Sunday, February 27, 2011

Channelling Seth Godin

Short but stupid post here (edit: maybe not so short now that I'm down writing). Last week, I wrote about Aaron Barr and the HB Federal fiasco and speculated on the implications of a world in which both centralized organizations and decentralized populations try to sway public opinion and disrupt each others' opposing operations.

Just in the past week, the examples are all around us, unfortunately with the centralized powers spewing confusion and misinformation all over the place. The New York Times gives BP space to claim the guy that they themselves hired to run the oil spill compensation fund isn't giving them a fair deal, drowning out the people trying to point out the absurdity that BP has the guy on payroll to the tune of $850k a month to run the fund (and the voices of those affected in the Gulf, saying this relationship is causing them to not get their fair share). (Side note: Which do you think is more likely? The guy who is being paid by BP not being fair to BP or not being fair to those affected? Who gets more press access?)

Beyond that, Michael Hastings of Rolling Stone (who wrote the Polk-award winning profile of Stanley McChrystal that eventually got him fired) had a must-read piece on the (mis)use of psych-ops by the US Military against our own government officials (to get them to allocate more funds to the Afganistan War). Immediately, "senior military officials" began anonymously slandering Hastings and his source, Lt. Col. Michael Holmes, which were repeated mindlessly by many major media outlets. Glenn Greenwald has a good summary of the situation, as well as a useful explanation as to why high level personel shouldn't be allowed to attack the powerless anonymously.

In the words of Bob Dylan (hah couldn't find the Dylan version, so enjoy the BSG one), there's too much confusion, and it's hard to get relief. For those looking to get anything done, the mudfight is scary - it takes your message and gets it all dirty and mucked up. While the realm of government and corporations may have the most wide ranging impacts, the impacts of this dynamic are felt by all of us, whether we're trying to write a gossip rag or deliver a marketing message.

More fundamentally, these interactions leave us a world full of suspicion and devoid of trust - and that is where the opportunity lies. With everyone zigging, your best choice is to zag - to build a brand that people can trust, because the brand itself is worthy of that trust. In the short run, this means showing restraint instead of passing judgment, acknowledging when you're wrong, and oftentimes putting yourself in an uncomfortable place. At Athleague, we constantly have to manage the short term gain of telling a customer they'll have a feature by a certain date with the long term credibility hit we take by not delivering. I've more than once fallen pray to this, promising something that I knew deep down was a long shot of being completed on time.

But there is hope - as an example of a success, despite being a comedy program, The Daily Show has built up their reputation so much that Jon Stewart is considered the most trusted news source in America. They research their material, apologize for mistakes, and do a pretty good job making only fair critiques by not taking things out of context (and, in the process, they're not afraid of making some enemies). The model of tribe-building and truth-telling is a great one to follow if the goal is to build an audience who trusts what you're saying.

The credit for this optimism and logic all go to the venerable Seth Godin, who manages to reduce these complex problems and dynamics into understandable hurdles, and inspires us to follow the path he charts - using truth as a weapon and the (social) web as a vehicle.

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