Friday, December 30, 2016

Why Be Happy In The Rain

Yesterday I went to New York and was so happy to be there I didn't mind walking blocks and blocks in the rain just to see Times Square.

It was as though my feet were as light as air, and I didn't have a care in the world. All the troubles and the worries on my mind virtually melted away, as I visited this place I have always loved and enjoyed so much.

Thinking about it on the way home, I realized that it doesn't do any good to be depressed, anxious and worried--about anything. While it's true that negative emotions can be useful in signaling that something is wrong, there also comes a point where you can lean on the emotion as a substitute for action.

In other words, your mind engages in the cognitive fallacy of telling itself that feeling upset about a thing is your duty as a concerned individual and even acts as a means of changing whatever in the world is wrong.

But the reality is, that's just not true. The only way to actually influence a negative reality is to physically do something positive. And the act of that doing, generally cheers you up.

Some people think they can't make any difference whatsoever--after all, they are weak and the power of evil seems so strong! This kind of thinking makes everyone depressed, and the Rebbe (may his memory be for a blessing) warned strongly against it:

"We have seen how one individual (Hitler) brought the world to the brink of destruction, but for the mercies of the King of the Universe, Who ordained that 'the earth shall stand firm; shall not fall.' If such is the case in the realm of evil, surely one's potential is much greater in the realm of good. For, in truth, creation is essentially good, and therefore more inclined toward the good than its opposite."

- from the November 25, 2016 issue of "L'Chaim," a newsletter published by the Chabad-Lubavitch

This Chanukah, and as we head into calendar year 2017, I'll be remembering the Rebbe's message. Just as we light a single light against infinite darkness, so too even one small act by a single human being, regardless of the odds, can do a world of good.

Always stay positive--and continue to do one small constructive thing at a time.

Here's to life, and love, and lots and lots of laughter. Never stop your feet from dancing in the rain.

_____

All opinions my own.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

I'm Gonna Get That Armrest

They created a new executive position and my colleague got the position.

"Work for me, it will be fun," she said of the new department. (It was called Strategic Communications.) "You're strategic."

"I don't know." I had a sinking feeling.

But I did it, because I'm stupid. Left the one boss, who headed up the original department, to go and work for the second.

Why was I stupid?

Because the first boss knew how to fight for territory.

The second one was honest, and she liked to share.

"Here, please take my information," she used to say enthusiastically. "How will we succeed if we don't collaborate?"

It wasn't three months, of course, before I had to get information from the old boss.

"What do you want?" She eyed me warily from the corner of her eye. "Don't look at those papers over there."

"Uh, uh, uh," I stammered.

"Hurry up!"

"Uh, I was just wondering, do you have the research on social media that I did for you last year? That binder?"

"Oh, the puppet master needs information, huh? What's the matter, you aren't that strategic without my help?"

At that she laughed mightily and pretended to rifle around the scattered papers on her desk.

"Sorry, looks like I can't find it," she said. "I guess you'll have to go it alone."

SLAM!

And that was the end of Strategic Communications, pretty much; my colleague ended up leaving the office, and sure enough I went to work for my old boss once again.

The point is, whenever you make a move in business, you've got to do it from strength. If you don't know how to negotiate, your opponent will surely slaughter you.

Which brings me back to the armrest.

I was on a flight back home from vacation, praying that the seat next to me would stay empty.

But of course, it did not stay empty and a wealthy-looking woman said, "Excuse me, miss, but that's my seat."

Whereupon I let her in, and immediately upon sitting, she proceeded to put her elbow all over the armrest that sat between us.

At first I noodged her back a bit, ever so gently, sort of ha-ha-ing and hoping that we would reach some kind of amicable agreement over this little space of property.

All was well for a few minutes, but then I took my arm away to reach for my headphones and computer.

Sure enough, there she was again, her elbow wildly on my side, leaning back innocently and watching TV. Her face wore a small, pleased smile and she pretended to be deeply absorbed in watching a cooking show.

This annoyed me to no end for about half an hour, and I realized that there was no winning this territorial war. She was going to have her armrest, and that was the end of that.

So I took to watching TV myself, and as is my usual habit, watched 35 channels a minute, flipping and flipping and flipping so that I could see multiple shows at once.

Also I put down the tray table and tried to get on the wi-fi, a frustrating exercise, and many times knocked out the headphone cord from the armrest, requiring me to replace it over and over again.

It occurred to me, on observing how I behave on a flight, that I am probably the most annoying person you can possibly travel next to, unless you count that guy who brings three smelly hard-boiled eggs on, and knocks them onto the seat to unshell them, one smelly egg at a time.

There's the bigger picture; you let the armrest lady take one for her elbow, but what you get back is non-complaining rights over everything else that you do.

The funny thing is that without saying one single word to one another, we seemed to have reached an agreement we could live with.

And as we got off the plane, hurrying to avoid all the other passengers, I thought we would never speak at all.

But she stopped me after we got off the plane.

"Have a great trip, wherever you're going, miss," she said.

"Same to you," I replied. "It was a pleasure sitting next to you."

You never know, right?

