamps with Mexican officials."

It seems that the United States Department of Agriculure -- continuing a program begun in 2004 under the Bush Administration -- was meeting with Mexican consular officials in U.S. cities for advice on how to make Mexican immigrants aware of the food stamp program.

Since undocumented immigrants are not eligible for food stamps, there was never any question of promoting the program to them. And since Obama has deported more undocumented immigrants in 4 years than President Bush did in 8, it would have been a crazy strategy on its face.  

I emailed the information to the man who brought the conspiracy to my attention, knowing it would make absolutely no difference. He didn't disappoint.

To him, I had proved that Obama wanted Mexican immigrants to know that they might be eligible for food stamps. The fact that President Bush had the same goal cut no ice with him. It's still wrong. 

But I learned something.  His problem wasn't "illegal" immigrants. It was all immigrants. (And he isn't crazy about the food stamp program either.)

Some people fear their world is being changed by forces beyond their control. Because 80% of immigrants are now people of color, and a large number of them speak a language other than English, those changes seem even more sinister.

Telling them assimilation is a complex, two-way generational process does nothing to allay their fear. And tying that fear to a program they believe coddles freeloaders just makes them angry.

There are a lot of people who feel exactly that way. Some of them are in Congress. Real immigration reform means finding a way to address their fears and anger. 

Which will take more than a tin foil hat.


Round Two

Inauguration-340x182President Obama will be officially inaugurated today.

He's probably more aware than anyone that his first term fell short of his supporters' expectations and played into his opponents' most sinister narrative.

Somehow the widely acclaimed "post-partisan president" allowed himself to be portrayed as our nation's most divisive.

In Secrets of the Marketing Masters, I had predicted something quite different.

I suggested that Obama's use of social media was more than a campaign tactic. It was part and parcel of his style of governing.

His style of problem solving is to involve people at every level, not only because he’s open to new ideas (which he is), but also because he knows the solution to the thorniest problems will require broad consensus and participation.  

The Obama transition team seemed to confirm my belief when it launched the web site to encourage online discussions about issues such as the economy and healthcare.

Alas, the web site was shut down when Obama moved into the Oval Office. The grassroots movement that got him elected was redirected to the standard web site. 

Well, it appears that the Obama team realizes they missed the boat. Or rather ran it aground.

The people responsible for the 2012 campain have launched OrganizingForAction, a web site specifically designed to support the president's legislative agenda. 

Team Obama drew the right conclusion from his first term. The president won't get anywhere with his legislative agenda unless he has popular support behind him. Members of Congress aren't swayed by invitations to a White House barbecue or a round of golf with the president. But they do listen to what the people at home are saying, emailing, and tweeting. 

The president has decided to get more people in his corner for Round Two. It's the right move.




Department of irony

No gunsIrony lives.

I headlined my last post "Shoot." It seemed an appropriate way to introduce Gun Appreciation Day.

Now I  fire up my laptop and discover that some people took the headline literally.

According the numerous reports, five people were injured in accidental shootings at gun shows in North Carolina,  Indiana and Ohio.

Reportedly, one of the shows was shut down afterwards; another decided to ban personal firearms.

Now that's irony -- a gun show that bans loaded guns. Haven't they heard of the Second Amendment?


GunappreciationdayShoot an AK-47 into the sky.

January 19 is Gun Appreciation Day.

A new coalition of gun rights and conservative groups is urging Americans nationwide to show their support for gun ownership on that day by turning out en masse at gun stores, ranges, and shows from coast to coast. 

The plan is to send a message to Washington two days before Obama's second inauguration. The hope is to rival "Chick-fil-A Day" as a public statement of protest against government policies. 

So let's celebrate what guns have given us.

On the plus side:

  • According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 13.7 million people went hunting in the U.S. in 2011. (By contrast, the NRA has 4.25 million members.) 
  • Even though there are 93 guns for every 100 people in the U.S., there are fewer than 1,000 accidental firearm deaths a year. Statistically, that's good news.
  • Although reliable statistics are hard to come by, a 1997 survey by the Census Bureau indicates that victims use guns against offenders approximately 65,000 times per year. (A survey cited by the NRA suggests guns may be used as a deterrent as much as 2.5 million times a year, but the methodology is suspicious and the results don't conform to crime statistics.)
On the less-than-a-plus side:
  • Guns kept in the home for self-protection are three times more likely to kill a family member, friend or acquaintance than to kill an intruder, according to a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine.
  • Guns were used in 67% of the 12,664 homicides committed in the U.S. in 2011. (Poison barely made the list.)
  • There were seven mass shootings in the U.S. in 2012 alone, with 138 victims. Since 1982, there have been at least 62 mass shootings in 30 states from Massachusetts to Hawaii. 
  • Of the 142 guns possessed by the killers, more than three quarters were obtained legally. Nearly two-thirds of the weapons used were semi-automatic handguns or assault rifles.
  • Many of the killers displayed symptoms of mental illness before undertaking their rampage. More than half committed suicide at or near the scene, including some who died in police shootouts they had little hope of surviving, regarded by some experts as "suicide by cop."

These statistics, and others like it, suggest that the best way to celebrate Gun Appreciation Day is to urge your member of Congress to:

  • Pass a law requiring universal background checks on all firearms purchases,
  • Ban the sale of automatic weapons, high-capacity ammunition clips and armor piercing bullets that have no legitimate sporting use, and
  • Sharply increase funding for affordable and accessible mental health clinics, as well as for studies on the causes of gun violence. 

