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December 2015
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Lab Lessons

LabPolitical campaigns have long been R&D labs for corporate public relations people.

Tactics that seemed to work on the campaign trail swiftly made their way into day-to-day PR practice. 

Teddy Roosevelt invented the practice of issuing bad news on a Friday afternoon, Dick Nixon gave master classes in opposition research,  Jack Kennedy turned news conferences into televised pseudo-events, Bill Clinton taught the value of rapid response, George W. Bush (under the tutelage of Karl Rove) harnessed the power of micro-targeting, and Barack Obama rode to the White House largely on the power of social media.

But as important as these developments were, they are tactics not strategies.  

For strategic discoveries, PR people should pay close attention to what's happening in the GOP primary contest.

Donald Trump's once unlikely position at the top of the polls is due to a single factor -- affinity. Trump says out loud (sometimes very loud) what many voters have been quietly thinking, even when it's unpopular (or as he puts it "politically incorrect"). He loudly shares voters' cares. 

As a result, his supporters really like him -- maybe not enough to let it slide if he shot someone on 5th Avenue, as he recently suggested -- but enough to stick by him through all the derision and disbelief thrown his way by professional pundits and the party establishment. 

This was all knowable.  In the 2012 election, exit polls showed Mitt Romney winning on policy issues, from leadership skills to values. But he lost the election because Obama trumped him 81 percent to 18 percent on the crucial issue of “cares about people like me.”

The pundits and professional politicians may have forgotten that lesson, but the voters haven't. In the early days of the primary season, back in June 2015, one poll showed three quarters of both Republicans (77%) and Democrats (75%) said it was "highly important" that a candidate "cares about people like me."  Eight out of 10 (83%) Trump supporters considered it even more important.

Turns out they were right, evn though they were a lonely bunch back then -- representing only 9% of voters.  Bush, Carson, and Rubio beat Trump in that same poll, with 16%, 14%, and 11% support respectively. In fact, more Republicans (40%) thought unfavorably about Trump than any other Republican candidate. Even Socialist Democrat Bernie Sanders did better; only 38% of Republicans were unfavorable towards him.

But Trump -- a bona fide member of the 1% -- channeled the fears, resentments, and anger of the least well-off 80%. And in language the guy on the next barstool might use.

As a result, the 9% who supported Trump back in June of last year have quadrupled to 36% nationally. 

An important social development is behind those numbers. While we used to speak of "trust gaps" in generational terms, it is now the product of other socioeconomic factors. The better-educated, higher-income "elite" have higher levels of trust than ever before. Most of the rest of us aren't inclined to trust anybody.

"In more than 60 percent of countries surveyed for the Edelman Trust Barometer, the trust levels of the mass population are below 50 percent," Richard Edelman reports. "By contrast, trust levels of the elite population are at the highest levels, with double-digit jumps in the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Italy and Mexico."  

There is a huge gap between how elite and mass publics feel about all institutions, particularly businesses. 

"Inequality of trust has important consequences," Edelman writes. "The most obvious is growing receptivity to politicians who prey on fear instead of offering solutions. Examples include assertions that refugees are a major security threat and that unemployment can be addressed by stopping foreign trade. Trust inequality seems to be a major pillar in the campaigns of Donald Trump in the U.S. and Marine Le Pen in France."

All of which reflects three strategic lessons:

  1. Affinity matters. Trump is leading because a large segment of Republican voters identify with him and his message. Even though he isn't the typical back-slapping pol, voters like him -- sometimes for the very things that make him so unlikable to others. 

  2. Meaning matters. "Making America Great Again" isn't much of a slogan. But it perfectly captures the public mood. Combined with Trump's high affinity and assumed competency (based on what the general public knows of his claimed business success), it's enough to engender an unusually high level of trust.  

  3. Public trust matters. What's happening in the GOP primary is also happening to a lesser extent on the Democratic side between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. But more worrisome, it's happening across the economy. The stagnation in middle class wages, along with well-publicized corporate scandals and greed, are creating a toxic environment for business. 

Donald Trump's candidacy could implode any day. But until it does, public relations practitioners should learn from its example. These are lessons we can't afford to leave in the lab.


Elements of Trust

Murray at davosFortune magazine editor Alan Murray hosted a couple of dozen CEOs at dinner last Friday. They were all at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, and apparently in a philosophical mood because the topic for discussion was "what big business can do to rebuild its trust with a global public that has clearly grown skeptical."

The topic is not too surprising: it's one of Murray's favorite questions. But the first suggestion to come from the discussion is promising.

As Murray reported it, his dinner companions quickly agreed on the importance of "putting purpose as well as profit at the center of a company's strategy."

That's promising on two scores. First, purpose is by definition long-term, and if this means CEOs want to take a longer view than next quarter's financial results, we'll all be better off. 

But even more importantly, it signals CEOs understand that "purpose," defined as what companies and brands actually mean to their stakeholders, is an essential element of trust.

But purpose or meaning is only one leg of the stool. The other two are competence and affinity.  And all three are defined, not by companies, but by their publics.


