Lay Off of My Persuade Shoes
Here’s the invitation for this 2009 presentation, followed by the presentation as given with slides and script. The order of the presentation and some of the script has been edited. During the presentation, each section was introduced by a short clip of a relevant popular song.
The “Persuasion Industry” was headed for trouble even before the current economic meltdown. With the advent of the Internet, Craigslist, TiVO, and on-demand digital TV, advertisers have struggled to figure out new forms, formats, and formulas that will add to, rather than deplete, their clients’ profits. And Public Relations experts are just beginning to deal with the brave new media world of YouTube, blogs, Twitter, and Facebook. Their heavily-massaged “messaging” is now just one of many sources that shape the public’s views of the companies, industries, organizations, and individuals who are paying the PR bills. For one observer, what’s bad for the purveyors of persuasion is good for the rest of us. Steve Stockdale provocatively suggests that it’s time for persuaders from all walks to reconsider their purpose and methods in his presentation, “Lay Off of My PERSUADE Shoes.”
- Digital Convergence
- Public Relations (PR) Perspective
- General Semantics (GS) Perspective
- Compare/Contrast Two Perspectives
- Example Case: Chesapeake Energy
I want to thank you for the invitation to come speak for a few minutes today.
I’m going to try something a little different as an overview of what I want I want to talk about today. Here are five song titles that I hope give you some idea of what’s to come:
- Bob Dylan’s The times they are a-changin’
- Aretha Franklin’s Think!
- Joe Cocker’s Unchain my heart
- Jonny Lang’s Lie to me
- and closing with the ‘title’ song, if you’ll allow a tiny lyric alteration,Lay off of my PERSUADE shoes by, of course, Elvis.
My objective is to give you something to think about, to provoke some reactions. In keeping with the title, I hope I don’t step on anybody’s toes, but to mix a metaphor, if the shoe fits …. and away we go.
There’s no doubt that the times are indeed changing, given the number and severity of the many problems or crises we face, not just in the U.S. but throughout the world. These kinds of challenges will require us to bring our “A game” so to speak, if we are to resolve and not become consumed by them.
However, it’s pretty clear that one of the overriding crises we face is that for every one of these problems, and most other problems, there’s no clear consensus. There’s no clear consensus on the nature of these crises, and therefore no consensus on what to do about them. Just about every political party, religious organization, industry group, government, or special interest advocates an approach to these problems that fits their own specific agenda or point of view.
So to make a dent in this list, somehow we’re going to have to appeal to our best capabilities as individual human beings, beyond the competing special interests. That’s the big picture that I hope you’ll keep in mind as we go through this presentation.
But of course, closer to home with you guys, is the real crisis of what’s happening to journalism today, and perhaps to a lesser degree, advertising and PR.
Now, I should say here that these are my own personal assessments. I’m describing what I perceive as a non-credentialed consumer, I don’t have access to any inside information or professional insights.
As I see it, it’s not journalism as a process that’s broken, but it’s the business of journalism, and specifically daily newspapers, that seems now to be on its deathbed. The times that are a-changin’ are a-killin’ newspapers.
And while the changes aren’t yet so visible within advertising and public relations, I would argue that hairline cracks are beginning to show.
For one thing, it’s become a commonly-accepted practice, when you have a problem and don’t quite understand it or know what to do about it, to change what you call it. And since within the industry, and the university establishment that trains its practitioners, there are moves to new labels such as “Strategic Communications,” I’d say that’s probably a portent of things to come.
But a more tangible reason for concern for ad/PR interests is that newspapers have historically provided the persuasion industry with a principal platform for their appeals. With the demise of the newspaper as a platform vehicle for advertisements and press releases on behalf of clients, what media will pick up the slack?
From my perspective, change is here and change will continue for journalism, advertising, and PR.
What’s driving this change?
I first heard the term “digital convergence” in 1995 when I was working for Texas Instruments. We had a consultant come in to talk with us and one of his themes was “digital convergence.” He said that with the advent of the Internet, the new digital mobile phones, and continued miniaturization of consumer electronics, we were heading toward a future in which all of our major electronics would be able to “talk” or communicate with each other. And one of the effects of that would be that we would someday be watching TV on our cell phones. That’s “digital convergence.”