I should have gotten her name so we could connect on LinkedIn.

_____________

All opinions my own.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

PR Has To Pass The Smell Test

Previously I argued that propaganda is not a good use of organizational resources. In fact it is counterproductive, because today's information consumer is savvy enough to seek alternative versions to any manipulated version of the truth.

But public relations remains useful. The profession can broadly be understood as "portraying the organization in its best possible light," balancing truthfulness with a commitment to advocating their particular point of view. (See the values statement of the Public Relations Society of America.)

Sadly however I frequently find that PR efforts don't live up to the values they should. And this isn't because its practitioners lack expertise, although of course some do. Rather, nine times out of ten the fault lies squarely in the lap of the client.

Let me explain. Most of us, as consumers of information, can readily tell when something "smells." In particular, the vicious U.S. presidential campaign of 2016 forced all of us into a graduate seminar on advanced political communication. Now, we are such a cynical bunch. No sooner does a piece of "news" creep into the headlines than the hordes descend to dissect it, criticize it, analyze it, and debunk it if at all possible.

But a kind of cognitive failure occurs when these same people turn into information promoters. When it's somebody else's kids, it's easy to come out and say it: "That's an ugly baby." For their own product or service (child), no amount of praise is too high: "Gorgeous, gorgeous, gorgeous."

A good example of this cognitive fallacy in action is Hillary Clinton's loss in the election. A poorly led PR effort blames the Russians, the FBI and "angry white men" for the loss. But a more credible analysis, one offered by Democratic insiders, posits that insularity itself was to blame. 

How willing is the client to do a "murder board?" This is a somewhat scary but apt term for assembling a group of smart people to criticize the client before they go out in front of a public audience.  I've participated in some of these, no-holds-barred, and they are a fantastic tool for the intelligent, organizationally and psychologically healthy client.

Clients who fail the "smell test" have no tolerance for criticism. And I have worked for other clients who were like this. It is the PR professional's job to protect the client's reputation by asking them the difficult questions, but these clients just didn't get it. 

Once I told a client repeatedly that their basic business model made no sense to me, or anyone I described it to. The response: "How can you ask that? Didn't you read the brochure?"

Another client had a scandal brewing in the background. I asked about it. The response was: "Be careful with questions like that."

One person threw a sheaf of papers in my face; they weren't averse to talking about potential criticism, but only certain people were qualified to offer their thoughts about it.

Another yelled at me over and over again. The unspoken policy depended on a kind of "magical thinking," involving "good news or silence." All were expected to abide by that policy, even in private. 

Now, the truth is that clients can get lucky; maybe a public blowback over their activities isn't going to happen, or will never make much difference.

But that doesn't change the nature of good work, or what the PR person is professionally bound to do for the client. And the #1 duty of the PR person is--to be blunt about it--to tell you that your shit actually does stink. Each and every time.

This is what I love about the TV show "Shark Tank," where potential investors ask difficult questions of aspiring entrepreneurs. Often they're mean, so mean it's stinging. Yet to play along with someone's fantasies of grandeur is worse in the end--not just financially, but emotionally as well. As people sink their entire selves into the businesses of their dreams.

Back to PR: It really doesn't matter what you're selling, be it products or services or ideas. The public is growing ever more sophisticated by the day. Especially in difficult economic times, in times of social turmoil, people are scrutinizing every word you say and every single thing you do.

More than that, they will actually distort the words you utter, they will portray your intentions inaccurately, they will string together unrelated items and they will concoct stories about you based on their worst prejudices and fears.

The world we live in is increasingly unforgiving. If you're a stupid, dysfunctional client, you will find it impossible to squeeze by on lavish photo ops and press releases.

______________

All opinions my own.


Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Why Propaganda Doesn't Work


Every year the widely respected public relations firm Edelman does a global survey to measure people's trust in various social institutions. The 2016 survey showed that worldwide, trust in the media has increased and is now at 57% (+6) among the "informed public" and 47%  (+2) in the "general population."

But those numbers are still not great. And in the United States, according to Gallup, trust in the media has fallen "to a new low," with only 32% of Americans professing "a great deal" or "a fair amount."

In America, at least, the problem could be one of misplaced expectations. That is, pop culture frequently serves up the dynamic, dedicated, selfless reporter who will stop at nothing to get to the truth. The movie Spotlight is a perfect example, as it tells how reporters at the Boston Globe revealed large-scale child sex abuse in the Catholic Church. 

So a lot of us think that journalists are "supposed" to be free, independent and objective. But the reality is actually much different: Corporations own the media, and governments exert influence over what they say. So the starting point for all mass reporting is by definition not "the truth."

Further, the media has historically been used as a vehicle for propaganda and falsehoods. In "The Real History of Fake News," (Columbia Journalism Review, December 15, 2016), David Uberti notes that American journalism has a "very long tradition of news-related hoaxes," citing the work of Georgetown University Professor Jonathan Ladd, author of Why Americans Hate the Media and How it Matters (2011). Says Ladd: “The existence of an independent, powerful, widely respected news media establishment is an historical anomaly."

