A Communicator’s Op-Ed: Overwrought with Simplicity

It seems more often than not, over-thinking with the aim to achieve dumbed-down simplicity and obscuring the obvious solutions complicate the simplest things. Is this human nature, or a product of our current social and political climate?

I want to know what the mainstream media’s current target demographic is – seven and under? I often wonder how uneducated or ignorant they think the general population is. Granted, American education is not at the top of the world as it once was – a critical issue that needs attention – but humans, by nature, aren’t stupid. Furthermore, whether they are book smart or street smart, the majority of Americans can think for themselves and form their own opinions.

I am a big advocate of eliminating jargon and million dollar words from everyday communication. Why? Because they don’t communicate to anyone but a select few, portraying an elitist scenario that only further angers the rest of the masses. You wouldn’t always know it from my style of writing, but I am a fan of the short declarative sentence. Think Ernest Hemingway or Raymond Carver. Combine that with talking to adults as adults, not as little kids, and you have a strong formula to communicate with the public. It’s not difficult. Yet it seems so hard to do in the mainstream media and political campaigns.

I realize not all publications and media outlets fall into this dumbing-down category, but at the same time, they are not the same outlets the majority of people are turning to for their news. Complicating this scenario is that the popular outlets are fueled by biased politics on the left or right of the political spectrum. When Newt Gingrich during his presidential campaign complains about the “elite mainstream media” and how it will take his words out of context to portray him negatively, is he lumping in his friends at the Republican-supporting Fox News and their affiliates? Of course not, it would be a conflict of interest, and the die-hard supporters/Fox News audience knows it. The answer is “yes,” however, as the self-identified left-wing outlets are doing just that. But guess what? Fox News does the same thing about President Obama and the Democrats, taking their words out of context to paint a bad picture and plant the seeds of doubt.

How often have the pundits on MSNBC painted Newt Gingrich as brilliant but crazy, Rick Santorum as a scary anti-woman theocrat, or Mitt Romney as an out-of-touch one percent elitist? How often has Fox News perpetuated the absurd implications that the president was a Muslim, not born in the US, or painted his efforts to save the American auto industry as a sign of totalitarianism and government corruption? This current day mainstream media phenomenon of slanderous remarks, discrediting sound bites, and accusatory video clips is ubiquitous. And it’s sad.

What does this have to do with over-simplification? Well, the news outlets are not necessarily debating complex issues the country faces and discussing in a mature and educated fashion how a candidate’s policy could best fix those issues. I hear the same talking points from ten different supporters of a campaign on ten different communication channels, repeating specific phrases and keywords, rarely ever answering a direct question. And I observe the exact same concept from the opposition. It’s called propaganda, like it or not, and that’s how it works. The very same formulas Ivy Ledbetter Lee and Edward L. Bernays recognized and developed nearly a century ago, only applied to our modern social media connected world. And it still works when the die-hard audiences – aka the herd – are willing to soak it all in and repeat the messaging on their social networks and by word-of-mouth. An ingenious communication method can move mountains.

As for the journalism implied by the mainstream media outlets covering this stuff, what will it take to get them to take a neutral stance? I want to hear both sides of a story, not their favorite side. I want to know the nuances, the pros and cons, so I can make an educated decision when I go to the voting booth. And, I feel confident in saying this for all Americans, I want the media to talk to us as educated adults.

In my search for non-partisan clarity and neutrality, I have stumbled across new organizations with a similar mindset, like Rise of the Center and No Labels. I have begun exploring these groups and joining the conversations at Rise. So, in this world of reducing everything to dumbed down labels and demographics, does that classify me as one of the centrist herd? Do I now belong to a freethinking demographic willing to criticize and question authority and the herd mentality of biased media and politics? I would love to see how the mainstream media portrays and simplifies this new groundswell and what affect it may have on the 2012 election and beyond.

Please share your thoughts on this subject, whether you think I am right or wrong, or somewhere in between.

A Writer’s Exploration: Trust and Deception

As I sat down to write this week’s Exploration entry I found myself lost on subject matter. Lately, my head has been filled with such items as propaganda, public opinion, and other historical public relations topics. I have been reading a lot about Edward Bernays lately, if you haven’t noticed my other blog entries, along with other related subjects. To say the PR world isn’t consuming me would be outlandish, so I won’t. The combined topic of ethics and deception has called my attention this week, but this is a writing blog so I need to stay on focus.

