Perception is reality

Your mission: Make sure it's about them ... not you.

I love Dilbert. Scott Adams is often frighteningly spot-on about organizational dynamics. He did it again this morning with this strip. It reminded me of a passage from our new book, The TV Guide to Telling Your Organization’s Story. Dilbert

There are relatively few organizations that are going to publicly advocate for the right to blow birds out of the sky. But a number of different groups— from environmental activists to bird-watching societies—would find the quest to preserve wetlands and waterfowl appealing and a natural fit with their organization.

That’s the magic of Ducks Unlimited—their quest attracts allies and inspires them to act. The sportsmen’s group boasts of being “the world’s leader in wetlands and waterfowl conservation” … “[which] does more than any other organization to put ducks in the sky,” which is true. They also shoot more ducks out of the sky than any other organization.

You could say that making sure there are ducks to kill today and in the future is their true goal—their mission, if you will—given that about 90 percent of their members are hunters. But they (wisely) keep the focus on their quest of wetlands preservation (which just happens to further their goal).

Compare that to the American Dairy Association. Their stated mission is “to economically benefit dairy farmers by encouraging the consumption of milk and dairy products through advertising, education and promotion, to reach consumers with product benefits and advantages.”

"I just wanted you to know before you wrote them another check."

A worthy endeavor if you’re a dairy farmer. But the quest of “economically benefiting dairy farmers” is not likely to convince people to buy more milk. So while the ADA is being candid about their perfectly legitimate mission, they are missing the opportunity to connect with their audience, who might otherwise be persuaded to offer assistance.

And they are not alone. Take a gander at your own mission statement. Is your mission about helping other people or helping yourself?

Was that helpful? There’s more where that came from. You can order your copy here.

The Rise and Fall of PR in 100 Short Years

Edward Bernays, PR

The following is an excerpt from our new book, The TV Guide to Telling your Organization's Story--Insights and tools to help you navigate the Interactive Age.

Like what your see? Get yours here.

“Ours must be a leadership democracy, administered by the “intelligent minority” who know how to regiment and guide the masses. The common interests very largely elude public opinion entirely, and can be managed only by a specialized class whose personal interests reach beyond the locality.” –Edward Bernays

The 20th century was the Golden Age of managed messaging. Media moguls, corporate titans, and government agencies controlled virtually every aspect of mass communication. This “intelligent minority” were literally the “they” in any statement that began with “They say…” The blueprints for this power paradigm were drawn up in the wee hours of the 20th century by Edward Bernays, the man who would be crowned “the father of public relations.”

In his aptly named essay, Propaganda, Bernays asked, “If we understand the mechanism and motives of the group mind, is it not possible to control and regiment the masses according to our will without their knowing about it?”

Turns out it was possible … and very profitable. (A small example: It was Bernays who convinced America that women had the right to smoke in public with his “Torches of Freedom” campaign.)

Bernays—who was related to Sigmund Freud through both his mother (Freud’s sister) and his father (whose sister married Freud)—knew a few things about crowd psychology and other psychoanalytic approaches to public relations, which he called “the engineering of consent.”

He was also keenly aware that the burgeoning mass media infrastructure of 20th century America—“this web of communications” he presciently called it—was ideal for the “manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses.” This was critical, he wrote, because “those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country.”

America’s mass media infrastructure was critical to Bernays’ success in developing “technique[s] for the mass distribution of ideas.” These techniques, which he collectively dubbed “public relations,” were amazingly effective because they were based on the belief that “the United States has become a small room in which a single whisper is magnified thousands of times.”

But the Internet destroyed that small room a few years back and countless communities have popped up in its place. The people in those communities aren’t buying the linear monologues spouted by corporations, media conglomerates, and political leaders. They are putting their faith in their friends and their communities, with astounding results.

Social media has brought us full circle to what Bernays described as “an earlier age … [where] a leader was usually known to his followers personally [and] communication was accomplished principally by personal announcement to an audience.”