Uberti further quotes President Thomas Jefferson, who wrote in 1807: “Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper. Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle.”

If the media is not and was never meant to be a repository of truth, it is by definition not going to deliver news objectively. Most people, having witnessed the repeated falsehoods uttered by and perpetuated in the media, therefore do not trust it. 

Take this line of thinking a step further, and it becomes obvious why propaganda does not work. Over time, people have learned not to trust what they see in the news. Yet governments persist in the use of propaganda, which is really biased reporting in the attempt to influence public opinion.

The logical person, perceiving that the media is out to sell them a story, will not automatically believe the narrative. Rather, they will question the story that is seemingly being shoved directly down their throats. And they will deliberately seek out counter-narratives, in order to find out what the media isn't telling us.

All nations have their interests, of course, and they practice the art of using words to gain more power. As Winston Churchill famously put it: "Diplomacy is the art of telling people to go to hell in such a way that they ask for directions." 

But politicians do not understand that their listeners are also "prosumers" - proactive, empowered consumers with global access to information. They will spend hours debating the relative benefits of a vacuum, they will fight endlessly over Starbucks versus Dunkin' Donuts, and yes, they will access both domestic and foreign television and social media to form their opinions on the news.

For that reason, propaganda as it is traditionally understood is doomed to utter failure. And every penny spent on it is wasted.

What is the alternative?

Re-conceive the nature of propaganda itself. It is not about conveying a "consistent message that makes us look good." 

Rather, it is about actually telling the truth, and revealing how the enemy is lying. 

You may not be able to say everything, but you can at least tell your side of the story, warts and all. 

It goes without saying that foreign propaganda can and will be accessed by domestic audiences. To think they can be separated is to make a false distinction, much like the line often drawn between external and internal communication.

Also, if you do bad things, illegal things, no amount of propaganda is going to "fix" that. In fact, "massaging the truth" (i.e., lying) only makes it worse. 

It's time to retire the term "propaganda." It is a waste of time and a waste of money.

____
All opinions my own.


Monday, December 19, 2016

Idiocracy 3.0


One day when she was five, my daughter looked up at me and asked, "Mommy, was the world black and white when you were growing up?"

Right or wrong my kids were both raised with lots and lots of TV time. And watching some of the innocent old shows, like I Love Lucy and My Three Sons, she had come to the obvious conclusion.

I was talking with a colleague about how much TV we were raised on, as well. I confided that the moment my parents brought home the huge brown boxlike structure in approximately 1979 was one of the happiest days of my life.

Today of course it's a big taboo for kids to watch TV without parental monitoring, if they are allowed to at all. Introducing myself to the mother of a toddler at synagogue, I asked her what type of shows he likes, and her response was, "We don't have a TV."

"Then what do you do with him all day?"

"Uh, play."

Well that was an awkward moment. But apparently I am not the only lousy parent in synagogue; according to a November 2016 article by Steve Rosen published in the Kansas City Press, "studies show that kids will be exposed to millions of commercial messages and marketing pitches on television, radio, the internet and other social media, even game systems, by the time they’re teenagers."

Now, when I was growing up I didn't just watch TV; I read a lot of books, too. And that might have saved my brains from turning to complete mush, because the ever-present ads on TV are meant to completely manipulate your thinking, simplify it and steer it toward the purchase of whoever is advertising on your favorite show. If you ever watch the documentary Supersize Me, about one man's experiment eating McDonald's food only, there is a segment about marketing-as-mental manipulation that is completely fascinating.

The 2006 movie Idiocracy imagined a frightening, dangerous, sad future where people were so bombarded with advertising and soaked in materialism that they lost the ability to either critically think or to care. And of course, branding--with its emphasis on navigating the consumer through complex buying choices--contributes heavily to this social climate. For example, the classic book Brand Simple, by Allen Adamson (who runs a consultancy with the same name), is all about leading your customer through this decision-making process so that ultimately they choose you.

But the problem with "thinking brand first," of course, is that once you begin to think in overly simplified terms it's hard to go back and get your mind working. We saw this happen during the election season, with media conversations limited to a brief overview and discussion of at-the-moment headlines, absent historical context, shades of gray, or complicated characters. Rather, we got heroes and villains; Tweets; talking points; and of course, the screamingly provocative headline, designed to make you think one way or the other.

This is not a good situation, this idiocracy we've come to tolerate and even celebrate. "Give me the elevator speech," we demand. "Can't you fit your resume on one page?" "I don't read anymore, I scan." "What's the Cliff's notes version?"

Because here is what's happening. On the one hand, we're filling up the freight train of life with input that goes well beyond the human capacity to assimilate and integrate it quickly. Ideas, laws, technologies, news, research, and so on. (Like with dieting, one day it's "cut out the fat" and the next day it's "lose all the carbs.") Impossible to keep up, and we have major decisions to make.

That train is only going faster and faster.

Yet our minds are poorly equipped to handle all this complexity. We have deliberately dumbed ourselves down, or accepted the dumbing down, when we should be thinking more and more critically and clearly.