Recently, in the online forum for my MFA writing workshop, a debate broke out about the ethics and creative freedom applied to nonfiction. More specifically, was a fabricated life story labeled as nonfiction that became a number one seller acceptable because it may have had a positive impact on the readers’ lives? I am referring to James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces, and how it was revealed to be a lie by Oprah Winfrey on her former TV show. The argument came down to two basic sides: was he deceptive and therefore committed a heinous act by lying to his audience? Or was it okay because nonfiction in general cannot be truly accurate as it is based on memories and interpretations in the first place?

Now I really don’t want to go down this road on a matter that is a few years old, but it does resonate with the matters I have been reading about Edward Bernays and his grandiose claims of affecting the American fabric through his Big Think schemes. Don’t get me wrong, I admire his accomplishments, even if some were contrary to his own claim to strong ethics, like his push to increase women smokers during the 1920s through the 40s for the American Tobacco Company, beginning with the Torches of Freedom stunt. It was revealed in his files that he turned over the the Library of Congress – 805 boxes from his nearly eighty year career – that he was well aware of the scientific findings about the ailments and carcinomas smoking caused. Yet he used his tools of public relations to persuade the public that such findings were wrong, and that any moderate smoker who was neither a child nor elderly would be unharmed. I could not believe I was reading this about the man who made ethics a top priority in The Father of Spin by Larry Tye, a biographic history of Bernays and the birth of the public relations discipline.

You could say I felt deceived. Not that his work performed forty years before my birth would have made me a smoker today, but his ethical proclamations in his books Crystallizing Public Opinion and Propaganda make him a hypocrite. Disappointment ensued in my perception of this new hero I recently found, but then, he was only a human behaving as humans do – imperfectly and fighting to stay ahead of the herd.

Looking back at what I just wrote it feels more like a confessional and venting outlet, not as fun as I normally aim for. I do know this – in his posthumous state he is still teaching me how to spot the lies and use truth as a tool to get the job done, even if it means keeping it under wraps for awhile. He did eventually lead a campaign to stop smoking in the 1960s and admitted his personal guilt on the matter. He has also taught me a lesson I saw portrayed on last week’s episode of House of Lies – don’t trust anyone until you know their angle.

Book Review: Crystallizing Public Opinion by Edward Bernays

The early history of public relations fascinates me. I find that there have been minimal societal and cultural changes, since 1923 when Edward Bernays published Crystallizing Public Opinion. The principles on which the book is based, human behavior and the needs of organizations to communicate to the public, have largely remained unchanged. Bernays was cognizant of the rapid development of technology to deliver thought communication in a variety of media and methods, such as the printing press, radio, telegraph, and motion picture, to influence public opinion. I found it refreshing to read a book on the public relations discipline without encountering the usual current day business-speak and references to social media, though the striking relevance of the subject matter to the web, email, corporate intranets, 24-hour television news networks, and satellite broadcasting is clear.

Crystallizing Public Opinion reads as both an educational piece on the public relations field and a promotional piece for Bernays’s services as counsel of public relations. I smiled as I read the successful accounts of anonymous public relations counsels who were always referred to in the third-person. I wonder if he really thought he was pulling one over on the readers when he was rightfully boasting of his many historic accomplishments in the field – I doubt it. Among those mentioned I recognized were his physician-endorsed campaign to make bacon a healthy breakfast food staple and his work to promote acceptance of the controversial play Damaged Goods about venereal disease. He knew exactly what he was doing by describing these achievements.

Bernays took great pride in detailing the profession, comparing it to that of Legal Counsel, the court of public opinion equating the court of law, and ethics and integrity being strong drivers in the values of his business. “Popular misunderstanding of the work of the public relations counsel is easily comprehensible because of the short period of his development. Nevertheless, the fact remains that he has become in recent years too important a figure in American life for this ignorance to be safely or profitably continued.” (64) What better way for him to court the interest and new business of prospective employers than to write this book with this level of this seemingly authentic conviction?

