The Hidden Similarity Between Occupy Wall Street and The Tea Party - And What It Reveals About The Way Forward

In a column posted at Forbes yesterday, Adam Hartung compares the relative importance of the Tea Party with Occupy Wall Street:

* The Tea Party is more organized than OWS, and has a clearer message.

* OWS draws a more diverse and less extreme crowd than the Tea Party and its members are growing.

He concludes that OWS is more important than the Tea Party: it "looks like a trend, even if we don't know exactly what that trend represents." One thing he can say:

"The OWS people are genuinely angry. They cannot comprehend why America cannot seem to create more jobs, or provide affordable health care for its citizenry, or even deal effectively with wave after wave of property value declines and foreclosures while those at the top of the economic pyramid seem to keep doing better every year."

On the surface the two movements differ because of who they blame for their problems: Tea Partiers say it's "Big Government"; OWS call out "the 1%," which is a veiled reference to capitalism, or Big Business (corporations).

Actually the concern is neither government or business alone - it is the rise of the nameless, faceless bureaucracy that is the problem, and its supremacy now over the individual.

Think about it: Both Big Business and Big Government promised salvation, both failed to do so, and yet we can't think of any better system. The result is a combination of social forces that threaten to destroy the individual from two directions at once: both suppressing individual freedom and removing the social protections we once took for granted. 

Here are some examples of what Big Business and Big Government have in common, from the perspective of the average person:

1. Each in its way has historically provided for the welfare of the individual, prompting the individual to give up certain rights and freedoms for the sake of economic survival and protection. We trusted them, but the promise is disappearing, and leaders seem helpless to reverse the trend.

2. Each is interlinked with the other, mutually reinforcing. Government depends on business for revenue, and business depends on government for favorable operating conditions. But the individual who challenges one, the other or both stands little chance of success under ordinary circumstances.

3. Each is a large bureaucracy, similar to Big Education, Big Religion, Big Technology, Big Law, Big Athletics, Big Healthcare, and so on. As such they are set up to promote their own hierarchies and their own survival even at the expense of the individual.

4. Each governs much of the individual's life, and the yet individual has little visibility into how they operate. However, the growth of the Internet and social media has led the individual to challenge what was formerly accepted with little question.

5. Each is increasingly intruding into the private life of the individual with the aid of technology, and there is little way for the average person to live their life "off the grid."

Social movements are neither good or bad, but evidence of an imbalance that society recognizes and seeks to correct. Looking at OWS and the Tea Party in a splintered way obscures the unity that underlies their distinct messages. 

Rather than wasting time trying to parse which is better or worse, or more important or less important, it would be useful to find the commonality between them. The most obvious of these, to me, is the individual feeling of helplessness in the face of the social machine. The corrective to disempowerment is obviously power. The task at hand is to restore the freedom and the dignity of the individual. 

In short, we need to go back to the day when everybody felt they could have a plot of land to call their own, if only they worked hard enough. If we do not, it's a certainty that the disenfranchised will simply camp out in the park - and begin to occupy others' property as their own, a devastating consequence for us all. 

What I'm hoping is that the people who have enough energy to take to the streets now use that energy to organize further, enabling our society to transcend an over-dependence on abstract "leaders" and move toward a greater sense of personal responsibility. It doesn't matter anymore who got us into this mess or how; what matters now is that we get ourselves out.

Have a good evening everyone, and good luck!

15 Branding Trends We Will Trace to Penn State

Possibly 30+ years of pedophilia, carried out by a trusted football coach named Jerry Sandusky, who set up a charity to lure his victims. The coach enabled and protected by Penn State's church of football, with the Pope-like figure of Joe Paterno at the helm. Eight victims so far and more are coming forward.

Now at Syracuse University, associate head basketball coach Bernie Fine (pedophiles know all religions and no religion) has been placed on leave after two alleged victims have stepped forward. The police have opened an investigation regarding allegations of sexual abuse by him spanning from the 1970s to the 1990s.

Back to Penn State. The image of a helpless ten-year-old boy being raped by a powerful and trusted community figure, observed but not protected by a 30-year-old man who could have intervened but inexplicably failed to physically intervene, is so horrifying that there literally are no adequate words. At CNN, Bill Bennett says it's the "worst scandal in the history of college football." The New York Times' Michael Bérubé calls it "the worst scandal in the history of college athletics."

Bennett and Bérubé aren't going far enough. Penn State is the worst child abuse scandal in the history of the United States. It is going to be remembered as the turning point for children's rights in this country. The Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street, and now the beginning of the Children's Rights Movement. We are bearing witness to moment when this movement will take root in a serious way.

