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Replacing spin with storytelling

Edward Louis Bernays established the field of public relations at the dawn of the television and radio era. Bernays, drawing on the work of his uncle Sigmund Freud, invented the approach of using psychological principles through these mediums for the purposes of mass manipulation. The principles he laid down not only underpinned the techniques of advertisers, but were adopted by nation states for the purposes of creating effective propaganda. The most infamous admirer of Bernays' techniques was the Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, who used these new techniques of mass manipulation effectively to secure the Nazi rise to power and maintain control of public opinion in Germany and its conquered territories.

Today, advertisers, marketers, and public relations professionals, have perfected the technique of using mass media to manipulate the public through the channels of broadcast and print media. The classic model is to appeal to an individual's insecurities and fears, and then offer a solution to those fears in the form of a product or service. Similarly, nation states continue to use public relations techniques to influence public opinion. The techniques used in the early 20th century seem clumsy and transparent by modern standards.

There are a number of reasons to question the ethical basis of using mass psychological manipulation and reasons to question its efficacy in the new medium of the internet. We live in an era where corporate social responsibility is becoming increasingly important, not only for those business leaders who honestly desire to behave as good corporate citizens but also because the internet has made it much more difficult to contain and minimize the damage to a brand caused by bad corporate behavior. When traditional media was the only mass communication method, it was much easier for a brand or its public relations representatives to get ahead of a potentially embarrassing incident.

With the rise of social media, one bad interaction with a low-level customer service drone can become a viral storm of public outrage; efforts to silence this outrage make it explode like gasoline on a fire. The natural tendencies of public relations professionals to try to censor and delete negative commentary or bully journalists into killing damaging stories creates even more damage to a brand. The internet has dubbed this the "Streisand effect," named after an incident when the famous singer sued to have a photograph of her beachfront property removed from a website. The original photograph at the time the lawsuit was filed had only been downloaded six times, but the ensuing public interest and outrage led to it being downloaded over 420,000 times in a single month. Generally speaking, the culture of most social media and content aggregation sites makes users react with nearly violent rage at attempts to censor information, particularly when it pertains to the bad behavior of corporate or government actors.

Despite having numerous opportunities to learn this lesson, organizations continue to treat the internet, social media, and decentralized communication as a passing fad and continue to shoot themselves in the foot by failing to understand the new rules of the game. Presence across web and social media platforms, transparency, accountability, responsive and competent customer service, quick reaction time, all have become absolutely critical. Organizations, large and small, seem to often think engaging on these new platforms is optional. They often act as if they have the option of placing all their eggs in the basket of old fashioned media and ignoring new media completely, or apply techniques that used to work to the new mediums with often catastrophic effects.

What is an organization to do? With so many options, so many platforms, so much commentary, an ever changing landscape of factions, slang, and can they keep up and where do they put their marketing dollar? These questions are at the heart of their failure to adapt, and it is because of the fundamental principles of manipulative mass communications on which the field of public relations was built that they fail over and over again to get the formula right.

Transparency is not optional. As the news over the past decade can tell you, even high level intelligence agencies and militaries have a hard time keeping secrets in the porous environment of the internet. For a company with resources that are a fraction of those available to such organizations, behaving badly and keeping the secret is nearly impossible. The first and fundamental change that organizations need to make is quite simply to stop behaving badly. Whether for deeply held moral reasons or simply to protect the bottom line, it is absolutely vital that every organization make every effort to sincerely behave in an ethical manner that will not provoke public outrage. It may be impossible for some business models to change their operations in such a way that they will make everyone happy, but in this new environment a sincere effort to do so is not something that can be avoided. A chemical spill caused by lazy regulatory compliance, a discriminatory hiring practice, or a substandard product can become a social media firestorm within hours and completely bypass mainstream broadcast and print media filters where traditional spin doctoring had the most profound effect. This should not be viewed as a setback, but an opportunity even for the firms with the most egregious historical track records. It is an opportunity to tell a story.

Storytelling is at the heart of a coherent new media strategy. Startups have it easy, they can start right and take their audience on a journey to their eventual success without having the stains of a long legacy of bad behavior to erase. For older organizations that have failed in the past to behave ethically, the storytelling process is an opportunity to tell the story of how they recognized where they were failing and made honest efforts to reform their ways. Savvy consumers will often reward even the most tainted brands with their positive regard when they truly believe they have turned a corner and are doing the right things for the right reasons. It is absolutely vital that this not be done in a cynical or deceptive manner, because the story of how a company "greenwashed" an environmental issue or flooded the blogspace with astroturfed positive coverage is in itself a ticking time bomb of public outrage.


“Intelligence is the ability to adapt to change.”

Stephen Hawking


When handled properly, there is no reason any organization cannot turn this shift in the landscape of how to interact with the public into an advantage instead of a setback. Organizations must take themselves down off the pedestal where they believe they have the right and means to manipulate the public for their own benefit, for their own good. The metaphor that often comes to mind is that of the invention of steam engines replacing canvas sails. If you were a firm heavily invested in the production of sails for ships at the time steam engines became viable, and doubled down on obsolete technology your firm failed. However, if such a firm had taken the opportunity to pivot and invest in the new technology they could have turned this challenge to an advantage. Adapting to this new landscape is will be a catastrophe for those who fail to adapt. The solution is simple, live authentically and tell your story.

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