Trust starts as a judgment of someone’s competence to accomplish a specific task. Trust is context specific. I would trust my cardiologist to administer my electrocardiogram and to recommend changes to my lifestyle as a result.  But I’m not sure I’d trust him to fix my car.

Competence is largely a rational judgment, but it has an emotional undertone. It not only refers to people’s judgment of someone's capacity to accomplish a task, but also of the sincerity of their willingness to do so.  I know my doctor is competent – it says so right on his Board Certification. But my trust in him is also based on the judgment that he sincerely wants to keep me healthy. 

And that’s where trust leaves the realm of the purely rational. 


Affinity is more than familiarity, it’s likability. It is sharing something with a brand at a deep psychological level. In some cases, it’s a feeling of security; in others, the bond of common values; in still others, a strong sense of identification.

Some brands have been around so long they have a strong emotional connection with consumers right out of the chute. How people feel about Coca-Cola, for example, can actually be seen in a functional magnetic resonance machine. Newer brands have to work hard to make those emotional connections. For example, everything from Red Bull's labeling and packaging to its advertising and sponsorships associate it with young people's unconscious appetite for rebellious fun.  

Affinity, like competence, is context-specific. And the context of both depends on a brand's meaning.


Meaning is purpose, but purpose as others see it, not as a brand defines it. What role do people think a brand plays in their lives? This may be the most consequential question a brand can address. Harvard Business School professor Ted Levitt famously said, “People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill. They want to buy a quarter-inch hole.”  

A former student and disciple, Clayton Christensen expanded this insight into a jobs-to-be-done framework. He suggested the traditional ways of segmenting markets by demographics, geography, psycho-analytics, etc. misses the point. People don’t base their purchase decisions on factors like those. On the contrary, they hire products to do a job they want to accomplish.

That job can be functional, like a quarter-inch hole. Or it might be emotional, social, or even aspirational such as appearing to others as a professional wood worker. That's the brand's real purpose, its meaning.

Public relations and marketing are all about creating meaning. Finding a product’s most meaningful purpose is an essential step. Procter & Gamble, for example, found a way to give everything from Pampers diapers to Pringle’s potato chips salient meaning. Pampers are not just a container for solid and fluid waste. They’re an article of clothing that plays an important role in baby’s development, from her first days in the hospital nursery to her last day of toilet training. And Pringle’s might be of dubious potato lineage, but customers have no question it’s slice after slice of unexpected joy.

Trust elements

Meaning, competency, and affinity are the elements of trust. But they only work when they are in alignment. And that alignment begins with definition of higher purpose, as portrayed in the drawing above.

For a fuller description of the Elements of Trust, see a paper I wrote for the Journal of Business StrategyTowards A Model Of Trust.  




What CEOs are thinking

From Fortune magazine's editor Alan Murray in his daily newsletter:  "On Friday evening, FORTUNE assembled nearly 30 corporate leaders for a discussion that focused on what big business can do to rebuild its trust with a global public that has clearly grown skeptical. ... The single table conversation covered the need to put purpose as well as profit at the center of a company's strategy, the importance of transparency in an age of social media, the value of engaged employees in spreading a company's story, and the need to build customer trust one person at a time."

New Koch, Old Questions

New KochJane Meyer's New Yorker piece on the Koch Brothers "rebranding" strategy does a nice job of describing what public relations can do while raising legitimate questions about whether it should be done.    

On the tactical side, she puts her finger on the two factors that weigh most heavily on the Koch Brother's reputation: affinity and meaning. (Competence, the third leg of trust, is more-or-less a given when you're a billionaire.)

Affinity is not only likability, but also a sense that someone cares about you, that they identify with your cares.

As American Enterprise Institute president Arthur Brooks explained, only a third of Americans believe Republicans care about people like them and fewer than half think Republicans care about the poor. 

Meaning is what people think you stand for, and Brooks diagnosed the brothers' weakness there as well.  The Democrats are “the fairness guys,” he said.“They’re the ‘helping-the-poor guys.’ Who are we? We’re the ‘money guys’!”

So the Koch Brothers have been on a tear to make themselves more likeable and broaden what they stand for. For starters, they hired former Burson-Marsteller executive Steve Lombardo as Koch Industries' chief communications officer.

Meyer apparently didn't speak to Lombardo, but she quotes extensively from a piece he wrote for O'Dwyer's newsletter in which he said the key to building a positive brand is to "to reach the public’s subconscious mind,” and the most effective “pathway” to the subconscious is “storytelling,” in part because it taps into emotions. 

I can't argue with Brooks or Lombardo. I've said many of the same things in this blog.

But Meyer's article does raise a couple of ethical questions.

When does "tapping into people's subconscious" constitute emotional manipulation?

And assuming your "storytelling" is truthful in every sense of the word, what if its intent is misdirection, that is, to distract from a larger truth?

As to the first question, it seems to me that appealing to people's emotions is ethically legitimate as long as you don't overwhelm people's capacity to reason. Some political candidates have crossed that line in appealing to people's fear of such groups as immigrants and Muslims. I've seen no sign Koch Industries' re-branding campaign has been guilty of anything like that.