In my mind, "Idiocracy 1.0" was superstition, eventually superseded by science. "Idiocracy 2.0" was branding, delivered by TV or computer, and it is being superseded by a populace which increasingly realizes that nether the government nor the corporation can be trusted to handle its interests.

But "Idiocracy 3.0" is by far the most dangerous: It is the submission of human thinking to artificial intelligence. We think that just because a computer can absorb it all and spit it back to us, that we will get to sit back and play an extra round of golf.

But one day the machines will take advantage of our laziness, our arrogance and our complete inability to steer the ship. They will be programmed by the best of us.

And we may well find ourselves serving them, principally occupied by making them dinner.

______________

Photo by NovelRobinson via Pixabay (Public Domain). All opinions my own.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Software Is Not a Substitute for Brains

Yesterday at the holiday lunch, a colleague told us about his background.

"I used to jump out of planes," he shared.

"That's pretty impressive," someone said. "You were a paratrooper?"

He laughed. "In the Marines, we just called it jumping out of planes."

In a nutshell, that's how I feel about the term "employee engagement." Because a paradoxical thing has happened by virtue of using this term.

While paratroopers will always jump out of planes, the term employee engagement itself has become a kind of substitute for action.

In other words, we talk about it and talk about it, and we throw a lot of money at it, but very few companies actually do it in a way that is successful. As of January 2016, according an article in Gallup Business Journal called "The Worldwide Employee Engagement Crisis," just 32% of U.S. employees are engaged in their jobs, and on a global level this percentage is a miniscule 13%.

Obviously this is not a good situation.

But I disagree with Gallup's recommended approach to addressing it, which is essentially to fold employee engagement into the overall goals of the company, and then to measure it. Not because they're "wrong," but rather because such cold and dry tips miss the point.

"Employee engagement" is a human term, it's an emotional metric, and only a qualified communications professional who understands the unique culture of the organization is situated to boost it successfully.

Engaging people is an art and a science. It is not reducible to logic or reason: Believe it or not, salary is only weakly correlated with motivation. And it's not enough to know your company does meaningful work, nor how you fit into the big picture.

Some may think that tribalism is the key determinant of employee engagement. But one could also argue that feeling too much a part of the company can actually be suffocating. Google, for example, is widely considered a top employer precisely because its employees are a prized, cushioned, walled-off elite. Yet as one former Google employee said, the insularity can get to bee too much: "You start making the same choices day in and day out. You hang out more and more with the same people you work with."

Some organizations try to address the issue of employee engagement by allowing staff to create their own social environment, through the use of internal networking software. But according to at least one study, by Altimeter, quoted in Harvard Business Review ("Why Nobody Uses The Corporate Social Network," April 2015), less than half of employees actually use them. Again, this is not because the software itself is flawed, but because its implementation must be guided by a skilled professional--a human being--who is able to draw employees out and create safe spaces for online interaction.

The bottom line is, employee engagement is really a marketing function. And study after study has shown that internal communications professionals have a demonstrable impact on employee engagement; here is just one example.

While it may be tempting to reduce the work environment to controllable, cheap, automated technologies, the fact of the matter is that emotions are messy. People need people to understand what they are going through, address their concerns and higher-level needs, and communicate back with them in an empathetic and inspiring manner.

Companies with high levels of employee engagement are situated for all manner of risk reduction as well as greater revenue both immediately and down the road. Conversely, those with staff who are just "marking time" are actually losing money on every employee, every hour, every workday.

You market your product to outside customers. It makes sense to invest in building a loyal customer base internally as well.
______________________

All opinions my own.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Maximize Your Most Valuable Asset


Whack-a-mole is a game where you stand over a machine with a bunch of holes on the bottom. Faces pop up really quickly, and you smash them down as fast as you can.

It's fun.
As adults we experience whack-a-mole all the time, except that the reality of it is not so fun.

Overwhelmed by problems, some expected and most of them not, we bring that mallet down on the board. Faster, faster, we tell ourselves, hoping the timer won't run out until we're ready.

What can we do to make our lives easier and more manageable? How can we reduce the onslaught of tasks, requirements, challenges, puzzles, deadlines and demands that seem to have no end?

The answer might lie in the way we think about "problem" and "solution."

Chris Argyris was a pioneer of "double-loop" learning for organizations, which he developed as a way of helping them transform from dysfunctional and "stuck" to agile and adaptive--in essence, to help them learn.

The task as he saw it was to overcome "single-loop learning," meaning the tendency to focus on a presenting problem and tackle it with an incremental and obvious solution.

The sophisticated organization practices "double-loop learning," meaning they challenge their assumptions about what the problem is before devising a strategy in response.

Double-loop learning is uncomfortable and even risky -- there's no doubt about it.
  • It makes you slow down, when all you want to do is hurry up and allay the anxiety of knowing that something is wrong.
  • It exposes the wound for all to see, when everybody wants to cover it up.
  • It makes the people involved feel pain, when everyone would vastly prefer a horse-sized tranquilizer dart.
  • It makes people look at the consequences of others' behavior, creating the possibility of organizational conflict.
  • It makes people accountable for their own actions, which exposes them to the potential loss of status, material benefits and even legal liability.
But if the organization -- and by extension, the individual -- can tolerate all of the above, the potential benefits they stand to gain are enormous.

