Communications expert says tribalism at root of tensions today

Listen now:

Our guest is Richard Levick from Levick. Levick is a very interesting company here in town. They handle… well they handle the highest profile matters: they’ve been involved in the Gulf Oil Spill and dealing with PR with the Catholic Church over the years. Richard Levick really knows how to get clients in the news and–as he often points out–figuring out when to get them out of the news. So we brought Richard in to talk about what the outlook is for 2018 with respect to companies and how they’re going to deal with providing information and communicating with consumers and the broader community. Richard, thanks for joining us.

LEVICK
Jonathan, great to be here.

ABERMAN
It’s always great to have you, you provide wonderful content. And let’s start with this: I have been struck over the last year with all the comments and conversations about the falsity or non-falsity of information; it clearly is in people’s minds. How do you think that’s affecting consumer behavior?

LEVICK
Well you know, I think that first of all we used to exist in a republic, and we have for almost 225 of our 250, 260 years. That is, there was always a gatekeeper: there were the journalists, there were the lobbyists, there were those people in between the mass of information and the consumer and i think what the internet has done—we’re all grateful to Al Gore for having invented–is this hyper-democratisation, so people get information directly. And the challenge with by moving to a hyper-democracy is there is no filter: we have no idea of knowing the source of the information, is it credible or not. You know what’s fascinating is that Pew will put out a study and say that overwhelmingly, all people are very skeptical about information that they get on Facebook and other social sources and we all say “hoorah”, people are being critical about the information or being thoughtful. But then, overwhelmingly, people trust information they get from a trusted source. So, Jonathan, if you sent me an email which said “look, on Facebook it says the moon is made out of green cheese”, I would then put credibility into that because it came from you. So, we believe the incredible if it comes from a credible source.

ABERMAN
So this issue then of credibility becomes significant and important for any business, how do you establish credibility in a world where, literally, every bit of information is equal to every other bit of information?

LEVICK
It’s an extraordinary challenge. When I think a lot of the rules that we’ve known for decades: build your trust bank during peacetime, have lots of third parties who can speak to your credibility, that traditionally has been very helpful for weathering those more challenging times. Now, we’re in a period of time where almost any allegation can take on the aura of truth, there is not necessarily a statute of limitations. A new generation that grew up on the phrase “don’t judge me” is extremely judgmental and we see people accusing others of activity even if they don’t know the facts. And then throw into that of course you’ve got the whole “#metoo” movement where it’s so important for women,as they said with the Golden Globes, during the Golden Globes recently, that it’s so important for women to be able to feel that they are empowered, and for those who are LGBTQ to be able to feel empowered, And yet, it’s into this maelstrom in which there’s so much untruth going on there, and it becomes more and more of a challenge for everyone.

ABERMAN
Well I want to come back to “#metoo” and things like “#grabyourwallet” because this last year has shown that the democratisation of information really is a big risk for businesses–if they don’t handle themselves properly. But before we go there it strikes me you talked about this generation, I assume you mean the Millennials, the digital natives, being very, very concerned and being very judgmental. My sense is that when I talk with the millenials that I teach over at the Smith School, or the people that I work with in my startup life, they are very, very judgmental but they also are very, very interested in authenticity. Did they have a better “BS” detector than “baby boomers” with respect to digital behavior, are they fooling themselves? Are there ways for businesses to establish authenticity? Because clearly, that’s what I think people are looking for in information.

Subscribe to the What’s Working in Washington podcast on iTunes.

LEVICK
You know, I think we’re all fooling ourselves. I don’t want to try and identify a single generation or any of us as having good or bad qualities, I just think sometimes you’re talking to millenials and you’re talking about historical facts and they’ll judge them not knowing that because they weren’t around, and don’t have the experience to understand that you’re speaking about historical facts. You can be brought up to HR because you mentioned the “negro leagues”, the old baseball leagues, and if they don’t have an understanding of that, they think that you’re saying something disparaging. When in fact, you’re referring to a factual name. And I think that’s true across a wide variety of issues. I’m not…I think that where we are now is into this age of tribal communications, that is the whole epistemology. We understand what truth is first, and then we get the facts back it up, as opposed to historically, we were the other way around. We built the factual base, and then we came to the truth. I don’t know how we undo that, and I think that Donald Trump is an example of that. I think that the cleavage of the Republican Party, the separation of this country into that sort of 1968-1972 period where there’s so much anger, it’s because we identify with our tribe first, and only accept information as true which already fits our pre-existing narrative.

ABERMAN
So I would say i think that behavior exists everywhere, right? I think we see it in the Democratic Party now, in the aftermath of the elections and the governor elections. There’s a big issue in the Democratic party now about the direction of the party–is it going to be more progressive, more mainstream, and you see it everywhere, right? I struggle with this. Let me ask you what you think: how did this happen? How did we go from a society where people were comfortable that they didn’t know everything and they would develop a worldview by looking for the expertise of others, a society where we literally start on the shoulders of those came before, to a society where we know what we know and then we find information to fit the paradigm? How do you think it happened? You’ve been an advertising and PR for while now, how did it happen?

LEVICK
It’s happening so quickly. You know, we used to own the trademark on the words “what’s next?” and it’s extraordinarily difficult to see out past tomorrow, let alone weeks or years ahead. When Ronald Reagan said “Mr.Gorbachev, tear down that wall”–regarding the wall between East and West Germany–I was always struck by the fact that people presumed it was because of our military strength and our better form of government that that moment had occurred. But I always thought it was about the information revolution: no longer could controlled states, communist states, control economies if all the other states in the world were free information-flow and increasing. What I didn’t realize, Jonathan, was that those very same issues, the extraordinary freedom of information would create problems for us too.

ABERMAN
Really quick before I let you go–you mentioned “#metoo”, you talked to about “#grabyourwallet” earlier. Businesses: how can they be vigilant about the possibility of them being in the middle of one of these crises?

LEVICK
One of the things is: who are the third parties? Who’s going to speak for us? What are the visuals? That is, pictures speak far louder than words. How are you tracking information? What’s your risk in business intelligence? You have to be able to see this before it happens because we no longer have the time to react. Who is your crisis team? How do they know each other? Most companies what they do is they fail to A, recognize the moment and B, act on it quickly enough, because they don’t have their team together.

ABERMAN
Richard, as always, thank you for coming and talking with us, and it was great to have you share your perspectives for business people around the region.

LEVICK
Jonathan, thank you so much.