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Dealing With 21st Century Media: It's Back to Basics . . But What Are the Basics

By Ed Shiller

Ed's Blog

Following is a presentation by Ed Shiller to the Calgary Chamber of Commerce Speakers Corner Luncheon on October 30, 2001.

Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen:

I’m an American by birth, and when I was growing up in New York in the 1950s, I used to imagine how someone like George Washington would react if he were suddenly plunked down in the middle of the modern world.

Would cruising down the highway at 60 miles an hour throw the father of my native land into a panic? Would he be mystified by the voices coming from the radio? And what would television, the telephone and the airplane do to his 18th century sensibilities?

Well, I think today’s elementary school children might amuse themselves with fantasies of the degree to which someone of my own father’s generation would be awestruck by the new and amazing technologies of this emerging millennium.

Now, we don’t have the populated space stations envisioned back in 1968 by Stanley Kubrik’s “2001, A Space Odyssey.” And Hal, thankfully, remains only a figment of our collective imagination.

But I’m sure that the flower children of the psychedelic age only experienced cyberspace as a byproduct of LSD-induced hallucinations.

E-mail, the internet, chat rooms and the instantaneous access that just about everyone on the planet now has to just about anything that’s going on anywhere were beyond their ken.

The technological advances of the past 30 years far exceed anything that had occurred from the time George Washington crossed the Delaware in the icy winter of 1778 to my childhood musings while being driven across New York’s Triborough Bridge in 1953.

And do you know what? From the standpoint of fundamental communications, none of that means a thing.

If you add up the affect of all the technological advances from the dawn of history to the present day on the fundamental mechanisms governing how human beings communicate with one another, the sum would come to zero.

Whether the news of the Trojan War were conveyed to the masses, as it was 3,200 years ago, by Homer and other roving troubadours, or by internet and satellite television, as it would be today, the effect would be the same. It’s just that today, we would learn of it quicker.

Words, whether written or spoken, would affect a human being living in the ancient world in much the same way as the written or spoken word affects us today.

And the reason that human beings communicated with one another back in the time of Moses, Jesus or Mohammed is the same reason that human beings communicate with one another today.

And to explain what that reason is, I’d like to quote myself. In the introduction to a booklet on preparing news releases, I wrote:

It has been argued that public relations writing is intended either to inform or persuade. However, since the underlying purpose of "informative" writing is to set the reader upon a path that will eventually lead to the adoption of attitudes or actions desired by the author, you could conclude that the only reason the public relations practitioner writes is to persuade.

One could extend the thought to argue that the underlying purpose of all writing, indeed of all communication, is to influence the attitudes and hence the behaviour of those on the receiving end of a news release, pamphlet, annual report, product brochure, political platform or advertisement.

And it’s probably also true that the underlying purpose of communication among members of all species is to persuade. A bird sings to define its territory or attract a mate. My dog barks at the mail carrier to chase away the intruder.

But if a communication is to be effective . . . if you are to succeed in persuading someone to do something . . . the appeal must be made to the self-interest of the person you are trying to influence, not to your own self-interest.

You want to attract customers to buy your product. Your company will then become more profitable and you’ll become richer. But the customer won’t buy simply to help you. The customer will buy only when the purchase will benefit him or her.

But the immediate purpose of persuasion – at least within the dynamic I am describing and advocating – is not to get people to sign on the dotted line. It is not to close the deal on the spot. It is merely to give people relevant, truthful and accurate information so that they may determine, in their own time, which course of action will best serve their own enlightened self-interest.

If what you’re selling – whether it be a consumer product, a government policy or a perception of your organization – brings true benefit to your publics, then this process of persuasion serves everyone.

You have what might be called a coincidence of self-interest.

But if those benefits do not really exist, the proper course of action is not to lie and deceive – it is not to spin your story. It is to modify what you’re selling.

Put another way, doing bad things and then lying and deceiving people about them are out.

Of course, people have been lying and deceiving since time immemorial. And in time, most of the liars and deceivers are found out. As Abraham Lincoln, another of my compatriot heroes, once said: You can fool all of the people some of the time, and some of the people all of the time. But you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.

I guess that can put our minds at ease – at least a little bit.

But serious problems arise when people actually tell the truth, but are not believed.

There can be a number of reasons for this. But I will deal today with just one of them. That is when people convey the wrong message, not by what they say, but by how they say it. And I will confine my discussion to a single communications dynamic: giving media interviews.

Forget the bells and whistles of modern technology, if you want to communicate effectively in the new millennium, go back to the basics.

And the most important basic concept of communications is this: The medium is the message.

Marshall McLuhan coined this phrase more than 30 years ago. I have to admit that I haven’t a clue as to what the great Canadian communications guru, himself, meant by that phrase. I spent years trying to get myself into his mind, before I simply gave up and delved into my own.

So here’s what I mean by the medium is the message: You are the medium, and your behaviour is the message. If you act in a forthcoming, responsive and honest way, people will perceive that you have nothing to fear or hide, and the message you convey is that you are credible.

If you behave in a furtive manner, try to manipulate the reporter or become defensive, the message you convey is that you have done something wrong and are trying to keep the world from finding out about it.

And you will not be believed.

For years, media trainers have been telling executives to “steer” reporters, to “control” the interview, to “deflect” questions, to ignore what the reporter asks and “zoom” to one of your key messages. And for years executives have been getting – and following – bad advice.