This has up sides for organizations of all sizes, but our new reality requires that you make a few adjustments to your communications program if you want to be heard in the Interactive Age.

And here's what happened right after the President took the selfie ...

selfie (Upper left) President Obama shares a laugh with Denmark’s Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt. (Upper right)The president and prime minister pose for a selfie with British Prime Minister David Cameron. (Lower left) Thorning-Schmidt appears rattled after First Lady Michelle Obama tells them to “stop fidgeting and pay attention or so help me God …” (Lower right) Unable to settle them down, the First Lady makes the President switch seats with her while Thorning-Schmidt texts to her besties about “what a bee-otch the FLOTUS is.”

The Taste of Kent

"Move along, folks. No one can see here." Item: The former police officer who pepper-sprayed students during an Occupy protest at the University of California, Davis is appealing for worker's compensation, claiming he suffered psychiatric injury from the 2011 confrontation. …

Online videos of [Officer John Pike] and another officer casually dousing demonstrators with pepper spray went viral, sparking outrage at UC Davis leaders. The images became a rallying symbol for the Occupy Wall Street movement.

--  Huffington Post, July 26, 2013

Nothing helps a story more than an iconic visual—that photo or video clip that distills your complex narrative into one inspiring, defining visual.

  • The lone man who stopped a column of Chinese tanks armed with nothing more than two shopping bags symbolized the courage of the Tiananmen Square protesters in 1989.
  • "Native American" Iron Eyes Cody (played by Italian American actor Expera Oscar de Corti) launched the environmental movement of the early 1970's with a single tear.
  • More realistically, the anguish of the 1960's anti-war movement was captured by the Pulitzer-winning photo of the Kent State student who had just been gunned down by a National Guardsman.

Last year, the Occupy Wall Street movement was having a heck of a time capturing its multifaceted temper tantrum in a single complaint, let alone an iconic image--until fate stepped in  to lend a hand.

Meet Lt. John Pike, a.k.a. Sgt. Pepper. Little did Pike know when he was lacing up his boots that morning that by day's end he was going to be the star of the meme heard 'round the world.

Apparently, when the protesters refused to "respect his authoritah," Pike's pique got the better of him, and he began pepper-spraying them like weeds.

The video and photo spread across the globe in seconds. Minutes later, memes of the photo were popping up all over the Internet. There were even memes of memes. (You have to check this out.) In a mere 24 hours, the National TV had warmed up and the Red and Blue Networks were spinning the story ... out of control, in some cases.

FOX News anchor Megyn Kelly described pepper spray to "a food product, essentially," inspiring her own meme-thology. Meanwhile, closeted one-percenter Michael Moore, on MSNBC, compared the pepper spray incident to the defiant act of the tank man in Tiananmen Square.

Whether you believe the students were inconvenienced by a condiment or assaulted by an AK-Jalapeno, Moore was right about one thing: this was "an iconic moment in this Occupy Wall Street movement."

The lesson: Iconic images aren't just for protests anymore. The competition for the nation's limited mental bandwidth is fierce. If you want to reach their hearts and minds, you've gotta catch their eyes.

Create your own buzz or prepare to get stung.

"What have we to talk about, hmmmm?" In the summer of '68, we spent a few days chucking water balloons at a cluster of cicada killer wasps that had gathered on a patch of sap on the oak tree in Billy Clifford’s backyard.

These wasps were huge. And really mean looking. We convinced ourselves that they were going to swoop down and kill the slowest of us unless we took them out first.

But it turns out cicada killer wasps only kill cicadas. It also turns out that these were male cicada killers, which means they didn't even have stingers like female cicada killers do. So rather than defending ourselves, we were, in reality, attempting to commit insecticide.

Since we were eight years old at the time and the patch of sap was about 40 feet above us, we went through a lot of water balloons before we nailed them. But once we did, those wasps exploded into a buzzing frenzy of “What the HELL, man??!! Are you serious?? What’s wrong with you goddamn kids?!”

