You’d agree with Randolph Scott

Interesting post from Justin Fox over at Harvard Business Review. He cuts right to the chase:

We all like to think we can evaluate information and arguments rationally, regardless of where they come from. But we don’t.

No. We certainly do not. Fox quotes Yale Law School Professor Dan Kahan, who notes that:

People feel that it is safe to consider evidence with an open mind when they know that a knowledgeable member of their cultural community accepts it.

Fox then says:

Kahan is most concerned about scientific issues (climate change, HPV vaccines) where he thinks group identities get in the way of reasoned discussion. But the same tendencies can be seen in pretty much any case where there are conflicting opinions — which ought to make them of interest to anybody in a management or other decision-making role.

There’s probably some sophisticated PR insight that can be drawn out of this but I don’t have it right now. Other than arguing with people in a respectful way and trying to acclimate yourself to their predispositions and speech conventions, I dunno. No deep thought for today.

Just got my deep thought. I wonder how true this is for political discussion. Obviously, if you’re dealing with one person and your job is to convince him/her, then you have to be accommodating and understanding and non-snarky and never condescending and all that.

But what if we’re talking about political persuasion? Basically half the people in the country don’t vote. I’m not sure why (that’d be an interesting study but I imagine they might be hard to get hold of). Would using intentionally inflammatory rhetoric, designed to catch the attention of other people who weren’t paying attention, be a better strategy? Because remember: the people you’re attempting to convince probably won’t listen to you anyway for the very reason that Fox outlines.

I feel like the equation has to change when you’re switching from a one-on-one conversation with a committed, opposed person to a series of messages that appeal to millions of people, some of whom are already on your side, some of whom aren’t and around half of whom aren’t even paying attention. Is it worth catering your argument to the delicate sensibilities of ideologically hostile people in the hope that they see the light? Or are you better off torching those people and crossing your fingers that your tribe gets riled up while the unaware half takes a few minutes to stop watching porn and check out what’s going on? Another question to which I don’t have the answer.

And yes:

Popping the bubble

Going off my last post, I’d do better to remember that most people spend their time thinking about stuff other than what I think about. I’m aware of that politically and my writing references that a bunch but I guess it’s just as true for marketing stuff.

When you read about marketing or PR, you quickly gain a level of familiarity with basic concepts and techniques that show up in every other post. Advice on how to write good headlines, craft engaging content, deal with your stakeholders in a respectful way, all of that stuff is repeated so often that it needs no saying among PR folks. Or at most, it needs only a casual reminder every once in a while.

But when you step outside of that echo chamber, in which everyone is talking to everyone else and they all work in the same industry and deal with the same client problems and use the same acronyms, you have to reset pretty quickly. Lots of people don’t have much of an idea how to define ‘public relations,’ let alone have developed thoughts on content marketing or the efficacy of automated email outreach. If you stay in the bubble too long, it’s easy to forget that, or at least it is for me.

Ain’t Talkin’

This post has been turning around in my head for a while now and only really came about a few nights ago, after I had read the Carone piece and spent two hours trying to fall asleep.

Several weeks back, David Meerman Scott wrote a blog post about President Obama ‘newsjacking’ the results of Super Tuesday:

President Obama and his advisors’ choice to answer journalists’ questions on Super Tuesday, when voters in ten U.S. states vote in the Republican Presidential Primaries (arguably the most important date of the entire primary season) is a classic example of political newsjacking.

Watch the news conference on WhiteHouse.gov.

So in today’s online news stories, this evening’s television and radio broadcasts, and tomorrow’s newspapers, the Republican Super Tuesday winner(s) need to share the top story with the President.

The president has engaged in newsjacking before. For example: President Obama Newsjacks Iowa Caucus by joining Instagram.

What struck me about this was the focus of the post. Like many people in the PR/marketing biz, Scott’s post zones in on a similarity between politics and PR: the president can ‘newsjack’ (the titular subject of Scott’s latest book) and so can you! The post is about the overlap between public relations and politics, two disciplines that do share much in common.