Well, kudos to that consultant, because digital convergence has happened. Not only do we have new devices that weren’t envisioned in 1995, they’re all based on digital interfaces that allow us, primarily through the conduit of the Internet, to transfer data from one device to another.
Some of the major consequences of digital convergence include:
- There is no hard media … it’s all bits and bytes and electronic energy.
- Since there’s nothing tangible to distribute, there’s no need to packaging or shipping so there’s no transportation costs.
- The Internet is world-wide, so there are no borders or limits to the range or reach of these digital packages.
- Because the bits and bytes can be stored in computers, and devices with increasing memory capacity, we can read, watch, or listen to the digital content when-ever it’s convenient.
- And with the latest digital phones, notebook computers, and iPods, we can take our digital media with us wherever we go.
All of this wondrous progress brought to us by digital convergence has all but killed the printed daily newspaper. Why?
Newspapers live by advertising revenue, particularly classified ads. With the widespread availability and effectiveness of free listing services such as craigslist and eBay, which allow virtually unlimited text space and images to promote whatever it is you have to sell, local classified ads have become marginalized if not altogether unaffordable, ineffective, and unnecessary.
More people are getting their print news online, where the local news must compete with regional, national, and international news … on demand. That means fewer people are buying newspapers, so for newspapers the circulation revenue stream is also drying up.
So far, newspapers haven’t figured out a revenue model for online advertising to replace their print losses.
The biggest factor, however, indicates to me that newspapers are already the 21st century equivalent of the telegram. And that’s this: other than personnel, the major cost drivers for newspapers are “bad” and, given the Internet, they’re not necessary. When I took the daily Fort Worth Star-Telegram, I recycled a full grocery sack of wasted newsprint and advertising inserts every week. That amount of waste is bad environmentally. But that’s nothing compared to the amount of energy it takes to process and deliver newsprint to the printer, run the printing presses, and then drive the finished product to its destination, whether it’s a newsstand downtown or a front porch in the suburbs.
And I said earlier, as the circulation of newspapers shrinks, so shrinks the platform for advertising and PR.
But then looking specifically at advertising and PR in the broader context beyond just the impact of dying newspapers, consider these impacts from digital convergence:
- The consumers that used to be reliably reached through “mass media” now have an increasingly large array of choices beyond the traditional TV, radio, newspapers, and magazines.
- Not only do consumers spend more and more time online rather than glued to the tube, but they now have hundreds of digital TV channels to choose from, plus TiVo or DVR recording capability.
- And in addition to the old AM and FM radio stations, we can listen to radio stations from around the world brought to us via the Internet, plus we have satellite radio, and HD radio.
Which means we’re a much more fragmented and hard-to-reach audience for advertisers and PR practitioners. They used to think in terms of reaching a “mass market” with a major campaign or initiative. Persuaders now have to prepare a variety of specifically-targeted packages to be delivered across a variety of platforms to reach specifically-targeted demographics.
Perhaps the biggest challenge to those in Public Relations is the fact that with YouTube video, blogs, social networks, and the means to immediately communicate and organize through texting – they no longer exercise a media monopoly on their clients’ projected image. The Internet and the integrated digital capabilities it enables can provide just about anyone the means to rant about a company or a politician, or investigate, organize, or mobilize.
If it’s still unclear why newspapers are gasping for survival, it might be worthwhile to look at another familiar medium that has been radically transformed as a result of digital convergence.
The 78 rpm record format became a standard in the 1920s, and remained so until the late 40s when the slightly larger 33 1/3 rpm “Long Play” or LP record came on the scene. The smaller 45 rpm format shortly followed.
Then in the late 60s came 8-track tapes, which were short-lived as the cassette tape became the tape format of preference throughout the 70s. Then in the 80s records and tapes both became obsolete with the emergence of Compact Discs. It looked like CDs would rule for decades. Until digital convergence brought us the media-less advent of iTunes and digital music.
Just as the media of records and CDs evolved into — (almost) literally — nothing but bits and bytes, so the medium of the printed daily news is rapidly evolving into … nothing but bits and bytes.
