Truth: The New Digital Divide

cannes 1IN WONDER WOMAN, the new summer blockbuster from DC Comics, Diana Prince uses her “Lasso of Truth” to ensnare the bad guys and make them come clean. Her lasso is the ultimate weapon – nonviolent yet all-powerful.

The world could use that lasso right now.

“Truth” will be a recurring theme throughout this year’s Cannes Festival of Creativity, with sessions on “fake news” and related topics dotting the seminal meeting of the marketing minds. But truth is not just the latest buzzword or trend de jour – truth itself is under attack.

Thanks in part to social media balkanization, a growing rejection of experts and data-driven consumer targeting, a new “digital divide” has emerged – not a divide of access to technology, but of access to the truth. This divide is a pernicious wound, one that’s been torn deeper by our ever-insular online habits and the predilections of those who wish to keep us at odds.

Truth, Lies, and Bullshit

fakeThe truth has always had a certain amount of pliability, otherwise known as bias. There’s a difference, however, between good old-fashioned bias and today’s “post-truth” world of outright bullshit.

Bias is the truth bent toward a point of view. Lies are the opposite of truth. But bullshit, as philosopher Harry Frankfurt once noted, is an unapologetic, wholesale rejection of the truth for personal, professional or political gain. We are so mired in bullshit today that telling lies would actually be an improvement.

Author Nicolas Negroponte tried to warn us in 1995, long before the polarizing Brexit vote, the 2016 U.S. Presidential campaign and the entrance of “post-truth” (aka bullshit) into our lexicon. He feared the possibility of customizing our digital feeds to the point of excluding any information we didn’t like or agree with, thereby creating our own realities.

Negroponte couldn’t have been more prescient. Instead of mass media, today we have a mass of micro media. And while a micro media world might be great for marketing, it’s not so great for rational discourse.

The Wall Street Journal’s “Blue Feed/Red Feed” Facebook tool, for example, puts this ever-widening truth divide on full display, showing how the same story can either be “reported” completely different or, in some cases, ignored altogether. And as a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found, flooding our feeds with facts just makes the divide wider:

“Facts can only do so much,” the study’s authors said. “When people’s beliefs are threatened, they often take flight to a land where facts do not matter. In scientific terms, their beliefs become less ‘falsifiable’ because they can no longer be tested scientifically for verification or refutation.”

Closing the Divide – the News Media May Have a Solution

It’s been said “the truth will set you free.” But if the online news business is any indication, some people are now willing to put a price on that freedom.

New research from the American Press Institute indicates that consumers will in fact pay for news if it’s high quality and on specific topics they value:

“Those who pay for news rate their sources as highly reliable,” the report found. “Subscribers are clearly signaling that publishers cannot cost-cut their way to growth — attracting subscribers requires investment in premium content.” In other words, being reliable (and yes, truthful) is how to rise above the cacophony of media noise.

It’s fitting that the news business help solve this problem since it bears some responsibility. The media’s failure to adjust to a digital-first model sent ad revenue into free fall, which resulted in fewer reporters. These survivors quickly found they could produce more content by being stenographers instead of journalists.

Before long we went from stories going unchecked, to fake news sites making up stories altogether. And because the Internet didn’t distinguish between the New York Times and a blog site someone started five minutes ago, after a while neither did the public.

Here’s the Truth – It Comes Down to Trust

It’s far too easy, as we saw in this past election cycle, to create “news” with a little digital sleight of hand, or to replace black-and-white truths with colorful yet bogus memes.

But politicians, as well as brands, need to be careful. If you play loose and fast with the truth – or ignore it altogether – you risk losing trust.

Trust is the ultimate bond; it’s difficult to gain and nearly impossible to earn back, especially among younger audiences for whom trust is paramount. Savvy consumers will eventually find out if you’ve been lying and they will call you out on it.

Brands and their agencies have a unique opportunity to cut through the digital morass and lift the common discourse. This is not the time to give in and create PowerPoint decks on “Marketing in a Post-Truth World” – this is the time to fight back. To make a stand. To be an activist, not an apologist. We have to close the divide before it separates and swallows us forever.