This sort of analysis (applying PR principles to politicking) is endemic in the PR/marketing online conversation (another example of Scott citing similarities here). There’s nothing wrong with it. But to me, and this is why I reacted with such interest, it’s boring. We all know that politicians have different publics, have to cater their messaging to various constituencies, should embrace transparency to the degree they can, will use the same tactics used by marketers, yadda yadda.  It’s not the similarities that are interesting. It’s the differences.

I’ve harped on this before, but what makes politics such a fascinating departure from ‘typical’ PR is that people don’t receive and process information the same way. In fact, it’s not even close. Take, for example, a consumer PR crisis. Remember when Mattel had to recall a bunch of toys because they contained or might’ve contained lead paint, which is very much not good for the babies? People were understandably pissed, Mattel’s reputation took a hit and late-night comedians had half their jokes written for the next two weeks.

But that reaction was a universal reaction. Pretty much everyone looked up from their porn morning paper and went, “Wow. That’s no good.” And that was that. Consumer product safety is not something that’s bisected or fragmented by religion or tribalism or whatever.

Contrast our consumer PR example with the storied (and still ongoing!) saga about our current president’s place of birth. Now here, we have a situation in which there is, let’s be charitable, substantial evidence that Barack Obama was indeed born in Hawaii. And yet.. in 2011, a majority of Republican voters claimed that they either did not know or did not believe whether/that the Preznit was born in these here United States. And no, I am not willing to grant these folks a possible David Hume-like philosophical ignorance about the nature of certainty and whether any of us really know anything and that it’s possible that the illusory nature of the sen.. No.

Or what, we might ask, of a certain political party whose economic agenda, for the past 30 years or so, has been premised on the idea of tax cuts increasing revenue when that idea is demonstrably false? That economic ‘theory‘ remains an article of faith to this day.

On more than a few levels, I can understand why PR folks, especially established ones, are disinclined to ponder this sort of stuff in public. The subject matter basically demands a PoFlaWa. I’m sure many of the people whom I read have clients whose opinions differ from mine. Hell, there are probably more than few marketing types out there who are just seething at how the Socialist-in-Chief is destroying Murka. People tend to tread lightly around politics and I understand why. It’s not easy to argue.

To (almost) close, I’ll just say this: I find this sort of stuff, from both a persuasion and political science perspective, so damn interesting. Marketing, in my own estimation and that of people who are much more successful and respected than I am, is changing. From an interview with Douglas Rushkoff (via):

What will marketing organizations look like in the future?

It will be companies that figure out how to communicate the non-fiction story of a company, so it’s going to look a lot more like a communications company than a creative branding agency. It’s going to look a little bit more like PR, in some sense. It’s going to be people who go and figure out what does your company do and how do we let the world know about that? There’s going to be a lot of psychology involved, except instead of it being psychologists turned against the consumer, it’s going to be psychologists going in and trying to convince companies that what they’re doing is worthy. It’s breaking down this false need in companies to hide from the public what they’re doing–except for the ones that do (need to hide).

Couldn’t agree more. With more forced transparency, faster relay of information and a greater capacity for people to make their voices heard, bullshitting people is increasingly harder for companies. And yet… in our political discourse, bullshit not only still persists, it dominates. I find this fascinating. But no one, at least no one that I’ve come across in my time reading marketing and PR blogs, says a peep about this. I’m not expecting them to line up alongside me on Team Lefty, although from reading much of the content, it’s difficult to feel that many PR folks don’t lean that way (and some, to their credit, claim the mantle). I am somewhat surprised, though, that this isn’t frequent fodder for thoughts on how politics perverts straightforward persuasion.

Because you have one of our two main political parties, and even more so their most dedicated followers, believing things that are at odds with a wealth of evidence (start here, here and here).

Why do they believe this? Or why do they claim to believe this? Well… that’s a very interesting question, innit? It’s something that I wrote about by hand when I traveled*. I hope to have the time in the next few weeks to transcribe my thoughts on such things, despite the fact that famous people have publicly preempted me.

*If you ever go to New Caledonia, make sure you speak French. Or go with someone who speaks French. Or be prepared to sit on the beach and write and read and keep to yourself. Delightful place. Not too many English-speaking folks, though.