One of them fell to the ground right in front of us. Well, it actually fell where we had been standing before we scattered like coked-out cockroaches.

Marius Overhand was the first one to go back to see if the wasp was dead. The rest of us followed a sensible distance behind. Once we all gathered around the body, we unknowingly acted out scenes from “The Crowd,” a short story by Ray Bradbury about a crowd of weirdos that would show up at car accidents to decide if the victim lives or dies.

“Is it dead?”

“Yeah, it’s dead.”

“So pick it up, but watch out for the stinger ‘cause they can still sting after they die.”

“I’m not picking it up! YOU pick it up. And no way they can sting you after they’re dead.”

“Can, too!”

“’Fraid not!”

Unfortunately for all involved, this wasp was very much alive—albeit a little stunned—and very, very angry. When it started flapping its wings—which I swear were held in place by rivets—we all bolted in different directions. All of us except Scott Lindholm and Eddie Foley, who banged heads together so hard that they, too, ended up flat on their backs surrounded by a crowd of eight-year-old boys who were busy determining their friends' fate.

“Are they dead?”

“Scott's eyes are open but they're crossed. And Eddie ain't moving. Let's get outta here!"

I bring this up because, much like the crowd in Ray Bradbury’s story, people will always try to tell your story for you if you’re not telling it yourself.

Look at Edward Snowden. After he let the world know that crazy ol’ Uncle Sam is also a "creeper," he fell off the grid, leaving the entire world to define him as a traitor, a hero, a self-indulgent narcissist, and a loser.

The same thing is happening right now with your organization. The Internet hates a vacuum. If you’re not telling your organization’s story, somebody else is. And you can bet that they're using this image Grumpy Cat

to describe you instead of this one. cute kitten


Dove Bomb

"I sure hope people don't think I'm gilding the lily." We asked a cynical old bastard to describe the viral video Real Dove Beauty Sketches to our forensic artist.

"What can you tell me about the video, sir?”

“This video was the biggest crock of sh— the biggest load of malarkey I’ve seen since Kony 2012.”

“How’s that?”

“People think they’re watching a video that celebrates a woman’s inner beauty. But the real message of the video is ‘you’re not as physically unattractive as you think you are, so just go on out there and keep being as physically beautiful as you can be.’”

“I’m going to need some more details.”

“Cool, I took notes. Take this one gal. When she’s looking at the two portraits of herself, she says ‘Chloe’s perception was so, so clearly different. Her picture looked like somebody I thought I would want to talk to and be friends with … like a happy, light, much younger, much brighter person.’

“So if I follow her logic, she is more inclined to ‘talk to’ and ‘be friends with’ someone who appears ‘much younger, much brighter.’ Wow. She’s not just judging the book by its cover. She’s taking age into account, too.

“Now, I’m the first to admit that it’s possible that I twisted the meaning of her words in my typically cynical way. So I watched the video again and took more notes. The blond in the turtle neck says, and I quote: ‘I should be more grateful of my natural beauty. It impacts the choices and the friends that we make, the jobs we apply for, how we treat our children. It impacts everything. It couldn’t be more critical to your happiness.’

“Your ‘natural beauty’ affects ‘how we treat our children’? Paging Steve Buscemi, Child Protective Services on line one.

“Look, this thing was a setup from the start. All of the women in it were physically attractive. The artist was in on the joke, and the piece was produced and edited explicitly to tweak our tear glands. What amazes me is that millions of people fell for it.”

“So what lessons can we learn from this experience?”

“Good question. First, gimmicks sell. As manipulative as it was, the premise of the ‘unbiased’ forensic artist was brilliant. Second, amateur-looking video is hot—even slick, expensive ‘amateur’ videos like this one. It makes the viewer feel closer to the action. And third … perception is reality.”