A matter of your biology, values and tribe

We view ourselves as rational, thinking beings. We consider facts, evidence and argument, weigh the pros and cons, and make informed, reasonable judgments.

At least that’s what we think we do. If it were true, why do topics that supposedly can be proven or disproven by science – for example, whether to add fluoride to our water supply to protect our teeth, or whether to immunize our children – divide communities?

And those are the easy issues,compared with the debates surrounding climate change, evolution or whether homosexuality is innate or is a choice.

Are people uninformed? Have scientists and other sources of knowledge and authority lost their credibility? Are religious values trumping scientific findings?

Or, is something more complicated going on?

While disagreements over these and other topics often seem irreconcilable, it turns out that recent
research in neuroscience, social science and other fields offers new insights on how we process information and form our beliefs and judgments. Anyone involved in communications, marketing, or other activities designed to inform or persuade, if they are to understand their audiences, must take note of these findings and their implications.

A rush of blood to the forehead

An Associated Press-GfK poll designed to be representative of the U.S. population and released in March illustrated the current level of public acceptance of scientific assertions. About four in 10 Americans are not too confident or outright disbelieve that the earth is warming as a result of human-caused heat-trapping gases; that earth is 4.5 billion years old; or that life on earth evolved through a process of natural selection. Results also indicated that 51 percent of Americans question the Big Bang theory.

Some of the nation’s top scientists reacted to the survey’s results with dismay or even dismissal. The chief executive of the American Association for the Advancement of Science said that, when values and beliefs conflict with science, “most often values and belief trump science.” The winner of the 2013 Nobel Prize in medicine added, “Science ignorance is pervasive in our society.”

Such comments, however, are not only dismissive but, in light of recent research, an oversimplification. In The Science of Why We Don’t Believe Science” (2011) reporter Chris Mooney, who has written extensively on how the public views such issues, wrote that modern neuroscience has shown that reason is actually suffused with emotion. Positive or negative feelings about people, things and ideas arise much more rapidly than our conscious thoughts, “in a matter of milliseconds.” He writes that evolution, in giving us basic survival skills, has trained us to react quickly to stimuli in the environment. “We apply fight-or-flight reflexes not only to predators, but to data itself,” Mooney notes.

Neuroscience was also the basis for research conducted in 2003 by University of Maryland psychologist Kevin Dunbar and discussed in the New Yorker in 2006. Dunbar showed videos – first, to non-physics majors, and then to physics majors – based on the experiment conducted by Galileo in which objects of two different weights were dropped from the same height.

The conventional wisdom was that the heavier object would fall at a faster speed; that was portrayed in one video, which was selected as the correct answer by the non-physics majors. The actual experiment, of course, demonstrated that the two objects fell at the same speed, portrayed in a second video. When told that video was the correct one, the non-physics majors experienced a brain activation consisting of a squirt of blood to a collar of tissue located in the center of the brain. Neuroscientists have long known of this response when a person sees something that seems wrong, even if it’s right.

The more interesting finding came when Dunbar showed the videos to physics majors, who knew the right answer. Even so, when they selected the correct video, blood flow increased to their brains’ dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, located just behind the forehead. This biological activity is important in suppressing so-called unwanted representations, getting rid of thoughts that aren’t useful. In other words, Dunbar explained, even though they knew the right answer, the physics majors’ brains had to do additional work, suppressing intuition. In being presented information that challenges innate beliefs, however, many don’t emulate the physics majors and undertake that extra mental labor.

Not scientists, but lawyers

Mooney also cites Stony Brook University political scientist Charles Taber, whose research indicated that when a person hears about a scientific discovery that challenges a long-held belief, a subconscious negative response to the information guides the types of information and memories formed in the conscious mind. The person, Taber said, naturally retrieves thoughts that are consistent with previous beliefs, so that they can build an argument and challenge what they’re hearing.

As a result, Mooney observes, when we think we’re reasoning, we may instead be rationalizing. He quotes an analogy offered by University of Virginia psychologist Jonathan Haidt: “We may think we’re being scientists, but we’re actually being lawyers.”

Mooney also has documented the work of Yale Law School Professor Dan Kahan, who has shown that the deep-seated views of people about morality and about the way society should be ordered are strong predictors of who they consider to be legitimate scientific experts – and, as a result, where they consider “scientific consensus” to lie on contested issues.

In his research, Kahan classifies individuals as either “individualists” or “communitarians,” and as either “hierarchical” or “egalitarian” in outlook. “Somewhat oversimplifying,” Mooney writes, “think of hierarchical individualists as conservative Republicans and egalitarian communitarians as liberal democrats.”

