In chapter five of Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, Mole and Rat are returning from their adventures when the environment begins to “communicate” to Mole. Grahame describes it not just as “smell” but an “electric thrill” that somehow reminds Mole that his neglected home is nearby. Mole wants to stop and visit the home he abandoned, but Rat is too far ahead and too preoccupied with his own motives to indulge poor Mole.
Reading this delightful little novel recently has reaffirmed my belief that communication is probably the most powerful force in the universe.
I met her on Tinder. We agreed to meet for coffee on the Danforth. A communication professional and a human resources employee. Who knows? it could work, I thought. My initial impression, though, was that were so different. I like to dress up and was wearing a sports coat, a dress shirt and designer jeans. She wore a white t-shirt, jeans, no makeup, and looked kind of… unkempt.
Aside from many awkward pauses, the highlight of the conversation was a terse exchange about communication. I argued that technically what I do is communication, not communications. She bluntly informed me that I was wrong.
I have little interest in Canadian cannabis and the legalization of pot, which occurred on October 17, 2018. Last Christmas my stance only solidified. My family was discussing cannabis and I voiced my strong opinions. My brother withdrew from the room and returned with a brownie, which he offered to me. When I had finished gobbling it up, he smiled and said “It was medicated!”
An hour later I was jollier than St. Nick, giggling uncontrollably like a school girl, had an attack of the munchies, and was totally sponging out!
One of the gifts of graduate school, especially if you go later in life, is being able to look back and understand your life in new ways, make new connections between seemingly disparate things, and finding novelty in things we have grown accustomed to.
We might not be able to apply scholarly terms to all that we see with fresh eyes, but we see them with a new level of maturity.
When I was much younger, one of my favourite TV shows was “Three’s Company.” If you recall, the storyworld inhabited by Jack, Janet, Chrissy and others, seemed to suggest that there is something inherently funny about miscommunications and misunderstandings. Indeed, most, if not all, of the episodes seemed to be about miscommunications and misunderstandings.
Take, for example, the episode in which Jeffrey Tambor plays an overworked psychiatrist, and Terri, a nurse, invites him out for dinner so that he can get some much-needed relaxation time. Problems arise when Terri brings the doctor back to the apartment and Jack and Janet mistake him for a psychiatric patient. It’s hard to imagine this funny episode being made today in the current politically correct environment, but it is classic “Three’s Company.”
The entire premise of “Three’s Company” is surrounded by an intentional misunderstanding: Jack is able to share an apartment with Janet and Chrissy (later Terri) in 1970s-1980s California because they tell their conservative landlord (first Mr. Roeper, later Mr. Furley) that Jack is a homosexual, which is not true.
Perhaps it is best to look at the issue from the vantage of the Shannon-Weaver model of communication. The loci of miscommunication, thus, seems to be the sender of communication as he or she encodes the message, the receiver who decodes the message, or noise that interferes with the process of communication—and which can be located in the sender, the receiver or external to both such as loud music that prevents receivers from hearing the message.
So, is their something inherently funny about miscommunications and misunderstandings? In some contexts, yes. Think back to a miscommunication you have been involved in and you’ll probably shake your head and smile regrettably. On a recent vacation, I nearly missed my connecting flight to my destination because of a misunderstanding at two information booths. I was livid then, but I can chuckle about it now. There does seem to be something funny about expecting something but then getting the exact opposite because, for example, of a poorly chosen word(s).
It’s the stuff farce is made of.
Miscommunication seems to be one of the engines that keeps literature humming. Consider Shakespeare. I have read all of his plays and I can tell you that even in his tragedies or histories there is often comic relief that arises as a result of misunderstandings. There are times when you have to snicker at Othello’s misunderstanding of Desdemona as a result of Iago’s antics
Of course, Shakespeare’s comedies, like A Midsummer Night’s Dream, make skillful use of misunderstandings.
But in some contexts, there is nothing funny about miscommunications and misunderstandings. For example, some Shakespearean misunderstandings lead to tragedy. Romeo and Juliet both end up dead as a result of misunderstandings.
