Categories: Media issues / Political spin

14 February 2010


Obama’s left: turning on the SM crowd

Oh! My! God! Organizing for America, the successor to Obama for America, is searching for a Social Networks Manager: apply here. But before you do read this.

When Obama was elected some PR theorists said it was the dawn of a new age of democratic and decentralized public engagement. In the words of Richard Edelman, delivering the Grunig lecture at University of Maryland, the main evidence for this was:

Obama campaign’s mobilization of five million volunteers, who are able to make decisions on how best to contact voters, attract funds and communicate on social media.

But one year on, the evidence does not stand up. The trend today is toward disengaged elitism, not mass engagement.

As Obama’s popularity plummets, Jacob Weisberg’s writing for Slate blames the childish, ignorant American public – not politicians – for his country’s political and economic crisis. He whines about how the GOP has put the nation in an angry, populist, tea-partying mood.

The Tea Party Movement is a kick in the goolies (English slang) to the Obama Presidency. According to Reason Magazine, the campaign is materially affecting things as big as Scott Brown’s election and as little as a Virginia state vote to outlaw health insurance mandates. It adds that its core messages appeal beyond the movement’s ranks.

Meanwhile, Kurt Andersen rants in New York Magazine about how the walls that the founding fathers erected to contain the mob may no longer hold. He says irregular passions and artful misrepresentations are being whipped up to an unprecedented pitch and volume by the fundamentally new means of 24/7 cable and the hyperdemocratic web (the author of Reset is dead set against nonsense and the worst aspects of modernism).

In contrast, Andersen describes the essence of America’s democracy as being, by the people and for the people, definitely; of the people, not so much. Lamenting the emergence of the tea-party citizens, he says they are:

…under the misapprehension that democratic governing is supposed to be the same as democratic discourse, that elected officials are virtuous to the extent that they too default to unbudging, sky-is-falling recalcitrance and refusal. And the elected officials, as never before, are indulging that populist fantasy.

It seems, then, that critical thinkers are “deserting” dialogue and increasingly seeing Grunig’s two-way symmetrical model as a threat.

The reason is that Middle America is feared. It’s a case of What’s The Matter with Kansas, Thomas Frank’s bestseller, which attempted to solve the conundrum of how so-called ruling class conservatism became the creed of millions of ordinary Americans. His answer was that the masses were so stupid they’d been duped. Our old friends, cognitive dissonance, false consciousness and denial are in play.

Obama nearly let his elitist contempt for the masses – the white and black working class – out of the bag during his campaign with his ‘cling to guns and religion’, remark.

Anybody who still harbours a hope today that Obama’s regime is listening to criticism from friend or foe, let alone engaged in dialogue, hasn’t taken note of the recent rant from the White House’s chief of sfaff Rahm Emanuel. He’s been dismissing liberals as “retards”.

Regular readers of this blog know that I admire elite thought and achievement. They will also know that I believe that it is the job of leaders to lead.

I’m a critic of the two-way symmetrical “orthodoxy” that Grunig espouses. It is my belief that if one seeks answers or to find one’s direction in the crowd, one comes up with confusion (or worse, a horrible gungho certainty), which leads to paralysis (or a parity of unpleasantness).

Nevertheless, I maintain that dialogue, consultation and two-way communication has its place. But so does decision-making, which must not be shirked.

In reality, I don’t think there is any correct model for conducting PR. That’s because PR is an art, not a science. It is more results-driven than method-driven. It is a flexible tool designed for a specific purpose, which comes from above. Put simply, PR serves whoever pays for it, or whomever else it is accountable to, including the law and other stakeholders.

Moreover, how could anybody have ever really thought that somebody with Obama’s preacher-style approach to politics could ever become the leader of a new engaged movement based on real-time dialogue?

8 responses to “Obama’s left: turning on the SM crowd”

  1. Jo Jordan says:

    I’ve lost your argument. There are 6,8bn people in the world and 6,8b x 6.8bn-1 x 6.8bn-12 x… 1 possible dyadic relationships.

    Nothing in the social media project says all these dyads will exist. There is no need. The networks interconnect and if the research is to be believed we are 6 jumps away from anyone.

    We just have two way conversations with the Dunbar number around us (around 150). With only one connection between each tribe we have room for a 10x increase in population before 6 degrees is impossible.