Sociologically speaking, this scandal is so bad because the culture's dominant groups are affected:
  • Gender: Sexual abuse of girls is rampant and 25% of American women take psychiatric drugs for a "mental disorder." Can it be a coincidence that 15-25% of women are estimated to have been sexually abused as children? But it seems that the abuse of boys, coming now out of the closet, is somehow seen as worse.
  • Class and race: Penn State students were 75% Caucasian as of Fall 2010 and costs about $45,000 a year for out-of-state dorm students. While the victims' identities are unknown, the alleged perpetrators and those who covered for them were (previously) considered "the very best" of what America had to offer. (Obviously this is classist, racist and ridiculous.) As one commenter put it, referring to Penn State months before the scandal broke: "To these Universities, to their turned-up-nose administration teams, and to the their majority of smug living-in-a-bubble, highly tenured, untouchable professors...to THEM may we send out a collective, very heart-felt C' MON MAN !!"

Because of Penn State, Generation Y - which was, after all, raised by Generation X "helicopter parents" - is going to become the most suspicious generation of parents ever. And they are well-equipped with social organizing skills, social media technology, and the willingness to use both.

For brands this is going to mean:

1. The end of Penn State as a brand. Even though the academic side was not involved, they are permanently tarnished. If the school does not close down, it will have to change its name.

2. The end of athletics as the basis of a college brand - schools will have to focus on education first

3. When athletic programs are used as selling points, they will have to emphasize diversity, inclusion, respect, fairness, transparency, and accountability.

4. We will likely see a national brand of daycare facilities that are built into the workplace in a modular fashion - offered as an "ingredient brand" benefit by top employers. (Conversely, telecommuting will go even more mainstream.)

5. An opportunity to capitalize on the growing integration of children in adult life, first through daycare facilities at work, then through homeschooling and unpaid internships accepted for high school credit

6. The mainstreaming of homeschooling - with issues of sexual abuse and bullying at the forefront today, and the advent of distance learning technology, homeschooling will go from being "weird" and "non-credible" to being "standard" and even a sign of prestige, showing that children are self-directed achievers (we are already seeing this to some extent)

7. The growth of part-time teachers, childcare workers, etc. as people who seek such low-pay, low-prestige positions full-time not only face more stringent background checks and increased licensing requirements, but become socially stigmatized as possible pedophiles

8. Police or private security forces specifically dedicated to child welfare at school, not just metal detectors


9. The standardization of self-defense training for children in the public schools


10. An "Angie's List" type social network dedicated specifically to discussing people who work with and care for children

11. A colored bracelet or symbol for speaking out against child sexual abuse, together with a national 1-800 number for reporting suspected abuse

12. The end of "feminism" and the beginning of "humanism" as recognition grows that power-abusers are equal-opportunity; but a simultaneous emphasis on the male experience of abuse; a "Dr. Oz"-like figure who writes a pop-culture book and is anointed as an authoritative source on male recovery from sexual abuse

13. A brand of surveillance technologies for children - e.g. wrist monitors, pen cameras, cameras in shoes, jackets, hats, etc.

14. More broadly, the growth of interest-based coalitions as opposed to large institutional authorities, which will find themselves at the center of growing distrust and even disrespect

15. Even more broadly, with the death of trust in social institutions and an extremely challenging economy, the growth of self-help culture in every respect - from education, to work, to home repair, self-protection and community policing. (I call it "Lifehacker" culture, for the website Lifehacker.com.)

All of these developments center on a single question that continues to lack a satisfactory answer: "Why didn't anybody tell (when it happened)?"

The answer is, back in the "olden days," people perceived that their survival depended on not telling. They would be shunned, stigmatized, removed from their positions. "You just can't tell Jerry (Sandusky) no," one Penn State victim said. Even today, it is still very difficult for a victim to speak out: Just ask the women who alleged misconduct against Herman Cain what it feels like to have your entire reputation smeared against the wall.

In the future, survival will depend precisely on telling. The more vocal, transparent and organized you are, the larger your trust-based network, the higher your credibility and the better your chance of getting anything done. And so the revelations at this school and the reaction by the public mark a turning point in history.

At this point, from a branding/PR perspective, all organizations would be wise to take heed. What happened in Pennsylvania is going to have a domino effect on the rest of the country. Silence is no longer golden, either for perpetrators or their protectors. The victims have had it - and they are going to speak up.

Social media in government: problem or opportunity?