Learning on the Fly

Cool post from Chris Brogan, who not only mentions Patton Oswalt, perhaps my favorite comedian, but also gets in some good thoughts about expertise and task learning:

The Internet and computers in general have opened us all up to opportunities to do what we want. Lowered prices on all kinds of things open this up, too. In my immediate vicinity, I have an electric guitar that I can play well enough for people to say, “Oh, I didn’t know you play guitar!” I also have two prosumer video cameras that I use regularly, whether or not I know how to do that well. I have Final Cut Pro X, so I can edit things rudimentarily. I have a blog (you’re here!), so I can publish. I write books, because hey, this computer has a typewriter. I have an MP3 recorder so I could do a podcast, if I wanted (I want to, but I have run out of hours).

We are quite often given the opportunity to do something we’re not qualified to do. We often take on projects we’re not qualified to take on. I do it all the time. I will sign up for something, learn that I have no idea how to do it the way I imagine it, and then I rush to learn how to accomplish something that will make my client feel I’ve delivered value. It’s exhilarating (which I’m not an expert in spelling, but blogging software now has spell check). And yet, I have to accept that I’m not an expert.

The takeaway:

Wait to be an expert? Never. Just don’t sell yourself like that, either. Instead, lead with your enthusiasm, and then make damned sure you deliver.

Let’s go be non-experts.

I’ll take off my typically very cynical hat and totally agree with this. Getting more comfortable with jumping into things headlong is part of growing up and it really rewarding a lot of the time.

What this really made me think of, though, is a discussion I’ve had a few times this semester with my roommates and my Dad. Growing up, I think children tend to have this idea that adults are generally on top of their shit and know what they doing (actually, in a marvelous coincidence, Patton Oswalt has a good bit that touches on this). But the more you get older, the more you (if you’re like me and some of my friends) realize that lots and lots of people just aren’t really with it, at least not on the level that you’d expect.

This dynamic comes out when you have to do group projects with kids who just don’t really care about the work or aren’t prepared. But it’s even more interesting when you meet people in the real professional world who don’t answer emails or are rude to you or aren’t communicative in the way you expect.

Recently, I applied for an internship doing political communication work, something that would really interest me. I sacrificed working in PRLab, my school’s student-staffed PR agency, in which I’d fulfill a supervising role, to apply for this internship, which was not a sure thing. I get called back and told I’m first in line for the internship, which was very cool. I then realize that the internship is unpaid (which is fine) and is in Washington, D.C. (which isn’t fine, because I go to school in Boston). The internship application letter, which was distributed to Boston schools, is for the office of Barney Frank but makes no mention of the fact that you have to be in D.C. to do the work. When I asked the guy on the phone about this, he kinda laughed and said, “Yeah, I guess we should’ve mentioned that.”

I’ve got no ill will about this (seriously, I don’t), in part because I was lucky enough to get my role back in PRLab. But I couldn’t help but think, “How can the guy creating that letter not think of mentioning that the role in Barney Frank’s office requires being in D.C.?” Especially when this is going out to kids in Boston.

At a certain time, I realized that all of the kids I grew up with and attend school with will become the adults that surround me. Lots of those kids are attentive, hard-working people. But many of them aren’t. It really is amusing to me, looking back at my idea of the Professional World™ from even a year or two ago and just how that’s been shattered.

Of course, being less critical and jaded, I can guess the reason that the guy controlling the internship applications didn’t think of this. It’s not because he’s dumb or inconsiderate or a bad professional. It’s because he’s overworked, concentrating on other things and probably put that application sheet together at the last minute. Nevertheless, I think if you’re sending an internship opportunity out to Boston University and that internship requires being located in Washington, that’s something you gotta mention.

As is the case so often, Bill Watterson says it better than I can:

A picture’s worth…

Interesting post from HubSpot about marketing content to people through mobile formats. Apparently, there are supposed to be about 20 million more smartphone users added in the next two years, another (about) 20 million more tablet users and 13 million more people who start using ereaders. Jeebus.