    As you say, in the top down world of strategy, we think through how information ripples through the world. And we think through which ripples we notice and how new communication forms change the pattern of ripples.

    You’ve got heaps of arguments bundled together. They might go together or maybe the weakness in anyone leaves the whole begging an argument?

  2. Alan Brighty says:

    Nothing new in elitism. It has been the ruling mantra through the ages and is commandment No.1 of the EU. To the EU elite, we democrats are just a bloody nuisance … and we don’t understand the importance of the EU vision to boot. Ultimately, it all comes back to the Social Contract. We give up freedoms in return for certainties. Are we getting those certainties…are we Hell!

  3. Peter Walker says:

    HELLO…….let’s have a reality check folks.

    Barrie Obama – Harvard Law, Professor, youngest editor EVER of the Harvard Law Review – intellect, cool headed lazer analysis and cold logic yes.. but man of the people not really and noteven a politician of the Nixon, Kennedy, Reagon, Clinton or Teddy Roosevelt class.

    The guy needs an LBJ to manage the Senate and Congress, do the politics, get people into the tent pissing out not another virtual movement.

    Try reading John Naisbitt – Hi Tech World demands Hit Touch politicians – vide Sarah Palin and the T Party movement.. learn the lesson quick.

  4. Doug Nurse says:

    Mere political rant disguised as PR news. Yawn.

  5. Paul Seaman says:

    Doug, somebody else described it as an anti-Grunig rant disguised as a political rant.

    Certainly, I’m not taking sides in US politics so much as exposing PR hype about social media and making the case against there being a new age of engagement. If others can cite Obama in support of their case, I’m entitled to interrogate the evidence.

  6. Bob Batchelor says:

    Hi Paul,

    Maybe the challenge with Grunig’s model is that he puts too much emphasis on stakeholder involvement. Perhaps modern audiences — dropping in and out of issues and topics so briefly based on the nanosecond media cycle — can’t even qualify as stakeholders. Grunig imagined a world where angry mobs stood vigilant outside corporate HQ with pitchforks, ready to riot. Instead, we have audiences that are disengaged in general. In other words — communications chaos.

    Thus, your analogy to PR as art is apt. Flexibility is key, as you indicate. While I don’t consider myself a postmodernist, I do favor PR thinkers who reflect the reality of communications in this environment. Scholars like Derina Holtzhausen, Priscilla Murphy, Bruce Berger, and Robert Heath offer something beyond the orthodoxy of Grunig and the wobbly “excellence” study.

    Proponents of that study are attempting to show that social media is the ultimate form of two-way symmetrical communications, which (again) is a rather utopian vision of it. The real point is that it doesn’t even matter. Most people favor gut reaction, or “gungho certainty” as you say, which places critical thinking at a deficit. In that sense, we’re all getting what we paid for…

  7. Paul Seaman says:

    Bob, thanks for your thoughtful comment. When it comes to post-modernism I have to admit to being influenced by this zeitgiest. Nevertheless, this blog is all about reason and questioning, which is very much along Enlightenment lines. So I guess I’m conflicted; and like most people I’m pulled both ways at once. But I always try to favour my Enlightenment side over my post-modern in my writing; so long as I can spot the difference.

    The Grunig crowd resemble religious fundamentalists. They ask “what comes after Grunig?” and their answer is “Grunig comes after Grunig”. So they are absolutists. They believe that their man ended PR history – as in the development of its thought, methodologies and insight – once and for all. Meanwhile, they try to make reality fit the theory and end up talking nonsense about social media and much more.

  8. […] It is also a myth (approaching technological determinism) that the internet and SM has created a new world of meaningful value networks. Take politics and public opinion. The UK election just showed that the internet is almost irrelevant to politics and to political outcomes (see here, here and here). The US election showed how the internet can have a major influence on politics, but not quite the way many commentators claimed. Even there it still played second fiddle to mainstream media, as demonstrated here. It is worth noting that the US-experience was a temporary one-off. There’s no relationship being forged between Obama and the masses via social media today, because a relationship is not a relationship unless it is ongoing. Moreover, as the 50-year-old and even older Tea Party GOP veterans turn to social media to vent their anger, Obama’s more youthful team increasingly condemns the medium itself (see here). […]