An example from Kahan’s research: “A friend tells you that he or she is planning to read a book about an issue (e.g., climate change) but would like an opinion on whether the author seems like a knowledgeable and trustworthy expert.” The subject was then shown a fake resume of the expert, a member of the National Academy of Sciences who has earned a Ph.D. in the pertinent field from one elite university who was now on the faculty of another.

The subject was then shown an excerpt of a book by the “expert,” in which the scientist stated that global warming is real and human caused. The result: only 23 percent of hierarchical individualists agreed the person was a “trustworthy and knowledgeable expert,” while 88 percent of egalitarian communitarians did. Similar splits were seen in such issues as whether nuclear waste could be safely stored underground and whether letting people carry guns deters crime.

The bottom line for Kahan: people rejected the validity of a scientific source because its conclusion contradicted their deeply held views. “And that,” Mooney reports, “undercuts the standard notion that the way to persuade people is via evidence and argument. In fact, head-on attempts to persuade can sometimes trigger a backfire effect, where people not only fail to change their minds when confronted with the facts – they may hold their views more tenaciously than ever.”

Ezra Klein, former Washington Post blogger and now editor of the “explanatory journalism” site Vox.com, also interviewed Kahan, for a recent post, How Politics Makes Us Stupid” (April 6, 2014).

Ezra Klein

Describing Kahan’s social science experiments, Klein writes that they’re “designed to test people’s abilities to consider the evidence arrayed before them. It forces subjects to suppress their impulse to go with what looks right and instead do the difficult mental work of figuring out what is right. In Kahan’s sample, most people failed.” In other words, they didn’t allow the necessary the blood flow to the fronts of their brains.

Klein notes that Kahan’s hypothesis is not that people are held back by a lack of knowledge, but that there are some kinds of debates where people don’t want to find the right answer so much as to win the argument. Certainly, Klein quotes Kahan, most of the time people are “perfectly capable” of being convinced by the best evidence; for example, on whether antibiotics work, whether the H1N1 flu is a problem, or whether heavy drinking impairs one’s ability to drive.

“But our reasoning becomes rationalizing when we’re dealing with questions where the answers could threaten our tribe,” Klein writes. “Individuals subconsciously resist factual information that threatens their defining values.”

The continuing question: How to persuade?

How, then, to overcome our internal biology and tribal allegiances to sort out fact from fiction or distortion and address the long-term challenges of society, and civilization? Or, as Mooney asks, “What can be done to counteract human nature itself?”

He answers that question by advising, “If you want someone to accept new evidence make sure to present it to them in a context that doesn’t trigger a defensive, emotional reaction.” He posits, for example, that conservatives might be more likely to be concerned about climate change if that message comes from a business or religious leader, “who can set the issue in the context of different values than those from which environmentalists or scientists often argue.”

Kahan, on the other hand, places more responsibility for communication on these issues with the scientific community. According to Klein, he would like to see researchers develop a more “evidence-based models” of how people often treat questions of science as questions of identity. By doing so, Kahan says, scientists could craft a communications strategy that would avoid biases of their audience.

Still, as divisions continue over these issues, science alone will not provide all the answers. “There’s something charming and roguish about some Americans’ antipathy to authority and refusal to defer to experts,” wrote Bloomberg reporter Christopher Flavelle in March. “But that means the biggest challenge associated with climate change my not be technological, economic or political, but cultural. That’s a puzzle even the smartest scientists haven’t been able to crack.’

Whether in forming political consensus, persuading customers to select a product or gaining support for a public initiative, communicators cannot be satisfied simply to present facts, information and research. We need to understand our audiences’ values and the “tribes” that influence their behavior. That, in and of itself, is nothing new, but these and other studies offer new insights on how to navigate those factors in making new connections.


Public relations for businesses: a matter of perspective

Suggest to an owner of a small or mid-sized business that he or she can use public relations as a strategy to support business growth, and the businessperson is likely to demur. “What do I know about getting covered by the news media?” or the owner might say: “I don’t have a clue about how to use social media like Facebook for my business.”

The responses are common, but they often reflect many missed opportunities. That’s because they reflect knowledge only of public relations tactics – certainly, tactics that can be effective tools in a building a reputation for businesses or organizations. But that’s the point: they’re just tools. Understanding how public relations can help your enterprise means, first, understanding how public relations is a matter of perspective.

The beginning of a significant new field

Let’s start at the beginning. In my first post on this blog, I referred to Edward Bernays, who was

Edward L. Bernays

Edward L. Bernays

listed by Life magazine among the 100 most influential people of the 20th century. How was he influential? It started with his relatives.