Call it bullshit if you like. But it’s the truth.

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Making Fear a Non-Factor

manFEAR ONLY EXISTS IF YOU LET IT.

Ask the man who casually fled the London Bridge terror attack with pint in hand. Ask the Borough Market restaurant patron who returned the next day to pay his bill and tip the staff, and who promised to eat and drink out in London even more often now. Ask the thousands of concertgoers who sang and danced with security guards in Manchester, just two weeks after 22 people, many children, lost their lives in a bomb blast after an Ariana Grande show.

Fear is an illusion, a mental conceit. And while you can’t always control your circumstances, you can always control how you respond to them.

The recent spate of terror incidents reminded me of my own response to fear – how I used to let it beat me. And how I refuse to do so again.

Here’s the short version: As many people know, in 1993 I had a benign tumor near my brain. It was removed – that was the good news. But the surgery also caused me to lose my hearing in my right ear while leaving me with a constant ringing noise, which ranges from average volume to oh-good-lord-that’s-freakin’-loud.

Then came the real fun part – certain vibrations or loud noises would cause severe headaches and sometimes seizures. It got so bad that my doctor told me I could never again go to a concert or a sporting event. He even said I should avoid going to movies or any loud public places. The next seizure could very well end me and I wouldn’t have any warning.

In other words, the safe solution was to sit quietly and listen to that ringing in my head for the rest of my days.

That obviously wasn’t a viable option; nevertheless I did my best to comply. I stopped going to concerts, I cut back on going to the movie theater. I made excuses for not attending work events or conferences (though that was kind of a blessing in disguise.)

But a few years ago, I made a decision. I decided not to be scared.

I decided I really liked live music, so I started going to concerts again. I decided to see more movies again. I even began playing guitar in a band again, turning up the volume in an auditory middle finger to my damaged nerves and that damn ringing.

Yes, a concert could kill me. A movie could too. But so could a car during my next bike ride on PCH. So could a sandwich that I swallow the wrong way. I spent a week watching nothing but HGTV and Fox News when my mother-in-law came to visit, and I’m still shocked that that didn’t kill me.

I decided that if I’m going to die, I might as well live first.

I now love a bad day at work. I love a deep paper cut or getting stuck in the rain. I love a good cry during the sad parts and laughing during the funny ones.

I love it all, the pleasure and the pain. Because if I can still feel, then I know I’m still alive.

That’s why Britons will still go to Pubs on a Saturday night. It’s why the French will still go to outdoor cafes. It’s why we will still go to concerts or run in marathons or visit tourist attractions. It’s why we rebuild higher when our buildings fall.

Fear only exists if you let it. So don’t let it.

That’s how I choose to live. And that’s how I win.

 

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On Being American

americanTHE WAR ON TERROR IS OVER.

And we lost.

What began on Sept. 11, 2001, ended on Jan. 27, 2017. It ended when the US Government banned million of refugees and legal residents from entering the country out of ignorance and fear.

Not for due cause. Not for being on a watch list. Not for being a member of a terrorist organization.

Just fear. Just the last cowardly act of a country unable to live united anymore, unable to accept “other” anymore. This is what those men – not refugees, but trained militants and martyrs – wanted when they crashed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

They didn’t just want to kill Americans; they wanted us to destroy ourselves. And we obliged. We did more damage to our way of life than Al-Qaeda and ISIS combined.

So what are we to the rest of the world now that we’ve lost? What is “being American?”

  • Being American is being a Christian, though not necessarily one who follows the tenets of Christianity.
  • Being American is being white.
  • Being American is being a woman who is a sex object first and an underpaid worker second.
  • Being American is being in favor of walls between neighbors.
  • Being American is making racial slurs about black people while cheering for black athletes to entertain us.
  • Being American is discriminating against Mexicans while eating tacos and drinking margaritas.

