Caveat emptor

Nice feature article in the NYT during the weekend about tuition costs at both nonprofit and for-profit colleges. It’s  subject that deserves a lot more attention than it gets. This jumped out to me:

College marketing firms encourage school officials to focus on the value of the education rather than the cost. For example, an article on the cover of Enrollment Management, a newsletter aimed at college admissions officials, urged writers of admissions materials to “avoid bad words like ‘cost,’ ‘pay’ (try ‘and you get all this for…’), ‘contract’ and ‘buy’ in your piece and avoid the conflicting feelings they generate.”

Simple, direct language is the best way to help people understand something. Look at those two constructs and think about which one best helps people understand their future at college. It’s the not the marketing buzzwords. So, then, if the clearest, most concise language isn’t the language being used, the the first priority of these organizations isn’t giving potential students an honest reading of their situation. That’s revealing.

And, yes, I am aware that college is still the best route to a more financially secure future. And, no, there is no college “bubble.” This is just about the marketing, which calls to mind used car salesmen more than anything else.

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:

Great moments in political PR

The Heartland Institute, which is one of the leading “think tanks” producing “research” about the lack of effects/irrelevance/non-existence/shut up, hippies of global warming, has put up a few billboards to try and raise awareness of their position (via). Here’s one:

You may or may not remember the Heartland Institute for working with Philip Morris to call into question the legitimacy of research that documents the harmful effects of second-hand smoke. Charming.

The Hangover

I’ll take a break from my harrumphing and tut-tutting and tsk-tsking of the PR blogosphere for not writing about exactly what I’d like them to write about to share this:

Susan G. Komen for the Cure may have popularized the color pink as a universal symbol of breast cancer fund-raising. But these days, many of the breast cancer foundation’s local affiliates are singing the blues

Registered attendance or donations have declined by more than 25 percent at some of the group’s recent Race for the Cure events, according to interviews with officials at 10 of the national nonprofit’s local affiliates.

Although the group’s race season is just getting started, the early returns indicate that local affiliates, a mainstay of Komen’s fund-raising operations, are struggling to recover after a public outcry in February forced the national Komen association to rescind a controversial decision that would have curbed financing for breast health programs by Planned Parenthood.

So, Komen is still experiencing some serious trouble in the wake of l’affair Planned Parenthood. From a few grafs down in the article, this jumped out to me, too:

But the very strengths that enabled Komen to become the world’s most prominent breast cancer nonprofit played a role in its recent stumble, corporate governance experts said. Nancy G. Brinker, the group’s charismatic founder and chief executive, built Komen into a pink powerhouse, thanks to an army of dedicated local volunteers and donors. Yet when the national headquarters decided to make a policy change that would have prevented affiliates from financing Planned Parenthood programs, it left those local chapters out of the loop, according to interviews with Komen affiliate officials.

“To a certain extent, we did not feel we were controlling our own destiny, which was unfortunate,” said David Egan, the co-executive director of the Komen Minnesota affiliate.

Likewise, corporate governance experts say, the insider culture at Komen’s headquarters, with national executives and board members deeply loyal to Ms. Brinker, discouraged independent efforts.

“They are too insular,” said Daniel Borochoff, the president of CharityWatch, a watchdog group that rates nonprofit organizations.

I have my fun, every so often, taking potshots at PR people who are paid enormously well to advise organizations to do things that I think are screamingly basic. Stuff like empowering people on all levels in your organization, soliciting honest advice from stakeholders both internal and external and issuing timely, unrestricted apologies when the situation calls for it.

From the beginning of this snafu, it was clear that some people were kept in the dark about cutting off Planned Parenthood. So, the above advice, even if I’ve heard it a gazillion times, is still worth repeating again. The Komen episode underlines that there is one large, spectacularly funded organization that hasn’t heard this advice or has no interest in taking it. And, of course, it isn’t just one organization. No doubt there are many, many more.

Mediacentrism

My thoughts return to the PR blogosphere and its substantive commentary (or lack thereof) on political matters. I think I have found a serviceable, though imperfect, analogy to sum up my beef.

Brian Solis, who is generally acknowledged to be a leading writer in ‘big think’ PR pieces and an overall pretty sharp guy, writes a lot of stuff on the intersection of business, the ever-evolving digital age and how that affects organizations. I was not a huge fan of his writing early on but the more that I’ve read, the more it’s grown on me.