In the real world, consider Harrison Ford’s near miss in the air in 2017. He was told to land his single-engine plane on a specific runway at John Wayne Airport in the OC, California that February. He mistakenly landed it on a parallel taxiway, nearly crashing into a nearby American Airlines jet.
As well, there are tons of stories about police officers shooting unarmed people that they think are criminals, but who are later determined to be law-abiding citizens.
Back to Jeffrey Tambor. He recently exited from another well-loved TV show “Transparent” after sexual harassment allegations. Tambor describes the incidents in question as miscommunications, whereas his accusers describe it bad behaviour. This is typical in the #MeToo era. People accused of inappropriate behaviour claim that they have been misunderstood (Riiight! The problem is with the receiver decoding the message/behaviour incorrectly.)
So, I guess the answer to the question of whether miscommunications and misunderstandings are inherently funny is…it depends on the context surrounding the incident. At least one “Three’s Company” alum knows that sometimes there’s not always something funny about miscommunications and misunderstandings, even if he is wrong about his incident being a miscommunication.
What would you say if, when you asked me what marriage is, I answered “Marriage is meeting someone, dating, falling in love, getting engaged, planning a wedding, going to the chapel…”
You might stop me and say “Whoa, Jason Dean! That’s not marriage. That’s maybe how people come to be married. But marriage is a state of union between spouses in a consensual and contractual relationship recognized by law.”
No one would define marriage the way I did. They would all define it similarly to how you did.
However, when people—even digital experts who know their stuff—talk about social media engagement they do use a definitional strategy like I used to define marriage. “Engagement is getting likes, shares and comments on my posts.” Or, “It’s when I enter into dialogue in social spaces with audiences that read my posts.” But that’s not defining engagement—that’s just articulating how it comes to be.
I’ve only read one satisfying definition of the term by marketing scholar Ian H. Gordon who says it is “forward thinking”, and suggests that it is entering into a collaborative relationship with your audience in an effort to arrive at a mutually desirable future state.
So, for example, if you are an internal communication specialist who wants to engage your company’s employees, engagement might look like creating a better workplace through effective communication. It gets trickier to define what engagement looks like, however, for external social media communicators wanting to engage audiences.
The New York Times’ Founder, Adolph Ochs’ vision for the paper was “to invite intelligent discussion from all shades of opinion.” And today, the paper engages me in this way by allowing me, with my digital subscription, to comment on stories on the NYT app.
Of course, the NYT is not a social media platform. But, although unlikely, let’s pretend that the folks at the NYT knew about Gordon’s definition of engagement and used it when they designed their digital paper. The same principle would apply to you: start with Gordon’s definition of engagement and then figure out what engagement looks like for your company.
To be better digital communicators, and better strategic communicators in general, we must first understand clearly what engagement is. Engagement is a journey—you might get there by walking down any road you happen to come to, but if you have a map you’ll get there sooner.
Ethics should be top of mind for all strategic communicators. We must weigh our communication decisions in the scales of deontological, teleological and situational ethics to ensure that the harm we may inadvertently cause is minimal. In short any given practitioner should strive to be an ethical communicator.
In Reputation Management, John Doorley and Helio Fred Garcia argue that communication ethics falls into four categories: ethics inherent to communicating; the ethics of running an organization and engaging in routine business relationships; helping companies and behave ethically; and the ethics of representation. I would suggest that we add a fifth category, the ethics of influence: The New York Times recently published an article about how easy and pervasive it is to buy social media followers and likes etc. Evidently, even marketing and PR firms/departments are using such services to boost their “street cred”.
An ethical communicator would likely disclose her professional identity when posting a product review on social media—especially if she works for the organization that manufactures the product. (Ethics inherent to communicating.) An ethical communicator would likely treat employees, customers and business partners fairly. (The ethics of running an organization.)
But let’s look at the ethics of representation. An ethical communicator today would be mindful that there may be something suspect about working with certain clients or companies. (“Do I really want to be the PR Director of a cigarette manufacturer, when I know that the tobacco industry has killed, is killing, and will kill, millions of people?” “Do I really want to be a publicist for Jian Ghomeshi considering his alleged mistreatment of women?”)