The next part of the post, the segment that really drew my attention, discusses media consumption. It’s an old saw among marketing and PR types among any content producers, really, that people like different types of content and most people like media more than text. The post on HubSpot, if you ain’t clicked over, recommends ebooks, cartoons, videos infographics and podcasts as a way to attract eyeballs. I think that’s all spot on. As one person in my new media class (can’t remember if it was the prof. or guest speaker) reminded us, people love Facebook because they can look at pictures.

So, what interests me about all this? The fact that I’m not like other people. I can’t recall the statistics but the numbers about the percentage of people who view a page’s content and stay on that page when there’s a video vs. text really is startling.

But I don’t do that. At all. I want writing. Often times, I don’t watch videos, which is in part because I do so much reading in class and can’t have audio, but also because that’s how I’m used to consuming news. I listened to Driftglass‘ podcast with Blue Gal once, and I did like it, but I just haven’t made a habit of consuming those. I don’t wanna listen to podcasts when I go to the gym or go back and forth to class. I want music.

This tendency interests me because although I consume news online, which is certainly “new” compared to how my parents get their news, I’m still incredibly old-fashioned and outdated in that I really want text. Writing is what draws my attention, informs me and sticks with me. It’s not that I don’t like videos and I like cartoons, because I do, but when I get on the ‘toobz, and especially into my RSS reader, I’m there to get through my reading for the day. And there’s a lot of reading, which is why I’ll scan past the cartoons and infographics (some of which can be really expansive and time-consuming) and skip the videos.

Seth Godin had a post up the same day that makes me feel the same way. Seth ends his post like this:

We shouldn’t be surprised when someone chooses to publish their photos, their words, their art or their opinions. We should be surprised when they don’t.

Yeah, see, I don’t. Or, at least, I can be very reluctant to do so. I didn’t put any of these posts up on Facebook when this blog was a school project because, to me, that feels too much like push communication. I’ve got no problem pushing at people if I’m obligated to do it for a company as long as the product or service is also beneficial for the consumer. That’s less marketing than it is raising awareness. But overall, for personal stuff, I tend to sit on that stuff. Not something that I expect of other people, but that’s my tendency*.

It’s a strange position to be in, knowing that if I do marketing or even agency work that I’m tailoring my labor towards people with radically different consumption and expression habits than my own, but I don’t think I’ll have any trouble getting used to it. It’s not too hard for me, I think, to get inside the head of people who pay little or no attention to politics when I read about the subject for at least a couple hours a day. Hell, that’ll probably end up being good practice.

And… uh… if you read this far, here’s an awesome Wu-Tang song.

*… except for this blog, I guess.

Civil War & Emphasis

I’ve gotten around to reading TNC’s article for The Atlantic about the Civil War and how we perceive it. Interesting stuff. I’d recommend it.

One segment turned my thoughts elsewhere, though, to a point tangential to the overall gist of the article. Coates writes:

With a firm foothold in the public memory and in the academic history, the comfortable narrative found its most influential expression in the popular media. Films like Birth of a Nation and Gone With the Wind revealed an establishment more interested in the alleged sins perpetrated upon Confederates than in the all-too-real sins perpetrated upon the enslaved people in their midst. That predilection continues. In 2010’s The Conspirator, the director Robert Redford’s Mary Surratt is the preferred victim of political persecution—never mind those whose very lives were persecution. The new AMC show Hell on Wheels deploys the trope of the blameless Confederate wife ravished and killed by Union marauders, as though Fort Pillow never happened.

The comfortable narrative haunts even the best mainstream presentations of the Civil War. Ken Burns’s eponymous and epic documentary on the war falsely claims that the slaveholder Robert E. Lee was personally against slavery. True, Lee once asserted in a letter that slavery was a “moral & political evil.” But in that same letter, he argued that there was no sense protesting the peculiar institution and that its demise should be left to “a wise Merciful Providence.” In the meantime, Lee was happy to continue, in Lincoln’s words, wringing his “bread from the sweat of other men’s faces.”

