Previous month:
November 2015
Next month:
January 2016

Living in a divisive world

Divided_society-620x330A friend asks what we can do about the partisan, obstinate, and frequently snarky state of public discussion, especially when the topic touches on politics or so-called "cultural values."

Her concern is heightened by research showing it's nearly impossible to correct even obviously erroneous information when it confirms people's pre-existing beliefs.

I wish I had a simple answer. But I did suggest a few concrete steps we can all take in OtherWise: The Wisdom You Need to Succeed in a Diverse and Divisive World.

Here are five things we can each do:

  1. The first step  is to better understand oneself -- all the unconscious biases and prejudices that we carry around, the psychological mechanisms that cloud our judgment and decision-making, and the stone-age legacy that shapes our social life. Not to mention the stereotypes through which we evaluate people rather than considering them as individuals. And our unconscious fears, anger, and resentments.  If all this sounds like something to which you're immune, consider taking the implicit bias test at
  2. The second step is to better understand the people around us who have a different culture, racial background, sexual orientation, political allegiance, religious belief, or who we consider "different" in some other way.  Ironically, the trick at this stage isn't learning more about their differences, but about all the ways they are just like us. What we have in common. The best way to discover that is to engage with them. For example, we could take someone of a different political bent to lunch or for a drink. Get to know them and the lens through which they see the world. 

  3. And if a "touchy subject" comes up, we shouldn't ask for the check or reach for a clever put down. We should honestly probe for greater understanding. And in that process, look for common ground -- something on which we can both agree.  This will be easier if we've already taken steps to broaden our worldview.  For one thing, we should refuse to live in an echo chamber, where everything we read, hear, or see confirms our point of view. We should regularly seek out opposing views to better understand them. We can also increase our cultural and religious literacy by reading foreign literature and by making a point of meeting local people when we travel.

  4. But intellectual learning is not enough; we also need emotional learning. If nature made us hostile towards strangers, it also gave us a powerful emotion to keep our tribe together -- empathy. Empathy comes naturally in dealing with family and close friends. We need to learn to draw that circle of empathy larger by trying to see the world through the eyes of others unlike ourselves. To be OtherWise is to see ourselves as others see us and to see ourselves in the Other. 

  5. The final step should be easiest, but requires the most discipline. We should refuse to go along with "otherizing" people who are different. We should object when someone tells a sexist or racist joke, not out of political correctness, but because it perpetuates a culture of "us" and "them." It's literally de-meaning because it robs people of their individuality.  That doesn't mean papering over disagreements.  It means being able to disagree with people without demonizing them. We should make questioning people's motives, intelligence, or patriotism as inappropriate as picking our nose in public. Not only should we avoid doing it ourselves, but we should call each other on it. 

These five steps may not make the world more harmonious, but they will make it less likely we become part of the problem. Wouldn't that be a good New Year resolution?

Exploiting anger, fear, and hate

Anger_by_michaelogicalm-d95ew0gBack in the 1950s, Vance Packard accused the advertising and public relations industries of "the systematic creation of dissatisfaction," making women anxious about their appearance and exploiting men's sexual urges to sell everything from home freezers to automobiles.

Packard also expected political candidates to sell themselves the same way. They would use warm and fuzzy "imagery" to evoke deeply held values like family and patriotism. 

That didn't sit well with everyone. “The idea that you can merchandise candidates for high office like breakfast cereal ... is the ultimate indignity to the democratic process,” Adlai Stevenson complained on his way to losing the election. 

He didn't know how good we had it. That was when candidates were sold in a barrage of 30-second TV ads. These days, earned and shared media is where all the action is. And candidates are tapping into the darker emotions that drive sharing. 

As reported in today's New York Times, two professors at the Wharton School found news stories more likely to be shared if they elicited strong emotions. A psychology professor at the University of Hawaii found hate, fear, and anger relatively easy to evoke because they come directly from the unconscious. 

Enter Donald Trump and Ted Cruz. And to some extent, Bernie Sanders.

One has exploited the fear and anger some people harbor towards Mexicans and Muslims. The other, towards liberals on "cultural issues" like abortion and gay marriage. And the third, towards the wealthiest 1%.  

Whether that fear and anger is justified is irrelevant. Whether it's based on lies and exaggerations doesn't matter. Fear and anger are even immune to factual counter-argument. In fact, attack seem to solidify their hold on people.

Vance Packard predicted a soulless consumer society, but he missed how much our communications media would tear us apart from each other.



Still more housecleaning (auto division)

Car-being-repairedLast July, I took General Motors to task for its slow response to ignition problems that led to hundreds of deaths and injuries. I quoted a front page story in the New York Times that revealed the company knew more about the problem than it had been admitting.