So from global crises to national problems to worries about millions of jobs, we have lots to think about. What are our prospects for survival?
Well, let’s hope they’re not this dire. After all, we’re humans … we have our finely-tuned and intrically-developed cortex, or mammalian brain, with which we can intelligently reason.
We don’t have to rely on our reptilian brain that governs our emotions. We can do better than this roomful of reptilian chauvinists … right?
We can learn and thoughtfully discern our way through our crises … Right?
Let’s look at a couple of different perspectives that imply approaches or considerations in terms of how might want to think about our current crises.
The first perspective comes from a book published in 1928, about a decade after the end of World War I. Perspective #2 also comes from a book, but one published five years later in 1933.
How do these quotes compare in terms of stating a perspective? What about each of them do you agree and disagree with? Which do you believe would be more relevant in terms of thinking our way through our myriad crises? Let’s take a look at both.
Edward Bernays and PR
Since most of you have an Advertising or PR background, I hope you recognize the name of Edward Bernays. He authored Perspective #1 in his 1928 book, Propaganda.
“The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country.”
Born in 1891, Bernays had a famous uncle — Dr. Sigmund Freud. His family immigrated to the U.S. and Bernays was one of the early pioneers in the field of public opinion shaping. At the age of 26, he was an important member of President Woodrow Wilson’s Creel Committee that was responsible for turning American public opinion in support of the Allies in World War I, paving the way for the U.S. entry in 1917.
Two years later he was credited with opening the first public relations (PR) practice. In 1923, he taught the first university course in PR at New York University.
Perhaps his most famous PR initiative was on behalf of Lucky Strike cigarettes in 1929. To increase cigarette sales, the tobacco companies had to overcome the stigma that was attached to “respectable” women smokers. To publicly demonstrate that “respectable” women could smoke, Bernays hired dozens of attractive debutantes to march in the highly-social Easter Day Parade in New York, arm-in-arm with handsome young escorts, all smoking Lucky Strikes. The staged event was reported in newspapers across the country, and from the perspective of the cigarette manufacturers, it was a great success.
Bernays is generally credited as the father of public relations.
Here’s a short clip about Bernays and the early days of public relations from the 2002 documentary “Toxic Sludge is Good for You.” (Might the title of the documentary itself reveal an editorial perspective?)
Discuss your reactions to what this clip suggests. How does the material in the clip relate to Bernays’ statement in support of the propaganda perspective?
Now let’s consider a second perspective.
Alfred Korzybski and General Semantics
Alfred Korzybski was born in 1879 to a land-owning family in Poland. He was raised by servants from four different countries who spoke four different languages. So he grew up with a working knowledge of Polish, Russian, German, and French. In this type of multilingual environment, it came naturally to Korzybski to disassociate the word, or symbol, from the thing that the word or symbol represented.
As a student he studied engineering, mathematics, and chemistry. When the first World War erupted in 1914, he was enlisted into the Russian cavalry. Not only was he severely wounded, but he witnessed first hand the devastating effects of all the new weapons of war that debuted during this “war to end all wars” … airplanes, armored tanks, rapid-fire machine guns, poison gas.
He was sent to North America toward the end of the war when he could no longer serve on the battlefield. He supported artillery testing in Canada before transferring to the U.S. where he traveled the country speaking to groups and selling war bonds. After the war, he remained in the U.S. and married a woman from Chicago.
He was haunted by his experiences during the war. As an engineer, he pondered this question: How is it that humans have progressed so far and so rapidly in engineering, mathematics, and the sciences, yet we still fight wars and kill each other?
He devoted the rest of his life obsessed with this problem. In 1921 he published his first book, Manhood of Humanity. Then in 1933, he wrote what became the source book for the field of study we know as General Semantics …. Science and Sanity. The quote offered as Perspective #2 is from that book:
“Man’s achievements rest upon the use of symbols. For this reason, we must consider ourselves as a symbolic, semantic class of life, and those who rule the symbols, rule us.”
Now, I realize that the focus of this presentation is not General Semantics. But since I’ve taught the subject for the past four years to “mass communications practitioners,” I’d like to say a few words about it because it does represent a perspective that I think is important.