Bernays was a double nephew of Sigmund Freud. His mother was Freud’s older sister, Anna, and Bernays’ father was the brother of Freud’s wife. Bernays, in fact, was born in Vienna, although his family moved to New York in 1892, when he was just a year old.

Sigmund Freud

After graduating from Yale in 1912, and unsure about what he would do with his life, Bernays traveled to Vienna to spend a few months with “Uncle Siggy.” He gained a firsthand understanding of the work of his uncle, and the principles of the emerging field of psychology. He was confident that the principles of psychology could be applied to many different fields – government, politics, even business.

As World War I approached, Bernays joined others in government in propaganda work to raise support for the United States entry into the war.

After the war, Bernays embarked on his own consulting practice. Since the field was entering – creating, in fact — didn’t have a name, he invented one. In his 1923 book, Crystallizing Public Opinion, he coined the term “public relations.”  In the years that followed, he advised many famous public figures, including Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, and a succession of U.S. presidents.

Creating a new opportunity

What is the lesson for today’s business owners? I believe it’s epitomized in one account of how Bernays put his principles into practice. It came near the close of World War II. Although the war had not yet concluded, Americans were beginning to look forward to the day when U.S. soldiers would return home.

Representatives of one of Bernays’ clients, a national booksellers’ association, came to him and said, “Mr. Bernays, soon, millions of Americans will be coming home from the war. We want them to buy books. Is there a way, they asked, that you can help us?” Bernays told them that he would think about it.

Bernays knew that, with so many soldiers returning to the United States, they would be starting families and, eventually, looking for homes.  So, with the booksellers in mind, he approached an association of homebuilders. He talked with them about an anticipated increase in home building, and discussed possible ideas they could make new homes attractive to potential buyers. And one of his suggestions for making home interiors attractive to young families, with a touch of sophistication, was to include built-in bookshelves.

The feature did prove attractive to new homebuyers, and once they purchased their homes, they filled those shelves with lots of new books.

The lesson for business owners isn’t hard to see. In fact, many small businesses and entrepreneurs already follow Bernays’ thinking.

Right in your neighborhood

There’s a small hardware store in my neighborhood where the owner hires students from a nearby private high school to help out in the afternoons, after school. He focuses solely on those students in seeking part-time help for the store. The students greet every customer who comes into the store, asking what the customer is looking for and helping to find the product. The store’s owner doesn’t publicize or advertise this, and he’s been doing it for years.

Other than paying the students for their part-time work, he doesn’t spend a dime – but you can be sure that the parents of those students are not only grateful for the jobs, but if they ever need something from the hardware store they know the first place they’ll stop.

Here’s another example: A local dentist who practices in my area takes a couple of weeks annually to volunteer his services at a mission in Latin America. He provides much-needed dental care to very poor children. Until his first visit, many had never seen a dentist.

When he returns home, he posts pictures of his latest mission trip in his lobby. The display isn’t intrusive, nor does it ask for any donations for the mission. It just offers some information on his volunteer work. Yet patients cannot help but see the photos, and are likely to conclude – and tell their friends – that he’s a caring, committed professional who serves his community, both locally and globally.

The next, final example has not been utilized, but only proposed. But again I believe it illustrates the type of thinking involved in understanding and utilizing public relations.

A few months ago I met a young inventor. He had a pet dog; when a new roommate came to live with him, however, they found that the roommate was allergic to dog hair. Rather than having to choose between the dog and the roommate, the inventor put his knowledge to work and developed a product that reduced the level of dog hair in their house, relieving the roommate’s discomfort.

I asked the inventor how he planned to market the product. He listed some traditional advertising and marketing tactics. For example, it likely would be sold in pet supply stores. “Pet supply stores?” I asked. “Those are for people who already have dogs. It would seem you need to reach those who can’t have dogs because of their allergies”

I suggested he look into providing information on the product directly to allergists, or perhaps in journals read by allergists or through allergists’ conferences. Once they were familiar with the product, I said, if they treated children who couldn’t own dogs because of allergies, the doctors could provide information on the product to the parents. What a great story could be told, I said, if his product made it possible for a child, for the first time, to experience the love and companionship of a dog.

Just change your thinking

As these stories illustrate, public relations can benefit a small business, a health care professional or an individual inventor and entrepreneur. The purpose is to build a trusted reputation among influencers and key audiences. Developing a strong and positive reputation can lead to heightened attention, favorable public opinion and new customers.

