The recent Royal Wedding is instructive for many reasons, but probably mainly for illustrating the effectiveness of using tradition as a framing device.
As I have mentioned in previous columns, framing is the holy grail of PR and political practice. If you manage to frame any debate, or the way people look at products or services, you then dictate consideration of it.
The best current example is the Gillard Government’s difficulties communicating what they are doing and why. Part of that difficulty is that their narrative is within the frames dictated by their opponents – thus political debate is always about deficits, debt and reform despite Australia doing remarkably well internationally on all three.
In this Alice and Wonderland world the new Victorian Coalition Government announced a first Budget which doubled the State debt (to a level still well below what applied in Sir Henry Bolte’s day) and the largest shrieks heard about it were from the Labor Opposition.
But, back to traditional framing. Royal weddings offer glamour, vicarious something or other and even more references to tradition than in the libretto of Fiddler on the Roof. Most of the references are linked with phrases and words like ‘time honoured’ and ‘historic’.
In fact Britain was, for a long time, actually not that good at royal ritual. My favourite historical work, The Invention of Tradition Eds Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger (Cambridge, 1983), recounts a number of ‘invented traditions’ and one of the chapters, by David Cannadine, is about the invention of British monarchical tradition between 1820 and 1977. He quotes Lord Robert Cecil (later Salisbury) in 1860 saying: “we can afford to be more splendid than most nations; but some malignant spell broods over all our most solemn ceremonials, and inserts into them some feature which makes them all ridiculous…Something always breaks down, somebody contrives to escape doing his part, or some bye-motive is suffered to intervene and ruin it all.”
Nowadays the ritual is pretty good, although the breaking down is the thing Cecil would have least expected – the marriages which get celebrated.
Tradition as a framing device is not much good if you are promoting something cool and modern although if it has been around for more than a year you can, in these ahistorical times, always promote it as “traditional” and brand extensions are effectively using a brand’s own traditions to legitimise the new.
Many of our beliefs about Anzac and Gallipoli are invented traditions. Play three AFL or NRL games between two “traditional” opponents for three years in a row and you have a tradition. On a longer timeframe the “tradition” of priestly celibacy was invented by the Council of Nicea in 325 CE and probably needs to be either re-invented or dis-invented any time around now.
Tradition is also good for politicians. Much of the past three decades of de-regulation have demonstrated what Marx and Engels knew well – capitalism is the most revolutionary force in human history so far. It is constantly changing things, often in very uncomfortable ways. The major victims of these changes are often the poor and ill-educated who become relatively much worse off than the rich as income disparities increase and as they face uncertainty and fear. This is the reason why the Reagans, Howards and Abbotts focus so much attention on traditional values and culture wars. The framing of these issues in the context of tradition channels the anger about change and uncertainty into areas – race, culture and immigration – other than the big drivers of social and economic change.
The Middle East debate is also framed in traditional terms with various archaeological services acting as ideological banner-wavers for one or other historical tradition on which people got there first and who they slaughtered after they did.
So whenever you hear about a “tradition” – remember to ask when it actually dates from, who invented it and why?
Dealing with rumours
If framing is the holy grail of PR there is another PR practice which is probably second in importance – knowing when to practise masterly inaction.
Three US academics have done some research which may well undermine a very lucrative part of modern PR practice. Derek Rucker and David DuBois of Kellogg School of Management and Zakary Tormala of Stanford Business School have a paper to be published in a forthcoming issue of the Journal of Marketing Research. It’s called From Rumours to Facts to Rumours: The role of Certainty Decay in Consumer Communications.
The paper finds that rebutting rumours simply gives them longer life and more credibility. That’s bad news for PR companies who are offering sophisticated search tools and advice on combatting incipient crises by tracking rumours down and dealing with them. A quick brief summary of the research was featured in The Economist February 12 2011 if you don’t want to wait until the journal comes out.
The research demonstrates a fundamental truth – most “issues” disappear of their own accord and often the worst action you can take is to do something about them. For as long as I have been in PR I have been hearing that the Nestle brand has just been irretrievably destroyed by some new issue or crisis. The continuing health of the brand probably has more to do with some masterly inaction over the years rather than the actions urged on the company by PR people and activists.
Dealing with the Nestle brand is, of course, a doddle compared to trying to persuade politicians of the need for masterly inaction. The likelihood of more masterly inaction in political PR is about as remote as the demise of Nestle.
Osama bin Laden and George Orwell
We have moved on from “USA!USA!” to a useful debate about the legality of the bin Laden killing. You don’t have to be ex-military to suspect that a shot to the head after a body shot is an execution, or one to make sure of the execution, but a debate about whether it is or not is one of the characteristics of a society which can be differentiated from the sort religious extremists want to impose on us all.
Needless to say that most profound of political clear-thinkers, George Orwell, had already addressed many of the debate issues. A blogger, Phil Quin, has done some research among Orwell’s writing to extract some quotes which might have been written yesterday. It’s at www.thenewtasman.com