 Here's where to get the email address.



How to apologize

Sorry-3Everyone screws up from time to time.

What separates the miscreants from the misguided  is what happens afterwards.

An apology requires more than puppy dog eyes brimming with tears.

A sincere apology has three components: admission, contrition, and action.

And for anyone to chalk up a mistake to human fallibility, the apology has to sound like it's coming from a human being, rather than a faceless legal entity. 

Here's how The Atlantic handled criticism that it published content sponsored by the Church of Scientology.

"We screwed up. It shouldn't have taken a wave of constructive criticism — but it has — to alert us that we've made a mistake, possibly several mistakes. We now realize that as we explored new forms of digital advertising, we failed to update the policies that must govern the decisions we make along the way.  It's safe to say that we are thinking a lot more about these policies after running this ad than we did beforehand. In the meantime, we have decided to withdraw the ad until we figure all of this out.  We remain committed to and enthusiastic about innovation in digital advertising, but acknowledge—sheepishly—that we got ahead of ourselves.  We are sorry, and we're working very hard to put things right."

Trust has two components -- sincerity and competence. People not only have to believe you're capable of keeping a promise, they have to believe you intend to.

They will forgive rare incompetence if they believe you're sincere. The Atlantic won the benefit of the doubt thanks to a response that reads like it came from an honest human being.



Proud to be humble

David Brooks started teaching a class on humility at Yale today.

Brooks_AFAccording to the Yale course catalog, the class will examine the "premise that human beings are blessed with many talents but are also burdened by sinfulness, ignorance, and weakness."

In an interview with New York magazine, he admitted that he chose the course title to "provoke smart-ass jabs."  If so, he chose wisely. 

Rolling Stone magazine, for one, accused the "notorious diploma-sniffing aristocrat-apologist douchebag" of committing "one of the most pretentious moments ever."

The web editor of the Washington Monthly opined that the course was "particularly questionable, given that Brooks is known in some circles for his arrogance (to say nothing of, well, Yale itself)". 

Even USA Today joined the melee, with a thoughtful exegisis that traced Brooks' thinking on the subject through his past columns and speeches. Having to choose between "those who see human nature as fundamentally good and those who see humanity as inherently fallible," the newspaper observes, "Brooks places himself on the side of the pessimists." 

That sounds right to me. But even though I disagree with Brooks on that dichotomy, he's still my favorite conservative.

And whichever side you land on, the syllabus for his course could guide a year or more of thought-provoking reading. If you're humble enough.



The perils of exaggeration

ExaggerationI've posted before on the difficulty of correcting false information.

People's attitudes always outlive the "facts" they're supposedly based on.

Now there's new research that shows the danger of false positive information.

It seems that positive information generates a “punishment effect” when it's discredited. People overestimate how much correction is needed.

As a result people end up with a more negative opinion than they otherwise would have.

(By contrast, people underestimate how much correction is needed to adjust for false negative information, leading to belief perseverance.)

The research suggests that bogus credit-claiming or other positive misinformation can have severe repercussions when it's discredited (as it almost always is).

So watch those claims, all you anglers. Not to mention corporate advertising and PR people.


People as props

Middleclass_backdrop_ap_328Most people who read these posts know I'm a strong supporter of President Obama.

But even he occasionally does something that makes me wonder what he's thinking.

The latest example is the backdrop of "typical middle Americans" his staff rolled out for Monday's speech on the fiscal cliff legislation then working its tortuous way through Congress.

It's a background he's used repeatedly through the recent presidential campaign. A lineup of awkwardly posed "average Americans" has become a fixture of Obama speeches as common as the presidential seal.

It might have worked the first few dozen times, but now it's a tired, cringe-worthy cliche. Turning people into stage props is not only un-presidential, it borders on the cynical.

As it turns out, the people/props behind Obama on this occasion were all campaign volunteers selected for their mix of genders, ages, and ethnicities. (No word on whether the White House asked to see their W-2s to ensure that they were really middle class.)

My daughter agrees, but suggests the line of people willing to be used in just this way would probably wrap around the National Mall and to Baltimore and back.

Maybe so. After all, they did get a chance to have their photo taken with the president afterwards.

But I was just embarrassed by the whole thing. I suspect many others were too.

Sadly, there once was a time when President Obama would have felt the same way.








New Years Resulutions

2013Russ Douthat is a conservative columnist for the New York Times.

I try to read his stuff regularly to broaden my perspective.

His latest column makes somes suggestions that constitute an excellent set of New Year resolutions for anyone who would like to be more OtherWise.

Here's the gist in three easy steps:

  1. Read a magazine or blog whose politics you don’t share. If you're a regular subscriber to the National Review, make a point of reading The New Republic or The Nation occasionally.  And vice versa. Make an effort to identify publications on the opposite side of your normal perspective.
  2. Expand your reading geographically as well as ideologically. Don't limit yourself to The Economist and the Financial Times.  Try the London Review of Books and The Spectator as well. 
  3. Finally, seek out idiosyncratic voices, that don't try to run down the middle of the road and can't be easily categorized as left or right. Douthat suggests the libertarians at Reason magazine, the social conservatives at First Things and Public Discourse, the eclectic dissidents who staff The American Conservativeand even the neo-Marxist reaches of the Internet, where publications like Jacobin and The New Inquiry ply their trade.

My New Year's resolution is to dip into these publications more often and to bring some of their better insights to your attention.

Happy New Year.