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February 2017

Opening Putin's hoodie

Putin-Hacker-481x230The U.S. security agencies' report on Russian hacking makes a pretty strong case that Vladimir Putin did his best to influence the 2016 election.  

President-elect Trump's change in tone suggests the classified section of the report was pretty convincing.

But the security agencies point out they "did not make an assessment of the impact that Russian activities had on the outcome of the 2016 election.” 

I personally doubt the Russian disinformation campaign had much effect on the election results.

After all, despite Russia's interference, Secretary Clinton won the popular vote by nearly three million ballots. There's little reason to believe the Russian propaganda campaign was more effective in the key electoral states she lost than elsewhere.

In any case, it's not the security agencies' job to make that assessment. And, while the Democratic National Committee will undoubtedly try to figure out what happened, they obviously have an axe to grind, making whatever conclusion they reach suspect.

But what's the point anyway?

It pains me to say this, but America cannot afford another president whose legitimacy is questioned from the moment he takes the oath of office. Like it or not, Donald J. Trump will soon be our president.

But that doesn't mean we should all pretend the 2016 election was normal. It wasn't. It represented a tipping point in in the social construction of meaning. 

The Internet democratized media, making everyone a publisher, from the proverbial 400-pound loner living in his mother’s basement to ideologues of every religious, political, social, and fabulist stripe.

Digital media wrecked the business model of most news organizations, not only siphoning off advertising dollars, but also cheapening the value of content, turning it into a commodity measured in clicks rather than in substance. Celebrity is the new credibility.  Fake news has become the muzak of the echo chambers in which too many people live. 

Vladimir Putin exploited these changes. But he wasn't alone and he won't be the last to don the hacker's metaphorical hoodie.

That's where we need to focus our attention and efforts.

Here's an idea: the advertising industry has an organization called the Ad Council that for 75 years has overseen the creation of advertising campaigns to fight everything from forest fires and racial discrimination to drug addiction and obesity. All created by volunteer agencies and run in media donated by publishers and broadcasters.

Why doesn't the public relations industry have a similar organization? Individual agencies do good pro bono work for a range of worthy causes. But a coordinated network of agencies, responding to an issue of this scope right within our own wheelhouse, would be much more effective.

It could teach people the basic skills necessary to be savvy media consumers, like how to fact-check emails, Tweets, and Facebook postings. How to respond to racist, homophobic, or hateful email and postings. How pictures and statistics can lie. And how to disagree without being disagreeable.

It could teach people the basics of cyber-security and how to fight the spread of hateful propaganda, whether from a neo-Nazi in his parent’s basement or a member of ISIS on a laptop in Syria.

But it won’t happen by itself. It will take the combined efforts of clients, agencies, and media. The result could be better informed consumers and a public relations industry demonstrating its true worth to society.




Philosophers: Back in style?

Philosopher_for_hire_green_mugHere's a startling prediction from the digital media experts at Ogilvy:  "By 2020, corporate demand for philosophy graduates will reach its highest level since Aristotle."

It isn't entirely clear Ogilvy is serious about this, but it builds a good case for it in Key Digital Trends for 2017.

To wit, they predict the rise of chat-bots, algorithmic-driven content delivery, and autonomous vehicles and appliances will result in a wholesale "abdication of ethical decision-making."  

We may be seeing some of the early signs already: serving content based on algorithms of users' pre-existing beliefs not only exacerbates people's confirmation bias, but also makes them ripe for exploitation by opportunists and extremists.  Think of the recent tsunami of Fake News.

Another example: as automation plays a bigger role in our lives, the quality of human decision-making declines.  The FAA is already concerned that pilots' manual flight skills are being dulled by auto-pilot systems.  

"Handing over control doesn't just mean handing over the mechanical activities of daily life," Ogilvy notes. "It means handing over choices -- some big, some tiny -- about what's right and wrong."

What does this have to do with public relations and marketing?  According to Ogilvy, everything.

Automation will force ethical standards to evolve and brands will inevitably be caught between traditionalists and progressives.

Increasingly polarized stakeholders will make it harder for brands to stay true to a single set of values.

But brands have no choice: they can't pretend to be different things to different people.  They need to develop a process with broad stakeholder input to define the basic ethical principles manifest in everything they do and in every product or service they offer.

I don't know how many philosophers that will take, but I believe public relations leaders will have an increasingly important role, working with their C-Suite colleagues, in figuring it all out.  



Real-world ethics

Good Bad Choice"Why do good people do bad things?" need not remain a rhetorical question, thanks to a PhD dissertation by Christopher McLaverty at the University of Pennsylvania.

McLaverty interviewed 30 senior executives in India, Colombia, Saudi Arabia, the U.S., and the U.K. about ethical dilemmas they faced at work. His dissertation obviously doesn't pretend to be the last word on the subject, but it makes an important contribution to understanding it in a real-world context.

Among the author's findings:

The executives interviewed reported facing more than 50 ethical dilemmas over the last five years. (An ethical dilemma was defined as “a complex situation that often involves an apparent mental conflict between moral imperatives, in which to obey one would result in transgressing another.”)  

Few (16%) of the dilemmas involved headline-making issues like bribery, corruption, or anti-competitive behavior. More often, they resulted from competing interests, incentives tied to unrealistic goals, trade-offs between people and resources, and cross-cultural differences.  

Codes of conduct, regulations, and laws weren’t particularly helpful in managing ethical dilemmas. In fact, only a minority (29%) of senior leaders consulted their compliance officers in figuring out what to do. Even fewer executives (13%) said they had received training in making ethical decisions, even though 75% of their companies claimed to offer it.

Many senior executives felt poorly prepared for the dilemmas they faced and they made decisions they later regretted.




What happened?

WhathappenedMy New Year's resolution is to get back to blogging regularly.  So I'll start with last year's biggest story: an outsider, dismissed by practically every professional prognosticator as an amusing sideshow, won the presidency. How'd he do it?

I think he did it by exploiting an old marketing technique: build a fire under the question to which you are the answer.  

In the 2016 campaign, such a question was already smoldering, but too few candidates noticed the smoke. Whether by instinct, chance, or study, Donald Trump became a human, high-decible fire alarm.

Trump recognized that many voters were angry that the country's best days were behind it. He articulated those feelings in a slogan that would fit on a baseball cap: "Make America Great Again." And he threw gasoline on the question implicit in it -- "Why are our best days behind us?" -- by fingering the culprits voters already suspected, from bad trade deals and Wall Street speculators to out-of-touch elites and dishonest media.  

The big story of 2017 is likely to be whether the marketing strategy that was so successful in a political campaign will work in governance.