Could we fall for a Trump here in Quebec?

A CROP survey of Quebecers written up in La Presse this weekend shows some sharp differences between Quebec and U.S. societies when it comes to the issues that led to the election of Donald Trump. But it also shows some worrying similarities.

The predictable differences are primarily attitudes to the environment, daycare, abortion and free trade. The similarities include mistrust of traditional institutions, notably established political parties, mainstream media, and banks. Some local respondents see them all working hand in hand in an élite that serves only its own purposes. Sound familiar? They see none of these institutions as caring about the needs of the middle class. (And who doesn’t think they’re middle class?)

Unlike some Trump supporters, the most disaffected in Quebec don’t necessarily link immigration to their personal problems, but 47% show low or no tolerance toward ethnic minorities and 44% think there should be limits on Muslim immigrants.
An interesting echo of the American trend is that the most disaffected tend to be young, less educated men in outlying regions, while the least disaffected tend to be liberal women with a university degree living in the metropolis.

What pattern emerges that should concern Canadians and Quebecers in particular? Sociologist Gérard Bouchard “nearly fell off his chair” in shock when reading the results of the survey. He had not expected the dissatisfaction and intolerance that he saw (despite having co-chaired the Bouchard-Taylor Commission on cultural accommodation). Having regained his equilibrium, he noted that the pattern of disaffection and mistrust we are seeing here is one that repeats itself throughout the Western world. He also said it represents a huge difference in Quebec public sentiment since the turn of the century. (It still feels weird saying that phrase and meaning only a few years ago!)

CROP President Alain Giguère attributes this change in part to the economic crisis of 2008, which not only affected all Western countries – and beyond – but also coalesced a movement protesting collusion among the moneyed classes to the disadvantage of the 99%.

I see other factors at play as well. What turns a lone, dissatisfied “outsider” into a demonstrator occupying Wall Street? Look to public relations theory for an answer. Among the key factors that turn passive public opinion into active public opinion? Information and social support. “Hey! I’m not alone. Others agree with me.” “Maybe I’m right. Maybe I have a chance to make changes if we all get together.”

Mistrust of what politicians say is nothing new in itself. And it’s well explained if you consider the importance of authenticity, transparency and veracity that public relations ethical principles hold crucial in building credibility and trust. But the cause-and-effect connection between political disingenuousness and public uprising is delayed, indirect and unpredictable. The liars are not punished right away; if there is punishment, it often falls on their successors.

Transparency and authenticity probably explain in large part the success of Justin Trudeau’s campaign, when many signs pointed to a win by the newer, more-outsider NDP. (But the Orange Wave had always been more about Jack Layton than his party.) A look at the Edelman Trust Barometer, an annual gauge of public trust in business and institutions, shows that trust in government actually increased in 15 countries studied, between 2015 and 2016. The barometer shows that the greatest increase in government trust by informed publics was in Canada, at 16% over last year. I would argue that Trudeau’s authenticity got him elected despite opposition from those who depend on the gas and oil industry. (In the latter, his surname probably didn’t help.)

How does Trudeau’s electoral victory contrast with Trump’s in the U.S.? First, Canadians are not Americans. Second, Trump’s style may have been taken for authentic, but is simply a good imitation: smoke and mirrors disguising just a newer, brasher brand of wealthy, privileged, self-interested leaders.
Nonetheless, as reported by La Presse, both CROP’s Alain Giguère and former Bloc Québécois MP Hélène Alarie fear that, given the survey findings, a demagogue who looks “authentic”, who talks about being disconnected from power, and who uses language that sounds unlike that of a professional politician could attract a following here at home.

The lessons here for public relations and communications professionals, and the organizations they represent, are first, the importance of in-depth research in tracking trends, whether in traditional or social media. We have to know our stakeholders. Second, we must be authentic. And I don’t mean the Trump version of authentic – I mean honestly, ethically authentic. Finally, we need to speak the language that reaches stakeholders, that respects and doesn’t exclude their concerns.

The stakes, for our organizations and for wider society, may be very high.