The definition I’ve come to use with my university students is this:
General semantics deals with the study of how we perceive, construct, evaluate and then express our life experiences through our language-behaviors.
Note that I’ve connected language and behavior with a hyphen and refer to language-behavior. I think most people usually talk in terms of language AND behavior as though the two are separated and not associated. But in General Semantics we consider language as something that humans — you and I, as individuals — do … it’s part of our behavior just as much as our breathing, our eating, our laughing, our crying, our working or playing.
We do language. And because our language-behaviors are so integral to human cooperation, as well as human conflict, Korzybski spent his life observing, understanding, and documenting this process of perceiving, constructing, evaluating and then responding with our language-behaviors.
He developed a model or a diagram for visualizing and understanding what he referred to as the abstracting process. But as a way to introduce that, I want to first show you a similar model that you might already be familiar with.
I learned this as the “Information Theory” model. It’s simply a pyramid divided into four sections:
The largest section on the bottom is labeled “data”. Above that is a smaller section labeled “information.” Then a smaller section labeled “knowledge”, and then a top section labeled “wisdom.” (Sometimes the “wisdom” section isn’t included, and other labels could be substituted for it.)
But the point of the model is to show the relationships that: from much data, we derive (or to use Korzybski’s term, we “abstract”) usable information, from which we can further abstract what we call knowledge … and then (in some presentations of the model) wisdom.
So it’s as though we filter out the data that doesn’t concern us, we keep and use what does, and from that we construct information that we find meaningful. Then we further filter what we’ve labeled as information that results in what we label knowledge.
Here’s a quick example. Take everything that I’m saying as a part of this presentation, as well as every slide and media clip. Every word and every image can be considered a single item of data. As you observe and listen, some of the words and images will amount to nothing more than noise … but some of it (I hope, a lot of it) will register with you as something that’s relevant or meaningful as information. And when it’s over, perhaps you’ll say that you learned something and feel more knowledgeable.
Now let’s look at Korzybski’s model as similar to this Information model, after we’ve turned it upside down. Each level compares generally to its corresponding level in the Information model.
Remember that this GS model is diagramming or ‘mapping’ the process of how we perceive, construct, evaluate, and respond to our life experiences.
The first step in this process of experiencing (starting at the top right) is that … well, there’s some kind of an experience. Something Happens. It’s important for us to realize and be aware that, as humans with finite sensory abilities, we cannot know or experience everything that happens. There are limits to what we can see, hear, smell, touch and taste. So there’s a lot more that hap-pens … there’s a lot a more DATA … than what we can experience.
Secondly, through our senses we interact with our environment. Within the limits of our sensing capabilities, we detect whatever is happening. But it’s important to remember that not only can we not sense everything, but what we do sense is to some degree unique to our individual sensory abilities. We each have a different sensory acuity when it comes to our vision, our hearing, our taste discrimination.
And it’s also important to remember that what we sense is not “what happened” … our sense experience is an imperfect abstraction of what happened that’s been filtered, you could say, or constructed by the nervous system.
The next part of the process, labeled as “evaluation,” represents the first verbal level in which we can describe, or cognitively recognize, what our senses tell us about the experience. But again, what we can say or think or write about the experience, is NOT the experience itself.
The fourth level then, after the descriptive phase, is labeled as “meaning” … what the experience means is some-thing more or different than just how we describe it.
So to summarize this process of abstracting:
- What we can sense is NOT what actually happens.
- What we can describe is something other than what we actually sense.
- What an experience means is something more than just what we can describe. What an experience means is the result of this filtering, or abstracting process in which each stage represents a different activity of a physiological process.
As an example, let’s consider again what’s going on in this room. The “goings on” or “things that are happening” are experienced by each one of you as different individuals. Each of you sees and hears what goes on slightly differently than anyone else.
In the diagram, you see four individuals experiencing the same happening. But we start to see differences in their individual abstracting processes at the evaluation stage, or the third level of describing what they experienced. Let’s say they were each asked to write a simple report of “what happened” during today’s meeting.
Jane may give a detailed summation of each part of the meeting, as if she were preparing the minutes. John might comment only on the business that was conducted and simply state there followed a program. Elvis might describe what he selected from the lunch buffet in detail, skip over the business matters, and summarize points from my presentation. So each individual’s report might be colored or flavored differently.