That’s because the actual words you speak are not the message, they merely carry the message.

If I tell you that I am Julius Caesar, do you really believe that I am the ancient Roman dictator? Or do the words really carry the message that I am delusional?

And that’s the way it should be . . . as long as that message is truthful and accurate.

But what if you appear shady, fearful, defensive and manipulative, not because you are up to no good, but because you’re afraid that people might think you’re up to no good, or because you’re fearful that if you say the wrong thing or if what you say might be taken out of context, you’ll get into trouble with your boss?

This phenomenon is explained by a science called psycholinguistics. The underlying principle is that your behaviour reflects your attitudes. So if you are anxious, your behaviour – your verbal and nonverbal communication – will project anxiety.

The reporter and anyone else exposed to your behaviour in the interview will likely connect that behaviour to whatever question was asked. They will therefore distrust your answer, even though the words you utter may, in fact, be the truth.

Let’s say you’re being interviewed about a fatal accident at your factory. The reporter asks point blank: Was the company at fault? You say it wasn’t. But you look nervous and uncomfortable; your eyes dart from side to side; there is a tense edginess to your voice, and your answer is terse – almost dismissive.

All of this is a function of your anxiety. And all of it will be interpreted as proof of your guilt.

And what if you operate according to the misguided, but popular, belief that the best way to conduct yourself in a media interview is to “steer,” “control,” “deflect” and “zoom”?

The principles of psycholinguistics apply here, as well. The message communicated by steering, zooming and other manipulative behaviours is that you have something to cover up, and this will create suspicion and antagonism, even if you have done nothing wrong.

In effect, the perception of wrongdoing that your behaviour created is untruthful and inaccurate. And that, in itself, is wrong, since that perception may induce people to act in ways they believe will be to their benefit, but may actually prove to be harmful.

Imagine this: You distrust the way a hospital administrator acts in an interview, and that leads you and others to conclude that the hospital is not properly looking after its patients. Some time later, budgetary pressures force the government to cut healthcare expenditures. The government, aware of public attitudes, targets the offending hospital, which then shuts down.

But what if the negative perception of the hospital was false and that the administrator’s behaviour that led to that perception was caused, not by an effort to cover up wrongdoing, but by a lack of skill in giving media interviews? The result? A good hospital that served the public well, goes out of business, because public opinion was misinformed.

Learning how to communicate effectively is necessary in this or any other millennium. And when it comes to giving media interviews, the best way to avoid the fate of our mythical hospital, is to listen carefully to what’s been asked. Give that information, and then amplify it with a key point that puts the information into an accurate and meaningful context.

A key point, by the way, is something you would have identified prior to the interview when determining what you’d like to say about a given topic if the reporter ever asked.

So, the true secret to giving effective interviews and to getting accurate and balanced media coverage is to master the art of saying truthful and relevant things in a truly believable way.

You should know, however, that this advice only works when the organization you represent does basically good things in good ways, that it admits mistakes whenever they are made, atones for any harm those mistakes might have caused and takes measures to ensure that the same mistakes don’t happen again.

Before I open the floor to questions, I would like to make one additional point about the moral and pragmatic imperative to give people truthful, accurate and relevant information about things that affect their self-interest.

And it is this: Public relations, as a profession, may have been preaching openness, honesty, public interest ever since the early days of the vocation back in the 1920s.

But in reality, too many public relations practitioners – and too many clients – look upon the shaping of public opinion solely as a means of attaining organizational ends, regardless of their true and lasting effects on society.

The practice of spinning is one inevitable consequence. And what is spinning, if not the distortion of the truth to make yourself look good.

Building up false or harmful expectations is another consequence. To market an automobile as a sexual lure and not as a safe, efficient and comfortable means of transportation is a case in point.

When communicators and the people that hire them put glamour ahead of substance, the public will end up misled and disappointed. If we, the public, believe this propaganda, our values will become warped, and we will end up searching for non-existent pots of gold at the end of imaginary rainbows.

One of the pioneers of modern PR was an American named Edward L. Bernays. And one of his most famous initiatives – one that is still studied in college and university PR courses – illustrates the destructive consequences of shaping public opinion for prurient self-interest.

His client was Lucky Strike cigarettes. And back in the 1930s, the company identified women as a lucrative, but as-yet untapped market. Bernays’ strategy was to glorify smoking. He positioned smoking by women as fashionable. He persuaded restaurants to offer cigarettes as a dessert choice. Concerned that the green colour of Lucky Strike packages might conflict with current women’s fashions, he began a campaign to make green a part of the palette of women’s clothing and accessories.

So women began to smoke in order to be chic. They put glamour before substance; false self-interest before real self-interest. All in the name of profit, and all at the hands of a public relations genius.

The lesson of this early PR campaign has relevance today.

We now know that the onset of the 21st century did not signal an era of peace and prosperity. We have entered what the Chinese might call “interesting times.” We are confronted with economic slowdown, the threat of international terrorism and the reality of deadly warfare.

Each of us, as ordinary citizens or as leaders of powerful corporations and government departments, will be called upon to make decisions about courses of actions that can shape our lives and those of our progeny.

Are we going to act on the basis of accurate and relevant information or be misled by irrelevant and distorted information? And what kind of information will we, ourselves, disseminate?

 


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