By Helio Fred Garcia

Size of Penis Trump

This week the Donald Trump phenomenon seemed to reach a tipping point, with Republican leaders scrambling to prevent his continued wins in the primaries, and with debate discourse hitting new lows.  Not only did we see him feign ignorance of David Duke and the KKK, but we were even treated to debate commentary about the relative size of the candidate’s genitals.

Trump: Not a Cause But a Consequence

But the rise of Donald Trump as the presumptive nominee of the Republican Party, and all the bipartisan angst it is creating, is not a cause but rather a consequence.

It is the predictable result of decades of degradation of political discourse, facilitated by a media more interested in grabbing an audience’s attention than in covering issues.  And the worst part is that we should have seen it coming.

In fact, we could have seen it coming if we had known what to look for.  And we should have known.

Even now as the frightening reality is finally being recognized, we seem to be grappling only with the symptom of the problem — what Trump says and how to prevent him from ever being in a position of authority  — without recognizing that there’s a greater challenge that will continue regardless of how we address the immediate problem.

We can solve the Trump problem but still be as vulnerable to another authoritarian figure who energizes the disenfranchised, the angry, and the scared to similar effect.

Orwell Called It



Almost exactly seventy years ago George Orwell published Politics and the English Language.   That brief essay served as the nonfiction treatment for what two years later would become Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four

Most educated Americans are familiar with Nineteen Eighty-Four.  That popular novel is based in a dystopian future in a continuous state of war, where an intrusive and authoritarian government keeps people uninformed, and where political language is intentionally misleading. So the Ministry of Peace wages war. The Ministry of Truth controls all information, news, propaganda, and art. The Ministry of Plenty rations food. Our term “Orwellian” refers to the use of language to convey the opposite of reality.


But most educated Americans are not familiar with the essay that served as the novel’s basis.  Sadly, Politics and the English Language helps us understand the current state of the American body politic, and it isn’t pretty.

Says Orwell:

“In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible.”

“Political language – and with variations this is true of all political parties… –  is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”

The problem arises when politicians use language in a disingenuous way, asserting things they don’t necessarily believe and making arguments that may sound compelling but that logically don’t make sense.

“The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns, as it were instinctively, to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish squirting out ink. In our age there is no such thing as ‘keeping out of politics.’ All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred and schizophrenia. When the general atmosphere is bad, language must suffer.”

But however damaging individual instances of political language, of insincere speech, or of intentionally misleading statements may be, it’s the effect of these that causes harm.

The central idea in Politics and the English Language is this:

  • Political speech has the effect of reducing citizens’ critical reasoning skills….
  • …This creates a self-perpetuating cycle…
  • …where as people become less discerning they become more susceptible to political speech…
  • …which further diminishes their critical reasoning skills…
  • …and so on…
  • …and so on…
  • …until a fully uninformed public creates conditions for authoritarian government to thrive.


A Cause Can Become an Effect, And So On:

It’s The Cycle That Matters


The key idea, though, is the relationship between cause and effect.

Orwell notes that an effect can become a cause, and a cause can become an effect.  It’s the cycle that matters.  And in the end the result is a citizenry that remains intentionally ignorant of the issues that matter, unaware of what is happening to them, and easily manipulated by politicians.

“But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought. A bad usage can spread by tradition and imitation, even among people who should and do know better.”

“Now, it is clear that the decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes: it is not due simply to the bad influence of this or that individual writer. But an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so on indefinitely. A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.”

The predictable result of this cycle is a citizenry that is easily manipulated, that becomes immune to persuasion by evidence and reasoning, and that doesn’t notice the multiple contradictions all around.


Choosing Ignorance:

Identity-Protective Cognition Thesis

Three years ago Orwell’s argument that political language causes a decline in critical thinking was supported by research by professors at Yale, Cornell, Ohio State, and the University of Oregon.  Their study,  Motivated Numeracy and Enlightened Self-Government, showed that math problems that seem to be about benign topics are easily solved by people with strongly held political views. But when the same math problems are framed in terms of polarized political issues — in this case, gun rights — both progressive-and-conservative-leaning participants have a very hard time getting the math right.

The authors conclude that

“Subjects [use] their quantitative-reasoning capacity selectively to conform their interpretation of the data to the result most consistent with their political outlooks.”

A 2011 essay in Mother Jones by Chris Mooney on the neuroscience of political reasoning helps us understand why this is so.  The piece begins with seminal research from the early fifties by famous Stanford psychologist Leon Festinger, who concluded:

“A man with conviction is a hard man to change. Tell him you disagree and he turns away. Show him facts or figures and he questions your sources. Appeal to logic and he fails to see your point.”

Mooney explains:

“Since Festinger’s day, an array of new discoveries in psychology and neuroscience has further demonstrated how our preexisting beliefs, far more than any new facts, can skew our thoughts and even color what we consider our most dispassionate and logical conclusions.”

“This tendency toward so-called “motivated reasoning” helps explain why we find groups so polarized over matters where the evidence is so unequivocal: climate change, vaccines, “death panels,” the birthplace and religion of the president, and much else. It would seem that expecting people to be convinced by the facts flies in the face of, you know, the facts.”

Cover What Orwell Didn't Know

Ten years ago, on the sixtieth anniversary of the publication of Politics and the English Language, the New York Public Library hosted a conference conceived by five journalism school deans and sponsored by the Open Society Institute. The conference proceedings later were published as a book of essays called What Orwell Didn’t Know: Propaganda and the Face of the New Politics.  Much of what was described ten years ago can be seen now.

For example, Susan Harding, a professor of anthropology at UC Santa Cruz, who has written extensively about the religious right, explained a process called “revoicing.”  She described revoicing as creating apparent structures of legitimacy and embedding within them positions, points of view, or ideologies that would not pass muster in actual legitimate institutions.  She says that this revoicing process leads to  controversial positions and institutions becoming mainstream by co-opting the symbols and vocabulary of the mainstream. She gives an example of the late Rev. Jerry Falwell:

“Falwell’s church ministries, media and political organizations, and educational institutions were, in effect, a hive of cultural workshops in which both fundamentalist and secular ideas, images, narratives, and practices were smelted, refashioned, melded, packaged, and distributed with spectacular success.

Falwell’s Lynchburg Baptist College morphed into a liberal arts college, Liberty Baptist College, and then into a university, Liberty University. The Museum of Earth and Life History on its campus occupied the cultural space of a museum of natural history, but recorded displays of man and beast with the assumptions of creation science rather than evolution. Liberty Godparent Homes converted a former home for unwed mothers into a staging ground for pro-life save-a-baby narratives that in turn revoiced feminist story lines in born-again Christian terms.

We can see this revoicing, this co-opting of mainstream symbols, vocabularies, and institutions, playing out over the last decade:

  • The Creation Museum, which has the look and feel of a science or natural history museum, but whose exhibits and educational material assert that the earth is only thousands of years old, that evolution is a fraud, and that humans and dinosaurs co-existed.
  • The Intelligent Design Institute, which seems to be a think tank and educational organization is really a media and production group whose work is used to refute the scientific theory of evolution.
  • Fox News, ostensibly an objective news organization, but whose editorial focus in the promotion of conservative causes and candidates.  It even has an appropriately Orwellian slogan, “We report, you decide.”

This process provides cover for those who would ignore mathematics, science, and observation and insist that reality is consistent with a particular political, social, or religious viewpoint.  Take, for example, a fourth grade science quiz administered by a religiously-affiliated school in South Carolina.  The student received a perfect grade for answers that would have been marked as incorrect in a school, religious or otherwise, with a mainstream science curriculum; in fact, some of the quiz’ questions would have been unintelligible in a more traditional science curriculum.  But this approach is influencing millions of citizens and future voters.



At about the same time the revoicing discussion was taking place, the new late night comedy host Stephen Colbert coined the phrase Truthiness to describe political discourse.  Parodying Fox News, he defined truthiness as preferring concepts or facts one wishes to be true, rather than concepts or facts known to be true. As  Colbert put it, “I don’t trust books. They’re all fact, no heart.”


In 2005 the American Dialect Society named Truthiness the Word of the Year.

Sadly, what Colbert intended as a comedic take on misdirection has proven to be a defining element of much modern political debate.  Candidates argue not the truth they know but the truth they wish, as if it were known.

Why All Heart Matters

Colbert differentiated between thinking with the brain and knowing with the heart.  He actually hit on something profound about how humans make judgments, and why it’s so easy for political language to have the Orwellian effect.

As described by Chris Mooney in Mother Jones:

“The theory of motivated reasoning builds on a key insight of modern neuroscience: Reasoning is actually suffused with emotion (or what researchers often call “affect”). Not only are the two inseparable, but our positive or negative feelings about people, things, and ideas arise much more rapidly than our conscious thoughts, in a matter of milliseconds—fast enough to detect with an EEG device, but long before we’re aware of it.”

“That shouldn’t be surprising: Evolution required us to react very quickly to stimuli in our environment. It’s a “basic human survival skill,” explains political scientist Arthur Lupia of the University of Michigan. We push threatening information away; we pull friendly information close. We apply fight-or-flight reflexes not only to predators, but to data itself.”

“We’re not driven only by emotions, of course—we also reason, deliberate. But reasoning comes later, works slower—and even then, it doesn’t take place in an emotional vacuum. Rather, our quick-fire emotions can set us on a course of thinking that’s highly biased, especially on topics we care a great deal about.”

“We have seen this trend for several decades, where for political expediency citizens have been conditioned to not trust any source of news that includes conclusions contrary to those consistent with a political point of view.”

We Apply Fight-or-Flight Reflexes

Not Only to Predators, But to Data Itself

 Such citizens, who reflexively flee from the facts, are unlikely to be aware of, or even care about, contradictions among any candidate’s positions.  Simultaneously holding two contrary positions, the very definition of absurdity, would ordinarily dismiss someone as not to be taken seriously.  But in the political world such contradictions seem not to matter.

In such an environment citizens literally are unable to notice absurdities. But the same part of the brain, the Amygdala, that causes the flight response also causes the fight response.  So any intruder is seen to be worthy of a fight.  And violence tends to ensue.

And as the French philosopher Voltaire once warned, “those who can make us believe absurdities can make us commit atrocities.”


So within a week of Trump calling for a ban of all Muslims entering the country, we saw a rash of attacks on mosques and on people perceived to be Muslim or Arab.  We have seen people removed from his rallies while being taunted by Trump from the podium, calling for his supporters to punch the person being removed in the face; to have the crowd strip people of their coats before sending them into the freezing weather.  This week, after his flirtation with the KKK and white supremacists, we saw peaceful non-protesting black students ejected from his rallies, and at least one white supremacist leader assault a black woman as she was being removed from the rally.

So what characterizes the Trump voters?

According to Derek Thompson in The Atlantic, the first common element is lack of higher education:

“The single best predictor of Trump support in the GOP primary is the absence of a college degree. ”

“Diplomas are what Ron Brownstein calls the “new Republican fault line.” In 2012, Mitt Romney struggled for months to consolidate support because, even as he had clear support among college-educated Republicans, he fared worse among non-college voters.”

