Hak Pak Sak

Stephen Lewis on Infrastructure, Identity, Communication, and Change

Perception Trumps Reality: “Getting It,” Spin, Branding, and Reputation Management

Posted by Stephen Lewis on June 30, 2007

I smiled when I read Dean Landsman’s recent short post on “Who Gets What?” Phrases such as “he gets it” or “you just don’t get it” seem to be a new refuge for people who cannot explain what they mean or who push partially-formed ideas. The thrust: “If you don’t understand what I’m saying, it’s your fault not mine.” And, thanks, Dean, for coining the word “Get-itude.”

Low on “Get-itude”

It is no coincidence that “getting it” peppers the speech of supporters of the Bush administration and its policies. Like many other ordinary people who had devoted some time to reading Middle Eastern history or who had worked or traveled in the region, I was opposed to the Iraq War from the start and quite easily foresaw the chaos, destruction, and human and financial calamities the war would bring to Iraq, the entire Middle East, and the economy and world standing of the US. Back in 2003, some months into the war, I ran into an acquaintance who is a senior US diplomat. When I told him I was against the war he replied that he supported it and ended our conversation with a smug: “You just don’t get it, do you?” No arguments, no facts, no persuasion, just a few condescending words of dismissal.

“Getting It,” John Calvin, and the Revival Tent

The rise of “getting it” is symptomatic of the conflation of politics, discourse, and fundamentalist religion in the US over the past three decades. Partisans divide the world into those who “get it” and those who don’t with a self-satisfaction not unlike that of Calvinists who assumed themselves to be amongst the “elect” or the “saved” and others amongst the damned. Epistemologically, “getting it” conjures up nineteenth-century revival tents, fictional Elmer Gantrys, and real-life Amy Sempel McPhersons. “Getting” or “not getting” implies that knowledge is revealed and that belief, conversion, prophetic vision and the ineffable are more important than understanding or dialogue. Saint Augustine, by the way, wrote that faith precedes understanding; he never wrote that faith replaces it.

From Snake Oil to Soft Focus to Spin

19th-century country-fair hucksterism entered the American mainstream long-ago, as did the unreality of Hollywood. In the realm of public affairs this meant, in essence: Don’t change what is, tinker with perceptions instead!

During the 1970s, I was a graduate student and researcher in public policy at the Center for New York City Affairs at the New School for Social Research (today the Milano Center). The Center and its students were dedicated to reality and to change — be it shepherding New York City into economic revival and fiscal stability or, as Lower East Side leftist novelist Mike Gold (“Jews Without Money”) once put it, to make New York “… into a garden for the human spirit.” In fact, it was one of our fellow graduates — Alan Brouwer, if I remember correctly — whose discovery and analysis of the misuse of New York’s capital budget to cover deficits in its expense budget first brought to the public eye the City’s legendary impending bankruptcy.

The 1970s, however, also saw the rise of the word “Spin” (as in political PR, not as in the French acronym for AIDS) and the associated appearance of professional (Gott hilf uns!) “Spinmeisters.” In the end, Spin won out over policy analysis and set a method and tone that are with us until today, with the discredited Bush administration still pushing fairy-tales of victory in Iraq and economic growth in America in the face of patent disasters on both fronts.

By the way, for a passionate take on politics in the days when government meant providing real solutions to real problems, read John Updike’s cautionary comments on revisionist takes on FDR and the New Deal in this week’s New Yorker. Also, for a powerful analysis of the use of spin by the Bush administration to fabricate grounds and conjure up support for the war in Iraq — and for the sad tale of the gullibility and connivance of much of the US press in the face of such heavy-handed cynicism and betrayal of the public trust — watch this recent broadcast from Bill Moyers (also available as a podcast).

Branding vs. Content

The ultimate substitution of perception for reality was “branding,” the private-sector equivalent of spin. The concept of branding was simple: to create differing images for products and organizations between which there were no real differences at all. I had the dubious fortune of being present at what may have been the birth of modern branding. This occurred during the so-called “accountancy wars” of the 1980s when the internationalism of business and the rise of uniform auditing and reporting requirements in the European Community led US “Big Eight” accountancy practices to build multinational partnerships and to seek to differentiate themselves through advertising, something that accountants (and doctors, lawyers, and engineers too) once considered a crass betrayal of professionalism.

In fact, there were no differences between any of the top accounting companies at the time. Partners and clients jumped from one company to another and international member firms switched alliances regularly. A Peat Marwick audit was little different from an Arthur Anderson audit, just as Price Waterhouse tax advice was the same as advice from Grant Thornton. The only real differences were in personal relationships and the prices and approaches to specific engagements. But, in the end, accountancy firms squandered fortunes trying to create the same ephemeral advertising-based identities as brands of soap and cigarettes. Sour grapes on my part? Maybe. At the time I was a “hired-gun” proposals-management specialist for KMG (the European-based ancestor of present-day KPMG) charged with crafting real, project-based, individualized responses to actual needs of clients operating in specific real world environments — a task and approach irrelevant to branding and to identities based on manipulation of perception.

Reputation Management: Flim-Flam or Foundation for Change?

For the last several years, I’d kept a distance from the world of marketing communications and PR. As a result, my shock was all the greater when I recently became aware of the new game of “Reputation Management” — branding and spin tidily spruced-up and repackaged under a new name. Reputation Management has all the pitfalls of its predecessors, i.e. a focus on manipulation of perception rather than on development and improvement of products and services. But … maybe the idea of Reputation Management is not completely a sham after all. Maybe reputations could be created and managed in ways other than spinning and branding. My own approach might sound a bit medieval and redolent of craftsmanship and guilds, i.e. to provide goods and services of the highest quality and to gear them to what customers actually require and demand. Doing so would require that companies, institutions, and governments make a 180° shift in their approach to communications, i.e. to be willing to be party to communication from without as much or more as the communicate from within.  The challenge: To carefully and accurately listen to and articulate the wishes and needs of the individuals that comprise the market place and to form missions and strategies, develop and implement products and services, and shape, staff and motivate organizations accordingly. Doing so just might do away with the need to manipulate and in the end might create reputations far more powerful than those based on perception alone.

Footnote and disclaimer: Could my irritation at some of the glib phrases mentioned in this post partly be a function of my advancing age? Maybe. I’ll admit that I’m old enough to associate “cool” with early Miles Davis and to describe some of the things I like best as being, well … “Boss”!!!

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