Focus especially on the end to the first paragraph and the beginning to the second. Coates’ objection to Hell on Wheels has nothing to do with historical accuracy (at least, not in the traditional technical way) or storytelling; his problem is with emphasis. This gripe is one of my primary complaints about news and narratives, one that I touched on in this post.

You don’t need to lie to be dishonest. But beyond that, even with respect to a work of fiction that describes a particular time during our history, misplaced emphasis galls many people as much as dishonesty. TNC critiques Hell on Wheels and other stories because they showcase one aspect of a story (a hard-done Confederate wife) at the expense of another (millions and millions of black people who endured slavery). Naturally, the extent to which this misplaced emphasis is a point of mild irritation, genuine annoyance or provocation for an article-length introspection varies from person to person. As Bob Somerby (and probably many others) have said, news outlets are best defined by which events (and narratives) they ignore. So too with people, interest groups and entire societies.

Kindred spirits

Daniel Larison has a post up that talks about how Mitt Romney will screw over conservatives that settle for him. Which he will, I suppose, although I’m betting his economic policies will still be regressive as and quite plutocrat-friendly. The social policies, though, it wouldn’t surprise me if Mitt’s a lot more milquetoast than the fire-breathers would prefer. Larison concludes:

Bush assumed that he could take conservatives for granted, and he could, which is what he proceeded to do. Bush presented himself as a conservative while arguably governing farther to the left than anyone, including his father, in the previous thirty years. Most conservatives accepted the act, and largely ignored the substance. If there’s one thing we know about Romney, it is that he is quite capable of pretending to be conservative without being one. He may govern that way for as long as he believes it is advantageous, but there is nothing to stop him from keeping up the pretense of conservatism while enacting policies that are nothing of the kind.

Yup. Because that’s the way that politics works. For this reason, and yes I’m aware that a huge part of politics is tribalism and hating the Other, it nevertheless surprises me that there isn’t more of a kinship between liberals and conservatives, even if it’s a very grudging one. Obviously, there are huge differences in policy prescripitions between those two groups, but they have the same experience each election. Social conservatives reeeeeally want abortion to be banned, or at least heavily controlled, so they vote for Republicans. Do Republicans ever make real efforts to ban abortion? Well, yes, in terms of defunding Planned Parenthood and the personhood amendments, but it’s never as far as conservatives want.

Similarly, liberals throw in each year for Democrats, who kinda sorta creep towards policies that liberals want, but never do as much as the passionate activists desire. See the recent health care legislation and financial legislation for examples of this dynamic on the left.

In terms of practicality, the reason that the parties do this, and Larison writes this out, is pretty simple: because they can. Arch-lefties like me are far more animated by opposition and contempt for Republican policies than love, joy and respect for Democratic policies. And this is the same for conservatives, too. Are any of the carnival barkers or intellectual pundits enthralled with the current crop of candidates? Far from it. But they’ll grit their teeth and get in line for those candidates when the time comes, because the alternative is so much worse.

The two parties know this. No matter how much Obama has screwed the pooch on drones, foreign policy adventurism and in his stance towards the banks, what am I  gonna do? Vote for Mitt Romney’s insanely regressive economic program? Vote for Michele Bachmann’s divinely-inspired Jeebus parade?

And with conservatives, it’s the same thing. Even if they get Romney, which I think is the most likely outcome, what are they gonna do? Erick son of Erick and Rush may not like the World’s Foremost Flip-Flopper™ but dyou think they’re gonna pull the lever for the Islamosexual Kenyan socialist usurper? Not on your life. This was basically what happened in 2008 with McCain, and despite some hemming and hawing, the right fell in line.

I guess it’s worth pointing out too that there’s a section of the electorate on both sides that are willing to break with the nominated candidates, but that portion of the electorate remains relatively small and inconsequential except for that time in 2000 when they caused Bush to be elected and changed the course of history for the worse. But, for the most part, people fall in line.

In light of these similar experiences, it surprises me there isn’t more of a grudging sense of solidarity among the left and right wings, given that policies are never up to what we want and our parties don’t really give a shit what we think because we have no other option. But we’ve all been taught to hate for quite a long time. So I’m not holding my breath waiting for this brotherhood to materialize.