It was only after his "nervous breakdown" in 1897 that the German sociologist Max Weber wrote one of the greatest social studies of all time: The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. 

Weber had been felled by the "irrationalities" of his own mind and so he compensated by finding and celebrating the growth of orderliness in the modern world. As Elizabeth Kolbert puts it:

"With “The Protestant Ethic,” Weber seems to have discovered his calling: the study of rationality....In Weber’s view, modern Western society is the product of increasingly rational forms of organization. Its institutions are governed by “systematic” rules and “impersonal” procedures, rather than by custom or religious obligation, and this sets it apart from virtually all other world cultures." 

If there were a status called "sainthood" in the government today, Max Weber would probably occupy it. It was Weber who defined and elucidated bureaucracy, which - despite the fact that the word has a negative taint - we continue to practice today in government as axiomatic. 

Generally the characteristics are:
  1. "Formal hierarchy"
  2. "Management by rules"
  3. "Organization by functional specialty"
  4. "An 'up-focused' or 'in-focused' mission" (the organization serves either another organization or its own employees rather than the public)
  5. "Purposely impersonal"
  6. "Employment based on technical qualifications"
The "problem" a bureaucratic government faces when confronted by social media is the tendency of free-spoken individuals to shine a light on the institution itself. It is a social law that bureaucracies will seek to preserve themselves even if they are antiquated and failing, but in the absence of an astute and informed observer, the process of that decay can continue for a fairly long time before Rome crumbles.

Already in 1999 The Cluetrain Manifesto sounded the warning bell about the rise of social media, but at that time, relatively few were listening. Now in 2011, social media is the language of the masses.

If government can think strategically about social media and ride the wave of scrutiny that will increasingly come upon it, then the rational bureaucratic model has a strong chance of surviving - because people prefer the status quo to change, and because rationality trumps irrationality as a mode of organizing large-scale endeavors.

But to do this they would be wise to heed words like Douglas' Crets, who comments on his own question (in Quora), "What's the best way to super-size a b.s. idea?"

"Well, I think we have to start wth the premise that if you really believe in what you are doing, the idea better not be crap. Secondly, making something go viral is a canard, so let's do away with that. There, tossed. Thirdly, social media is about relationship management, relationship discovery and relationship reality. It is not about pushing out an idea for people to consume and then when they shit, they shit out golden coupons which they use to buy your product. This is an idea that I think was generated because advertising seemed to work." 
 

"...."ask" the consumer what he wants, not by offering it first, but by asking the consumer, how do you feel, what do you want done for you, what needs to happen in your life. and then the social media enthusiast needs to bust ass to help that person do that thing. 
 

"If you think that sounds like something you are willing to do, then I say, get off your ass and start doing that. Or, hire me, and I will do that for you."

Like bureaucracy, social media is a tool - neither good nor bad. It is what we do with it that lends meaning. But it cannot be used to "push" a message nor can it be ignored or even suppressed as an inconvenient-for-us voice.

Here's hoping that the bureaucracy engages with those who want to engage back in productive dialogue for the good of the people.

Have a good day everyone, and good luck!

10 Tips for Handling a Hostile Audience

This morning C-Span’s Book TV featured an Oct. 27 talk by Gilad Sharon, son of the former Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon. The former was in Boston at Suffolk University to talk about authoring his father's biography, Sharon: The Life of a Leader.

Following the lecture, Sharon participated in a Q&A with a mostly hostile audience. It was not surprising; the Middle East is a polarizing topic and Sharon is equally a polarizing figure. Despite this, and despite his personal stake in portraying his father well, Sharon handled the questions impressively. His handling of the situation left me with some important communication lessons about a key topic - because on-camera or not, all of us have to deal with hostile questions at one time or another:

  1. Be an expert in the subject matter, not just “well-prepared.” Sharon effortlessly reached back into decades of history to respond to every question fully, putting them into historical context. Lesson learned: If you don’t know what you’re talking about, don’t talk.
  2. Stay calm. The hostile question is designed to provoke you to lose control. When you fall into that trap you lack credibility no matter how accurate your answer is. The viewer/listener is saying to themselves, “If this person were right, they wouldn’t be so upset.”
  3. Show respect for the questioner. Even if you disagree or are offended, never trivialize what the person is saying. Being larger than the conflict shows the audience that you must be in the right, or again, you wouldn’t be so composed.
  4. Humanize your side of the story. When asked about Israel’s security measures, Sharon responded (paraphrasing), “You are young, you probably don’t have kids yet. But our children are being attacked in their yellow schoolbuses. We have to protect our chidren.”
  5. Know when to stand your ground. Where historical fact was at issue, Sharon simply said, “that is not true.” Period.
  6. Know when to agree to disagree. There was a point where a questioner accused Ariel Sharon of saying something outrageous, claiming that it was reported on Israeli radio. His son said flat-out, my father did not say that. They went back and forth a couple of times, then dropped it.
  7. Admit mistakes. Gilad Sharon said that Israel had made mistakes in the past and of course would do so again. He did not pretend that the country was perfect. Nobody is perfect.
  8. Be open to all questions. Sharon did not try to censor anyone. He simply answered.
  9. Ask questions of your own. At times, Sharon confronted people with questions of his own, questions that revealed logical inconsistencies in what they were saying. You have a microphone; use it.
  10. Know when to stop talking. Sharon did not try to dominate the microphone. He simply answered the question, then let it go.