A lot of people — especially those who are hiring someone to do their public relations for the first time — think that our business is just about positive press. Make no mistake: sometimes media relations (a classic public relations tactic) are necessary, and, increasingly, utilizing social media or other tactics is necessary.

But, first and foremost, public relations is about the ability to understand the wants, needs, desires and fears of others, and to take authentic action to help the client – in many cases, the business owner — overcome a challenge or take advantage of an opportunity. Sometimes that involves media relations, sometimes it doesn’t. It’s ultimately about building and maintaining trust.

Public relations, therefore doesn’t require a businessperson to think like a reporter, or a news commentator, or like someone who has a large following on social media.

It just requires you to think in a new and different way: to think like a psychologist.

The role of good judgment: You be the judge

Check out job descriptions for management-level positions at most any company and they’re likely to have some common denominators. At the top will be requirements for specific experience and qualifications in the job’s given role — whether corporate communications, marketing, computer science, finance, business administration or other areas. Next, the description usually will state the desired experience or knowledge in a company’s particular industry.

Beyond the specific technical expertise required for a position, organizations will also stipulate that candidates for management-level roles possess certain more subjective qualities.  These are likely to include leadership, management, team building and, in most cases, “judgment.”

But what, exactly, is judgment? Webster’s defines it as the “power of comparing and deciding; understanding; good sense.”

Management gurus Noel M. Tichy and Warren G. Bennis explored it in depth in their 2007 book, Judgment: How Winning Leaders Make Great Calls. They analyzed cases involving several prominent CEOs – including Jeff Immelt of General Electric, Jim McNerney of Boeing and A.G. Laffley of Procter and Gamble – and called judgment the “essence of leadership.” They evaluated several cases to show that, although good judgment isn’t something we’re born with, it can be learned.

Their oft-quoted bottom line: “With good judgment, little else matters. Without it, nothing else matters.”

Judgment calls that earned the headlines

Which, perhaps, is why it’s not judgment, but the lack of it, that tends to attract the most attention. Consider, for example, three recent examples:

  • In December, Jennifer Sacco, Corporate Communications Director for New York-based IAC, which operates the Daily Beast, Match.com and other web sites, tweeted the following just before taking off on an overseas trip: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” By the time she arrived in Africa, the tweet had “gone viral” and she had lost her job.
  • Also in December, April Todd-Malmlov, the director of MNsure – Minnesota’s state health insurance exchange – resigned after it was disclosed that, during November, when enrollment was at its height and, at the same time, enrollees were having problems with the exchange’s web site, she had been on a two-week vacation in Central America. The ill-timed vacation created an uproar among political allies and opponents alike.
  • Earlier, in August of last year, Tim Armstrong, the handsome, charismatic, young CEO of AOL, alarmed both employees and investors during an all-employee conference call. In the middle of the call, to discuss pending job cuts at the company, listeners were started to hear Armstrong suddenly tell a staff member, “You’re fired!” It was later disclosed that the employee, contrary to Armstrong’s earlier instructions, had persisted in photographing Armstrong, prompting his termination. Still, employees who had dialed in for the call recorded it, and one shared it with media affairs journalist Jim Romanesko, who picked up on the story and caused it, also, to “go viral.” The ensuing uproar only added to the woes at AOL and the pressures on Armstrong.

Tim Armstrong, AOL CEO [Photo: Business Insider]

For the time being, Armstrong has weathered the storm. A concerted effort to restore his reputation has included a lengthy article in Business Insider that chronicled his struggles to restore AOL to profitability and provided context for the employee meeting outburst. In addition, the company’s results have improved.

You’re always “on”

But the Armstrong example illustrates what’s different today in terms of the ramifications of poor judgment. In the past, there may have been times when leaders failed to exercise good judgment, but it wasn’t immediately evident, giving them time to correct the situation. Today, in addition to the traditional media reporting on poor judgment by leaders, those leaders now have to factor in social media. At the AOL meeting, employees had their smart phones on, recording the meeting. As little as five years ago, that never would have happened. Now, employees are emboldened to turn on their smart phones, and the technology makes it so easy to record an event and share it.

Likewise, In Sacco’s case, social media not only made it easy for her to tweet before thinking: it also

Jennifer Sacco [Photo: Huffington Post]

provided an additional trail of evidence reflecting poor judgment. According to Buzzfeed (Dec. 20, 2013), this was not the first time she had posted questionable statements on social media. As early as January 2013, she had tweeted: “I can’t be fired for things I say while intoxicated right?”

Was this crisis necessary?

