Communication Bias

Organizing 2.0 trains online organizers in social media, digital strategy and other fields related to ‘the online digital arts.’ Among the issues raised in our trainings is the problem of professional bias.

Communication directors who were trained in strategic communication and press relations are often biased in favor of message control, print and commercial electronic media, and the news cycle. It happens that many deal poorly with real time media, interactivity, and the elevation of amateur voices to the fore.

Webmasters/IT Staff are often technically minded web developers who took on the role of ‘online content manager’. They are often biased to see the website itself as the core function of digital media. It happens that they are often weak at offering digital strategy leadership, and sometimes a little too eager to suggest coding fixes to strategic problems.

Organizers are generally oriented to ‘real world’ activities like meetings, signup sheets, phone calls and events. The role of online engagement is often misunderstood, as expressed by flawed/incorrect mentions of the ‘digital divide’ or pejorative phrases like ‘slacktivism’.

[Note: Obviously, dear reader, YOU don’t fall in any of these categories.]

What this means to the budding growth of ‘digital strategy’ as a professional niche, is the importance of recognizing these kinds of entrenched bias. Leaders and grassroots activists alike can be alert for signs of the bias at work, to surface it openly where it can be treated with the best disinfectant: exposure. After all, there is plenty of evidence and resources to overcome the blind spots mentioned above.

Unfortunately, most of us encounter bias under circumstances where we can’t address it squarely. What if the bias is coming from someone with status power, and the culture doesn’t allow you to challenge their assertions? Or if the bias holder insists that her assumptions are valid and beyond question and is impervious to change? Or if you are able to recognize the bias, but not skilled enough to address it in the moment?

One of the unpleasant professional memories I hold comes from a time when one of my managers insisted, publicly, that one of our consultants had said A when in fact he said B. It didn’t help that I went back and got written clarification from said consultant…. Much like climate denial, professional biases aren’t necessarily rooted in fact. Culture eats strategy for breakfast.

What’s happening under the surface is that someone’s communications frame is very securely attached to their brain, making it hard to process information from outside the box. But right now, we’ll try and change that. With some advance preparation, those very same ‘frame hostages’ will not only adapt but convince themselves that they never even thought that way in the first place. Excellent.

Here’s how. Look for a training opportunity or strategic planning session to introduce our ‘communications taxonomy.’ It situates as many of the sub disciplines of organizing communications’ as we could come up with in relation to each other. Let us know if we’re missing something:

Technical

  • Web development
  • Databases and CRM management
  • Coding, programming
  • Software to manage mobile campaigns, listening dashboards, enhanced voter files
  • Collaboration tools
  • Open source software promotion
  • Video/audio/graphics production
  • Web optimization/SEO
  • Software training
Public Messaging

  • Framing, positioning
  • Creating a narrative
  • Journalism/producing copy
  • Interacting with mainstream press/political class/A list bloggers
  • Cognitive linguistics/Lakoff
  • Strategic communications
  • Polling
  • Focus groups
  • Micro targeting
Digital Strategy

  • Writing for email/web
  • Online content strategy
  • Blogger relations, blogging culture
  • Social media /mobile campaigning strategy
  • Integration of tools, online/offline
  • Engagement politics
  • Ladders of engagement
  • Online advertising/message testing
  • Online community management
  • Small dollar fundraising
Policies/Distribution

  • Media reform
  • Net neutrality, micro radio licensing, public access to bandwidth, addressing digital divide
  • Identity politics media campaigns on behalf of marginalized groups
  • Promotion of favored voices (WMC)
  • Support for better press/Pro-publica/opposition to Fox/monopolies
  • Capacity for video/audio production

Even the most veteran professionals with the biggest egos won’t claim to be experts in ALL these areas. Most people have a few areas, clustered around one of these quadrants, where they have the most experience/expertise. Most communications operations focus on those areas where staff has the most expertise. It can be helpful to do an inventory of skill sets and experience to collectively recognize those areas where you/your department/your organization are lacking, and commit to being open to fellow professionals who DO have more expertise in that area. Just like in the song…

Well, I got a brand new pair of roller skates/You got a brand new key
I think that we should get together/And try them out to see

The frame changes from ‘I understand the important part of communications so let’s do it my way’ to ‘my expertise is mostly in one quadrant and I’ve got a lot to learn from experts with different specialties’. At least, one hopes it does. And if not, at least you’ll be able to articulate precisely what’s wrong with your communications operation.

Final note

There is a kind of communications firm in existence today that simply didn’t exist in the past:

  • Purpose: “Purpose creates 21st century movements.” Founded 2010.
  • Fission Strategy: “Fission Strategy helps social causes harness social media for social good.” Founded 2008.
  • Echo Ditto: “We guide leading social change organizations and social enterprises through their use of connected media and emerging technologies.” Founded 2003.

I’m writing these words while attending the International Labor Communications Association conference. The slogan on the podium banner reads ‘The Power of Labor Journalists United.’ The roots of this organization are in the labor press going back more than 100 years. I suspect that the future of labor communications will sound a lot more like the copy from these young communications firms.

Comments

  1. Jason Mogus says:

    Great post! I really like the intro where you break it down into the common professional biases. Have certainly run into them (and let’s be honest, carried some too) a lot over my career. I’ll use that and reference it in my own work. I also like your chart and the three main areas of digital Comms expertise. I guess I can see why you have the fourth lower right quadrant but I’m not sure knowledge of net neutrality is of the same level as the other three, much more common ones. I wonder if there is a new emerging category for organizers who are very comfortable with digital tools.

    Anyway great stuff I look forward to meeting and collaborating with you guys more, we’re very aligned in our analysis.