Is Witchcraft Dead? Food scares in our age

What would happen if you were starving, were offered food, but refused to eat it because you thought it was cursed by a witch? Sound medieval? Sure it does. But it has a modern incarnation and we are living it.

In a democratic society, citizens use reliable knowledge to make informed choices. Idealistic, perhaps, but worth aiming for. We naturally want our organizations, governments, scientists and leaders to be open, transparent and honest when it comes to sharing information with the public. So far, so good (at least in our idealistic world).  However, a major hitch comes when the public doesn’t use this information – or misuses it.

A sad example of this was brought out – not for the first time —  in an article by Tom Spears (Postmedia News) this week. “The 21st century is a time,” he writes, “when many educated people in developed countries are fighting their way back to pre-scientific views. After spending untold billions on scientific research, we reject everything our best experts tell us on two key fronts: public vaccination programs, and the promise of genetically modified foods.”

Spears cites the infamous study by British doctor Andrew Wakefield “demonstrating” that the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine caused autism. Despite being shown to be a fraud, the study was widely published and is still believed by otherwise educated people. As a result, measles has come back from the brink of extinction to put children’s lives at risk. When I worked at The Montreal Children’s Hospital, doctors I met were wringing their hands over the refusal of parents to protect their children against this dangerous disease.

Another example Spears cites is rejection of genetically modified rice that can prevent blindness and many kinds of diseases. A similar situation I remember vividly is the Alar apple scare in the 1970s. I’m sure you can think of more.

There are plenty of reasons misinformation circulates: people are quick to latch on to rumours that cause fear and suspicion (think of all those urban myths still going round on the Internet); a wide range of organizations – special interest groups, profit-making enterprises and politicians – use this human tendency to promote their own causes; and media make money from giving it air time. When the story is disproved, the fear becomes the story. And everybody loves a good conspiracy theory.

The professional communicator in me is always asking, how can wilful ignorance be combated? One way is to discredit the sources of mis- or disinformation. It is no coincidence that in the cases of both the MMR vaccine and the Alar scare, people were paid by special interests to put about the original false information. More media stories on these sources of misinformation would help.  They might even be attractive. (Conspiracy, anyone?)

Another strategy is not to let the misinformation go too long without being debunked – loudly. Rumour fires need to be put out before they take hold in the public imagination.

Scientific research itself needs to be put together in more attractive, palatable packages. Science needs more spokespersons – scientists trained in communication and communicators trained in (or at least conversant with) science. Finally, we all need to realize that being in the 21st century is no guarantee of reliable information and good judgement.

Who would be responsible for making this happen? In our democratic if idealistic society, everyone has a role to play. Governments have a responsibility to encourage transparent disclosure of scientific information. (Harper, are you listening?) Even more important, they need to resist the temptation to play to the crowd by letting misinformed public opinion guide policy. (Marois, are you listening?) Educators, parents, media – we all have our responsibility. Most important, it is up to us individuals – citizens in a world where knowledge is so readily available and public opinion has influence – to question, seek more information, and resist our primeval impulse to scream, “Witch!”

Will MOOCs kill universities as we know them?

Scientific American has just published a special report on a wide range of views on how Internet technology is changing the face of education. . Discussion of this broad topic in media and in institutions of learning has led a number of people to predict the “end” of universities and colleges. Often cited as the death-knell of institutions of higher learning are MOOCs and other freely accessible courses.

However, in the same way that television did not kill film and print magazines are experiencing steady growth in the Internet age, I think the key outcome will not be replacement of universities, but a shift in roles. And it is only true to the extent that we look at universities uniquely as furnishers of fundamental job training.

In fact, offering courses on line is a great opportunity for universities to perform differently a role that they have never really been comfortable with: society’s job trainers. Fields like law, medicine and dentistry notwithstanding – these remain, after all, indispensable sources of money and prestige – the academy is at its best when forming more researchers and thinkers, putting the pieces together to create new knowledge, and acting as society’s think tanks. These functions can be assisted by on-line technology, but at their heart, they require the synergy that comes from physical proximity and face-to-face challenging of ideas.