I’m sorry, does this post bother you? Does it make you angry? My apologies, I’m almost done, promise:

  • Being American is lamenting the lack of family values despite your affairs and three divorces.
  • Being American is preventing women from making choices about their bodies but ensuring plenty of choices for people to kill each other.
  • Being American is assigning labels to people so we don’t have to understand them.
  • Being American is creating your own truth when reality doesn’t agree with you.
  • Being American is being against immigration, except the immigrants responsible for making you an American.
  • Being American is hate.

There, that’s enough. I’m sure you get the idea.

Of course I don’t believe any of this and I expect you don’t either. But what I believe or what you believe doesn’t matter anymore.

This is what the world believes or will believe very soon, and there’s little we can do to change this perception.

Because the war on terror is over – and we lost.

It remains to be seen how much more we will lose, how much further we will fall before we hopefully, somehow, someday, rise again.

So let me ask you one more time: Does this post bother you? Does it make you angry?

I hope so. For the sake of my daughter’s future and the future of the United States, I sure fucking hope so.

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Dear PR and Marketing People: Be Activists, not Apologists

FUCK “POST-TRUTH. “

There, that feels better. Plus I’ve always wanted to begin a blog post by swearing, so no matter what you think of the rest of this rant, mission accomplished.

But seriously, fuck “post-truth” and “fake news” and anyone who uses those terms, which I’m sorry to say, includes pretty much everyone in my profession. We public relations and marketing types are great at 1) embracing trends after they happen and 2) coming up with bullshit names for those trends to make it seem like we invented the damn things.

Why does “post-truth” bother me so much? Simple: Using the term legitimizes it and gives it value. Saying we live in a “post-truth” world means we accept that world as a reality that we now must adapt to or work within.

Well screw that. I’m not doing it. It’s not post-truth; it’s ignorance. The truth is not comprised solely of opinions you agree with, no matter what the President-Elect believes.

And it’s not fake news; it’s propaganda. Calling it “news” is misleading and insulting to actual news.

Enough people already think that the definition of fake news reads, “See Public Relations.” Trying to “manage” fake news just makes us look like the disingenuous Spin Doctors we insist we’re not.

This is not about bias. Bias is fine; we are all biased. But denial of verified facts or refusal to learn and expand knowledge is insanity.

Of course swearing and complaining doesn’t fix the problem (though it’s pretty cathartic.) Instead let’s:

  • Stop creating buzzwords. This is about lies designed to fool people – and in some cases incite hate. It’s not a game; don’t treat it like one.
  • Acknowledge that Google is not a person. It doesn’t fact check, it’s doesn’t analyze or empathize. That’s your job.
  • Support real journalism and stop playing into the myth that the public doesn’t care. Fund investigative reporting, call out fakers publicly and urge your clients to take a stand for reality.
  • Flood the world with facts. Overwhelm the liars and post-truthers with real news and stories that matter – stories that are meant to lift people up and not tear them apart.

I know, I can hear you already: What a bunch of pithy Pollyanna bullshit, right? This is just bluster; I’m being provocative to be provocative.

Not entirely untrue. But I don’t care because this matters too much.

This is not the time to give in and create PowerPoint decks on “Post-Truth Media Relations.”

This is the time to fight back. To make a stand. To be an activist, not an apologist. To look beyond our own little PR and marketing world and start focusing on the real one.

News matters. Truth matters.

And they matter now more than ever.

Call it pithy Pollyanna bullshit if you like. But it’s the Truth.

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America 2016: Monsters Under the Bed

monster-1

WHEN WE WERE LITTLE THERE WERE MONSTERS UNDER OUR BEDS.

They kept us up at night, our covers pulled tight over our heads and our hearts demanding swift exit from our chests. We never saw the monsters but we felt them and heard them.

They cast shadows over our young lives – but they never hurt us. If anything, our monsters made us stronger.

History is full of monsters, real ones who boldly displayed their horrors. There were Mongols and Nazis, despots and dictators, conquerors and criminals of all kinds. We’ve endured monsters of ignorance and apathy, of shame and selfishness.