If "insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result" -- then it follows that sanity means changing the way you do things when necessary.

By engaging in double-loop learning, over and over again, over time, you not only learn how to handle a current challenge better but you also learn how to prevent future problems from occurring.

This is essentially the practice of branding in a nutshell. Branding means reflection. It is a long-term, preventive approach to your professional life and your personal life. The emphasis is on thinking through what your assumptions are, and holding them up to evidence, before you make any decisions.

A simpler way of saying all of this is as follows: Your most valuable asset is the capacity to reflect.

Some people say that time is the most valuable commodity in the world, and whoever has lots of it is wealthy.

But most people have time on their hands. And too often, they waste it.

I would argue that the capacity to reflect is what makes your time valuable.

If you regularly think about what you're doing, and whether it makes sense, and what the likely future impact will be -- that is a great use of your time.

Every minute you spend reflecting is a way of challenging your own deeply held assumptions about the world.

The result will be a more effective method of handling things. In other words, less heads popping up from that whack-a-mole machine.

I'm reminded of a joke my father-in-law, may he rest in peace, used to tell so very well.

"Little boy, why are you banging your head against the wall like that, over and over again?"

"Because it feels so good when I stop."

_________________

All opinions my own. Main photo: Geralt/Pixabay (Public Domain). Whack-a-mole photo: Emil Ovemar via Flickr (Creative Commons). Single- vs. Double-Loop Learning Graphic: Ian Guest via Flickr (Creative Commons).

How To Identify #FakeNews

This morning an article ran across my feed that was pretty attention-getting, to say the least. It purported to "prove" that during the Presidential campaign, the Clinton camp had paid some high-profile Republicans off to trash Donald Trump.

Two variations of the headline are out there:


The content repeats on a variety of alternative news websites.

"Alternative": Because this adjective is such a hot-button for many people, and is frequently equated with "fake news," let's clarify a few things now:
  1. The word "alternative" means "independent of the mainstream media." It is not synonymous with fake news, which is generated by the mainstream media and the alternative media. 
  2. Fake news is generated both overtly and covertly, by making stuff up; omitting facts; presenting quotes out of context; or going out of one's way to create sympathy for a subject.
  3. Fake news is also generated by sources who supply the media ("echo chamber") with "information" that is then repeated over and over again as valid. Repetition of the information, with believable quotes, creates the impression that it is true.
  4. There are multiple motivations for creating fake news, including the desire to manipulate people into thinking a certain way and the desire to make a profit through "clickbait," meaning dramatic headlines that pique curiosity.
  5. Values-based reporting can be legitimate if those values are disclosed, but frequently journalists blur the line between "fact" and "opinion" such that it is almost unrecognizable and they do not disclose the implicit values that accompany their reporting. 
Back to this article, and the quest to find out if it was true. It sure sounded important:
  1. The storyline fit into the "Clinton corruption" narrative and the "Republican corruption" narrative, as well as the "they're in it together, drain the swamp" narrative.
  2. It included details that sounded like they could be true, mentioning the sender and receiver (John Podesta, Huma Abedin) and the purported document number (1078645).
  3. It had mysterious-sounding quotes that sounded like the type of thing a secretive political official would write: “He is on board, will retract the invitation to speak. Eyes only.”
  4. It had historical-sounding details that alluded to financial corruption: "FEC reports shows that two large donations from PACS and private sources ln early October went to John McCain right after he attacked Trump publicly criticized Trump (typo is in original article - DB).That happened shortly after a slew of emails concerning moving money to support one candidate and move support from another."
  5. It named names, specifying who precisely in the Republican camp had "sold out" and what they supposedly got for it.
But the fact that the accusations were so explosive made it all the more important to try and verify the information as much as possible.

Upon doing so, I learned that there is no evidence such an email exists.

Here are the steps I took to determine whether this headline and article content were accurate or not.
  • Googled the headline to see who else is reporting the same thing. Not too many, except for some alternative news sites and message boards citing the headline.
  • Looked for the supposed source of this information by seeking out links in the articles. One link took me only to Wikileaks.org, not the document itself, which was unusual. 
  • Since we are clearly not talking about classified government information (which federal employees are forbidden to search for on Wikileaks), I searched for the phrases quoted, in whole and in part. No results.
  • Searched for the timeframe noted (July 2016) within "Podesta emails" (since the article said the email came from John Podesta) and again, nothing.
  • Googled the quotes to see if they were reported independently anywhere else, with a link to the source. (In other cases where the information was real, there is a snapshot of the document itself, sometimes with the verifying code on top, and the specific text quoted is highlighted.)
Of course, these measures are not foolproof. And sometimes you just don't know if a story is true or not, but it is so important that you feel it must be shared. But taking the extra step to find out the facts helps to bolster your credibility as a sharer of information. 

More importantly, it helps you to be more sophisticated about the people and groups who are trying to own your mind.

________

All opinions my own.