It hasn’t always been called PR, corporate communication, or strategic communication, but as long as people have been involved in communication management there have been instances in which people exercised poor judgment by aligning themselves with unethical causes, companies, or even governments. Here are five examples:
1. The KKK in the 1920’s
The KKK’s strategic communication efforts in the 1920’s were spearheaded by Elizabeth Tyler and Edward Young Clarke. According to Linda Gordon in The Second Coming of the KKK, the KKK thought it was saving America from the ravages of “Jewish Hollywood”, alcohol, jazz, fashion (i.e. revealing women’s clothing), miscegenation, immigration, Catholicism, Blacks, Jews, immorality, unions, and sexual/artistic radicalism.
The communication tactics that the KKK used to reinforce their beliefs are astonishing. They controlled over 150 newspapers across the USA. They sponsored huge social events that attracted thousands. They owned radio stations and a film production company, called Cavalier Moving Picture Company. They orchestrated boycotts of certain businesses. They wrote pamphlets and delivered lectures and sermons
The KKK was so good at strategic communication, so good at articulating the need for American deliverance, that its members and those who were sympathetic to the Klan’s cause believed that its movement had nothing to do nativism, racism, and bigotry. They were “saving” the USA.
2. The Optimism Campaign
It’s 1967 and President Lyndon B. Johnson knows that at worst, the USA is losing the Vietnam War, and at best the war is at a stalemate. A recent New York Times article reminds us that President Johnson, therefore, launches what has been called The Optimism Campaign: he used the press—via press briefings that spread fake news—to manipulate public opinion so that Americans would think that the communist forces were declining in strength and that the American forces were winning the war.
It was a lie.
Johnson’s Optimism Campaign, though, was a success. Influential journalists fell for it and were more optimistic in their commentary, and as a result the American public became more optimistic about the war too.
3. Russian Fake News
Russians can deny all they want their involvement in the spread of misinformation during the 2016 US election campaign, but five years ago the Russian military produced the Gerasimov Doctrine. The tenor of this doctrine was that in warfare, information can be more effective that military weapons. And, subsequently, the Russian military created a new branch of military called Information Warfare Troops.
One of these troops, a recent 60 Minutes episode suggests, is Margarita Simonyan, the head of Russia Today (RT), a state owned Russian TV network that went out of its way to delegitimize Hillary Clinton during the last US election. RT broadcasts around the word and has an annual budget of around $300 million. In addition to excoriating Clinton during the election, RT routinely airs what they think is wrong with America. As 60 Minutes reporter Leslie Stahl says, “They air a steady diet of violent protests and racial conflict to suggest that the U.S. lacks the moral high ground to criticize Russia and is collapsing from internal divisions.”
I would be remiss, however, if I failed to point out that America too has spread its share of fake news. Radio Free Europe aims to provide news from areas (Central Asia, the Middle East, and Eastern Europe) where press freedoms are limited. Radio Free Europe, however, was initially set up during the Cold War with the help of the CIA, and as an appendage to broadcast propaganda about the Soviet Union.
4. Say it Ain’t So!
If you think that Canada is above unethical strategic communication, think again!
According to Amy Thurlow and Anthony R. Yue in “A Brief History of Public Relations in Canada”, Strategic Communication was helpful in the development of the Canadian West, particularly during the general immigration campaign that started in the late 1800’s. On behalf of various Canadian governments men like Clifford Sifton and John Donaldson used the following tactics to lure immigrants to the west:
Immigration posters about the Canadian West which were hung in British post offices
Agents were hired to give Europeans presentations about moving to the Canadian West
A magazine called Canada West was created to promote the West as a great place to live
Press tours of the Canadian West were arranged for American editors
Although, as a result of this campaign, between the late 1800s and early 1900s over 2 million people came to live in the Canadian West, the problem was that the campaign only targeted White Anglo-Saxon people. Not exactly what we would call good, Canadian multicultural immigration policy!
If you know of other instances of questionable strategic communication practices, I’d love to hear about it.