But then in the final step of the process we can really see the differences between each our hypothetical observers. What they individually got out of this meeting, or what the meeting meant to them, varies a great deal.
In this case, “You” enjoyed it, without any reaction one way or the other. Jane, however, loved it. John didn’t really care for it and lost interest, but while his thoughts drifted to a problem he has at work he had a brainstorm idea that he can’t wait to go back to the office to implement. Elvis was left wondering how any of this related to shoes.
So that’s a basic introduction to the abstracting process that’s central to the GS understanding of how we perceive, construct, evaluate, and respond to our life experiences.
Now we have two different perspectives to consider … one that advocates the “unseen mechanism of society … an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country” … and the other that is concerned about the means by which individuals can properly evaluate and, if necessary, resist the efforts by the unelected but unseen true rulers of our government … and therefore, rulers of us.
Given the current crises we discussed before, which of these perspectives do you think is most relevant to you and me? Which do you believe is most well-known, the most taught, and employs the most practitioners?
Not surprisingly, it’s the Bernays perspective that’s become a major industry, and significant academic field of study.
How has it proven its value? What’s the secret to its success over the years?
Following are video clips from two documentaries that address this subject. The first is from the 1984 “The 30-Second President” produced by Bill Moyers. The second is from the 2004 PBS Frontline report titled “The Persuaders.” I highly recommend both. You can watch the persuaders online at the pbs.org website.
As you watch and listen to these speakers, see if you can discern what the common denominator is, that each considers necessary for a successful advertising or PR campaign.
[video clips not included]
Here are some of the phrases used in the preceding clips. Do you see a pattern or can you determine what the common denominator is in defining what these advertisers and practitioners are after?
Good on you if made the connection to our poster child for the reptilian brain, which is … about the size of a walnut.
Let’s apply the GS model and compare “what’s going on” with a hypothetical company using these two perspectives … Korzybski and GS without PR, vs. Bernays and PR, with PR.
In the first case, our hypothetical company acts, does its business, and generally behaves as it normally does.
The public, to the extent they notice at all, observes the company’s actions and behaviors. The public considers and evaluates the company based on these observations; then forms judgments, opinions, feelings, attitudes, etc., about the company.
From the company’s perspective, they’re off doing their business. With respect to their public image, they’re content to let the chips fall where they may.
Now let’s look at the same company, but assume that, for some reason, they’re concerned about how they are perceived by the public.
They go about their business, but they also begin to do things specifically designed to “project the desired image” they want the public to hold.
The public, which may not be very observant about what the company is doing in the first place, DOES take notice of the PR initiative and observes, not the company’s behavior, but its heavily-promoted projections of its desired image.
Therefore in this case, the public does NOT thoughtfully evaluate the company based on what the company does, or how it does its business. Instead, the public uncritically ob-serves and accepts the image that the company projects … just like the experts we just heard would advocate. The company (and its PR consultants) know how to push the public’s “reptilian hot buttons” … in other words, rather than let the chips fall, they know how to neatly stack them, as high as they need to be.
Which brings us back to the beginning and our concern about our world crises. Which approach is going to best serve us in grappling with these problems?
Do we want to thoughtfully consider and evaluate the actual facts that are relevant to each of these issues, using the best our cortical brains have to offer?
Or, are we content to be manipulated by the unseen mechanisms of hundreds or thousands of public relations operatives, advocating solely for the short-sighted interests of their clients? In other words, are we content to turn our democratic voices over to our easily-programmed reptilian brains? Which are, of course only … about the size of a walnut.
Now let’s look at a real example of how the Bernays perspective of corporate PR was actually put into practice and how it obliterated the line between responsible public relations and reprehensible propaganda – according to my standards. Your mileage, of course, … may vary.
Chesapeake Energy Campaign
This is a short version of a long story about Chesapeake Energy and what I called their “full-frontal, body-slamming, leg-whipping, arm-twisting, head-butting propaganda blitz” regarding the Barnett Shale.
