The Culture Wars: a PR perspective

Societies in the 21st century are increasingly defined by rapidly fragmenting socio-cultural outlooks and competing ways of life. Personhood has been politicised and commodified: we have identity politics and firms track our tastes. Whether it is the words we utter, the clothes we wear, the food we eat, or our taste in holidays, music and sport, or how we demarcate our sexual, racial or national identity, cultural chasms and schisms divide us, even as we are supposed to empathise more intensely and widely.

As David Goodhart remarks in The Road to Somewhere: The Populist Revolt and the Future of Politics, Brexit and the election of Donald Trump – the two biggest protest votes in modern democratic history – marked not so much the arrival of this new era as its coming of age. He writes:

Looking back from the future, the first few years of the twenty-first century, culminating in those two votes, will come to be seen as the moment when the politics of culture and identity rose to challenge the politics of left and right. Socio-cultural politics took its place at the top table alongside traditional socio-economic politics -meaning as much as money. [Page 1, The Road to Somewhere: The populist revolt and the future of politics, by David Goodhart, Hurst & Company London, 2017]

Goodhart says our societies are increasingly divided between two conflicting camps. On the one side he identifies the “Somewheres” – who account for 50 percent of the population – as being the rooted left-behinders who possess ascribed identities and a communitarian outlook. They are socially-conservative in their outlook but, says Goodhart, they have nevertheless mostly embraced the great liberalisation of the past 40 years when it comes to race, gender and sexuality. Somewheres also value consumerism, free expression and individual choice and they tend to resist paternalism.

In contrast, “Anywheres” – who account for 20 to 25 percent – tend to view themselves as citizens of the world. They are mostly highly educated, socially-mobile iconoclasts who show little respect for tradition, established reputations or national borders. Anywheres don’t place a great value on group identity or on national social contracts. In other words, he says Anywheres are the uprooted professionals who dominate big business, politics, the media and cultural institutions. The rest of us, including me, are what Goodhart defines as “Inbetweeners” who share traits and views held by both sides of the divide.

These two opposing types, though, are not easily corralled into comforting binary politics. Rather, they add a new complexity to existing, giddying, multi-dimensional, contradictory patterning. Many of these modern squabbles amount to what Michael Ignatieff, following Freud, describes as the “narcissism of minor differences”. A lot of this is the tender but assertive individuality of what Claire Fox calls generation snowflake.

One huge effect of all this on PR is that our messaging cannot use a deafening megaphone nor assume much about our audience. It is obvious that “the public” is now multiple and even fissiparous publics, plural. It is obvious that modern individuals and micro-groups – whether customers, clients, patients or voters – are picky, stroppy, fragile and have masses of voice and agency. There is no mileage in pandering to all these modern tendencies. Yet up to a point one must understand and even manage them.

The main single effect of the present Culture Wars is that the smug certainties of the liberal elite have been challenged by the half of society which wondered if you really need a degree to be decent. After about 50 years of growing secular, permissive, liberal bossiness, older ideas about family, faith, flag and community have reasserted their right to respectability. The long-form media thus faces two shocks to its system: loss of ad revenue and loss of authority.

Both Trump and Brexit – but also, oddly, Corbyn’s performance too – ran contrary to the media’s slant on things. Their victories came as shocks. Counter-intuitively the relentless anti-Trump thumping by CNN over supposed Russian interference in the US election has strengthened the position of both the Democrat and Republican parties because their audiences are polarized. Even bad-boy Justin Bieber, the glamour-puss of social media, has seen his popularity rise in proportion to the mainstream media’s attacks on him.

Most of our clients are not overtly political but they have, I suggest, for many years promulgated a highly polititicised PC agenda designed to please, mostly, “liberal” Anywheres. That was partly because our clients were, broadly, either liberal elite themselves or were content to let liberal elite wordsmithing front their operations. But this approach is increasingly ineffective as a means of protecting reputations and building trust.

So we need to think things through anew. I argue that such re-thinking will force and enable us to man-up, get real, and help clients speak as adults.

Our clients are usually institutions in some form or other, and they provide goods and services of one sort or another. Most of their messaging has to do with defending and explaining the actual behaviour or promised behaviour of an outfit which the public would like, in principle, to be able to trust.

It happens, however, that institutions of all sorts are in a bad way. They lack the self-assuredness that comes from knowing what is acceptable and what is not, and to whom. It is as if they no longer know the difference between right and wrong. One recent example of this was the decision by London Underground to stop addressing millions of its customers as ladies and gentlemen. After lobbying by what can only be described as vibrant but tiny groups, London Underground agreed to adopt the less respectful gender neutral terminology: “Good morning, everyone”. How long, I wonder, before the demands of the few turn the many into Ze?

Institutions have for various reasons often failed to be good at taking responsibility. Whether it has been failures of banking or building regulations or crises concerning child abuse within care homes, institutions have sheltered behind lawyers, or retreated into outsourced tick-box rectitude. Or they have merely hoped to schmooze their way to public acceptability. But they have not always accepted in an old-fashioned way that things have quite often gone wrong because they weren’t paying enough attention to their own responsibilities. According to the Edelman Trust Barometer, this has led to a backlash against authority in business, media, NGOs and government.

It also happens that individuals – the public – are in a bad way. Not only are we divided between Somewheres and Anywheres; our educated youth are being encouraged to engage in a generational war. According to The Pinch: How the Baby Boomers took their children’s future – and why they should give it back, by former Minister of Education David Willetts, selfish boomers robbed “the Millennials” and today’s “Generation Z” of a decent future. In addition, youth have been tutored in the failings of Toffs, old white males, the Establishment, bloody politicians, little Hitler bureaucrats, distant elites, greedy capitalists and failings of their parents. They have been schooled in their entitlements. Too often they mistake them for rights.

Throughout modern society the victim culture and identity politics have sparked competitive clashes. Different groups jostle in public for the moral authority that being given first-order victim status confers. We see versions of it the battle between feminists, ethnic minorities and even within different sections of the LGBT movement for pole position as victims. We see versions of it in the Hillsborough tragedy, child sex abuse scandals, the Grenfell Tower fire and Charlie Gard case, and many more. I don’t doubt the validity of these people’s causes. What I’m questioning are the cultural reasons that seemingly compel them to turn victimhood into a means of empowerment.

PR professionals could do well out of this ghastly, contemporary, cultural asymmetrical standoff that now dominates public life, if they are prepared to advocate radical change and to challenge modern PC prejudices.

As the world transforms around us, when even the Paris Agreement on combating global warming no longer gets US backing, PR professionals should help clients to adapt accordingly, not least by assessing past failures and new opportunities. We should be advising clients that communicating in the old ways is not merely insufficient but is now part of the problem. When liberal elite spin is visibly floundering, how about just being much more realistic, honest, non-judgemental? Why not boldly accept that there are many worldviews and deciding between them is not the responsibility of most of our clients?

Fighting opportunistic bollocks with opportunistic bollocks must be assumed to be unwise, and in any case to be unethical. Now is surely the time for PRs to become crusaders for evidence, good sense, and sound argument. However many audiences one engages, and however different they are, the client’s behaviour and messaging must be singular, direct and coherent.

There is one important unifying, underlying feature of modern life which could guide our work in a rather old-fashioned way. As much as we must understand the new world of the personal, even the Hyper-Personal, to ensure that our clients survive and thrive, we must help our clients ingrain and live-by verities relevant to our era and their purpose.

Comments are closed.