One of Brian’s pet points, and one that I’ve seen him make several times in writing, is that often people focus on digital media and social platforms as ends in and of themselves rather than a tactics that fit into a preexisting business model and organizational ethos. Now, if you made it past the embarrassing number of buzzwords in that last sentence, here’s what I’m getting at:

Brands and their marketers suffer from what I refer to as medium’alsim, a condition where inordinate value and weight is placed on the technology of any medium rather than amplifying platform strengths and ideas to deliver desired and beneficial experiences and outcomes.  Said another way, businesses are developing for the sake of development and establishing supporting presences without regard for how someone feels, thinks, or acts as a result. In doing so, “engagement” programs are calculated, brought to life in the form of an editorial calendar that, by its very nature, isn’t not designed to really engage people at all.

Emphasis mine. I misremembered the term he cam up with, which caused me to waste a good ten minutes on Google searching for a combination of ‘Brian Solis’ and ‘mediacentrism’, failing at that, cursing at Google and then even considering using Bing. But no matter. My moniker is ‘mediacentrism.’ It’s the exact same idea and, I have now realized, it’s one of my chief complaints about how PR types write about politics online, if they do write about it at all.

So often, political posts are focused on the delivery mechanism. Here’s a post from Dan Zarrella about how the leading GOP contenders’ Twitter stats. Here’s a David Meerman Scott post about how Obama’s video is a great example of content marketing. Here’s an InkHouse post about the optics early on in the primary process. Etc, etc.

Again, I stress, there’s nothing ‘wrong’ with these posts. They can be interesting. I’m aware that it’s not the job of PR folks to analyze policy. I’m aware that much of their professional work does concern image-managing, so this emphasis makes enough sense. But, nevertheless, I think there’s a lost opportunity to look at the way information is disseminated and rejected received. Plus, let’s not kid ourselves: Jeff Zeleny and Ashley Parker spend almost all of their time writing about trivial, optical stuff. PR people could look elsewhere. And yes, because I am ever the thoughtful and substantive blogger, I’ll give you an example.

Greg Sargent had an interesting post a few days ago. An NYT/CBS poll asked about tax fairness in the context of growth, to steal Greg’s wording, and here’s what happened:

Which do you think is the best way to promote economic growth in the U.S.? 1.Lower taxes on individuals and businesses, and pay for those tax cuts by spending on some government services and programs, or 2. Spend more on education and the nation’s infrastructure, and raise taxes on wealthy individuals and businesses to pay for that spending.

Lower taxes, cut spending: 37

Spend more, raise taxes: 56

And here are a few more figures:

The poll also finds that 67 percent say the government should do more to help improve the situation of middle class Americans; 52 percent say government shold [sic] do more to improve the housing market; 57 percent think the wealthy pay less than their fair share in taxes; and that 51 percent think capital gains should be taxed as ordinary income. People say they dislike government in the abstract, but when the talk turns to specifics, suddenly active government doesn’t look so bad.

Emphasis all his. And wow. Sounds like good news for the Preznit, eh? Except there’s also this:

But a whopping 55 percent are confident in Romney’s ability to make the right decisions about the economy. If Romney clears the basic competence threshold with voters, as seems likely, it could be trouble for Obama.

Waitwaitwait. The public supports, by twenty points, raising taxes on the wealthy and spending more (Obama’s plan) as opposed to cutting spending and lowering taxes (Romney’s plan). 67% say the government should do more to help middle class families, which Romney’s economic plan will not do (see previous link). 52% say government should do more to improve the housing market, an area in which Obama has been quite poor but it stands to reason that Romney would be worse. And 51% think that capital gains should be treated as income, a change which the Buffet rule would mostly accomplish. Romney, if you haven’t been up on it, does not support the Buffet rule.

So: the general public opposes Romney’s general economic plan by 20%. On each discrete issue, the public is more aligned with Obama’s policies than those of Romney. And… wait for it… 55% of Americans claim to be confident about Romney’s ability to make the right decisions about the economy. Now, that’s interesting.

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.

Number aren’t everything

Don’t have much to add to this piece by Christa Carone in AdAge. It perfectly expresses the sort of stuff I’ve written before about how empirical research, which is incredibly useful, isn’t the be-all and end-all of PR/marketing because numbers and data can’t teach you how to write. This graf sums it up:

Indeed, marketers “know” more than ever. We have information about our customers’ needs, preferences, purchase histories and spending patterns, and insight about the messages that prompt them to act. Thanks to social-listening tools, we also know what they are saying about our products, services and our brand. And that’s the tip of the iceberg. I wouldn’t want to give up the data that helps us make fact-based decisions quickly. But I fear that marketers’ access to and obsession with measuring everything takes away from the business of real marketing. It’s impossible to measure squishier, meaningful intangibles, such as human emotion, personal connection and the occasional “ahhhh” moment. Those things often come with a marketer’s intuition, and they deliver big-time.

Yep. Read the entire thing. It isn’t long.