So there’s more than a passing coincidence in Trump’s cheering “I love the poorly educated!” after the Las Vegas caucuses.

The second characteristic is feeling voiceless.  A survey from RAND Corporation, found:

“Voters who agreed with the statement “people like me don’t have any say about what the government does” were 86.5 percent more likely to prefer Trump. This feeling of powerlessness and voicelessness was a much better predictor of Trump support than age, race, college attainment, income, attitudes towards Muslims, illegal immigrants, or Hispanic identity.”

This helps explain voters’ reports that they support Trump because he speaks what they feel.

There is also a fear of the other:

“Trump has clearly played on fears of non-white outsiders, by likening Mexican immigrants to rapists, promising to deport illegal immigrants and to build a wall between the U.S. and its neighbors, pledging to keep Muslims out of the country during the Syrian diaspora, and playing coy with his relationship with the KKK.”

“But he has also told a simple three-part narrative to attract the despondent demographic: America is losing; Donald Trump is a winner; and if Trump becomes president, America will become a winner, too. This Great Man Theory of political change, however, strikes others as potentially dangerous…”

Fourth, Trump voters want to wage war against outsiders, both those within and those beyond our borders.  According to Matthew MacWilliams of University of Massachusetts, Amherst,

“The classic definition of authoritarianism implies a tradeoff — more security for less liberty — but MacWilliams says it’s also about identifying threatening outsiders and granting individuals special powers to pursue aggressive policies to destroy them. The best predictor of Trump support… [is] “authoritarianism … [and] a personal fear of terrorism” that best predicted Trump’s support across the state.”

“Trump’s foreign policy, like his policy for anything, is a muddle. He’s cautious toward the Israel-Palestine conflict, yet he told Fox News he would kill the families of ISIS members to stop their advance, something awfully close to a public pledge to commit war-crimes.”

“But it’s his domestic security policies that have been astonishingly hawkish. He’s promised to shut down mosques, keep a database of Muslims, and round up the children of illegal immigrants. Indeed, when you put it together, Trump’s hysterical promises to protect his white in-group from non-white outsiders looks like race-baiting…”
His support seems to be strongest in places with history of racial animosity:
“According to the New York Times’ Nate Cohn, who used data from Civis Analytics, Trump’s support is strongest from the Gulf Coast, through the Appalachian Mountains, to New York, among marginally attached Republicans (possibly former Democrats). It is a familiar map for some demographers, since it’s similar to a heat map of Google searches for racial slurs and jokes. “That Mr. Trump’s support is strong in similar areas does not prove that most or even many of his supporters are motivated by racial animus,” Cohn writes. “But it is consistent with the possibility that at least some are.”
And what to Trump voters care about?  According to a Public Policy Polling survey of Trump voters in South Carolina,
  • 70% think the Confederate flag should still be flying over the State Capital; only 20% who agree with it being taken down.
  • 38% of Trump voters say they wish the South had won the Civil War; only 24% are glad the North won and 38% aren’t sure.
  • 36% of Republican primary voters in the state are glad the North emerged victorious; 30% are for the South, but Trump’s the only one whose supporters actually wish the South had won.
  • By an 80/9 spread, Trump voters support his proposed ban on Muslims entering the United States.
  • 31% would support a ban on homosexuals entering the United States as well, something no more than 17% of anyone else’s voters think is a good idea.
  • There’s also 62/23 support among Trump voters for creating a national database of Muslims and 40/36 support for shutting down all the mosques in the United States, something no one else’s voters back.
  • Only 44% of Trump voters think the practice of Islam should even be legal at all in the United States;  33%  think it should be illegal.  To put all the views toward Muslims in context, though, 32% of Trump voters continue to believe the policy of Japanese internment during World War II was a good one, compared to only 33% who oppose it and 35% who have no opinion one way or another.


Fixing The Body Politic

So what can the nation do to halt the decline and to make things better?

The first thing to note is that things will surely get worse before they get better.

The second is to recognize that there is no easy fix.

Again, Trump is not the problem.  He’s the current symptom of the problem.  South Carolina voters do not hold their positions BECAUSE of Trump.  Trump is merely the person who happens to appeal to their views now.

Rather, the problem is that authoritarian government depends on uninformed, scared, and angry voters, who can channel their negative emotions toward others, and who see in their candidate some relief from their anxieties.

Orwell told us that.  And we have seen it play out over the last few decades.

The problem is a body politic that is comfortable being uninformed and suspicious of facts, data and people with whom they don’t agree or connect.

But the problem arose because of the convergence of social, technological, political, economic, and demographic trends over decades.  The solution is also decades-long.  Regardless of who happens be be the next president.

The central question of our republic is this: Do we continue down the path where authoritarian government becomes both inevitable and seemingly natural, or do we recommit to actual democracy?

There is much we would need to do.

But over the long term, the only sustainable solution will be a restoration of a core founding value of education.  Of elevating the ability of voters to think clearly and to discern carefully.

Indeed, founding father Thomas Jefferson called for education as the key to democracy.

Jefferson becomes the antidote to Orwell.

Jefferson: An Educated Citizenry

is Necessary for a Thriving Democracy


Throughout his life, including before and after serving as president, Jefferson noted that education is the key to accepting others and to exercising effective citizenship.  (Indeed, on his tombstone, he lists only three accomplishments: author of the Virginia Statute on Religious Freedom; author of the Declaration of Independence; and founder of the University of Virginia.  His term as president didn’t make the cut.)

Among his views on the relation between education and democracy:

  • “I know no safe depositary of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power.”
  • “The most effectual means of preventing [the perversion of power into tyranny are] to illuminate, as far as practicable, the minds of the people at large, and more especially to give them knowledge of those facts which history exhibits, that possessed thereby of the experience of other ages and countries, they may be enabled to know ambition under all its shapes, and prompt to exert their natural powers to defeat its purposes.”

And, as if in direct rebuke to Donald Trump:

  • “No nation is permitted to live in ignorance with impunity.”
  • “[I have] a conviction that science is important to the preservation of our republican government, and that it is also essential to its protection against foreign power.”

A Decent Respect for the Opinions of Mankind

But of all the Jeffersonian notions, the one that most directly speaks to remedying the challenges Orwell describes is a little-remembered but central idea from Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence.  In the opening paragraph, Jefferson describes why the Declaration was needed in the first place.  He declared:

“…a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.”

That decent respect for the opinions of mankind goes in many directions:

  • A decent respect by politicians for the opinions of citizens.
  • A decent respect by citizens of this nation for the opinions of those in other nations.
  • A decent respect by governments for the people.


But decent respect has been sorely missing in American politics for some time.  Orwell called it…


Please note: Helio Fred Garcia is executive director of Logos Institute for Crisis Management and Executive Leadership; board chair of the Interfaith Alliance Foundation; and an adjunct associate professor of management and communication at New York University School of Professional Studies, MS in Public Relations and Corporate Communication, where he teaches, among other things, communication ethics.  But the views expressed here are solely his own and not necessarily reflective of any other entity.

Introduction by Helio Fred Garcia:

This is my fourth in a series of guest blogs featuring my recently-graduated capstone (thesis) advisees in New York University’s Master’s in Public Relations and Corporate Communication.

Wall-Street-Reputation-NYU-Flag-2014-Sep (1)

(See my earlier posts, On Wall Street, Reputation, and Recovery: Guest Blog by Julia Sahin here; On Changing Narratives in Oil Conflict Regions: Guest Blog by Claudia Espinel here; and A 10-C Model for Apologies: Guest Blog by Iris Wenting Xue here.)

In this blog, Jocelyn Jaixin Cao applies a foundational principle of effective persuasion – start with Why – to the core identity of companies. She notes that the most successful companies are those which make the Why a central part of their work, both in their statement of values, vision, and mission, and in the day-to-day decision criteria they use.

Quite presciently, among the many companies she studied, she contrasts Google, which has a very strong Why identity, and which just overtook Apple as the largest company in the world, with Yahoo, which has always been a What company focused on features and benefits but without clear purpose, and which is now struggling to survive, never mind remain relevant.

You can see the complete capstone here.





Jocelyn Jaixin Cao

Jocelyn Jaixin Cao

To stand out from competitors and to survive in a rapidly changing business environment, most companies spend the majority of their time in differentiating their products or services. However, studies show that differentiation is not enough to establish trust and loyalty. Companies need to earn trust by communicating and demonstrating their core values and beliefs clearly and consistently to their audience. Creating a “why” frame that includes these values and beliefs within the corporation becomes vital.

Companies influential on a global scale, such as Google, Facebook, and Uber, follow a similar communication strategy. They tell us first why they exist before talking about what they are selling. They know that to successfully connect with their audience, they need to first address what the audience cares about, not what is important only tothemselves. The origin of the “why” comes from the genesis story and the core values embraced by the company. It is not simply a slogan for the purpose of grabbing attention, but something the corporation truly believes in and is willing to fight for: it is the foundation of a corporation’s mission and vision.

  1. The Importance of “Why” in Business Decision-making and Communication

Google, Facebook, and Uber all have a clear “why” of their existence in the first place. The origin of their “why” is not for themselves, but for better serving the society. Google was created because Larry Page and Sergei Brin wanted to improve people’s search experience at that time; Facebook was brought into being because of the desperate need by Harvard students for a comprehensive online social network based on real identity; Uber was built to tackle the common issue of frustrating taxi services in major cities around the world. They are all originated from finding solutions for problems experienced by people at that time, and this is valued more than making money.

In addition, they all place their “why” at the center of decision-making, whether for big business decisions or day-to-day management. When Google’s engineers were developing a new project, they were encouraged to ask the question “Is it best for our users? Is it evil?” When hiring new employees, Google ensured that the person not only had the skills needed, but also fit into its “smart creative” culture – a culture that is “willing to question the status quo and attack things differently.”

Don't be evil

Facebook rejected advertisers whose businesses were not relevant to a college social culture even though they were companies like Goldman Sachs that could bring large amounts of money to them at their early stage. Later, it also turned down several deals with big investors such as Viacom and Yahoo because Mark Zuckerberg did not think those companies understood Facebook’s vision. When Uber was facing the huge backlash from the taxi industry and government officials, they did not fight back immediately, but focused on presenting their “why” to their customers and local governments through face-to-face conversations. It did not work out in every city, but it provoked a worldwide discussion on this issue, which to some extent increased Uber’s brand awareness.

Smart Creatives

Moreover, they all never stop enlarging and enriching their original “why” frames, which shows their constant thinking about the “why.” Google interpreted its “why” clearly to the public through the “Ten Things We Know To Be True”. Facebook revised its mission statement several times since its first establishment in 2004. Uber positioned itself as a lifestyle and logistics company, rather than a car service company, with its new trials such as Uber Ice Cream and UberCARGO.

In contrast, many of the competitors in the history of Google, Facebook and Uber failed to create their “why” or prioritize their “why” in communications. Therefore, they either lost the competitive advantage quickly or simply could not compete at all.