The concept of the public relations professional being the news creator caught my attention; I found this topic particularly useful in my corporate communication profession. In the business environment, news is created to drive an idea to win over employees; it needs to surpass their resistance, apathy, or disdain. “The counsel of public relations not only knows what news value is, but knowing it, he is in the position to make news happen. He is a creator of events.” (189) The strength of this role is enormous when wielded correctly because not only is it about influencing public opinion, but also turning the public – or employees – into advocates of the message. This is a necessity in communicating organizational change, for instance, a task I am now taking on.

The symbiotic relationship that the public has with the content provider, or organization, was of particular interest to me. “‘Give the public what they want’ is only half sound. What they want and what they get are fused by some mysterious alchemy. The press, the lecturer, the screen and the public lead and are led by each other.” (105) Public opinion is created by the information the public receives on a particular subject, however, the provider of the information, such as a corporate communication department, focuses on and distributes news that is determined newsworthy by the internal public as well as the senior leadership to push forward a corporate goal.

From my perspective, following this symbiotic relationship in traditional news publishing in Bernays’s time, a vicious cycle is formed that limits the amount of information made available to the public. Varying points of view and diverse subject matter are left out because of a lack of interest or political bias, even though the content might otherwise be deemed newsworthy. Positive stories in today’s news are a casualty of this constrictive cycle, it’s not nearly as attention grabbing as a horrific crime or salacious celebrity scandal. The Internet, and especially social media, may have disrupted that cycle in recent years, especially in an internal business environment where employees have complete access to the outside world. Therefore, as Bernays states, “the public relations counsel must be alive to the events of the day – not only the events that are printed but the events which are forming hour by hour, as reported in the words that are spoken on the street … or expressed in any of the other forms of thought communication that make up public opinion.” (82)

Bernays’s explanations on group psychology shed light on the various nuances that must be considered in communicating organizational change. When employees are faced with change, typically half of the population is averse to the idea, according to a recent human resources led training session on change management at my job. “Intolerance is almost inevitably accompanied by a natural and true inability to comprehend or make allowance for opposite points of view.” (90)

Being the corporate communicator (aka the internal public relations person), I have a massive undertaking to manage. To take on this endeavor, Bernays recommends, “fundamental study of group and individual psychology is required before the public relations counsel can determine how readily individuals or groups will accept modifications of viewpoints or policies.” (112) Basically, I need to survey, listen, observe, anticipate reactions, and proceed with care.

As I had recently noted in my review of Bernays’s 1928 book Propaganda, he was far ahead of his time, offering insight and wisdom on a complex discipline that will likely never cease to exist. As technology continues to evolve rapidly, increasing the efficiency, speed, and quantity of communicated information, humans are still human, perceiving and comprehending no differently now than a century ago or a century from now.

A Writer’s Exploration: On Persuasion

This is the first of a new series of blog posts on my exploration and contemplation of the craft of writing. My focus is generally on the business side, though my short fiction self will undoubtedly make its presence known. Please excuse the bland title, I wanted to avoid clichés and lameness, so naturally, my mind has gone blank. So be it. 

So, I just finished reading the book Media Control: The Spectacular Achievements of Propaganda by Noam Chomsky, a book on the use of propaganda as a device to lead a nation into war, and it got me thinking about the topic of persuasion. Persuasion is a necessary requirement of the PR/Corporate Communication field I work in, and a challenging topic at that.

It brings up a question of ethics and morals I am sure many have heard countless times about PR thanks to the bad rep of propaganda – lying. I don’t like to lie about anything, I pride myself in being honest (blatantly honest) – to the point that I sometimes need to shut my mouth. Until now, I never studied this subject in school; rather, I obsessively learn from reading and watching the news and following current events. I have become a pro at spotting the liars on the pundit shows, not only those who avoid answering the question so they aren’t technically lying. It amazes me – why is honesty in the political world so rare?

The key to strong Corporate Communication writing, among simplicity, clarity, and conciseness, is the ability to win over the audience. Winning does not imply that the writer should fabricate information, or manipulate its meaning, though I have learned from past experience some people will try it. I find in my work that honesty and enthusiasm are successful, as well as humor when it applies, writing in my own voice, and avoiding jargon and other elitist mannerisms. If I begin to write in business speak I might as well fire myself.

I am about to read Propaganda by Edward Bernays, the father of PR and the propaganda machine. This topic is fascinating; I see it touching on the 2012 presidential campaign among many other recent and current events. I will revisit propaganda in the coming weeks on this blog as my exploration continues.