Perhaps it’s primarily in such “moments of truth” that leaders can demonstrate sound judgment. As Tuchy and Bennis note, many of history’s most famous – and successful – judgment calls occurred during times of crisis.

But I’m confident most hiring managers would prefer not to take that risk. Instead, they would want to do all they can to help ensure that the manager they’re hiring has the maturity, perspective and common sense to exercise good judgment. Perhaps more importantly, although such spectacular failures in judgment are the cases we remember, there are many more routine, everyday decisions by company and organizational leaders when sound judgment leads to the right decision. These cases go unnoticed, yet are also “moments of truth” when organizations benefit from the judgment of effective leaders and managers.

To help ensure that such judgment calls are sound, routine and correct, hiring managers can benefit from taking more time to evaluate a candidate for a management job, beyond technical knowledge and capabilities – talking with the candidate’s former colleagues, scanning the candidate’s track record, and asking the candidate how he or she would handle certain types of situations.

April Todd-Malmlov [Photo: Politics in Minnesota]

For example, a Minnesota Public Radio report the morning following Todd-Malmlov’s resignation noted that she “possessed an almost savant-like ability to recall facts and figures about some of the most obscure insurance regulations.”

A “savant-like ability to recall facts and figures,” just like a natural charisma or a versatility in social media, might be attractive qualifications for a given job. But hiring managers, while recognizing such talents or qualities, might be well advised to take the added step of giving the candidate the time and opportunity to become more seasoned, learning from more experienced, proven managers. That can help develop a leader who not only has mastered a job’s technical qualifications, but also has earned the confidence of top management to exercise sound judgment.

When the results of a manager’s judgment – or lack of it – can be magnified immediately by new forms of media, that’s more important than ever.

Seeking public relations counsel: a brief shopper’s guide

We’re quickly approaching the end of the year, when businesses close out projects and assess their progress for 2013. As attention is turning to plans for 2014, many managers will evaluate their public relations, marketing and communications activities, and consider whether to seek the assistance of an outside firm, or, if the results have not been satisfactory, decide to look for a new agency.

Before becoming an independent consultant, I worked for more than 20 years on the “client side,” in corporations and, early in my career, in government. In a variety of situations, my colleagues and I would interview, evaluate and select public relations firms and counselors. Based on that experience, the following are some important factors to consider in your own deliberations:

(Although these tips are written in the context of evaluating public relations and communications firms – e.g., referring to “they” – the suggestions can also apply to evaluating sole practitioners.)

Are they strategic?

There’s probably no more overused word in business today than “strategic,” yet its true meaning is often overlooked; specifically, the ability to plan acourse of action to achieve a goal or objective. The responsibility of a public relations counsel is to chart a public relations strategy that will, in turn, support an organization’s business strategy.

The communications objectives, for example, might change opinions, increase awareness or establish an organization’s reputation. The key is to have a direction and an ultimate objective – and for that objective to enhance an organization’s overall success.

Too often, however, public relations firms and counselors tout their capabilities, and whether they can utilize the latest in communications tools or innovations. One firm or counselor may showcase their experience in social media; another, in video; or yet another in events that have attracted wide publicity.

A prospective PR firm must have the right capabilities, but it’s important for the client not to become enamored of the “latest shiny thing” in media and communications. Instead the client should ask the firm to demonstrate how it has developed strategies in the past, and applied its capabilities to achieve measurable objectives. If a firm is truly strategic, they’ll be able to answer those questions.

Do they understand your business?

This seems like such a basic requirement for outside counsel, but over the years I’ve been struck by how agencies – whether from public relations, marketing, advertising or other disciplines – don’t always take the time to get to know the business of a prospective client.

Certainly, this requires some perspective: you’re hiring someone for their talents and skills in public relations, not to understand every single aspect of your company or to manage your business overall. Still, I’ve been surprised when people from agencies working with my employer, when offering advice or ideas, demonstrated that they didn’t understand basic aspects of my business.

On the other hand, I can recall pleasant, enlightening – even exciting – experiences during interviews of prospective agencies, when their answers to our questions showed that they had taken the time not only to learn about our company, but to understood key challenges and issues we were facing. It’s in those moments that a prospective agency or counselor shows that it can offer new, helpful insights on how you can succeed in the future.

Do they offer a fresh perspective?

As noted above, along with the understanding of your business, an agency needs to offer fresh perspective on your public relations, marketing or communications programs. In fact, the best counselors can take their knowledge of your company, business and industry and apply it to help your company stand out from its competitors.