(1) Facebook vs. MySpace: MySpace existed and was widely welcomed before the inauguration of Facebook. It targeted the same audience – college students, received a lot of early press, and generated huge valuation among its investors. However, Facebook quickly overtook its market share. One crucial reason is that after being purchased by the News Corporation, MySpace’s original “why” no longer fit into its new reality. News Corp tried to guide MySpace by using the “professional management” approach. Leaders from News Corp sat down describing where the business would head, where they would invest and how they would earn a positive ROI by carefully calculating what would work. Those professional leaders at News Corp had no idea about the nature of social network among college students and they ran MySpace like a professional business. Contrarily, Zuckerberg allowed Facebook to go wherever the market wanted it. His team looked into the comments of their users and understood their audience well.

(2) Google vs. Bing: On May 28, 2009, Microsoft CEO, Steve Ballmer, publically demonstrated Bing for the first time at the All Things Digital Tech Conference in San Diego, California. In the live interview at the conference, when asked the reason Microsoft decided to rebrand the name of Live Search as Bing, Ballmer said the search engine industry was a large growing market and Microsoft should be in that market. To make their presence more obvious, they needed a short and crispy name that could “verb it up.” Reports also showed that Microsoft was planning to spend $100 million for the marketing campaign of Bing. Compared to Google, Bing indeed differentiated itself in many aspects to demonstrate its specialty. However, after six years, statistics shows that Google is still the dominant search engine with 66% market share around the world while Bing only accounts for 12% even after its partnership with Yahoo. When companies lose their “why” at the beginning, it is usually hard to catch up later. Microsoft did not know clearly why they rebranded their search engine. Therefore, even though they successfully differentiated the product from competitors’ via marketing campaigns, loyalty did not follow.

(3) Uber vs. Lyft: On May 22, 2012, John Zimmer and Logan Green launched Lyft to “give Uber some low-priced private driver/taxi competition.” Lyft differentiated itself from Uber by adding two more pillars to its business: ride sharing for long-distance car rides, and a University program where Lyft charges colleges for specific campus car-sharing programs. Now three years after its launch, Lyft has indeed received positive reviews from its community and is growing steadily in the U.S. However, compared to the sensation Uber has created around the world, Lyft looks more like a different version of Uber, rather than having its unique corporate identity. When a company’s “why” is mainly based on business competition, rather than the solution to the problems cared by its users, it may see a sound short-term gain by differentiating the services, but will soon be replaced by new companies with better products. Zimride, Lyft’s predecessor, is a failed example.

Uber Ice Cream

  1. Developing the “Why” frame

The process of creating the “why” frame can be divided into two parts:

The first part is the formation of the original “why.” Usually, a company’s genesis story is at the core of its original “why.” Page and Brin created Google in Stanford dorm as part of their PhD research, and their academic backgrounds and personal beliefs later influenced many aspects of Google’s growth. Zuckerberg’s dramatic founding story distinguished Facebook from other startups at that time, and was later brought live on the big screen by Hollywood in 2010. Uber’s original “why” emerged in a raining night in Paris when Garrett Camp and Travis Kalanick were annoyed by the taxi services there. At that moment, they decided to crack the problem. These stories were not just stories, but later became core elements of their corporate cultures.

The second part is the enlargement of the “why.” To successfully fulfill the mission of the original “why,” leaders need people who share their vision to make it real together. At this time, corporate culture becomes significant for a company to convey and to represent its “why” to the outside world. Both Google and Facebook establish their unique cultures at very early stage. Both of them adopt the bottom-up management style and the flat corporate structure as they believe in openness and transparency, but despise bureaucracy. Both of them use the working environment to demonstrate and communicate the values to their employees. They build up their offices based on those values so that employees can be constantly reminded and inspired.

  1. Implementing the “Why” Frame in Daily Communications

The implementation of the “why” begins first internally among employees. Google and Facebook start very early on establishing an effective communication mechanism within the corporation. Whether it is Google’s weekly all-hands (TGIF) meetings, the quarterly OKR (Objective and Key Results) reports, or Facebook’s Q&A session every Friday with Zuckerberg, the regular Hackerathon competition, leaders at Google and Facebook know clearly the importance of internal communication to a corporation’s long-term success. Employees are, after all, a company’s best and most valuable brand ambassadors. An inside-out approach to engagement empowers employees in this process by allowing them to personify the company’s values externally. Therefore, companies should first think to develop an efficient and sustainable system for internal communication – to create a culture of “why” within the company.

After having a solid “why” internally, companies will have more confidence in external

communication. One key principle in external communication is to meet audience where they are. This requires companies to shift their focus of communication from brand itself to its audience because the audience, or the market, is always the “why” brands exist in the first place. By first addressing what the audience are concerning about, companies create a frame of communication that provides meaningful context for introducing the facts and features of their brands. It is also a process to activate and connect with the frames already existed in the audience’s minds. Companies should always ask themselves why the audience should care about what they are saying.


Start with Why

“People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.” This is the core argument Simon Sinek articulated in his TED Talk “How Great Leaders Inspire Action” and his book Start With Why. Sinek says there are only two ways to influence human behavior – manipulation or inspiration. Business decision-makers can easily grasp and reproduce manipulative strategies such as reducing prices or increasing marketing campaigns to grab attention, while generating inspiration usually requires richer thoughts and deeper motivation. Developing the “why” frame starts the company on a journey of self-exploration and lays the foundation for a steady flow of inspiration.

The Golden Circle



Jocelyn Jaixin Cao received her BA in English Language and Literature from Southern Yangtze University School of Foreign Studies and Honors School in Wuxi, China. She studied linguistics in the Global Studies program at University of California, Davis. She received her MS in Public Relations and Corporate Communication from New York University in December, 2015. She is a certified interpreter in the New York City mayor’s office.

Jocelyn Jaixin Cao with her professor and Capstone advisor Helio Fred Garcia.

Jocelyn Jaixin Cao with her professor and Capstone advisor Helio Fred Garcia.

Worth Reading: Jock Talk: 5 Communication Principles for Leaders as Exemplified by Legends of the Sports World by Beth Noymer Levine.



I am honored to have written the Foreword to Jock Talk by my friend Beth Noymer Levine, the head of SmartMouth Communications.

It is an inspiring book that will help any reader enhance his or her leadership communication skill.   Well worth reading, digesting, and applying.

Beth Noymer Levine, Author of Jock Talk

Beth Noymer Levine, Author of Jock Talk


The following is adapted from the Foreword:

Thirty years ago I made one of the best business decisions of my career. I hired Beth Noymer Levine.

I had just started work in the world’s largest PR firm, one of 25 people devoted full-time to a single Wall Street client. I was a mid-level member of the group, tasked with assembling a small team to promote our client’s nascent investment banking business. Beth became part of our five-person investment banking communication team. It was 1985, the go-go years on Wall Street — just a few years before actor Charlie Sheen captured the pace and possibilities, as well as the consequences of overdoing it, in the film Wall Street. We spent our days at our client’s Wall Street offices and trading floor, grazing for news by morning and early afternoon, and speaking with the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and other media by late afternoon, all to earn our client a disproportionate share of voice in the papers.


We were young and brash and somewhat fearless. We began not knowing a thing about Wall Street — in my job interview I had to point out that I didn’t know the difference between a stock and a bond. My future boss reassured me, “you will.” And indeed we learned. And Beth was a star, earning not only our trust but also that of our (sometimes difficult) client and the news media. She was very, very good at it.

After a few years I left for another firm, and Beth also left for yet another. We reconnected at the end of the decade, when I became head of communication for a large investment bank. I retained Beth’s firm. Beth became my advisor, and I discovered that she had assembled her own team of young, brash, and talented investment banking communicators.

A couple of years later I had begun teaching investor relations and financial communication at New York University’s Marketing & Management Institute. They asked me to teach another course, so I needed to hand off Investor Relations. I could think of only one person to take over the course: Beth. She joined the NYU faculty and taught brilliantly for the next several years. Then her career led her to Atlanta, where she became head of corporate communications for a large bank – one that eventually would become part of Bank of America.

And then we went our separate ways. Beth started her own consulting practice and got involved in the world of Olympic and professional sports in addition to the corporate world. I spent the next 20 years building a crisis and leadership coaching practice, with a heavy emphasis on Wall Street, healthcare, and the military.



We reconnected over coffee in New York when she came to meet with people about her book idea – what became Jock Talk. And we discovered that we were each working on similar books – books on how to lead, build trust, and inspire loyalty through effective communication. Only I was doing it through the metaphor of military strategy, she through sports. We didn’t really compare notes. But we agreed to stay in touch.

My book, The Power of Communication: Skills to Build Trust, Inspire Loyalty, and Lead Effectively, came out in mid-2012; Beth read it only after she had finished writing hers. But – perhaps not surprisingly – the two books are completely aligned. We come at things from different directions and use different vocabulary. But we’re fellow travelers, applying and interpreting the same principles in ways we have found to work for our clients. And why not? We came of age together, discovering the hard way what works and what doesn’t. One small example: Beth’s First Principle is audience-centricity. My book’s Second Principle is that you can’t move people unless you meet them where they are. Same idea. But hers also embodies her Fourth Principle: Brevity.

I was honored and humbled when Beth asked me to write the Foreword. I devoured her book. It is brilliant. It is witty. And it works. I know that after you’ve read the book, and taken to heart Beth’s principles and techniques, you will become a more effective communicator, and therefore a more effective leader.

Beth and I agree on this: If you cannot communicate effectively you will not lead. Whether you’re an athlete, a candidate for political office, a business executive, or just someone trying to build a career, you will benefit mightily from Jock Talk’s approach.




Book Review and Commentary

Helio Fred Garcia Helio Fred Garcia | Bio | Posts
28 Dec 2014

James G. Stavridis tried to leave the Navy in 1981, after his five-year commitment was up, to attend law school.  But he got a call from his Annapolis mentor, then Lieutenant Commander Mike Mullen (later to become Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff).  Mullen said, “You want law school. OK. Let me try and get the Navy to send you to a law school.”  The next day he called and offered to have the Navy send Stavridis to the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.  Stavridis pointed out that Fletcher is not a law school, but school of international relations.

Mullen’s reply: “It has ‘law’ in the name. And it is hard to get orders to it. So you better take it now.”  Stavridis did.  He received a PhD in international relations and was named the outstanding student in his class, setting in motion a career that propelled him to be one of only two 1976 graduates of the U.S. Naval Academy to receive four stars.  (The other, Marine General John Allen, served as head of NATO and U.S. operations in Afghanistan.)

The nation owes a debt to  Adms. Mullen and Stavridis, both for their service and for the decision-making thirty-three years ago that kept Stavridis in the Navy.


In 2009 Adm. Stavridis was finishing a three-year tour as the four-star head of U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) when he was appointed by President Obama to become simultaneously Supreme Allied Commander of NATO (a position known as SACEUR) and also commander of the U.S. European Command (EUCOM). He was the first Navy officer to so serve.  In those two roles he was simultaneously in charge of both all NATO operations around the globe (including the International Security Assistance Force Afghanistan (ISAF)) and all U.S. operations on the continent of Europe.  In those capacities he presided over the 2011 campaign in Libya that ultimately removed Muammar Gaddafi from power.