Monday, December 12, 2016

What Donald Trump Is Doing Wrong

If you have worked in or near Washington, D.C. for any length of time you have at some point been exposed to the Hillary Clinton method of leadership.

And while we can talk about the bad stuff, I don't really want to do that right now.

The point is, there are things that she did well, and did extraordinarily well. She looked and sounded like a President. She projected strength and resolve. She embodied the idea that women are people first, not sexual objects. She talked about empowering women and children. And she could, in any situation, somehow figure out how to say the right thing.

In addition, she built a strong and resilient network of loyal, intelligent, thoughtful, innovative and above all knowledgeable people. 

The strengths that Hillary Clinton brought to the table were so strong, in fact, that I think it is fair to say not a single person here believed she would actually lose the election.

When you consider the amount of negative baggage associated with her, this is an unbelievable accomplishment. It is a testament to many things, but not least to the power of her personal brand and her understanding of what we think a President should look, act and sound like.

This is where I think President-elect Trump is running into some problems. What worked for him on the campaign trail--that scrappy, combative, individualistic, do-it-my-way braggadocio--is not going to work for him in Washington. 

It may work in the rest of the country, but he has to do well with the people here.

They say that when you take on a new job, you should first observe the culture for a period of time before taking any action. Trump unfortunately has taken lots of action without appearing to consult with the ordinary people who actually work here.

I understand that he believes D.C. is dysfunctional, politics-ridden, and poorly performing--that we need to "drain the swamp." I applaud that.

Yet no matter what kind of entity you are leading, whether it's a small work team or a nation, you can't make the people who work for you feel badly about themselves. You can't disregard their expertise, publicly and privately. It's arrogant, it's misguided, and it comes off as dictatorial to a nation that has gone through eight years of President Obama heavily wielding the executive pen.

It's great that our President-elect wants to turn this country around. It's great that he wants to see us winning. We need that.

But like a very good boss told me once, very accurately, as a leader you have to bring people along--not disrespect them. Not step on their heads as you promote how very brilliant you are.

If he wants to be a successful President, our President-elect should study Hillary Clinton.
_________________________

All opinions my own. 

Saturday, December 10, 2016

How To Understand The Breakdown Of Civil Discourse

People have trouble understanding each other.

When people identify with a certain group, and need to understand the opposing point of view, often an intermediary is required.

The intermediary, who understands both sides, has a critical social function, is not reducible to a diplomat or a mediator.

  • The diplomat's function is to work with people regardless of whether they truly understand their culture or not. 
  • The mediator's job is to bring two opposing sides to some sort of consensus agreement, even if each will never be able to fathom what makes the other one tick.
In contrast to both of the above, the intermediary creates empathy between the two sides. They do this by providing insight into what makes each one tick, speaking in the native language of the audience.



In the professional world, an intermediary may have any number of job titles. But all of them act as some sort of liaison. 

The liaison comes from both Group A and Group B. This gives them substantial knowledge, footing and credibility in each one, and the ability to translate between one and the other.

Because the liaison is fluent in two languages, so to speak, he or she almost automatically synthesizes between the two and creates a higher level of understanding in their mind.

The liaison is skilled at doing this because of the inherent human need to live in a cohesive manner, not in a way that artificially divides one portion of life from another.

Mechanically the process of translation occurs when the liaison takes elements of the two sides, puts them together mentally, then re-translates back down to each group.

As they do so, they speak fluently in the language that is unique to that specific audience.


An obvious example is parent and child. They come from two different generations and lack shared cultural references. They have diametrically opposing goals, of course; the one seeks to protect while the other struggles for independence.

When I was growing up in the '70s, we used to call this "the Generation Gap." (Now it's not so fashionable to use this term because parents can't admit they're getting old.)

In order to effectively bring a child into society, we as a society employ many organizations to immerse themselves in the world of children so that adult messages about values, responsibility, and so on can be conveyed to children in an indirect, seemingly impartial way that draws on the unique language and attitudes of a youth population. 




There is no further need to belabor this point: For society to function effectively, we need people who speak multiple languages and can weave them into a single whole, or at least a patchwork quilt to keep us warm.

The problem today, at least in American society, is that we lack individuals who are ready, willing and able to translate between deeply divergent perspectives.

The media used to fulfill this function, but it has stopped, and the alternative media is inadequate.

If we are to resume functioning as a stable society, we need to rebuild the liaison function, preferably within the media but also throughout our social institutions.

It's not just about "getting along" with each other, but also about weathering the many challenges we face, now and in the future.

As President Abraham Lincoln famously said, "A house divided itself cannot stand."

______________

All opinions my own.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

How to Comment on Social Media

Some people get stuck with the concept of commenting on social media.

Commenting and writing are really two different things. There are lots of books, articles, presentations and 1-2-3 posts that will tell you how to build a professional presence online. The general idea on that point is to build a body of work that proves to the world you are a credible, trustworthy presence in whatever sphere you claim to operate in.

