It is imperative that groups working for environmental protection and a sane political system incorporate new approaches. The approaches that worked so well in the 60s and 70s are no longer adequate.
The methods used so effectively at that time were studied in great detail by a network of think tanks and other interested organizations. The elite conducted extensive studies to find out why their opposition was successful, and to find “solutions” to stop this interference with their agendas. Their answer was that they needed to change the way Americans think.
Their strategy has been hugely successful. Many sectors of the population that once struggled against corporate agendas now support them, in direct opposition to their own best interests. A key to this success has been the strategies of the public relations industry. With so little citizen understanding of these strategies, our population has been “blindsided,” and continues to be.
The PR industry generally uses advanced communication techniques to manipulate information to sell products or create support for politicians. It utilizes disinformation and psychologically sophisticated deception. Much of the PR relies on access to the mass media.
PR strategies need to be understood by activists, if we are to reverse the corporate takeover of our society. Although the PR industry richly deserves the bad name it has gained, not all of its tactics are reprehensible.
For activists, it would be highly counterproductive to use dishonest tactics. The need is for issues to be made clear. It is essential to maintain integrity in all communications. However, there are some techniques that can be useful to honest activists that do not rely on media access.
Edward Bernays (AKA “The Father of Spin”) was proud of his career, and left a lot of information about his campaigns in the public sector. Many in the PR industry strongly resented his openness.
Bernays began his career in the early 20th Century. When he opened his “Council on Public Relations,” he charged $1000/hr. He worked with US presidents and industry leaders, and was highly successful in shaping public opinion. His book Propaganda is still studied by public relations students. The book demonstrates Bernays’ techniques for swaying the public mind.
The efforts to understand “target” audiences by the PR industry are extensive. Methods range from telephone surveys to psychological evaluations. PR professionals strive to know which symbols, phrases, images, sounds, colors, etc. will have what impacts on their target audience.
They need to know the preferences and triggers of the people that they wish to communicate with. What statements or images will create an opening to be heard; and conversely, what will classify them as the “other,” and make persuasion impossible?
Activists tend not to consider these factors, believing that if the truth is spoken, people will hear it and be transformed. Yet, when a person is invested in a worldview, facts that contradict it are met with hostility. Providing facts that undermine someone’s paradigm may cause that individual to become more stubborn in defense of his/her views.
If an activist who dresses in an alternative fashion, with many tattoos, facial piercings and wildly dyed hair, is trying to influence conservative voters about an issue, the activist will immediately be labeled negatively, removing any credibility from his/her message. This same person could achieve the desired effect with certain alternative populations.
Given this inherent rigidity in much of humanity, how can we communicate with people about the life-and-death issues that are currently endangering us all? Here, some ideas can be borrowed from the PR industry.
Activists can make the attempt to understand the people they wish to reach. Try to understand their worldviews, and frame information so that it supports what they already believe, instead of challenging their opinions. In a conservative neighborhood, dress in a conservative manner.
Avoid “wedge issues,” where strong emotional disagreement is certain to emerge. Wedge issues may indeed be very important issues in their own right, but, they are issues that cannot be settled by any type of facts or data. They are issues that are based on deeply seated religious and cultural beliefs and attitudes. These attitudes often define the line between “progressive” vs “conservative” viewpoints. Polarization along these lines is amplified by the mass media.
We will not likely be able to change people’s minds on their core opinions. However, we have much in common, even with racist, sexist bigots. We are all facing “the perfect storm,” with an utterly corrupt political system, a rapidly escalating danger of nuclear war, runaway climate change, a tragic cancer epidemic due to our toxic environment, massive overpopulation and a potential economic collapse. The upcoming catastrophe may be unparalleled in human experience. We are all in the jaws of the lion. We urgently need more voters to understand the critical implications of our predicament.
So, when alerting potentially reactionary people about our situation, avoid discussion of wedge issues; for example, the merits of gay marriage (especially if you are gay). Be prepared to hear bigoted viewpoints that will arouse your anger, without taking the bait.
Ask questions to learn what their views are before launching into your message. Take some time to respectfully discover what information they might be open to hearing. If possible, find activists from the culture you are attempting to influence, to make the personal contacts.
Marches, protests, and demonstrations are useful for strengthening support and building a sense of unity among people who already understand the issues. It is very empowering to march with thousands of like-minded individuals. Information can be shared and a movement can grow.
Demonstrations do little to win over those with opposing views. It is a simple matter to spin the demonstration in the media to look like a threat to America. Especially the extreme right wing media, like Fox “News,” tends to cast environmental or political demonstrations as evidence of a vast anti-American conspiracy.
It is unlikely that many people will change their minds about the issues by being confronted by activists at demonstrations. A better place to talk to these people would be at a church picnic.
There are a huge number of organizations that provide opportunities for knowledgeable individuals to meet and communicate with those who are on “the other side.” If you are a member of the Lions club and talk to other members, you are far more credible since you are in their tribe. Edward Bernays, in his book Propaganda, lists dozens of organizations which operatives can join and influence.
An important principle is to influence leaders first. If the pastor of a church believes something and communicates it to his/her congregation, a large percentage of the members will take the pastor’s lead on the issue. “Belief in” something is not so much based on logic as it is dependent on what your “tribe” believes. A strong value in most human communities is maintaining a strong belief in their core group’s belief systems. To believe otherwise is disloyal.
It is also crucial to develop communication skills. A book that is exceptionally helpful is Difficult Conversations. It teaches how to truly listen and understand how another person feels, and how to say what you need to express in a way that can actually be heard by the other person.
A powerful strategy for activists, nationwide, would be to communicate with people in their communities, by either joining their organizations, or working with members of organizations they are already part of. Training programs could be developed. Evaluations could be made to determine which individuals are the best fit for which organizations, so that they would fit in seamlessly and become accepted parts of the groups.
We live in dire times. We need to use sophisticated strategies to help disinformed voters understand that “we” have been persuaded to support political candidates who work in direct opposition to our interests; and to the interests of The United States of America, and the special features of this nation that make it different from Russia, China and other despotic nations. We need to help people understand that the climate crisis and the chemical toxification of our air, water and food are very real problems, and are killing people as we speak.
The problem is clear: millions of people have been persuaded to vote for politicians who support corporate domination of our country. We need to help those people see through the charade so that they can vote in an intelligent manner. We must evolve outreach strategies to reclaim our nation for the good of the people, rather than the agendas of the elite. For ourselves and future generations, we must communicate.