The Barnett Shale is a geological formation that lies under North Central Texas, particularly in the heavily-populated area that includes Fort Worth, DFW Airport, Tarrant, Johnson, Denton, and Wise Counties.
The Barnett Shale contains vast reserves of natural gas at depths of between 6,000 and 8,000 feet.
Until a few years ago, it wasn’t profitable to exploit these reserves. But new horizontal drilling and extraction technologies, combined with higher prices for natural gas, have resulted in “drilling fever” throughout north central Texas.
Chesapeake Energy (based in Oklahoma City) is the biggest, and by far the most locally-visible, player in this 21st-century “gas rush.”
What happens in Fort Worth is critical to companies like Chesapeake whose business plan is focused on exploring and exploiting these deep shale reserves.
The Barnett Shale is only the first of several major shale plays across the country. And importantly, Fort Worth is the first major city to deal with the effects and consequences of dozens, if not hundreds, of gas wells to be drilled and to operate not just inside the city limits, but throughout all parts of the community and its neighborhoods.
What happens in Fort Worth may well set a precedent for how shale reserves are developed across the country.
The Chesapeake propaganda blitz began early in the spring of 2008, featuring Texas native Tommy Lee Jones on billboards, radio, and television ads all over the Fort Worth-Dallas area.
A couple of months later, Chesapeake began buying air time to show a half-hour infomercial titled “Citizens of the Shale.”
Then last July (2008) they announced the creation of a new Internet television venture called “shale.tv” to be headed by the “Walter Cronkite” of Dallas-Fort Worth TV news, Tracy Rowlett. In addition to Rowlett, the new venture recruited major producer and editor talent in John Sparks and Olive Talley, plus a handful of other respected journalists.
Then they again bought airtime on a DFW television station to broadcast “Unconventional: The Story of the Barnett Shale”, a 50-minute paid-for-documentary produced by Trinity Films.
And then, as if all that wasn’t enough, came word of a (quote) “16-page children’s coloring and activity book featuring Chesapeake Charlie — a friendly beagle who knows a lot about natural gas production and its many benefits.”
That did it. From my perspective, when you bring in adorable dogs in a coloring book for kids, you’ve crossed the line. I decided to look more closely into this “marketing initiative/propaganda campaign”.
Here’s Aubrey McClendon, co-founder, chairman and CEO of Chesapeake Energy, introducing the “Citizens of the Shale”. Pay attention to how he represents and characterizes what anyone other than a Chesapeake employee would clearly label as an infomercial. (I’ve added the subtitled text for emphasis.)
After McClendon’s introduction, the program is hosted or narrated by Ginny Simone, identified only with the label of “Reporting.” However, far from a “reporter” in the journalistic sense, she’s actually a Senior Vice president with the Mercury Group, a subsidiary of Ackerman McQueen, a major public relations firm in … Oklahoma City. If you Google Ginny Simone, you’ll immediately discover that her primary gig is as a ‘reporter’ for “NRA News,” the in-house promotional and advocacy organ for the National Rifle Association.
So let’s see how true to his word CEO McLendon is regarding his introductory claims about the citizens of the shale “investigative news report.”
“Honest and balanced”?
By my count, 37 different people speak during the “investigative news report.” 33 speak in support of urban drilling, most without qualification or concern … 4 express significant concerns or are unsupportive.
Here are four speakers who appear in the program. Do you think they are supportive or unsupportive?
Here are four other speakers … supportive or unsupportive?
Supportive or unsupportive?
Supportive or unsupportive?
Can you discern supporters vs. non- (or even ambivalent) supporters just from pictures, framing, and captions?
Here’s a different analysis. The program includes about 26 minutes of speaking time during the program. Of those 26 minutes only about a minute, or 3 and a half percent, of the speaking time is given to those 4 unsupportive citizens.
So after analyzing the “Citizens of the Shale” and researching more about Chesapeake Energy and Aubrey McClendon, here’s what happened …
Last year I was one of the designated “community columnists” for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. I decided to devote my August 9th column to this propaganda effort.
Within hours after the column came out, I was surprised to be contacted by Olive Talley. She acknowledged and appreciated the concerns I raised in the column and, on behalf of Tracy Rowlett, John Sparks, and the others, offered her willingness to work with me to address those concerns.