Yes, commenting is a form of "writing," but the emphasis is much different. After all, comments are a reaction, they are in a sense defensive, whereas the act of putting something out there is proactive, creative, it takes initiative, and it is fundamentally offensive, not in the warlike way but in the sense that you are moving first.

By their very nature--at the risk of repeating myself--comments put you on the defense. So you have to have good reason for saying what you have to say; in a sense your words are an interruption.

We are living in defensive times, anyway. Every word you put out there matters. It establishes who you are; even the slightest opinion can and will be scrutinized; your command of the facts, and more importantly, how to articulate them, portrays you as either a respectable person or a fake, flake or dummy.

Plus, think about who you're talking to. People who care about the world, but also people who are anxious--about economic instability, inexplicable war and aggression, the overwhelming nature of modern life, with its constantly changing technologies, as well as the constant onslaught of more and more laws and regulations and rules. People undereducated in so many ways, including in the capacity to engage in critical thinking. People who have been silenced and censored for so long, the very act of getting online feels revolutionary.

When you really think about it, making a comment to such an unknown audience is risky. No matter how benign your words, somebody out there will no doubt at some point take offense.

You may deserve a challenge or a correction on legitimate grounds. Or, they may get ideological with you. And they will challenge your comment as an example of "fake news." They will say that you don't know what you're talking about, and meet your statement with a hundred links plucked from somewhere else on the Internet. They will attack you personally.

You comment, they comment and suddenly it is an endless and unproductive protracted debate that makes everyone look bad for the simple inability to end it.

From a communication point of view, then, we have to look at the social media comment just like any other form of information transmission. What are the qualities of a comment that make it most effective, and what are the things you should avoid?

Let's break this into some "Dos" and "Dont's," in no particular order:

Do:
  • Identify yourself if you can.
  • Say what you have to say without censoring yourself.
  • Express your truly held beliefs.
  • Share facts that can be independently validated, or opinion columns with the caveat that this line of thinking makes sense to you or is a good read (but obviously you are not expected to validate it).
  • Refer people to a source where they can independently assess the quality of the information you're providing.
  • Be polite and respectful, remembering that you are talking to an actual person, not hitting a punching bag and remembering that other people are watching what you say and what you do. Even if you're anonymous, your behavior sets a precedent for others.
  • Hold people accountable for the implications of what they are saying, but recognize common ground first, if you can.
  • Generally, help to further a productive dialogue that gets people closer to the essence of whatever topic is under discussion.
  • Make statements of support for what another person is going through or sharing of an emotional nature.
Don't:
  • Censor yourself because you are afraid other people won't like you.
  • Behave recklessly. You've heard the term "drunk tweeting?" Don't let that be you.
  • Say things that you know have no basis in fact.
  • Attack people for having a certain opinion.
  • Engage in personal attacks or make offensive statements.
  • Make reckless statements.
  • Take money in exchange for making comments that appear to be un-sponsored. It's one thing to announce yourself, but quite another to lie.
  • Tell people that they have no right to post a certain thing on a certain platform because there are other places that are more appropriate--you are not the "platform police."
Of course, these are comments based on my own experience and common sense. Like always, it's not any kind of official guidance, does not represent a legal opinion, and is really only the beginning of what could and should be a much larger area of study--especially when you consider how much easier it is to throw a few words and a link into the world than to author an original and well-thought-through piece of researched content.
____

All opinions my own.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

The Most Troubling Thing About "Fake News"

As a professional communicator, I am well aware that our primary social institutions both make and distribute fake news.

Politicians do it. What is political messaging, really, if not the promulgation of a narrative that twists the facts in service of an agenda?

Governments do it. It's called "disinformation," "psychological operations," and "propaganda."

The news does it. We don't need to go into that. Survey after survey shows that only a minute percentage of Americans actually trust the mainstream media.

The alternative news does it too, on both sides. Let's be honest; just because a "citizen journalist" produced a story, that doesn't make it more believable.

Magazines do it. Who do you think is promoting "new and stylish" products but corporate sponsors, working through celebrities who in turn hire very cool PR people?

Music promoters do it, obviously. As beautifully as you sing in the shower, just being good at what you do isn't going to get you a record deal (or whatever they call it nowadays). In fact, a great many untalented people have their songs played over and over again until we "decide" that we really like them.

Want to introduce the next big product craze? Have you invented tomorrow's "must-have?" You'll have to get into Best Buy or Target or Staples or Costco. And how do you get there? Well it sure helps if you're an "Oprah's Favorite" pick, or if you've made an appearance on "Shark Tank."

Who gets to be a "supermodel?" Which actors and actresses become household names?

What about the medicine your doctor is suggesting you take? Are they at all influenced by the free samples they've received this month?

The most troubling thing about "fake news" is not that some people deliberately craft it in order to make a buck, gain legitimacy, get elected, or even stir up a needless war.  That stuff is pretty much a given.

No, what is troubling now is how effective "fake news" producers have been at:
  • inventing the term;
  • creating fake news themselves;
  • convincing other people to believe it;
  • positioning non-fake news providers as purveyors of same; and
  • instigating ordinary, unbiased people to fear and loathe anybody branded as a "fake news" provider.