As I write this I can’t help but think: We are so fortunate to live in a democracy, where we can use words instead of weapons to advance important goals. I don’t take free speech for granted at all. Here’s praying that we can find a way to think, write and talk our way out of the problems that face us all, and achieve lasting peace and prosperity for everyone around the world.

Marketers: That Phoniness Will Cost You

This season on "Desperate Housewives," Susan is wracked with guilt because she helped her friends commit a crime. She tries to run away from the guilt by taking an art class and trying to win the teacher's approval there - except that the teacher is more than she bargained for. He won't let her simply get an "A" in the class and go home. Instead he sees her talent, and pushes her to cut through her own b.s. and paint the truth she is hiding inside.

The great thing about popular culture is that it helps us to see and confront serious issues that are often too upsetting to deal with in reality. Because just like Susan, a lot of us go around in a kind of hiding. We compensate for the inability to speak freely, to tell the truth as we see it, by trying to win the approval of others. Except that the satisfaction from this approval is necessarily superficial and meaningless - because it isn't really what we're looking for. The praise, the promotions, the money, and all the other markers of exterior success can't permanently mask or stifle the need to live in truth.

Fear of honest self-expression is why so much corporate, commercial or organizational writing is (let's be kind) disappointing. Conversely, great art - including great commercials - are uplifting despite their commercial nature. People respond well to honesty; they can sniff an exercise in approval-seeking and will ignore it utterly, and worse, they will think badly of the person doing the fake expression.

Writing and art are similar in how good quality is determined. Essentially there are two ingredients: basic technique and raw honesty. The first one you don't necessarily need - you can have lousy grammar or purposely use bad spelling and still be a great writer. Similarly, a self-taught artist or photographer can be a genius. What matters most is unflagging, unflinching, raw honesty.

Many people admire the seemingly carefree lives of great artists and writers. They are mistaken. Creativity is as much a burden as a choice. You don't know where it comes from, but it forces you on a lifelong hike-on-foot to try and find a perfection that can never truly exist. There is no ultimate inside to the layers of the onion. Just when you think you are doing the best you can - you could have done better. Because the only being who is truly omniscient, objective, and has no bias is God.

Phoniness is what keep marketing from being good. When brand people start talking social media - and reality shows are the epitome of trying to mix these - very often the result is horrible (except maybe in the early days before the show catches on when the characters have no choice but to be honest to get people interested in them).

A couple of examples:

* A couple of weeks ago on reality show "Kendra," husband Hank went off to a meeting with some brand folks. They were trying to decide if he and Kendra should promote their product. The conversation was full of reference to "organic" social media and "monetizing" celebrity and "perfect for the brand." Hank's head bobbled this way and that until finally he told the camera something like, "I didn't know what they were talking about." And of course then off he went to buy his wife some expensive earrings, likely in an act of product placement.

* On the now-infamous E! special, "Kim's Fairytale Wedding," stepfather Bruce Jenner has a heart-to-heart talk with Kim during which she breaks down about missing her deceased father. She also says that she feels like the whole wedding thing is out of control, and like they've lost touch with what really matters. About two seconds later on the show, Bruce enters "momager" Kris Jenner's study to talk about the situation. As he attempts to describe Kim's emotional state, Kris interrupts him with an act of product placement, saying, "look at this great deal on LivingSocial!" 

I read somewhere a comment that Steve Jobs, with Apple, gave back more value than the money he took, because the joy his products add to people's lives is well-worth the money they are paying for them. Another thing marketers can do, if they want to give something back AND win customers at the same time, is speak in voices that are honest and true. By contributing real art, they win the hearts and minds of people who can't speak freely in their own lives - making them want to buy and building up a culture where honesty is valued, while phony people are automatically excluded from the conversation.

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