I met with Olive a few days later. Which led to me inviting Olive, Tracy, and John to attend my class at TCU, General Semantics for Mass Communications Practitioners. Olive and John tentatively accepted.
But over the next month, the world economy and the fortunes of Chesapeake Energy changed dramatically.
Here’s a chart of the high and low daily stock prices for Chesapeake for the 12 months since October 2007.
The stock price peaked at $74/share on July 2nd. The shale.tv venture was announced on July 11th. With the collapse of the stock market and world natural gas prices in late September and early October, Chesapeake Energy stock sank to a low of $11.99 on Friday, October 10th. The next Monday, October 13th, Chesapeake announced a series of cost reduction actions, including the termination of the shale.tv project.
However, even after losing their jobs, Olive and John still made it to my general semantics class at TCU on November 11th. (Coincidentally, the 90th anniversary of the armistice that ended the war to end all wars.)
This is a slide I showed to my class in introducing John and Olive. There are indeed many issues related to the Barnett Shale natural gas development. There are legitimate disagreements between those who advocate with different interests. The long-term, and even short-term, impacts on individual property owners and the community as a whole might be significant.
So, from my perspective, what the community needs is an open, transparent, good-faith debate with all parties having equal access to relevant facts, figures, and information.
Is that possible when the corporation with the biggest financial stake tries to dominate and manipulate the terms of what little debate they’re willing to allow?
Right off the bat, John and Olive revealed a healthy dose of defensiveness. With his opening comments, John took issue with the fact that I introduced him as a “former journalist.”
Olive related her disappointment with former colleagues at the Dallas Morning News who disparaged her, John, Tracy, and the others as “shills for the Shale.”
But despite their defensiveness, they led a wide-ranging discussion with the class for a full hour. They talked about the major stories they had reported or produced throughout their careers. They explained that, had the shale.tv venture continued, they would’ve brought the same journalistic skills and processes to bear … regardless of who signed their checks.
They regretted that their former co-workers, and the general public, didn’t give them the benefit of the doubt that they could still act and behave as responsible journalists, even in the employ of a corporate interest. They regretted that their corporate employer pulled the plug on them before they had the opportunity to air even one report.
And yet, at the end, they both admitted that, had their shoes been on others’ feet … they would probably have exhibited the same degree of disdainful skepticism as their colleagues.
I came away impressed with John and Olive. I have no reason to doubt or question their sincerity, and had they been able to continue with shale.tv, I believe they would have held true to their journalistic convictions, which I’m guessing, would’ve eventually caused them some problems with their paycheck signers.
Their candid comments to the class revealed, to my ears, what might be considered a “dirty little secret” within the professions. Despite the fact that virtually all major universities include both journalism and ad/PR within the same department or college, there exists a huge chasm between the professions … at least from the perspective of some journalists.
Beyond the obvious similarity that both professions involve writing and “communicating,” the purpose of a journalist differs from the outset to that of the advertiser or PR practitioner.
A PR initiative benefits from employing the appearance of a “journalistic influence.” And in fact, as the Chesapeake infomercial clumsily illustrates, shows, PR often tries to represent itself as “news.” The more a PR initiative is perceived as “news” or “journalism,” the better.
After all, other than format and fees, what’s the difference between a “press release” and an advertisement?
The opposite holds for journalists … real news and real reporting is tainted and discredited once the scent of PR is detected, suspected, or reflected.
But, unfortunately, the current business conditions have resulted in a one-way flow … there’s no money or (apparent) career potential in journalism, but for the time being there’s still money and still hiring in PR. Journalists have few career avenues … other than to shuffle across to the other side of the street, so to speak.
So where does all of this leave us?
Before I conclude, I want to thank you for your courteous attention. I expected to feel a little like Daniel in the lion’s den, coming in here and, more or less, ____ing all over your profession and chosen life’s work. Or at least that’s the way it might have come across.
I hope not. I hope I’ve presented some legitimate “information” that provokes the best of your cortical brain and stimulates you to think … and not just emotionally react.
I want to conclude with some questions you might consider.