Adm. Stavridis, who retired from the Navy in 2013 to become the Dean of his Alma Mater, the Fletcher School, has written a memoir of his time in uniform, The Accidental Admiral: A Sailor Takes Command at NATO. (Naval Institute Press, 2014)

Accidental Admiral Book Cover

Worth Reading

The Accidental Admiral is my pick for the best leadership and leadership communication book of 2014.

It is worth reading, not just because it is elegantly written and shows in clear language the challenge of leading such complex organizations.  And not just as a good window into both diplomacy and military strategy over the last five years.  But also for three other reasons:

  1. Because Adm. Stavridis is an inspired and inspiring leader, and The Accidental Admiral is also a handbook on effective leadership, with application well beyond the military.
  2. Because Adm. Stavridis is a proponent of effective strategic communication, again with application well beyond the military.
  3. Because Adm. Stavridis is one of the big thinkers about national security, who will be shaping the views of the next generation of national security leaders.  His views on smart power and open-source security (see below) are particularly worth noting.

Adm. Stavridis lays out the theme of his book early:

“The big lesson that I learned along the way, and which is the underpinning of this book, is in one sense very basic: the world is a diverse and complex place, and single-point ‘silver bullet’ solutions for its problems will almost always fail. Unilateral action is usually a disappointment; alliances, partnerships, and friendships are everything. We must apply international, inter-agency, and public-private connections in creating security in the twenty-first century.”

In many ways Adm. Stavridis echos the philosophy of his mentor, retired Joint Chiefs Chair Mike Mullen.  In his 2009 article in Joint Force Quarterly,  Adm. Mullen decried both the foreign policy and the strategic communication failures of the prior decade.  He chided the nation’s leaders for the arrogance; for assuming that our good intentions by themselves would have us prevail.

“To put it simply, we need to worry a lot less about how to communicate our actions and much more about what our actions communicate…. I also hope we learn to be more humble, to listen more. Because what we are after in the end—or should be after—are actions that speak for themselves, that speak for us. What we need more than anything is credibility. And we can’t get that in a talking point.”

Decision Criteria: When to Use Force?

One of the challenges Adm. Stavridis faced as SACEUR was achieving agreement and commitment for NATO operations, both in Afghanistan and in Europe, from Nato’s 28 member nations.  His investment in relationships and diplomacy came to fruition during the campaign to protect Libyan civilians between March and November, 2011.  That campaign led to the ouster of Muammar Gaddafi, who was later killed by his own people.  In addition to recounting the run-up to and the implementation of that campaign, Adm. Stavridis offers lessons learned from the Libya campaign that can help inform decisions on the use of force in other conflicts, such as in Syria or against ISIL.


“I do think we can draw some quick lessons from Libya that might inform the decision to engage elsewhere…

  1. There must be a pressing need in a humanitarian sense. This is the somewhat controversial legal doctrine of “responsibility to protect,” or R2P, as it is sometimes called. When large numbers of innocent civilians are being killed or threatened by disaster (man-made or natural), intervention must be considered.
  2. Allies and coalitions are crucial. The age of unilateral action is rapidly passing. Despite all frustrations, working with a coalition is vastly better than going it alone.
  3. Regional support is vital. The presence of Arab coalition partners in Libya was key.
  4. You must understand the language, culture, history, and hierarchy of any nation or region into which an intervention is considered.
  5. Bring lots of capability: intelligence, surveillance, targeting, ordnance, ships, aircraft, and – if necessary (and hope that they are not necessary) – troops on the ground.
  6. Try to minimize casualties. Interventions in today’s world are about relieving human suffering, not increasing it. That means working with humanitarian organizations, energizing public-private connections, using only precision-guided munitions, and paying attention to refugees at sea and on the ground.
  7. It will be expensive. More than you expect. Much more.
  8. Bring lawyers, strategic communicators, and public affairs experts, and engage the media early, often, and continuously.
  9. Do it under the auspices of the UN if at all possible. There may be times when it is not possible, but it is vastly better to intervene under legal norms provided by the UN.
  10. Probably most important, good luck. You will need it. In Libya, we had more than our normal share. It won’t always be so.”

Good advice.  And note that President Obama seemed to follow many of these principles in formulating a response to ISIL in Iraq and Syria.

Lessons for Leaders

But the real value of The Accidental Admiral for civilian readers comes from Adm. Stavridis’ leadership principles.  He summarizes his leadership approach:

“Any leader worth his or her salt understands that leaders must work hard to get to know the people on the team as individuals and demonstrate sincere concern for their families. In addition, they must master the skills and technology of any job; encourage teamwork and demand determination and dedication to task and mission; build innovation as a core competency; and insist on civility. In essence, leaders do best when they approach their position with an attitude of ‘leader as servant,’ always treating their teams with dignity, honor, and respect. No mystery there – except, perhaps, why so few leaders actually put those tenets to use…

People will almost always become what you expect and tell them to be: if you are suspicious and certain that they are going to malinger and procrastinate and do anything they can to get out of work, they usually will; if you tell them that they are going to get things done in record time and give them the resources and goals to do it, they usually will… But the key is always ‘leader as servant.’”

Adm. James G. Stavridis

Adm. James G. Stavridis

Adm. Stavridis outlines what he calls “tricks of the trade: important ways in which a good leader can put broad philosophical ideas into operation, make sure the goals of everyone in the organization are aligned, and maintain grace under pressure.”  They include:

  • “Speak and write with simplicity and precision, and don’t accept imprecision from those around you. Casualness in speech and writing can lead to huge disconnects. This is particularly true with e-mail, which – when you hit Send – becomes etched in stone…
  • Prepare thoroughly for key events. Make sure you understand which events truly matter.   Don’t let the chaff floating around in the wind distract you from what is really important to your job…Leaders need to look ahead several months or even a year or two at a time; pick out the events that really matter; and spend an enormous amount of time, energy, and resources ensuring that they are fully prepared.
  •  Be your own spokesperson. When things go wrong, it is much easier to find reasons why you should say nothing than to step up to your responsibilities…. But that gives the impression that the senior leadership is uncaring or unaware…After a sexual assault took place recently in the Australian Army, the Army’s commander, General David Morrison, posted a hard-hitting video and made repeated personal appearances condemning such attacks in the strongest terms and telling the offenders in direct terms: ‘Get out of our Army.’  Similar assaults have plagued the U.S. military, but many senior commanders have held back, fearing that they will ‘prejudice potential juries’ and ‘exert command influence.’ That is the wrong approach in my view – being your own spokesperson means stepping up and calling it like you see it in public.  The Aussies have it right.
  • Carve out time to think. Write down your thoughts. Share them with others whose opinions you respect.
  • Don’t lunge at the ball. Too many decisions are made in haste, under pressure, based on emotional reaction, or with incomplete facts. Take the time to gather the information you need. Don’t be driven by anyone else’s timeline unless absolutely required (i.e., by law).
  • Details matter, but think big thoughts. Balance the time spent on absorbing and understanding details and that spent sitting back from the thicket of the day to day and trying to think through new ideas, concepts, and necessities for your family, your organization, and the nation.
  • Look at the new law or regulation for yourself. Don’t rely on summaries or a staff member’s or lawyer’s opinion as to what the law says. Get it and read it yourself.
  • Organize yourself.  Don’t turn over personal organization to assistants, no matter how good they are. Much of the value of getting organized… is that it forces you to think holistically about events. The essential material thus gets into your head.
  • Carve out time to read. Take a balanced approach: fiction, nonfiction, professional journals, and so on.
  • Make mentorship a priority. Listen, learn, educate, and lead… Walk around and listen to your team. And show up early for meetings.”

Leadership. Churchill

Taking Strategic Communication Seriously

A second reason to read The Accidental Admiral is Adm. Stavridis’ view on strategic communication, which he sees as the glue that holds together all other strategic initiatives.   His recommendations are completely consistent with best practices and with the approach I advocate in my book The Power of Communication: Skills to Build Trust, Inspire Loyalty, and Lead Effectively (FT Press, 2012).  He knows that you can’t move audiences unless you meet them where they are.  In particular, he understands the power of human connection; of taking audiences seriously and engaging them effectively, not as an afterthought but as an essential element of leadership.  As I often say, communication is the continuation of policy, by yet other means.

His philosophy of strategic communication is summarized as follows:

“Effective communication is the key skill a senior leader needs in today’s world… Winston Churchill is said to have observed that the principal difference between management and leadership is communication. Effective communication requires leaders of an organization to take an early and persistent role in deciding how ideas and decisions are shaped and delivered.

Simply stated, the objective of strategic communication is to provide audiences with truthful and timely information that will influence them to support the objectives of the communicator. In addition to truthfulness and timeliness, the information must be delivered to the target audience in a precise way. This generalized approach can be applied to essentially any organization. It may sound easy, but in practice it is as hard as hell. The U.S. Department of Defense and NATO are damn good at launching Tomahawk missiles but can’t launch an idea to save their lives, figuratively (and occasionally literally) speaking.”

Save their lives

He notes that strategic communication is vastly more art than science, but also offers the following insights.

“Here are some things that I have seen work, although none of them is foolproof.

  • Remember that the postman never rings twice. You get only one chance to make a first impression on any story. Pick your spot and start talking carefully, thinking about the setting and the context, getting expert advice, and get out in front – intelligently.
  • You can’t un-ring a bell. Something once said can never be pulled back, especially in the media echo chamber, which demands constant content to fill the 24/7 news cycle. Ill-advised short-, punchy, cute phrases can kill you. Before you speak, make sure you know exactly what you want to say. And remember, there are times when silence is golden.
  • Tell the truth. The most important principle is the simplest: Always provide the truth to your audience. Nothing will more quickly doom strategic communication to failure than a falsehood. A strategic communication team can have a superb message, excellent messengers, and a carefully crafted plan – yet a single lie can bring the entire effort crashing down… Tell the truth and emphasize that you do tell the truth.  Over the long run, it is unquestionably the best approach.
  • Have a good message. The most brilliant strategic communication in the world will not sell a bad message… Again, this seems self-evident, but there are many in the world of strategic communication who believe that a bad message can be sold effectively. It cannot. The strategic message must resonate with the audience because it shares appropriate human values such as liberty, justice, honest, economic improvement, security, and fair treatment.
  • Understand the audience. Can there be two more different countries in the world than enormous Portuguese-speaking Brazil and tiny English-speaking St. Kitts? Or Spanish-speaking, economically strong Chile and poverty-stricken French-Creole-speaking Haiti? The audience is different in each country or territory and each group of people, during each particular season. Therefore, the messages must be evaluated and tailored with the diverse qualities of the receiver in mind.
  • Pull the trigger promptly… Do not let the ‘perfect’ become the enemy of the ‘very good.’ Develop a reasonably good plan fast and execute it right away. Otherwise you are likely to end up back on your heels in the world of the perpetual news cycle. Leaders tend to want to wait until they have all the facts before acting, but they often won’t have the time. Especially in this modern electronic media-driven world you will literally and figuratively be buried before all the facts come in.
  • Think at the strategic level… A strategic communicator must stay at the strategic level and not dip down into the tactical level represented by public affairs…. Indeed, strategic communication consists of a wide variety of tools and processes within a command… Each has a role to play in effective strategic communication at the tactical or operational level, but none of them is a substitute for a strategic plan operating at the level of the entire theater across time, space, language, and culture. At the strategic level, the intellectual firepower of the command must be brought most distinctly to bear.
  • Measure results. Many strategic communication plans flounder because the implementers, thrilled with having developed and ‘sold’ the plan, are completely consumed with its execution and fail to take the most important single step: measuring its results.  The absolute key to effective communication is rolling out a plan, organizing it widely, executing it energetically, and then measuring its results. ‘Organizing it widely’ means making sure that all of the key stakeholders are in on the formulation of the plan – essentially, ‘in on the takeoff, in on the landing.’ Too often strategic communication plans are cooked up by brilliant public affairs professionals, vetted swiftly with the top leadership, and then promulgated. Without wide support on the buildup, though, it is unlikely there will be much ground-level support when the plan comes out.
  • Adjust fire. No strategic communication plan is perfect at conception. All must be adjusted as time goes by. You may go to war armed with the ideas you have, but you will not win unless you are willing and able to modify those ideas along the way – discarding those that fail and welding on new approaches as needed.   One way to approach measurement is to adopt short-, medium-, and long-term views. The short term is immediate reactions – say, twenty-four to forty-eight hours. Medium-term measurement is done after thirty to forty-five days. Long-term measurement takes place at the one-year point. After each of these measurement windows, the plan should be evaluated and recast according to what is working and what is not.
  • Add spice. Strategic communication should not be boring.
  • Maintain steady pressure. Very seldom do strategic communication plans succeed overnight…. All good strategic communication plans take time, sometimes generations, to fulfill.
  • Bursts of energy. The analog of steady pressure, of course, is bursts of energy. In any strategic communication plan there will be moments when it is opportune to hit with bursts of energy…. A creative strategic planner is constantly looking for the right moment to come in high and hard with an energy burst.
  • Accepting defeat and moving on. Some strategic communication battles are un-winnable. Sometimes the message is not going to have any effect no matter how effective the plan.
  • Knowing when you win. Sometimes the hardest thing for any strategic planner is not accepting defeat but rather recognizing victory. As a general rule, ‘winning’ in the world of strategic communication is never clean and seldom obvious.”