Most of these monsters disappeared forever – and those who stayed, well, they hid under the bed. We knew they were there, knew they might one day return, but over time we stopped paying attention.

We moved ahead and our culture progressed. The monsters became little more than silly childish fears that no adult would take seriously.

And besides, the monsters under the bed had never hurt us before. They were under the bed because they had lost. The monsters knew their place.

Slavery had its day but we shoved it under the bed. Racism once reigned but we pushed it under the bed. Discrimination, persecution, isolationism – all stayed under the bed as America and the world marched ever forward.

Once in a while a monster tried to escape. But for a monster to be real you had to believe in it, and so few believed in monsters anymore that the escapes were always short-lived.

We got confident. We became arrogant. We belittled the monsters, made them feel insignificant and weak. We admonished them to their faces and laughed at them behind their backs.

We pretended they didn’t matter anymore.

And that’s when it happened.

That’s when the monsters had had enough.

In 2016 they came out from under the bed – and for the first time in a very long time, some people believed.

That’s all it took.

Racism roamed free. Hate reared its ugly head and roared. Discrimination danced with joyful abandon.

White supremacists weren’t silenced. Lies flowed like an insidious river. And violence – real, hurtful violence against people because of their opinions – was celebrated.

No one stopped them. Too many refused to take them seriously and still expected them to go back under the bed where they belonged.

But the monsters are not going back. And we can’t just put them back, lest we wake up on some new morning and find the monsters loose again.

 

WHEN WE WERE LITTLE THERE WERE MONSTERS UNDER OUR BEDS.

Now the monsters are out. There is nothing we can do to change that.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t defeat them.

Our monsters used to make us stronger, so get stronger. Tear off the covers and hurl your light into the darkness.

Destroy the monsters once and for all – not with violence, but with hope. Not with anger, but with action.

Monsters are always looking for a fight. But there’s one thing they never expect.

Someone to fight back.

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Brand Superheroes: Why Being Real Matters Now More Than Ever

superman

ALL SUPERHEROES ARE THE SAME.

Their power may differ, their purpose may vary – but all superheroes share an undeniable bond to each other and an unbreakable bond with the public.

Being real.

Superheroes are true to who there are, whether to their strengths (Superman) or to their flaws (Batman.) When Superman says he fights for truth and justice he means it – it’s not an empty campaign promise.

Brand superheroes are no different. You can’t say your purpose is one thing and then do another. You can’t say your power is for good if you use it to do evil. You can’t live your story if your story is built on a lie.

The First Casualty of the Internet is Truth

We live in a world of content. This is not a bad thing – we are arguably the most informed generation in history.

But being informed is not the same as being educated; information is not synonymous with objectivity or truth.

When everything is content, it gets harder to tell the difference between what’s real and what’s fantasy. Without any gatekeepers, the flow of news becomes a Lord of the Flies Island of anarchy.

We need real heroes to change the dynamic and stem the tide of post-truth communication tactics. Brands today have a unique opportunity to cut through the digital morass and connect with audiences on a real emotional level – to live the stories they tell and lift the common discourse. All it takes is a commitment to the following:

  • Be trustworthy
  • Be grateful
  • Be positive
  • Be generous
  • Be humble
  • Be yourself

The Challenge for 2017 and Beyond – Reboot Reality

Author Nicolas Negroponte talked about the “Daily Me,” or the ability of people to customize their digital feeds to the point of excluding all information they didn’t like or agree with – to in effect create their own realities.

Negroponte said this in 1995 – 21 years before the polarizing social media election of 2016. It’s far too easy, as we saw this past election cycle, to create misleading “news” or to replace facts with memes.

To those brands who would take advantage of this new reality, who would gladly cloud well-intentioned minds using all available and legal digital slight of hand, I would just say this – Don’t.

You are better than that. We as a society deserve better than that. We need heroes we can look up to and trust, so don’t let us down.