Please note: No consultant can bring a fresh perspective to a client’s program if the client is not willing to consider new ideas. In fact, no company or manager should even consider hiring an outside expert if the manager is not open to new perspectives. If you hire a public relations counsel and begin to feel like all you’re doing is giving orders, it might be time to question whether the counsel is really adding value. Likewise, a smart client should expect outside counsel to question old assumptions – diplomatically, to be sure, but to question them nonetheless.

Do they take the initiative?

There’s no “one size fits all” approach to compensating public relations counsel. It may involve payment according to an hourly fee, payment for a specific project or payment of a pre-agreed, monthly retainer.

One case involving compensation structures, however, actually taught me the value of a public relations counsel who takes the initiative. When I was given responsibility for the communications and public relations of a division of my company, I was assigned an agency that had a long-term relationship with the corporation. At first, the agency provided me with great support and counsel. But it experienced management changes, and I was assigned new people.

The compensation was based entirely on hourly fees. I seldom heard from the staff assigned to my account; then, when I called the agency with a simple question, I’d get my answer, but soon afterward get a bill for 15 minutes of counsel. This happened repeatedly – it’s what some might call “nickel and diming.”

I evaluated the relationship, and decided to seek a new agency. The firm we hired convinced me of the value of putting them on a retainer, and once that was signed the agency always took the initiative to contact me with ideas, advice and recommendations. They demonstrated that a valuable public relations counsel will be eager to learn about the client’s business, then “take the first step” to provide assistance and support

What is their reputation – professionally, and ethically?

Getting the answer to this question will involve talking with past clients of the firm, and with other corporate communications executives. When interviewing a firm, the client also can ask if the agency belongs to a professional organization, such as the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) or the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC), and if employees are required to adhere to the codes of ethical conduct prescribed by those and similar organizations.

A public relations firm’s responsibility is to help manage the reputation of the client. Before hiring a public relations agency, make sure the agency itself has established its own strong reputation, for integrity as well as expertise – among its clients, competitors and others in the marketplace.

What other factors do you consider important in evaluating a public relations firm?

A chicken sandwich with religion on the side

I have often viewed mixing business and religion – or, more specifically, the values, stances and opinions that a business owner may derive from his or her religious beliefs, particularly when the business has no religious connection – as contrived and cheap attempts to curry favor with customers.  Recent events, however, should remind businesses that such a strategy can become an unnecessary risk to a company’s reputation.

The risk was illustrated vividly during the past week of historic change in the United States.  The U.S. Senate passed major immigration reform legislation.  Earlier, the Supreme Court issued a string of major decisions, striking down a key part of the U.S. Voting Rights Act, then issuing two major gay rights decisions: striking down the Defense of Marriage Act and letting stand a lower court ruling that struck down California’s Prop. 8 and, as a result, made gay marriage legal in that state.

Perhaps overlooked by many was the ill-advised Tweet by the president of fast food chain Chick Fil-A following the Court’s gay marriage decisions:

“Sad day for our nation; founding fathers would be ashamed of our gen to abandon wisdom of the ages re: cornerstone of strong societies.”

The Tweet was quickly removed from the company’s Twitter feed, and a spokesperson did her best to defuse the controversy with a Tweet saying the company’s president:

“…has his own views but we are focused on providing great tasting food and genuine hospitality to everyone.”

The controversy, however, had begun.  While the company may have hoped attention would turn to its products and services, it remained focused on the executive’s personal views on a sensitive social and political issue.

Most Americans are aware that Chick Fil-A, a company begun in the Southern United States, built its brand on identification with “down home,” Christian “traditional values.”  It puts those values into practice, for example, by not opening on Sunday’s, so that employees can attend church.

As the spokesperson’s follow-up Tweet illustrated, however, a corporation that takes such an approach in today’s diverse society cannot “have it both ways.”  Although the company president was moved to use his bully pulpit on a social issue, the spokesperson sought to move Chick Fil-A past a controversy it didn’t need.  “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.”

Of course, it doesn’t work that way. Any organization that decides to stake its reputation on an issue in this manner m risks the consequences, which can easily be divisive and negative.  Someone in company management needs to ask, “What in the world does religion have to do with serving a good chicken sandwich?” And if we position our company in this way, won’t consumers avoid us due to their reluctance to support certain political positions?

Which leads, perhaps, to a broader issue, something that consistently baffles business people in countries outside the United States.  Why, they ask, are people in this country – which led the world in separating church and state – so inclined to mix business with their own religious views? As the global economy has developed, successful and sensible companies have recognized that business success should not depend on the sect you belong to or whom you associate with, but on performance, innovation, competitiveness and achieving company goals.