These principles make sense, but like Adm. Stavridis I am often shocked by how many individuals and organizations that use the phrase “strategic communication” seem to be neither strategic nor focused on effective communication.  Rather, they tend to blend the strategic and the tactical, or assume that only one set of tools (media, social media, lobbying) matters, rather than seeing the big picture and aligning all the forms of influence.  The discipline of thinking first at the strategic level, what I call being habitually strategic, is difficult, but the key to effective communication.  Flawless execution at the operational and tactical levels also matters.  But if the strategic part isn’t right, flawless execution can have counter-productive consequences.

Adm. Stavridis offers four recommendations worth considering for strategic communication in the twenty-first century.

“First, strategic communication is a team sport. It must be part of a joint inter-agency, and commercial system. It does no good whatsoever to have a perfect strategic communication plan that is ultimately contradicted by other U.S. government agencies, as – unfortunately – is often the case.

Second, at least for strategic communication that goes beyond the shores of the United States, … the international community must be considered and then consulted often.

Third, as we develop and execute our strategic communication plans, we should ask the simple question: who are the thinkers, the idea makers?… Recognize that the ‘strategic communication director’ is more like the conductor of a band than an expert on any given instrument. Moreover, give the director of strategic communication unfettered access to the commander.

Fourth, and finally, anyone who is trying to move a message must work with all the participants to arrive at a shared understanding of what constitutes strategic communication in an international sense.

These insights by themselves would make paying attention to Adm. Stavridis a good investment of time and energy.  And it is gratifying to see this generation of military leaders — Adm. Stavridis, Adm. Mullen, Gen. Allen, understand the need to be effective both in leading complex coalitions and in aligning all actions with effective communication.

But there’s a final reason to follow Adm. Stavridis: He is helping the nation and its leaders re-think the use of power.

Rethinking Power

In many ways he is following in the footsteps of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government professor Joseph Nye, whose 2002 book, The Paradox of American Power: Why the World’s Only Superpower Can’t Go It Alone described the distinction between hard power — military might and economic clout — and soft power — diplomacy, academic and cultural exchange, and other forms of attraction.   The paradox, according to Nye, is that the more the US would use hard power the more it would squander its reservoir of soft power.  But the converse didn’t apply: the US could use its soft power effectively without diminishing its hard power reserves.  And in his 2011 book, The Future of Power, Nye describes how power is now diffusing and how many threats to national security now come from non-state players.


Open-Source Security

While still in uniform Adm. Stavridis took this approach and introduced the notion of Open-Source Security.  In a TED Talk while still serving as SACEUR/EUCOM, he outlined the concepts of Open Source Security as follows:

“Instead of building walls to create security, we need to build bridges.  Open-source security is about connecting the international, the inter-agency, the private-public, and lashing it together with strategic communication, largely in social networks.  Why do we need to do that? Because our global commons is under attack in a variety of ways, and none of the sources of threat to the global commons will be solved by building walls.”

Among the threats to the global commons — the infrastructure we all share — he includes piracy on the seas, cyber crime, and trafficking — the movement of narcotics, weapons, and humans.  These are done primarily by non-state players, but they create instability and flash-points that can lead to shooting wars.  But there is no single state player solution to these global threats.

Says Adm. Stavridis,

“So here we are, twenty-first century. We know our twentieth century tools will not work. We will not deliver security solely from the barrel of a gun.”

Silouhette of sniper.Stavridis

While some military might may be necessary, and while it must always be available to policymakers, the challenges are much more complicated.  He gives the example of the Afghan security forces.  One of the key challenges they face is that the Taliban restricted education.  So most men and women who serve in the Afghan forces join without the ability to read or write in their own language.  So through a combination of security services, many government agencies of many nations, and private contractors, the Afghan security forces learn to read.  This creates lasting benefits and stability for Afghanistan, and helps fulfill the national security interests of the United States, NATO, and our coalition allies.  But it requires resources of the fifty nations in the mission, plus public-private collaboration.


Hard-soft power reastat

He argues,

“Life is not an on-and-off switch. You do not need to have a military that is either in hard combat or is in the barracks. I would argue life is a rheostat. You have to dial it in. And as I think about how we create security in the twenty-first century, there will be times when we will apply hard power in true war and crisis. But there will be many instances… where our militaries can be part of creating twenty-first century security: international, inter-agency, private-public, connected with competent communication.”


His TED Talk is worth watching to the end.  It’s just under 17 minutes long.

His conclusion:

“No one of us is as smart as all of us thinking together. No one person, no one alliance, no one of us… My thesis for you is that by combining international, inter-agency, private-public, and strategic communication together in this twenty-first century, we can create the sum of all security.”

I believe that open-source security will be a key organizing principle of much security discussion in the years ahead.  Reading The Accidental Admiral to see the practice in action, and watching the Ted Talk to see the current conceptual framework, will give you a pretty good head start.

Your thoughts welcomed…




Helio Fred Garcia Helio Fred Garcia | Bio | Posts
5 Nov 2014 | 3:07PM

This is my third in a series of guest blogs featuring my recently-graduated capstone (thesis) advisees in New York University’s Master’s in Public Relations and Corporate Communication.

(See my earlier posts: On Wall Street, Reputation, and Recovery: Guest Blog by Julia Sahin here; A Model Apology by Iris Wenting Xue here.)

Today I share the post with Claudia Espinel, whose thesis focused on a challenging topic: ways to reduce violence in regions with conflict caused by the extraction of oil.  Her full capstone, A Discourse Analysis of Major Players in Regions with Oil Conflict: The Case of the Niger Delta, can be found here.


Claudia Espinel

Claudia Espinel

During the last five years, Claudia has worked for both national and international NGOs, using communication to promote social change.

By using the Niger Delta conflict as case study, Claudia analyzes the written documents of oil companies, the government, and the community involved in the conflict. Even though violence in this region has its roots in ethnic issues, the arrival of the oil industry enhanced the existing violence. Political, economic, environmental, and social factors have created an environment in which there is friction between the oil companies, the government, and the community. They have built a relationship characterized by lack of trust, respect, and tolerance.


Claudia argues that communication practitioners can help build sustainable peace by creating initiatives to change the dynamic of the relation of players of the Niger Delta conflict. Although it is difficult to create a common communication strategy for different cultures, regions dealing with oil conflicts share characteristics that make this capstone useful for similar conflicts across the world.

Changing Narratives in Regions Dealing with Oil Conflict

 by Claudia Espinel

When the oil industry drilled the first oil well in 1958 in the Niger Delta, Nigeria became one of the strongest economies in Africa while the Niger Delta remained as one of the poorest regions in Nigeria.

Nigeria Flag

Nigeria Flag

Even though underdevelopment in this region is rooted in ethnic conflict since before Nigeria’s independence from England in 1960, the arrival of the oil industry worsened the already fragile situation of the Niger Delta. Since then, oil companies, host communities, and the government have built a narrative of blame, hate, accusations, and stereotypes that sustain a culture in which violence is understood as the only way to survive.

This long-standing violent conflict is a classic example of the “the oil curse”—the theory that oil wealth engenders violence and slow economic growth in countries with weak governments, under-developed oil regions, and petroleum dependent economies. Key players in oil conflicts­­—such as oil companies, the government, and communities—use narratives that support the use of violence as a protective tool, increasingly making it impossible for people to see others as anything different than enemies.

In order to transform oil conflicts, it is necessary to create a disruption in the dominant narrative people create to understand and frame them. Communication plans should focus on changing the relationship between the parties on each side of the conflict by promoting a narrative of respect, trust, and tolerance. In order for this to happen the following strategies should be put in place:

  1. Build a unified community voice: If the local community wants to have a seat at the table where decisions are made, they need to have a clear agenda and someone to lead it. Elders, community leaders, and grassroots organizations need to build a leadership structure that facilitates the process of decision-making within the community and develop skills to transform conflicts using non-violent means.
  2. Promote reconciliation: Rebuilding the relationship among players of oil conflicts requires an environment in which justice is possible and people have the opportunity to heal past injustices. In this way, they can focus on building a future instead of focusing on the past grievances.
  3. Address the root of the conflict instead of focusing on interventions to tackle the symptoms: Addressing only the symptoms of the conflict such as oil looting and militant groups has not brought peace to the Niger Delta. It has only momentarily decreased violence. As people begin to demand jobs, better healthcare systems, and prevention of environmental degradation, they also begin to feel betrayed by the government and the oil companies, which seem to bring palliative solutions, instead of action to promote the long-term survival of the local community.
  4. Place accountability and transparency at the heart of every communication: Ensure congruence between discourse and actions. In order to build constructive relationships in which cooperation is possible, it is necessary to promote trust among oil companies, the government, and the local community. It requires fighting against corruption and a strict policy of accountability and transparency in every project that operates in the region. For instance, oil spills may happen, however, if the community knows what the oil companies are doing to prevent them and mitigate the subsequent impact of them, communities will be more likely to engage in campaigns to stop oil theft and inform the authorities about oil spill.
  5. Establish a mechanism to promote two-way communication with host communities: The government and the oil companies need to be aware of local traditions, use communication channels that are familiar to the host community, work with community leaders, and respect traditional political structures. Communities need to be informed in a timely manner to any major development and must have the opportunity to present their opinions.
  6. Build partnerships: Blaming and emphasizing the other party’s responsibilities does not help to reduce violence. Nor does prioritizing the relationship between oil companies, the government, and elites while disregarding the importance of building partnership with the local community. Rather, it is vital to create projects and promote dialogue in which those involved in the conflict cooperate towards a common goal.