Find your power, your core brand truth, and make it matter. Embrace your purpose and use it to live your authentic story – and in doing so, connect with your audience in ways beyond purchase or profit.

If there’s anything brand marketers should learn from the recent U.S. election, it’s that people aren’t data. Not everyone wants a high-concept message or has aspirations beyond their local communities and families –most people just want to be understood, and the way we communicate needs to reflect this more practical approach.

Real heroes listen before they speak. They are part of the communities they serve. Polls and big data pipelines are useful but they aren’t conversations – it’s time for brands to go back “into the field” and re-establish points of empathy between brand and customer.

“With great power comes great responsibility,” Peter Parker/Spiderman’s Uncle Ben said. It is the ultimate enduring maxim for great heroes and mere mortals alike.

Please, use your power wisely. Be the brand superhero we need you to be.

Read Part I, Brand Superheroes: What’s Your Origin Story?

Read Part II, Brand Superheroes: Finding Your Power and Purpose

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Brand Superheroes: Finding Your Power and Purpose

super

“With great power comes great responsibility.”

Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben

SPIDERMAN IS THE WALL CRAWLER.

Superman is the Man of Steel. The Hulk has extraordinary size and strength; Black Widow is an expert assassin; and Aquaman can, um…well he can talk to fish (yeah, I know what you’re thinking, but it does come in handy sometimes.)

Before you can be a hero, you first need to be super. You need to find that one special something that sets you apart.

Fortunately, you don’t need to be from Krypton or get bitten by a radioactive spider. Every person – and virtually every brand – has a power unique to them. It’s just a matter of finding it.

Your Power or “Brand Truth”

Let’s break down the word “Superhero:”

  • “Super” is about where your “power” resides (also known as your “brand truth”)
  • “Hero” is about your “purpose” and manifesting your power in the world

Your brand’s power or truth is a factual, positive statement. It’s something no one else can say, or at the very least something no one else can say with honest conviction. “We stand for,” “we do this better than anyone,” “we have this” – the statements are direct and definitive.

Your brand may still have struggles or even aspirations for another power; this is normal and expected. But part of being “super” is embracing what you do best and forging ahead no matter what the obstacles or consequences. This is what gives your brand those human qualities that create empathetic connections with audiences.

Google’s “super” is search – despite all the other products it makes, its ability to “organize the world’s information” is what gives Google its power and market dominance.

For outdoor clothing company Patagonia, its “super” is more personal. Founder Yvon Chouinard and his band of climbers and surfers discovered that their simple, minimalist lifestyle could translate into a clothing company that reflected their ethos.

Using Your Power with Purpose

All heroes need a purpose, a “why” that defines their beliefs and drives their actions.

Patagonia’ found its purpose in the environment: “Our mission is to build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis,” says its Web site.

A true purpose like this one goes far beyond a simple “mission statement” – it is the reason you exist in the world. And Patagonia backs up its purpose with action, providing environmental grants and support, encouraging activism for environmental causes and championing fair labor practices.

Your purpose helps define who you are – it’s the DNA that runs through your brand and pushes it forward. It’s determines how you will be remembered and whether you mattered.

Be an “Action” Hero

In the big picture, having a power is less important that what you do with the power you have. Put another way, brand superheroes are “action” heroes.

It’s easy to give speeches or publish “thought leadership” pieces like this one. It’s easy to post carefully crafted corporate positioning statements or write formulaic press releases.

But as Tom Hanks, in his role as manager of an all-female baseball team in A League of Their Own, said to one of his players:

“Baseball is supposed to be hard. If it wasn’t hard, everyone would do it. The hard…is what makes it great.”

Taking action is never easy. Telling stories is far simpler than living the stories you tell.

But that’s what separates the heroes from the mere mortals. Actions – and holding yourself responsible and accountable for those actions – are what turn a life into a legacy.

Then, and only then, will the “hard” of being a brand superhero make you great.

Up Next:

Part III: Brand Superheroes: Living the Stories You Tell

Read Part I, Brand Superheroes: What’s Your Origin Story?

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