Even though you may work 8 to 10 hours a day and get paid for your ability to persuade others, that leaves the majority of your time on the other side of the persuasion ledger. When you’re susceptible to the same persuasive ploys implemented by others who are trying to manipulate or influence you. How vulnerable is your “reptilian hot button”?
Are you bothered to hear highly-respected marketers and advertising CEOs speak unabashedly, and unashamedly, in terms such as “cult-like devotion” and “loyalty beyond reason”? What images does that bring to mind? What are the logical consequences of such mindless loyalty? Do we really want to go there?
Some of you may be familiar with Frank Luntz’s work, either through his television appearances or his books. You might consider him a genius and wish you had his skills and abilities. Or, you might consider him the true underbelly of the dark side of persuasion.
In either case, consider two different statements made in the clip we watched. Referring to the same language tested with the focus group, he first said: “this is how we’re gonna sell it.” Then he said, “this is the language to explain it.” Are those two statements compatible. Do they express the same, or different, sentiments? And if different, is it a difference that makes a difference?
When you’re pitching to a prospective client, you put your and your firm’s best, most intelligent, most creative, most persuasive feet forward. You respect the client, knowing that if you’re successful, you’ll be rewarded, perhaps for years to come. So here’s a question … do you respect your client’s customers as much as you respect your client? More specifically, do you respect your client’s customers’ brains as much as your client’s brains?
And finally, a rhetorical question. I hope you’ve realized that throughout my own presentation, I’ve attempted to both inform and persuade. So if I’ve implied that informing is good and persuading is bad, let me correct that now. It’s not necessarily an either/or situation … depending on the motivations of the practitioner.
So what is it that I’m trying persuade you to do? Simply this … respect your profession. Respect your clients. Respect your clients customers … especially their brains. Appeal to reason. Raise the bar. Advocate responsibly, in a context larger than your clients immediate concerns.
Help us all learn and better discern, so we can all better decide.
I’ll leave you with this. You may have wondered about the picture that was at the top of all my slides. I took this photo last month when I was driving from Albuquerque to Santa Fe. I drove through a little valley, then up and over a hill, and this panoramic scene appeared in front of me.
I was so moved by it I pulled over — carefully — to photograph it.
What’s the point? What does this mean? What’s the significance?
To me, it’s this … there are two ways of looking at this photo and what it means.
One perspective is to look at this and shake your head in wonder … “why is there a billboard in the middle of this awe-inspiring scene?“
The other perspective is to look at this and shake your head in wonder … “why is there only one billboard in the middle of this awe-inspiring scene?“
What’s your perspective?
A few updates, 12 years on …
- Generally, I think this holds up well. My 5-year forecast for the demise of newspapers wasn’t correct for the entire industry, but there certainly were closings and consolidations that (ironically) made news by 2014. And that trend has continued, although the demand for news during the Trump years has injected new blood and new backing to the ‘anchor tenants’ of the national news mall, both New York Times and Washington Post (the Post assisted immeasurably by the deep pockets of their current owner, Jeff Bezos). New online players like BuzzFeed, Vox, Vice, Politico and others have gained what at this moment appear to be stable and solid traffic support. Local news as a group, however, is steadily becoming the information equivalent of food deserts.
- Although I did include Facebook’s logo on one of the slides, I didn’t mention them in the text. I had a Facebook account, but I had no inkling that they would come to dominant so much of the Internet.
- This was less than two years after Twitter became a full company. I don’t recall specifically if I had even heard about it in April 2009.
- I haven’t heard the term “digital convergence” recently, but it was definitely a thing that turned out to be both prescient and wildly under-estimated (by me, and I don’t think I was standing alone).
- I included YouTube as more or less a proxy for all forms of video (other than, of course, broadcast/cable TV). Netflix was two years into offering movies via streaming, but it wasn’t on my radar then. More generally, I had no clue that video would become so integral a part of ALL media platforms.
- In reviewing the section on Chesapeake Energy, I shake my head at my omission of the word “fracking.” I guess at that point it may have still been regarded as industry jargon. The fortunes of Chesapeake Energy reached a nadir in 2016 when CEO Aubrey McLendon died from injuries suffered in a one-car traffic accident. The accident occurred one day after McLendon was indicted on federal charges of bid-rigging.