The best of intentions

Such risks to a company’s reputation, however, are not limited only to such public controversies.  At a company where I once worked, the talented and committed CEO was very supportive of employees, often seeking their views on how the company could improve and succeed.  In a commendable effort at employee communications, he would periodically email all 100 employees an update on company progress, priorities plans.

The CEO, however, would often include in the emails comments on the importance of his faith and beliefs.  Although never emulating the Chick Fil-A president by commenting on controversial social issues, the CEO was eager to share how his religious principles guided him in leading an ethical and successful company.

During a conversation on company communications, I suggested to him that although employees understood and respected his values and beliefs, such comments could risk making some employees uncomfortable, or could distract from the company’s principal mission and focus.  At first, he didn’t entirely agree and was somewhat defensive.  But eventually he did acknowledge that he could talk with employees about company values and commitment to the company’s goals without introducing an element of religion.

Unlike the Chick Fil-A president, he knew that leading all employees in a successful business purpose did not require them to endorse or even agree with any belief that, in essence, is something each employee is free to choose and decide on privately.

Successful corporations, to use a rather outdated term, “respect diversity” not simply out of a desire to recruit the best talent from a work force that is much more diverse than just a few years ago.  It also reflects a professional understanding that employees, customers and other stakeholders consider certain beliefs and choices matters of private, personal choice. Although religion has played an important role in U.S. history, so, too has the American belief in individualism and desire privacy. In today’s global economy, that belief has become universal.

The values and ethics of a business are certainly important to employees and their commitment to a company’s mission: they provide the basis for the firm’s identity and reputation. When a company, however, decides to express a religious view – totally unrelated to its business purpose – on a sensitive public issue, it must tread carefully.  An impetuous Tweet by a national executive can pose an warranted risk to his own company’s reputation.

Media relations in China: a matter of protocol

xinhua_news_agency_32633aWith news global and accessible 24 hours a day, it’s easy to assume (as many do) that public relations – and, in particular, media relations – is the same the world over.  But although “Western” style independent journalism is practiced in many locations, there are still cultural and political norms and customs that need to be considered by professionals who represent their clients to members of the news media.

That’s especially true in China, whose one-party political system affects the Chinese view of how the media – both domestic and international – should function in their country.  Approaching the news media in that country – for example, to seek attention and coverage for a U.S.-based client entering the market or doing business there – requires a very different protocol than in the United States.  In business journalism in particular, it relates to the importance of hierarchy in China’s political system as well as among a variety of social networks and organizations, and the guanxi – relationships – that are required to conduct business effectively.

In the United States, a public relations professional who wants to provide information or pitch a story idea about a client to the media typically contacts the reporter or editor who would most likely cover that story – who covers that “beat.”  Successful PR people work to become trusted sources for reporters who may have an interest in a given topic and what their client may have to say about it.

While relationships with individual reporters are important in China, there are several other critical relationships required to deliver a client’s message or story effectively.  To successfully obtain media coverage in China, the first step is not necessarily taken by a PR person with a reporter.  Traditional protocol looks to top executives of the client organization – for example, a U.S.-based company – to introduce themselves and begin the relationships with the top management of the Chinese government as well as the targeted Chinese media organizations.  I saw this firsthand when serving as the public relations person for a U.S. reinsurance company entering the China market in 2001.

We were interested in obtaining coverage for our company’s opening of a Beijing representative office, even though many Western insurers already had such offices in China. But there were still many topics and issues in the China marketplace on which our company could offer insights and expertise.  So, with the help of an experienced China consultancy based in Hong Kong, the Exceptional Resource Group, or “XRG” (www.xrg-china.com), we prepared a set of statements on such topics as China’s pending entry into the World Trade Organization and the importance of reinsurance in the development of China’s infrastructure.  We had those statements, along with company fact sheets, backgrounders and a news release – both in English and Mandarin – ready to distribute in a comprehensive media kit.

The relationship lunch

Then, at XRG’s recommendation and with their assistance, we took the first step: an informal relationship-building lunch with editors of the top national Chinese business and news outlets.  In a private room at a Beijing restaurant, we hosted the top execs of such publications as China Daily, China Insurance, China Economic Times, China Women’s Daily, the Xinhua news service, and others invited with the assistance of XRG.  This kind of informal lunch is feasible in China because all national media organizations work for and report to the same national government and political overseers. Interspersed around the large table were well-briefed senior executives from our company, along with strategically positioned interpreters.  All of us from the United States were prepared to talk about not only what our company wanted to bring to the Chinese marketplace, but our views about key economic and business topics and issues – the timely topics that would be of most interest to each one of the different Chinese news organizations.