In an earlier post, I wrote about the disillusionment I felt working as the Director of Marketing and Communications at a small Toronto-area nonprofit organization. Specifically, It had become obvious to me very quickly that the other directors didn’t have a full appreciation of what strategic communication brings to the table. Continue reading “Revisiting A Disillusioned Director”
Allow me to tiptoe into a minefield: the culture wars that are so prevalent in the USA and other parts of the world. It’s an atmosphere where disagreement often doesn’t broaden our perspectives, but instead adds fuel to the enmity that’s scattered throughout our society like dried tinder.
The following is the perspective of a strategic communicator who has an interest in Carl Jung’s analytical psychology.
Let’s start with strategic communication. One of the things I admire most about public relations is that it is seen as an important contributing voice in the marketplace of free ideas. It starts from the premise that all sides of an issue must be weighed. Indeed, The International Public Relations Association’s Code of Conduct states that practitioners shall “seek to establish the moral, cultural and intellectual conditions for dialogue, and recognize the rights of all parties involved to state their case and express their views.” (Emphasis added.)
As far as analytical psychology goes, having read several of Dr. Jung’s books I now often wonder what he would think about today’s identity politics and the “dying art of disagreement” as a New York Times column written by Brett Stephens dubbed it two months ago.
Dr. Jung’s writing style was at once poetic and esoteric, a style that I could never emulate. However, I do think he would approve of what I have to say—no doubt with some editing to clarify my admittedly limited knowledge of Jungian psychology. But I’ll give it a go!
First, though, what is meant by the “dying art of disagreement”, the culture wars and identity politics? For Stephens, disagreement is a vital ingredient of a “decent” society. At the very least, Stephens suggests that when you disagree it has the power to help you define your individuality, assert your freedom and broaden your perspective. Yet in America and around the world, disagreements are fueled by people’s close mindedness about race issues, religious issues, gender issues, politics and the law. Today’s disagreements are engaged in not to learn from one another, not to broaden our perspectives, but to lash out at others and to keep us within the “safety” of our own ideological cocoons. The result is dull minds, hatred, short tempers—and even violence.
As Stephens writes, “we judge one another morally depending on where we stand politically.”
If you doubt Stephens, you only have to observe some of the flame wars on social media, or read stories about how protests erupt on university campuses when “controversial” speakers are invited to present their views—on universities where students actually pay to be stimulated by different ideas.
And then there’s identity politics. We have lost the ability to argue effectively because of it. Stephens writes, “the primary test of an argument isn’t the quality of the thinking, but the cultural, racial or sexual standing of the person making it. As a woman of color, I think x. As a gay man, I think y. As a person of privilege, I apologize for z.”
An individual’s thinking should not be dominated by social identification alone. Just because your arguments offend me as an African-Canadian doesn’t mean that you or your arguments are wrong and immoral. But this is a typical scenario. And “the result,” Stephens writes “is that the disagreements we need to have…are banished from the public sphere before they’re settled.”
So, what might Dr. Jung say about all of this if he were still alive. For starters, he might say that in this climate of toxic disagreements people are confusing the Self with the Persona, or the Masks we wear. We all have masks (our religion, our profession, our clothes, our car, our diplomas) and they help us to navigate in society. Jung argues that our masks help us to function in society, largely by establishing connections, all the while keeping the true Self hidden. In totality, the Masks we wear do not even equal the Self. In fact, Jung suggests that some people identify too much with their Persona, without recognizing their true Self. Hmmm!
So, I may be critical of a Trump Republican, mistaking this Mask for an expression of his or her Self (“Of course she is crazy and has a bad soul, she supports Trump”). The mistake should be obvious. And if we are honest we would agree that people are attacking one another’s Masks and confusing those Masks as expressions of the totality of the Soul.
And as a corollary of this, people whose Masks are attacked mistakenly think that it is their Self that’s being attacked. (“How dare you attack me for being an Obama Democrat. I am a good person!”)