These recommendations are aimed at achieving peaceful relations in regions facing oil conflict.

However, there is more that needs to be done to promote a narrative of non-violence in countries dealing with this issue. Please share your thoughts on how to use communication to build a culture of peace in those places where oil or other natural resources have become a source of violence.

Claudia’s continues to investigate and develop communication strategies that build peace, and to create initiatives to motivate people to use non-violent means of transforming conflicts.

You can follow Claudia on Twitter at @claudiaespinel.  You can reach her directly at [email protected].

In future posts I’ll share the work of other recent NYU MS in Public Relations and Corporate Communication graduates.  Stay tuned…

You can subscribe to receive Logos’ blog posts automatically by registering here.

Helio Fred Garcia Helio Fred Garcia | Bio | Posts
5 Aug 2014 | 2:56PM

I started working in public relations in 1980 and started teaching it to graduate students at New York University in 1988.  In all that time, the perennial question I’ve heard from clients and students is, What is PR, really…   And the emphasis is always on the really.

And as I listened to their proposed answers, and read the books purporting to provide an answer, I came to the conclusion that people’s definitions of PR were like the parable of the blind men and the elephant.

There were six men of Hindustan,

to learning much inclined,
Who went to see an elephant,
though all of them were blind,
That each by observation
might satisfy his mind.

Each grasps just a part of the elephant and assumes the whole animal is like the part.  So the man who grabs the tusk thinks the elephant is a spear; the one who grabs the tail thinks it’s a rope; the one who hugs the leg thinks it’s a tree, and so on.  And then they argue – each holding to his firm conviction that the elephant is solely what he experienced.

We have this argument even to this very day.

We had it when I started in the field, when high technology meant upgrading from a manual to electric typewriter and from a rotary dial to touch-tone phone.  We have it today among faculty members and graduate students in NYU’s M.S. in PR/CorpComm program.  And we’ll keep having it well into the future: long after social networking is considered as quaint as my old IBM Selectric.

And now there’s a forum where this discussion can take place, conceived and curated by, among others, my friend and colleague Andy Green.   Andy, who is based in Britain, was voted Outstanding PR Practitioner of the Year by members of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations in 2013.  He is the author of seven books translated into eight languages.

And he is part of a team of six senior PR pros from Britain and South Africa who have started an initiative called #PRredefined.  It includes a discussion forum that creates a community around this debate.  And it starts with a Kindle e-book that is available to students free of charge and to others at a nominal fee.

And I’m delighted to invite my colleagues on this side of the pond — including my graduate students, who themselves come from the all ends of the earth — to engage in this debate.

From the book #PRredefined:

“As public relations practice continues in the 21st century there is a growing sense that it needs better theory to provide a foundation and sustenance for public relations practice. Theory is not something abstract, remote from real-world — dare we say it — ‘academic’.

Having good theoretical underpinnings to what you do provides firm foundations for your day-to-day activity. It enables you to say ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ quicker to whatever challenge you face. Good theory provides clarity and purpose to your mission.

This ebook is seeking to create new ways forward, new ideas to take the profession forward, to overcome its potential dangers as well as grow with any new opportunities.

Practitioners and academics with concerns and fears for the future of their profession are sharing their thoughts on the challenge of #PRredefined

They seek to act as a catalyst, a touch paper lit to create new momentum for inspiration, insights and ideas.

#PRredefined is not an end product. It is not claiming to provide a definitive answer – although it likes to feel it is proffering an intelligent way forward with some credible concepts to consider as possible solutions. Rather, it is seeking to start a symbiotic debate that can grow and create new thoughts, ideas and ultimately effective PR theory for 21st century practice.”

#PRredefined consists of three elements:

  • a collection of Forethoughts and Post thoughts articles containing commentaries about the need to redefine public relations and for a new theoretical framework for professional practice
  • submissions for redefining public relations or adding to its theoretical framework
  • a call to action inviting you to contribute to a subsequent debate to contribute to the goal of redefining public relations and creating a new theoretical framework

I’m honored to be one of the Forethoughts authors, and to be in the company of my friend and fellow Forethoughts author Christophe Ginisty, 2013 president of the International Public Relations Association.

What is the Essence?

So here’s my contribution to the argument.  What I struggle to find is the essence of it all: What is it that all the competing definitions have in common?

The first people to make a living practicing what we would recognize as PR were two Greeks in the fifth Century BC, Corax and Tisias.  The man who would eventually be called St. Augustine was a PR person before he found religion; he then brought those skills to his ministry.  The person who was the first in the modern era to call himself a “public relations counselor” was Edward L. Bernays.  He also became a thought leader, writing the first modern book on PR, Crystalizing Public Opinion, and teaching the first modern course on it, at New York University, both in 1923.   What do they all have in common, with each other and with PR as it’s practiced in the second decade of the 21st Century?


Bernays noted in 1923 that it’s hard for PR people to define what they do:

“Indeed, it is probably true that the very [people] who are themselves engaged in the profession are as little ready or able to define their work as the general public itself. Undoubtedly, this is due, in some measure, to the fact that the profession is a new one.  Much more important than that, however, is the fact that most human activities are based on experience rather than on analysis.”[i]

Redefining PR

This is a discussion worth having.  And every generation needs to have it, if for no other reason than to move past the particulars of their own experience and into the higher vantage point of analysis.  And to understand both the relevance and the power of the profession.  That is the point of #PRredefined.  It is an important contribution to the discussion.  (And, as co-author Andy Green notes, in implicit agreement with Bernays, the discussion has to be outside of the bubble of the day-to-day practice of PR.)

I agree with the #PRredefined authors that PR needs to be redefined, or it will die.  Actually, it isn’t that PR needs a new definition.  Rather, we need a new understanding.  I believe the definition has been here all along.  But we have lost sight of it as we’ve become infatuated with new technologies and with the quickening pace of change.

We need to move from the particular (tusk, tail, leg) to the elephant as a whole.  Yes, we need to understand the particulars. But we need also to understand that the whole is more than the individual parts, or even the sum of the parts.  Not all elephants have tusks.  That doesn’t make them less of an elephant.  Not all images of elephants show the tail.  But we still recognize the elephant when we see it.

Solo walking right

The Essence

So what I grapple with is this: what is the essence of PR?  What do our clients most value?  What description is as valid in an oral society and in the age of social networking?  What definition applies equally to those who work with tree-based media (paper) and those who work with electron-based media?

I believe the answer is also found in Bernays’ 1923 book:

 “The public relations counsel is the pleader to the public of a point of view.  He acts in this capacity as a consultant both in interpreting the public to his client and in helping to interpret his client to the public.  He helps to mold the action of his client as well as to mold public opinion.”[ii]

Applied Anthropology

For more than 25 years, to my clients, with my students, and in my books, I’ve described it this way: When we do our best work we function as an applied anthropologist.  Like an anthropologist, we do active fieldwork to understand a group’s social and power structure, values, predispositions, and behavioral triggers. These days we can figure this out to a very granular level. We then make predictions based on these insights, helping clients understand how any given group is likely to react to any given stimulus.  The applied part is then to organize activity to provoke the reaction we want, and then to be in active relationship with our stakeholders, in continuous and mutual adaptation with each other.

And when we do it well, we do it by connecting with people, authentically, honestly, but effectively.  We can’t move people unless we meet them where they are.  And then we invite them to move with us.  This raises a host of ethical questions.

And again we find answers in Bernays:

“The advocacy of what we believe in is education.  The advocacy of what we don’t believe in is propaganda.  Each of these nouns carries with it social and moral implications. Education is valuable, commendable, enlightening, instructive.  Propaganda is insidious, dishonest, underhanded, misleading.”[iii]

I welcome being part of the discussion here prompted by Andy and his coauthors.

Paradoxically, I believe we find the future of PR by returning to our core, as articulated 90 years ago (but so often forgotten in the day-to-day bump and grind of our work).

Everything old is new again.

Your contributions to the debate are welcomed.



The authors of #PRredefined are:

Andy Green was voted ‘Outstanding PR Practitioner of the Year’ by CIPR members in 2013. He enjoys a portfolio career as a PR consultant, university lecturer, brand story-teller and creative thinking skills trainer. His published work is translated into eight languages includes ‘Creativity in Public Relations’ (4th edition Kogan Page 2010) and ‘Tubespiration! (Tangent Books 2013)

Professor Anne Gregory is Director of the Centre for Public Relations Studies at Leeds Business School and Chair of the Global Alliance, the worldwide confederation of public relations professional associations. Anne has written and edited over 70 books, book chapters and articles and holds the CIPR Sir Stephen Tallents Medal for her Outstanding Contribution to the Profession.

Philip Sheldrake is Managing Partner, Euler Partners. He is the author of The Business of Influence: Reframing Marketing and PR for the Digital Age (Wiley, 2011), and Attenzi – a social business story (2013).

Chris Skinner, APR and Fellow of the Public Relations Institute of Southern Africa (PRISA) is a research associate at the Durban University of Technology and a senior consultant with the East and Southern African Management Institute (ESAMI). He is a leading researcher and writer in the public relations field in Africa and[…]”

Stephen Waddington is European Digital & Social Media Director, Ketchum and President-Elect 2014 of the CIPR. His published work includes Brand Anarchy (Bloomsbury, 2012), Share This (Wiley 2013), Share This Too (Wiley 2013) and Brand Vandals (Bloomsbury, 2013).

Paul Willis is Director of the Centre for Public Relations Studies at Leeds Business School. He is the co-author of Strategic Public Relations Leadership (Routledge, 2013) and a contributing author to Exploring Public Relations (3rd edition, Prentice Hall). His research can also found in the PR field’s leading academic journals.”

Excerpt From: Andy Green. “#PRredefined.” iBooks.





[i] Edward L. Bernays, Crystalizing Public Opinion, Boni & Liveright, 1923, p. 13.

[ii] Bernays, ibid., p. 59.

[iii] Bernays, ibid, p. 212.

Helio Fred Garcia Helio Fred Garcia | Bio | Posts
17 Jul 2014 | 5:48PM

One of the joys of teaching in NYU’s MS in PR/CorpComm program is the ability to work with very smart graduate students,  in the classroom,  as advisor in their capstones (theses), and as a mentor.   Some of these students have great potential, and I’m certain represent the future generation of leaders in the field.

This year I had a bumper crop of capstone advisees (six), who offered some significant insights into some very important topics. Over the next several months I will be sharing some of their insights.

I’m delighted today to share a guest blog from one of these students, Julia Sahin, who graduated in May.  I had the good fortune of having Julia in my Strategic Communication course and then to supervise her research and writing on her capstone.