The second question is more problematic. Meyer says some Koch strategists want to reframe their free-market ideology as "a movement for well-being," all while admitting that their real goal is to eliminate regulation to raise profits. To me, that's where reframing becomes Orwellian spinning. On the other hand, she concedes that the brothers' efforts on behalf of criminal justice reform predate the rebranding effort.

So call me undecided on the ethics of working for the Koch Brothers.

As Harold Burson once told me, "I believe that every institution, every person is entitled to have public relations representation,” but “I do not believe that I am compelled in any way or manner to be the one who provides that representation.”

In the end, the ethics of any engagement depends on a client’s goals, as well as the way practitioners try to achieve them. If a client’s purpose is unethical, nothing a practitioner does can compensate. 




The Angry American


Esquire and NBC News teamed up to take the American public's temperature. As the magazine put it, "We the people are pissed. The body politic is burning up."

The whole thing is worth reading. But here are some highlights:

  • Half of all Americans are angrier today than they were a year ago.
  • White Americans are angrier than any other group.
  • 73% of whites say the news makes them angry at least once a day, compared with 66% of Hispanics and 56% of blacks .
  • The level of women's anger has increased more than men's.
  • Black Americans are more optimistic than whites.
  • Whites are more likely than blacks to say their financial situation today isn't what they thought it would be when they were younger.
  • Republicans are most angry about the dysfunctional Congress (84%).
  • Democrats are most angry about policemen killing unarmed black man (80%).

I think these results help explain the poll results in the Republican primary, as well as Bernie Sanders' unexpected showing on the Democratic side.

Additionally, some of the survey results concerning the economy have major implications for businesses of all sizes:

  • Only about a third (35%) say they make enough to save and buy some extras.
  • About one out of five (18%) say they don't make enough to pay all their bills.
  • 74% believe the gap between rich and poor is getting worse and many blame banks and financial institutions (18%), capitalism in general (17%), and globalization/jobs going overseas (17%). 



Buzzwords of 2015

Buzzword.001Every year has its own buzzword.  Some make it into the dictionary ("selfie"). Some were already there but repurposed ("narrative").

In 2015, "narrative" had to be one of the top 10, edged out perhaps by "Big Data," "Millennials," and "Internet of Things (IoT)." 

"Narrative," or less pompously, storytelling, is important for our purposes because of its double-barreled power to persuade and to deceive. The latter is not necessarily a feature of storytelling, but the potential is always tantalizingly close. 

Maria Konnikova demonstrates why in her compelling New Yorker article "How Stories Deceive."  Briefly, storytelling can pummel our emotions so vigorously there is neither space nor time for reason.

"When we’re immersed in a story, we let down our guard," Konnikova warns. "We focus in a way we wouldn’t if someone were just trying to catch us with a random phrase or picture or interaction... In those moments of fully immersed attention, we may absorb things, under the radar, that would normally pass us by or put us on high alert. Later, we may find ourselves thinking that some idea or concept is coming from our own brilliant, fertile minds, when, in reality, it was planted there by the story we just heard or read."

Konnikova herself demonstrates the technique by framing her thesis within a compelling and emotional story. 

But it's not deceptive because she is clear about her goal -- to warn readers about the dangers of being sucked into an emotionally moving story. And most importantly, because her goal is clearly in her readers' best interests. Plus, she hasn't made any of it up.

Deception is more than lying. It's also failing to respect people's right to reason for themselves, which is a form of stealing.

Let's make "respect reason" the buzzword of 2016.


Death by cellphone?

Cell-phone (1)Could your cell phone be killing you?

One of the points we make in Public Relations Ethics is that practitioners have an ethical obligation to reveal potential dangers in any product or service they promote. In fact, if the danger is near-certain, as in the case of smoking or climate change denial, it would be unethical to promote it at all.

This story in the New York Times demonstrates how difficult it can be, to assess product risks, especially when experts can't agree.

Cell phone use is now so ubiquitous, there are actually more handsets than people in some countries, such as the U.S., Brazil, and Russia.  But almost from the beginning, some studies purported to show a link between cellphone use and brain tumors.  

Other scientists reviewed the data and deemed the links tenuous at best. For example, some studies bombarded tissue in a petri dish with far more radiation than anyone would experience in normal use. And as Jane Brody pointed out in her Times column, "While the incidence of brain tumors has risen slightly in recent years, there has been no disproportionate increase in tumors near the ears, despite a meteoric rise in cell phone use."

Still, no one can prove conclusively that cell phone use is risk-free. As the Times' story demonstrates, that situation hasn't changed much in since I first faced it at AT&T in 1993.

What we did then still seems like the ethical approach. We acknowledged the controversy, pointing out that there was no conclusive evidence on either side. We funded more independent research. We offered free earphones for anyone who wanted to eliminate even the possible risk. And we cautioned customers about the very real -- and provable risk -- of driving while talking on a cellphone handset, as opposed to handsfree devices.  (Today, the risk of texting is even higher.)

So, yes, no one can prove your cell phone won't make you sick or even kill you. But the risk it will happen while you're texting while driving is a near certainty.