In a book I co-wrote with Don Wright, Public Relations Ethics: How To Practice PR Without Losing Your Soul, I quoted another New York Times story that accused the company of not notifying customers it knew were eligible for compensation even though the application deadline was looming.

Those stories appear to have been accurate. GM extended the application deadline a week after the Times' story appeared. And while it is still unclear what GM's top executives knew about the ignition problem -- and when -- the company has responded aggressively.

It hired Kenneth Feinberg -- a lawyer who has developed a unique specialty in victim compensation.

In GM's case, he appears to have had an unusual amount of discretion. GM left all decisions on eligibility and awards to Mr. Feinberg. It didn't try to use the bankruptcy law to shield itself from compensating victims. And it put no upper limit on what it would pay.

Under Feinberg's direction, GM sent notices of the compensation program to 5 million current and former owners of vehicles with the faulty ignitions. Mr. Feinberg reviewed 4,343 claims, determined 399 were eligible for compensation, and awarded $594,535,752 in compensation. Over 90% of the awards were accepted by the claimants.

My opinion: GM's initial response reflected the turmoil of a company under siege, but in the end, it did the right thing. Feinberg's final report is here.



More housecleaning

Stable cleaningLast summer, I tried to figure out why Donald Trump was doing so well in the GOP primary polls. I suggested it was because nearly three quarters of voters were disenchanted with politicians. According to a 2012 Pew study, voters were saying, “it’s time for Washington politicians to step aside and make room for new leaders ... even if they're less effective than experienced politicians." 

Trump specializes in language and opinions that could have come out of the mouth of the guy on the next barstool. He says he doesn't have time for "political correctness." His followers don't think he needs to apologize for that. In fact, his most outrageous pronouncements reflect what they're already thinking in the darkest recesses of their minds.

Ted Cruz, who is running a close second in some polls, is cut from the same cloth, though with more of an evangelical weave. His supporters may go to church more often than Trump's, but they harbor the same resentments about the direction the country is taking -- an assault on marriage, preferences for minorities, children born out of wedlock, prayer banned from schools, threats to confiscate guns, etc.

Last summer, I was sure Trump would be a passing fancy and Cruz would be a niche candidate. I was wrong. Their combined poll numbers now constitute nearly two-thirds of likely voters in the Republican primary.

At this point, it's beginning to look like the general election will be a cage fight between establishment and non-establishment candidates. 

While I may have been wrong about Trump and Cruz's staying power and appeal, I think it proves my larger point -- the dangers of wrecking a category.

Political polarization led to the kind of brinksmanship and obstructionism that so disgusted voters in both parties they declared a pox on all their houses. As a result, Republicans may actually nominate someone who has not been part of the establishment, and many Democrats may opt out of the general election entirely.

This, I submit, is the product of short-term public relations and political strategies focused on the next election rather than the long-term health of the nation.




Housekeeping Department


Time for housekeeping. Between now and the start of the new year, I'll be following up on prior postings.

A few weeks ago, I posted about a firm that purported to practice "dark PR," generating negative stories about competitors, opponents, and anyone else who has crossed you or constituted an enemy. I was appalled, and so were many readers.

Now I've heard from the owner of that outfit. It turns out his firm specializes in Search Engine Optimization and the page to which I linked was simply a means of demonstrating his ability to manipulate Google results or, as he acronymically put it, "optimize search results."

"Please google 'negative public relations' or even 'negative pr,'  we are at the top, before wikipedia," he wrote. "The irony is that we are now, an 'authority' in negative campaigning." The irony, apparently, is that his firm doesn't actually do negative PR, it just claims to -- all in the interest of tricking Google. 

It seems his firm does help clients "clean up" negative information about themselves, but most of its work is optimizing search results. The promotional page he created simply took advantage of a quirk in Google's algorithm.  "Google loves negative information," he claims. "They rank it on top, because they make more money from negative search results, than positive."

All this was a relief on two levels. First, apparently his firm is not a gun for hire, spreading negative information across the web. And even better, I don't have to worry about being its latest victim.


Is the EPA Guilty of Propaganda?

EPAThe U.S. Congress attached strings to its annual appropriation to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Namely, the agency was prohibited from engaging in "propaganda" and "grassroots lobbying in support or opposition to proposed legislation."

Suspecting the EPA violated that rule, the Republican chair of the Senate Committee on Environmental and Public Works asked the Government Accountability Office (GAO)  to investigate.

The GAO  report, issued on December 14, declared the EPA had violated both rules. Make of that what you will. What we find interesting is the logic the agency used in reaching that conclusion.  