The conversation was friendly, convivial and free flowing.  It also was interesting to observe the interactions of the editors, who knew one another but apparently didn’t see each other very often.  The lunch also was an opportunity for them to reconnect and talk candidly about issues of the day.

XRG brought to our attention an important caveat: although it was okay for the Chinese editors to openly voice their criticisms of their current situation in the informal lunch atmosphere, this did not mean that we, as foreign guests in China, could, or should, do the same thing.

As the end of the luncheon approached, we distributed our prepared media kits.  Then, as the news chiefs reviewed the materials, we saw the fruit of our efforts: the editors began pulling out their cell phones and calling their reporters, instructing them to attend our official opening reception the following evening and to ask for me.  The next day, before the reception was to begin, reporters showed up at the event, asking for our media materials.  (Later that evening, our company’s executives would cap the event with an official ceremony with officials of the China Insurance Regulatory Commission.)

Mutual respect and trust

Does this approach guarantee a company’s desired media coverage? Not at all.  The reporters I talked with asked smart and probing questions, and were just as prepared – if not more so – than reporters I met in Beijing from Western news services.  But our media relations approach reflected a respect for their culture, and helped to build relationships of friendly respect and trust, demonstrating how building guanxi guides business and similar interactions in and with China.  The resulting positive media coverage, reaching millions in the China marketplace, helped to introduce our company to this dynamic and growing marketplace.

As China’s news media has grown and developed, such an approach likely may not be feasible in all circumstances.  But as our success showed, a clear holistic understanding of how to build relationships and navigate the protocols in and between many different Chinese political, government and media organizations is fundamentally important not only to doing business in that country, but to conducting media relations as well.

If the Father of Public Relations lived in the social media age

One of the biggest influences on my professional career was Edward L. Bernays.  When I mention his name, most people say they never heard of him.  Yet, Life magazine named him one of the 100 Most Influential People of the 20th century.  And, based on the way he treated friends, clients and associates, he would have been right at home in today’s “social media” world of communications.

Edward L. Bernays

Edward L. Bernays

Upon graduating from college (Cornell, class of 1912), Bernays chose journalism as his first career, and worked in the Woodrow Wilson administration during World War I on the Committee on Public Information, which was influential in promoting the idea that America’s war efforts were primarily aimed at “bringing democracy to all of Europe.”

Following the war, Bernays considered whether the committee’s efforts to “engineer public consent” could be applied in peacetime.  Most significantly, he studied the theories of his uncle, Sigmund Freud.  Both of Bernays’ parents were related to Freud, and Bernays eventually determined that he could apply “Uncle Siggy”‘s principles and those of other psychologists to business. In 1923, in the book Crystallizing Public Opinion, Bernays coined a term for how he would make that application: public relations.

I learned this when I had the opportunity to meet Bernays at a two-day, limited-attendance seminar with him in New York several years ago.  At the time, he was in his mid-90s (Bernays died in 1995 at the age of 101), and clearly appeared frail and elderly. But his lively mind recalled many fascinating stories and offered insightful counsel on the various projects and programs we were working on.  As demonstrated in an energetic 16-block walk with our group to dinner, he was in good physical shape.

The stories of his 70-year career as counselor to Presidents, chief executives and world leaders left many strong impressions, but perhaps the most impressive was something that happened to me just a couple of days after returning from the seminar.  I received, in the mail, the copy of an article – I don’t recall what it was about, but what I remember most is that, at the top of the page was stamped “For your possible interest – E.L. Bernays.” To my surprise, he had sent me something he thought I might be interested in reading.

Yes, I know, he probably did that with everyone who came to the class, as well as many others he’d added to what must have been a huge mailing list.  But to a junior PR person early in his career, it was both memorable and encouraging.

So, why would Bernays be at home in today’s world of social media and digital communications?  Take a look through LinkedIn – in particular, at what is posted on the various LinkedIn groups you may belong to.  Yes, job openings, and blog posts, but in many cases, links to interesting articles.  To share insights and build relationships with others on LinkedIn, many post examples of “thought leadership” that may resonate, influence or be relevant to others in similar fields and industries.

It’s a basic, yet powerful, way to display an understanding of a topic or issue, to help inform and enlighten others, and to provide others with information that they can put to use.  In the business of public relations, it’s basic to building relationships with clients.  And if he were alive today, Bernays – the “Father of Public Relations” – would be online doing the same with those on that huge mailing list.