Julia chose a challenging topic: Reputational Effects of Regulatory Action on Mega Banks: A Comparative Analysis of Goldman Sachs’ Abacus and JP Morgan’s Squared.  To be able to do that, she had to develop a deep understanding of reputation in general, regulation of the securities markets, the particular transactions that drew regulatory concern, each of the banks’ reactions to it, and the consequence on the banks’ reputations.  You can see her capstone here.

Along the way she developed insights that go well beyond the two banks and their regulatory settlements.  She provides insights that all financial institutions can harvest and from which all communication professionals can benefit.  I commend them to you here:


On Reputation…

By Julia Sahin

Julia Sahin

Julia Sahin

A few weeks ago, Makovsky issued its 2014 Wall Street Reputation Study. The research found that the recession is still a primary reason that financial institutions continue to be perceived negatively.  I believe the financial crisis is where it started, but not where it ended.  From my research on the reputational effects of regulatory action on banks, I found two other reasons.

wall street reputation study

The first is additional crises and wrongdoing.

Financial institutions continue to make headlines because of illegal and/or unethical behavior. This includes guilty verdicts and settlement agreements. One institution’s association with this behavior has an overarching impact on other institutions and on the industry. Most recently, the culprit is Citi.


The second is how financial institutions handle them.

There is no doubt that reactions, responses and remedial actions have improved since 2009. But the accrual of poor crisis management, past and present, is still a pain point.

All of this stems from the industry’s delayed realization that it had a reputation problem after the onset of the economic recession.  One financial journalist I interviewed spoke about a period of denial that banks went through in 2010 and 2011. The banks thought it was business as usual, but everyone else knew the business environment had changed dramatically.

Three years later, the banks have accepted the change, but have only recently begun to work on their reputations.

david weidnerDavid Weidner, of Wall Street Journal’s “Writing on the Wall” column,  wrote that banks have put reputation management on the back burner because it’s not seen as a priority. Their services are a necessity to clients who will continue to pay for them regardless of public perception.

While this is true, a quality reputation is a competitive advantage. It evokes a more favorable view from the stakeholders who are important to the banks. For example, a better reputation means…

  1. …less regulatory action and regulation.
  2. …a better foundation of trust for relationship-based services (an industry trend).
  3. …less biased media coverage.
  4. …employment candidates of a higher caliber, who are flocking to the tech space these days.
  5. …an engaged workforce, meaning increased productivity.
  6. …less attention from the Hill.
  7. …more capital from premium stock and product prices.
  8. …less attention from activist investors.
  9. …better analyst reviews.
  10. …less public scrutiny.

A number of professionals who are immersed in this every day, and I, agree that now is the time for financial institutions to concentrate on repairing their reputations.

On simplifying the complexity…

The finance industry is unique in that it has a challenging regulatory environment and extremely complex products. Turning around the sector’s reputation, or an individual institution’s reputation, seems overwhelming. Communicating with stakeholders differently seems daunting.

Three things need to stay top of mind:

First, it will take time.

Second, the problem won’t fix itself.

And third, tackling different segments one at a time will contribute to the whole.

The question is how to take on such a large feat for a giant institution whose reputation may not be a priority.

The solution is stakeholder management. By looking at an institution’s stakeholder list, the benefits of an optimal reputation should be clear. Those benefits should be tied to business goals, and should be the reason to initiate the program. Then, work backwards from the optimal state, then forward, to achieve it.

Breaking down the complexity of a reputation program into moving parts, motivated by business benefits, is the best first step. The list above can be a good starting point.


Your feedback is welcome.




by Helio Fred Garcia

Imagine that you’re an executive at a large company.

You learn that one of your products – a good revenue generator but not a franchise-defining product – has a customer convenience issue. It sometimes does things that annoy customers. In particular, it doesn’t do what it’s supposed to do 100 percent of the time. Several dozen customers have complained.

Given all you have on your plate, how urgent do you consider this problem? What kinds of resources do you devote to it?

Now consider a different scenario: You learn that this product has a significant safety defect. That safety defect, in turn, risk loss of life – in fact, it may already have cost some lives.

Given all you have on your plate, how urgent do you consider this problem? What kinds of resources do you devote to it?

Finally, what if the problems are one and the same? Is there a difference in your reaction to something described as a customer inconvenience compared to the same thing that’s described as a serious safety defect?

Customer Convenience v. Safety Defect

Herein lies what may finally be an explanation for the otherwise incomprehensible behavior at General Motors (GM)


The Power of Communication

Communication has power. But as with any powerful tool, if communication is not used effectively it can dissipate or cause self-inflicted harm.

That’s one of the lessons of the tragic events at GM that have just come to light this year.

I have taught elements of the GM Cobalt ignition switch crisis since it first became public back in the Spring.  And in all the discussions, my students and I keep coming back to the same questions: Why did GM not fix the problem when they had a chance?  Why did it take more than ten years?  Did they simply not care?  Did their cost/benefit analysis lead them to conclude that it was OK to keep an unsafe car on the road?  We’ve been baffled.

So I’ve waited with anticipation for the formal report conducted by GM’s independent law firm. That report is now out, and it is stunning. Not just for its tale of incompetence and neglect. But also for providing an intriguing clue about how this baffling series of mis-steps could have happened in the first place.

I am indebted to author and Forbes columnist Carmine Gallo for first calling attention to what I cover below. Gallo’s June 9 post focused on how two words explain the massive failures at GM and how two different words could have prevented the fiasco in the first place. It’s worth reading.

The Valukas Report

The report, prepared by former US Attorney Anton R. Valukas, the chairman of the law firm Jenner & Block, was released on May 29. In the course of 315 pages it lays out the causes and tragic consequences of GM’s failures.

Anton Valukas

Anton Valukas

Three in particular caught my eye.

  1. GM engineers failed to name the problem accurately.
  2. That’s because the engineers didn’t understand how the cars worked (!?)
  3. The engineers mis-framed the crisis and therefore it wasn’t taken seriously for more than 11 years.

Let’s take these one at a time.

1. GM engineers failed to name the problem accurately.

When the Cobalt’s ignition system switched from Run to Off or Accessory, it also turned off the electrical system.

But the engineers described it as a “moving stall” and didn’t seem to understand that the lack of electrical power meant that airbags wouldn’t deploy, with potentially catastrophic effects. So they told the media and others that a moving stall did not create a safety hazard.

From the Report:

“[T]hose individuals tasked with fixing the problem – sophisticated engineers with responsibility to provide consumers with safe and reliable automobiles – did not understand one of the most fundamental consequences of the switch failing and the car stalling: the airbags would not deploy. The failure of the switch meant that drivers were without airbag protection at the time they needed it most. This failure, combined with others documented below, led to devastating consequences: GM has identified at least 54 frontal-impact crashes, involving the deaths of more than a dozen individuals, in which the airbags did not deploy as a possible result of the faulty ignition switch.”

Chevrolet Cobalt

Chevrolet Cobalt

2. That’s because the engineers didn’t understand how the cars worked (!?)

From the Report:

“A critical factor in GM personnel’s initial delay in fixing the switch was their failure to understand, quite simply, how the car was built. GM had specifically designed the airbag system not to deploy, in most circumstances, in the event that the ignition switch was turned to Off or Accessory, a deliberate and sensible decision made to prevent passengers from being injured by airbags in parked cars.

In 2004, however, GM engineers, faced with a multitude of reports of moving stalls caused by the ignition switch, concluded that moving stalls were not safety issues because drivers could still maneuver the cars; they completely failed to understand that the movement of the switch out of the Run position meant the driver and passengers would no longer have the protection of the airbags.”

3. The engineers mis-framed the crisis and therefore it wasn’t taken seriously for more than 11 years. To me this is the most interesting.

From the Report:

“GM personnel viewed the switch problem as a “customer convenience” issue – something annoying but not particularly problematic – as opposed to the safety defect it was.

Once so defined, the switch problem received less attention, and efforts to fix it were impacted by cost considerations that would have been in immaterial had the problem been properly categorized in the first instance.”

It isn’t that GM didn’t care about safety. It did. The Report makes clear that when presented with safety problems GM acted responsibly.

From the Report:

“Indeed, in this same decade, GM issued hundreds of recalls at great expense (including at times when its financial condition was precarious) because in the great majority of instances, it correctly determined or agreed that the issues that came to its attention implicated safety and demanded prompt action. But in the case of the Cobalt, it did not do so.”

Why not? According to the Report, in 2005 a number of committees recommended a range of solutions, but they were rejected because they would be too costly. The report makes clear that such cost considerations would not have been in play if they had understood the connection between the stalls and the disabling of airbags – in other words, if they had understood the safety hazard.

Cobalt Ignition and Switch Assembly

Cobalt Ignition and Switch Assembly


Why didn’t GM recall Cobalt? The initial framing of the problem as a “customer convenience” problem meant it wasn’t seen as a safety concern, and therefore got a back burner.

From the Report:

“From 2004 to 2006, not one of the committees considering a fix for the switch – filled with engineers and business people whose job was to understand how GM’s cars were built and how different systems of the car interact – ever reclassified the problem from one of customer convenience to one of safety or demonstrated any sense of urgency in their efforts to fix the switch. GM’s Product Investigations group, charged with identifying and remedying safety issues, made the same mistake; it opened and closed an investigation in 2005 in the span of a month, finding no safety issue to be remedied.”

The tragedy is that the signs of a serious safety issue were there to be seen. But in the “customer convenience” frame GM engineers didn’t see it. It took people outside of GM who had not been influenced by the “customer convenience” frame to grasp the real problem.

From the Report:

“As the early committees failed to fix the problem, accidents and fatalities in which airbags did not deploy began coming to GM personnel’s attention, including GM’s in-house counsel and the engineers who worked with them. Those outside GM, including, in 2007, a trooper from the Wisconsin Safety Patrol and a research team from Indiana University, figured out the connection between the switch and the airbag non-deployment. Yet, GM personnel did not.”

The Power of Framing

According to the Berkeley cognitive linguist George Lakoff, frames are mental structures triggered by language.

George Lakoff, Cognitive Linguist, UCal Berkeley

George Lakoff, Cognitive Linguist, UCal Berkeley

When a frame is triggered, an entire worldview is triggered, and that determines the meaning of what comes next. When the frame is triggered, we tend to focus what’s within the frame, and to ignore what’s outside the frame.

And when we say something “makes sense,” we mean that something is consistent with the frame.

So when the GM engineers referred initially to a “moving stall” and called it a “customer convenience” problem, that frame determined the meaning of what followed. As a result there was no sense of urgency, so cost and other tasks took priority.

But what if the original engineers had framed the problem differently: if they had called the ignition switch problem a “safety defect”?  The reaction could have been completely different.

Urgency makes sense when grappling with a safety defect, but not necessarily when facing a customer convenience issue. Conversely, cost becomes a challenge for a customer convenience issue, but not at all when grappling with a safety defect.

Of course, there were many other challenges at GM besides this basic failure of understanding. There was compartmentalization, turf, and a culture that included the “GM Nod,” defined in the Report as “when everyone nods in agreement to a proposed plan of action, but then leaves the room and does nothing.”  There was plenty of incompetence and indifference.