Also, when you are in a disagreement with someone and you are so upset that you act irrationally and won’t even listen to what the other person in saying, WATCH OUT! Dr. Jung suggests that it is at these times that the archetypes in our psyche are talking to us. Whether it be the Anima (the little woman in a man) or the Animus (the little man in a woman) in these instances the psyche is crying out for balance. If we ignore the psyche’s sage voices, we will continue to act in self-destructive ways. Personally, I know that I have caught myself acting irrationally in heated moments and have been fortunate enough to later discern what my Anima was telling me about myself.
Listen to what your Anima/Animus is telling you, for your own good.
And then there is the Jungian Shadow, our dark doppelganger. When this archetype is activated in our psyche, we tend to project the darkest regions of our Soul onto the Other. The evil within us finds a home on the object of our gaze. I think that a lot of this is going on during these culture wars.
So that’s it. My two cents on the contemporary culture wars and the environment of toxic disagreement. Forgive me, Dr. Jung, if in this hurried blog (in which it was beyond the scope of my words to do justice to analytical psychology) I have misunderstood and misrepresented the basics of your psychology. At the very least, perhaps you will agree with a couple of things:
Open-mindedness—even in the midst of disagreement—is the mark of a progressive mind.
We must be wary about the algorithms in the social media we use, as these tend to feed our personal biases and filter out voices that may expand our horizon.
Ultimately, however, whether or not we entertain the viewpoints of others or completely close our ears to them is largely a matter of choice.
A while back, I was asked during a job interview to define a term I had used. I was caught off guard. I stumbled, badly, reciting for the interviewer the basic elements of a media relations program:
Step one: Create/gather research about your target audience Step two: Develop key messages Step three: Establish which news media to target and create a media list Step four: Create communication to send through target media to target audience
In my inveterate “bubble braindedness”, though, I thought, “Strategic media relations—you know, it is executing media relations…strategically!”
I could tell that I hadn’t told the interviewer anything he didn’t already know about media relations. He really wanted to know what I meant by putting the adjective “strategic” in front of “media relations”. That should have been an easy task for me considering that I had taken a strategic media relations course at graduate school.
In his Confessions, St. Augustine amusingly wrote words to the effect of “Time. I know what it is, just don’t ask me to define it.” Likewise, I know what strategic media relations, just don’t ask me to define it. But if I must, I would start by putting the word “strategic” into context.
Consider these definitions:
Mission: “A statement of [an] organization’s function in society, often identifying its customers, markets, products and technologies” (Crane et al, 2014).
Goals/Objectives: Goals are broad, general, intangible organizational intentions, and objectives are precise tangible or shorter-term measurable outcomes that accomplish the goals (Fleming, 2015).
Strategies: Broad statements or ideas that ensure the success of objectives (Fleming, 2015).
Tactics: are those specific actions that ensure the success of strategies (Fleming, 2015).
An organization, then, puts into place goals and objectives to help bring about its mission; it puts into place strategies to bring about its goals and objectives; it puts into place an action plan of tactics to bring about its strategies. An organization’s mission informs its goals/objectives, its goals and objectives inform its strategies, and its strategies inform its tactics.
So, Company X may have media relations strategies in place to develop meaningful relationships with journalists, but if the tactics the company uses include sending one press release to 100 different journalists at the same time, (a practice called “spray and pray” which is generally frowned upon by journalists) instead of selectively targeting a much smaller number of journalists, the company may be undermining its goal of being respected in its industry.
Strategic media relations, then, is simply executing a media relations program that is aligned with the mission and goals/objectives of your organization. If someone were to ask me what “strategic communication” is, another term I use frequently, I would use the same line of reasoning. It is executing communication processes in a way that is aligned with your organization’s mission and goals/objectives.
The real lesson here, though, should be obvious. Sometimes we use words and terms that on some level we understand, but when we have to define them we often can’t—without clarifying our hazy thoughts. And, hey, if that can happen to a towering intellect like St. Augustine, then it can surely happen to you or me.
Crane, F.G., Kerin, R.A., Hartley, S.W., & Rudelius, W. (2014). Marketing.
(9thCanadian ed.). Toronto, ON: McGraw-Hill Ryerson Ltd.
Fleming, A.F. (2015). The Communication Plan. Fundamentals of Public
Relations and Marketing Communications in Canada. Edmonton, AB:
Pica Pica Press