First, the GAO defines propaganda as disguising the source of communication either by omission or mis-direction. So far, so good.

The EPA allegedly engaged in propagandizing when it used a crowd-sourcing web site, Thunderclap, to post a message on the social media "pages" or "timelines" of self-selected supporters who have an estimated 1.8 million followers.

The message -- "Clean water is important to me. I support EPA's efforts to protect it for my health, my family, and my community." -- included  a hyperlink to the EPA web site. But the GAO declared the message "covert propaganda" because the EPA's role in originating the message was not made clearer to the ultimate recipients.  

In addition, the GAO found that hyperlinks within other EPA social media campaigns constituted "lobbying" because they led to third-party sites such as the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Surfrider Foundation which, in turn, included hyperlinks to contact members of Congress in opposition to pending legislation that would overturn the EPA's rules on clean water.

The GAO found that by including those external links on its own web pages, the EPA was "clearly associating itself" with efforts to lobby Congress in violation of the law.

Hiding the source of information is clearly unethical. And while we don't believe it's unethical to encourage the public to call on legislators to vote one way or another, it's clearly a violation of the law, which in itself is wrong.

The real question is whether the EPA's use of social media was a cynical attempt to circumvent the law and hide behind intermediaries. In my opinion, that's a stretch. And I see no concrete evidence to support that position in the GAO's report. 

Social media, by its very nature, harnesses the power of networks and is ever-changing. If an agency were held responsible for the incidental content of web sites it links to, much less second and third-hand Facebook or Twitter postings over which it has no control, it would have to avoid social media altogether. 

What does seem unethical is to limit any agency's ability to communicate with the public within its areas of competency and authority.  By the same logic, members of Congress shouldn't be allowed to use public funds to explain their positions on legislative matters through social media. 

As a matter of ethics and law, the government's bias should be towards full and open communications through all available media.







The editor of the British satirical magazine Private Eye on prime minister David Cameron: "He’s very accomplished, very smooth, very confident, not overly diligent,” an intelligent coaster, “clever enough, but you don’t ever feel he’s read any of the detail on anything, none of the footnotes. Which is why he started in public relations, which is not an accident.”

Break the Islamic State's Brand

CalmSince 1941, the Ad Council has mustered creative talent and donated media to tackle problems from fire safety to drug addiction. As far as I know, the public relations industry has no equivalent organization. But the need is great and at the top of the list: terrorism.

I know when you're a hammer, everything looks like a nail. I also realize many people consider public relations frivolous at best and evil at worst.

But does anyone doubt the Islamic State is winning the public relations war?

I don't mean it has convinced the majority of the world's population the west is bent on destroying Islam. I don't think it has even convinced a significant number of Muslims of that.  But it has created a toxic environment that, in itself, threatens the values of modern society.

It is forcing a false choice between liberty and security. It has reframed every debate that matters, from the U.S. presidential elections to immigration policy. It has thrown fuel on long-standing controversies like the meaning of the second amendment and the legitimate limits of personal privacy. And it is using the techniques of modern communications to further its cause.

The F.B.I. warns that the Islamic State is “crowdsourcing” terrorism by using social media to leapfrog our defenses with a poisonous narrative that Islam is under attack by the west. And as we have seen, its message is strong enough to mobilize a small number of gullible and disaffected to take up arms and counter-attack. 

The very randomness of those attacks magnifies their terror and makes Islamic State look more attractive and successful to the disaffected. Terror becomes both a weapon and a recruiting tool.

And because the media correctly tie terror in the homeland to the larger conflict overseas, it seems more pervasive than it is. For example, since the Sept. 11 attacks about the same number of people have been killed by Islamic terrorists on U.S. soil as by  right-wing extremists -- 45 and 48 respectively. 

All of this sounds like a public relations problem to me. And I don't mean it's simply a perception problem that can be messaged away. But our response has to be more than dropping more bombs, deploying more troops, tightening border controls, and increasing surveillance of targeted groups. Political and social changes in the countries where the Islamic State has built havens are also part of the solution. And so is a smart, global public relations campaign.

The Obama administration has begun outlining some of its essential elements.  Head of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson wants to build stronger ties to the U. S. Muslim community, which is uniquely positioned to counter the Islamic State's extremist propaganda and to de-legitimize its claims to statehood by exposing its barbaric treatment of fellow Muslims.

Lisa Monaco, the president’s counterterrorism adviser, wants the private sector's help. “Frankly, we’ve got to do a better job of approaching this in a way that allows us to break the brand of ISIL’s message,” she says.

The public relations industry should take a cue from the Ad Council by putting its best minds on the case, validating or redrafting current assumptions and pulling together a long-term strategy for dealing with global terrorism.