Lessons for Leaders and Communicators

But at one level the Report serves as a teachable moment:

1.  How you name the problem goes a long way toward how you fix the problem.

2. Framing matters.  The frame defines what makes sense and what is possible.

3. Situational awareness isn’t just about facts; it’s about understanding significance — and that comes from frames.


Your comments welcome,



by Helio Fred Garcia

Communication has power.  But as with any powerful tool, if misused it can easily be dissipated or cause self-inflicted harm.

The Harvard University Distinguished Service Professor, and former Dean of the Kennedy School of Government, Joseph Nye, defines power as the ability to get what you want.  In his 2001 book The Paradox of American Power, Nye distinguishes between hard power – military force and economic might – and soft power – attraction.  He says that the paradox is this: the more a nation uses hard power, the more it dissipates soft power.  But it can use soft power all it wants without in any way diminishing its hard power.


Power Shifts

In his 2011 book, The Future of Power, professor Nye describes a power shift from state players to ordinary people.  This power shift changes the game for all concerned: for corporations, for NGOs, for governments, and for all others.  The power shift is this: what used to be the exclusive domain of governments, militaries, and corporations, are now the domain of regular people.

In a TED Talk at Oxford University he put it this way:

“Computing and communication costs have fallen a thousand-fold between 1970 and the beginning of this century… If the price of an automobile had fallen as rapidly as computing power you could buy a car today for five dollars.  …In 1970 if you wanted to communicate from Oxford to Johannesburg to New Delhi to Brasilia to anywhere, you could to it.  The technology was there.  But to do it, you had to be very rich.  A government.  A multi-national.  A corporation…. But you had to be pretty wealthy.   Now, anybody has that capacity… So capabilities that were once restricted, are now available to everyone.  And what that means is not that the age of the State is over, the State still matters, but the stage is crowded.”

We saw that power shift in 2011 when the Chinese government initially lied about a high-speed train crash and its victims.  But Chinese citizens took to the Chinese versions of social media, Sina Weibo and Renren, and embarrassed the Chinese premier into coming clean.

 Information as an Instrument of Power

 A new contribution to this discussion comes from Dr. Amy Zalman, in a recent policy piece in Perspectives.  Dr. Zalman, who is currently the Department of Defense Information Integration Chair at the National War College, grapples with a paradox about information as an instrument of power.

In “Getting the Information Albatross Off Our Back: Notes Toward an Information-Savvy National Security Community, Dr. Zalman notes, “while the effects of the information revolution on national security deepen, the American ability to act powerfully in these new circumstances remains shallow.”

Zalman cover

She says,

“We are virtually drowning in information —the words, images, and sounds through which humans communicate meaning to each other via various technologies, from the human voice to remote sensors. Yet, the United States wields ‘the information instrument of national power’ — as national security parlance would have it — poorly.”

Dr. Amy Zalman

Dr. Amy Zalman


She observes that rapid advances in communication technology have fundamentally changed society – not only relations between citizens and governments, but for all forms of institutions among themselves, and among those who matter to them.  She says,

“These changes are so profound as to have chipped away at the bedrock of the international system, the sovereign state. Once considered inviolable, the autonomous boundaries of states are now transgressed daily by people, news, and ideas set in motion by new technologies.

Yet no such revolution has occurred concerning the United States’ priorities when it comes to using informational power. Both in normative documents, such as the National Security Strategy, and in actual practice, the United States appears to think little of informational power as a strategic instrument.”

We Need a Mindshift to Accompany the Power Shift

Zalman argues that incremental reforms will not resolve the basic problem: The United States organizes information activities on the basis of a Cold War mindset.

“During the Cold War, it made good sense to think of the informational ‘instrument’ of power as the capacity to inject American values into populations whose governments and/or technological advancement limited their access to outside ideas.”

Hence the overwhelming success then of Voice of America and Radio Free Europe.   They projected American voices to where they could not otherwise be heard.

But Dr. Zalman admonishes that we are no longer in the Cold War.

“Soon, almost everyone in the world will be able to receive as well as disseminate informational content. There are few populations that are unknowingly isolated from others’ media. The ideological landscape is variegated and complex, not bipolar.”

Zalman Callout

Consider the failure of US public diplomacy in the aftermath of 9/11:

“The failure of the Cold War/Industrial Age model should be clear from the informational debacles of 
the ‘global war on terror.’ In the decade following the 9/11 attacks, just as in the Cold War, the United States sought to “tell its story” to Muslim publics that we imagined not only as isolated from information about the United States, but as geographically secluded in Muslim majority countries.

The effort backfired among not only satellite TV- saturated cosmopolitans in Arab and Western capitals, but also provincial Afghans who in some areas had not heard of the 9/11 attacks. In both cases, the mistake was the same: the United States failed to note that people everywhere already have their own narratives, their own histories, and their own ways of articulating even the values we universally share.”

Prescriptions for Effective Use of Information as an Instrument of Power

Dr. Zalman calls for a new conceptual framework and a new alignment of resources to mobilize power within that framework.  It consists of the following:

  1. Retire the Cold War/Industrial Age Information Model.
  2. Instill a New Framework of Information Power. Using information powerfully today requires the ability to
    • “Act in accordance with the fact that actions, as well as intended communications, relay meaning to others
    • Use different kinds of communicative media to distribute and collect information
    • Develop and sustain networks required to tackle multi-disciplinary issues
    • Engage other stakeholders by aligning goals and interests on an issue-by-issue basis
    • Navigate the symbolic territory of adversaries, friends, and key stakeholders. By ‘symbolic territory,’ I mean that landscape of historical memory, stories, images, figures of speech, and metaphors through which people understand and relate their experiences.”

3. The education of professional senior leaders should reflect and promote a new framework of thinking.

4. The United States Government should organize informational activities to generate informational power.

“Today, we need a new model that reflects the fact that all government actions and activities are potentially communicative, and that this situation poses both risks and opportunities. Every agency should house an office of informational power to develop proactive communications risk strategies, to exploit opportunities for mutual engagement— whether military exercises or agricultural exchanges— and to coordinate with other USG agencies.”

Lessons for Leaders and Communicators in Business and Other Realms

Whether at the national level or at the level of individual business enterprises, NGOs, not-for-profits, and other organizations, we need to think differently about telling our story.

It’s not about telling our story.  It’s about connecting with our stakeholders, and having them share in our story.  We need to be as good at listening as at sending messages.  We can’t direct until we connect.  Or as I say in The Power of Communication, we can’t move people until we meet them where they are.  But that means knowing where they are; caring about where they are; and mobilizing resources to actually connect.


Your feeback welcome.



by Helio Fred Garcia

About two years ago, just before the publication of The Power of Communication: Skills to Build Trust, Inspire Loyalty, and Lead Effectively, I began teaching as a guest speaker in the Public Affairs Leadership Department at US Defense Information School (DINFOS) at Fort George G. Meade, Maryland.  I am usually the first speaker on the first day of a weeks-long Joint Senior Public Affairs Officer Course,  Joint Senior Non-Commissioned Public Affairs Officer Course, and occasionally also the  Joint Intermediate Public Affairs Officer  Course.  I teach five to six times a year, and I’m honored that both The Power of Communication and my US Marine Corps Gazette Schulze Essay are required readings.

Helio Fred Garcia at US Defense Information School

Helio Fred Garcia at US Defense Information School

Each course is different based on the rank of the students, but my role is the same: on Day One, even before they get formal instruction from senior military and national security officials, to help students understand decision criteria and how to push back on senior officers or civilian leaders who might be making questionable decisions.   My session, Ethical Decision-Making for Public Affairs Officers, works them through decision criteria for maintaining trust and confidence, complete with case studies, and closes with the Abu Ghraib case study.  In each of the sessions I have come away impressed with the students’ sophistication, aptitude, and integrity.  And also at the frustration they sometimes feel when they can see things about to go awry but are unable to intervene.

Helio Fred Garcia teaching Ethical Decision-making for Public Affairs Officers at DINFOS, April 28, 2014

Helio Fred Garcia teaching Ethical Decision-Making for Public Affairs Officers at DINFOS, April 28, 2014

Meeting My Mentor

On my last visit, by sheer coincidence, DINFOS was hosting a VIP guest: my dear friend and mentor, the crisis guru Jim Lukaszewski.  No single practitioner has had a more meaningful impact on my work than Jim.  He became my mentor more that 25 years ago.  We have worked together, taught together, published together, and I have been much the better for all of it.  It was Jim who initially got me involved with the Marines 24 years ago.  And Jim who first encouraged me to publish, 26 years ago.  And when I decided to start my own firm 12 years ago, Jim very generously helped me understand how to do it with a minimum of mistakes.  He has encouraged me and challenged me and helped me for more than a quarter century.

Double Whammy

So although we happened to be at DINFOS on the same day by chance, and completely unrelated to my class, we decided to make the best of it.   I invited Jim to speak to my students during my session.

Helio Fred Garcia with Crisis Guru Jim Lukaszewski at the Joint Senior Public Affairs Officer Course at DINFOS April 28, 2014

Helio Fred Garcia with Crisis Guru Jim Lukaszewski at the Joint Senior Public Affairs Officer Course at DINFOS April 28, 2014

Jim helped the students better understand the ways their bosses make choices and how to influence those choices.  And I was able throughout my remarks to point to where I had gotten those ideas in the first place — the other fellow in civilian clothes in the classroom.

And I was delighted to see that DINFOS also assigned two of Jim’s books, which I also teach in my NYU courses and recommend to clients: Why Should The Boss Listen to You: Seven Disciplines of Trusted Strategic Advisor, and Lukaszewski on Crisis Communication: What Your CEO Needs to Know About Reputation Risk and Crisis Management.  I am gratified that my students have the chance to read Lukaszewski (the Three-Minute Drill from Why Should the Boss Listen to You is worth the price of admission!).

What Awaits Students on Their Arrival at DINFOS Joint Senior Public Affairs Officer Course

What Awaits Students on Their Arrival at DINFOS Joint Senior Public Affairs Officer Course


Paying it Forward

I have been extremely fortunate — I sometimes think blessed — that in the course of my career people have gone out of their way to help me.

This began during my first year in PR at Edelman when Jody Quinn and Mel Ehrlich each took this awkward classics geek under their wing and taught me to be a business communicator and consultant.  And six years later when Jim took me on.  And there have been countless other teachers (Fraser Seitel taught me speechwriting in 1983!), bosses, and colleagues who have taken me aside and made me a better professional.  None of us is an island.  It really does take a village.

And I take joy in paying it forward to the next generation — whether in my own firm, with my clients, with my students at NYU and other institutions.

But usually when a boss, colleague, or mentor is done, we rarely see them again.  So it was a particular joy to find myself serendipidously working again with Jim, at DINFOS.

My students were certainly the better for it.  And it serves as a good reminder that our success is not ours alone: However far we see it is because we stand on the shoulders of others.  And that every teacher is simultaneously also a student…

Thanks, Jim…

Helio Fred Garcia (L) and James E. Lukaszewski at US Defense Information School

Helio Fred Garcia (L) and James E. Lukaszewski at US Defense Information School