We Americans may not agree on everything. But we must agree to unite on this.

The First Amendment isn't up for debate.

You are free to disagree with me, but you can't label me a criminal because I will not go along with your cause.

__________________
All opinions my own.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

When It's A Bad Idea To Mistrust The Government

Today my Twitter feed is alive with concerns about H.R. 6393, the Intelligence Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2017. 

This is the bill that authorizes a year of spending by U.S. intelligence agencies, including The Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI); the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA); the Department of Defense; the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA); the National Security Agency (NSA); the Departments of the Army, Navy, and Air Force; the U.S. Coast Guard; the Departments of State, the Treasury, Energy, and Justice; the Federal Bureau of Investigation; the Drug Enforcement Administration; the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO); the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA); and the Department of Homeland Security.

A couple of examples: "If Senate Passes H.R. 6393 it will Declare Alternative Media Illegal! No more Infowars, Drudge, many Others!" Another: "WAPO is the symptom, H.R. 6393: Intelligence Authorization is the problem - get ready for the McCarthy committees." See screenshot.

The actual bill, however, doesn't say anything about shutting down alternative media. It does however authorize three things, all of which make sense from an intelligence point of view:
  • "Submit to the appropriate congressional committees a report on the counter-messaging activities of the Department of Homeland Security with respect to the Islamic State and other extremist groups.
  • "Counter active measures by Russia to exert covert influence."
  • "Publish on a publicly available Internet website a list of all logos, symbols, insignia, and other markings commonly associated with, or adopted by, an organization designated by the Secretary of State as a foreign terrorist organization under section 219(a) of the Immigration and Nationality Act (8 U.S.C. 1189(a))."
While it is true that there was a political attempt to insert Russia into the U.S. elections as a messaging agent, it is also true that all countries use political messaging as a tool for exerting international influence. The intelligence bill explicitly sets forth the expectation that we will do so, and will of course counter others who are trying to use such messaging against us.

Another example of misplaced mistrust is opposition to the DOJ's Rule 41, which is intended to secure a court venue for remote computer searches.  This is a rule that enables law enforcement to more efficiently find and stop child predators and criminal hackers who hide behind the Internet, as explained by Assistant Attorney General Leslie Caldwell, writing at the DOJ.gov blog:
If agents are investigating criminals who are sexually exploiting children and uploading videos of that exploitation for others to see—but concealing their locations through anonymizing technology—agents will be able to apply for a search warrant to discover where they are located. 
And second, where the crime involves criminals hacking computers located in five or more different judicial districts, the changes to Rule 41 would ensure that federal agents may identify one judge to review an application for a search warrant rather than be required to submit separate warrant applications in each district—up to 94—where a computer is affected.
The Congressional Research Service offers several examples where Rule 41 searches have already helped law enforcement. At least one case (the first one mentioned below) shows that limited scope provided limited results for investigators:
"The first publicly reported court case which relied on a NIT [network investigative technique - law enforcement jargon for remote searches - DB] was in 2007, where the government obtained a Rule 41 search warrant to identify a Myspace user who had made bomb threats to a high school. The warrant...explicitly did not permit access to the content of any electronic messages."
"In 2012...the government initiated Operation Torpedo, which involved the
take down of a large-scale online child pornography network....Ultimately, based on this information, 14 individuals were brought to trial on child pornography charges."
Again, there is opposition to an expanded Rule 41, with some civil rights advocates arguing that the DOJ is unnecessarily trying to expand its powers and infringe on the rights of ordinary citizens. As Techdirt.com put it,
"This expansion is supposedly justified by the technological arms race law enforcement agencies (like the DOJ and FBI) continuing to claim they're somehow losing, despite billions of tax dollars and years of perfecting their skills. Rather than work within the confines of the Fourth Amendment and other related considerations, the government is looking to create a broad and permanent downhill slope to ease its investigative burden."
Unfortunately, the level of mistrust in--and, I would argue, the outright fear of--the government has risen to such levels that literally every action it takes is suspect. This is not to argue that every law, rule, regulation and policy is right--far from it--but rather that mistrust and fear make it impossible for people to consider its actions objectively.

In terms of fear of the government, perhaps the best example I can think of right now is the very low number of people who have signed the "Investigate the PizzaGate Claims" petition right now on Petitions.WhiteHouse.gov. (This is a petition that law enforcement investigate claims of a pedophile ring operating in Washington, D.C., a story that emerged from Election 2016 Wikileaks.) The level of interest on social media is obviously very high -- a Google Search of the term "Pizzagate" yields 2,340,000 results--but only 173 people have signed so far.

The response, when I asked about this, was essentially that "you'll get a lot more signatures on January 20," e.g. when President-elect Trump is inaugurated.

But as Congressman Trey Gowdy has pointed out, repeatedly, the wheels of justice do not operate on a timetable. And, obviously, they should not depend on who is in power.

In matters of holding the government accountable, we cannot lose our balance, either this way or that. We should insist on pointing out what seems wrong or misguided, but this should not mean that we dissolve our capacity to think rationally, and fall into paranoia.

__________

All opinions my own.






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