So do some aspects of teaching. But the bulk of basic training (career preparedness, fundamental theory and practice) can be done effectively on line. The key to success in this respect is training the trainers to use the technology effectively.  If universities devote energy to this effort, they will make the most of new technology instead of being dragged along by it.

In Luc Beauregard we’ve lost a giant

Luc Beauregard is gone before his time. I always had mental images of him striding into some office or boardroom well into his 80s, ready to do battle in defence of an idea or project. He was larger than life in so many ways — his physical height, his ambitions, his determination, even just his presence in a room.

I’ve known Luc for about 30 years, since we worked together on committees of the Canadian Public Relations Society. It was my respect for him, his values and his energy that drove me, despite my nerves — he could be forbidding — to visit him at what was then Beauregard, Hutchison, McCoy et associés and ask him to hire me. It was done with a shrug of his big shoulders and an inquiry as to when I would like to start. Pretty informal — at the time the firm that was to become NATIONAL Public Relations consisted of a single office in Montreal and about three or four dozen employees. But it also spoke volumes, I have seen in retrospect, about how Luc got things done. No wasted time.

Meetings and memos were short and to the point. Praise was never fulsome. I learned to treasure the curt message, “Well done,” that meant he was pleased and proud of our work, and that meant so much more than anyone else’s two-page letter.  Of course, it wasn’t always a message of pleasure; we had our disagreements. And when Luc disagreed with you, you knew it. But no matter how hot his anger, it cooled, and never interfered with the respect he had for his colleagues. Underneath it all, we knew we were on the same page.

Our mutual respect, enhanced during my years at NATIONAL, continued after I left, and remains to this day. Most recently, he invited me to join the advisory council of the Luc Beauregard Centre of Excellence in Communications Research, where I have the pleasure and honour of serving with other people who share Luc’s values: strategic, high-level thinking; strong ethical practice; and telling it like it is, whether to clients, colleagues, media or publics.

With his untimely passing, it seems more important than ever to uphold these values. Luc Beauregard has been a critical driving force in advancing our profession and we owe it to his memory to keep it going.

Three Years of Typos – Mes vraies erreurs de frappe

Do your typos sometimes make you laugh? It seems the tireder I get, the more I make and the more ridiculous they seem. I’ve saved up about three years’ worth of the best, accompanied by the definitions that suggest themselves when I look at what I have produced. They turn up in either French or English – or a combination. Enjoy!

Priviliège              Bouchon d’une bouteille de vin très haut de gamme – maybe from Belgium

Discutuer             Amener une idée à un comité afin de la détruire/ Discuss an idea to death

Dissucsion           La disparition de cette idée dans la vide de l’échange/ The sound of that idea disappearing into the vacuum

Me faire singe     M’identifier publiquement comme l’auteur cette idée/ Identify me as the originator of the idea

Sinshine               Wife comes home, opens the bedroom curtains to let the light in and finds her husband in bed with the neighbour/Quand la femme ouvre les rideaux de la chambre à coucher et surprend son mari avec sa blonde

Downloafing      Wasting time getting useless videos off the Internet/Perdre son temps au travail en naviguant des vidéos sur YouTube

Canadadidate  Une personne qui fait application pour la citoyenneté/ Someone applying for Canadian citizenship

Grovelment       Prier à genoux aux bureaucrates pour qu’ils l’acceptent/ What you have to do towards the bureaucrats to be accepted

Egg shite             Don’t put that in your omelet!/ Oup! La poule a pondu quelque chose de dégueulasse!

Prograsmme      Quand l’université offre des cours très stimulants/ Really exciting courses offered by universities

Philantrophy      The big cheque a fund-raiser shows off to his/her colleagues/ Le gros chèque que le leveur de fonds montre à ses collègues

Sibstitut              switched at birth/ le nouveau-né de la famille échangé par erreur à l’hôpital

Vomplaint           Tu me rends malade!/ You make me sick!

Pissibilities         Things with the potential to annoy me/ Les affaires qui ont le potentiel de me mettre en colère

Conslutant        A PR-for-hire who’s not picky /Un professionnel de relations publiques qui fera n’importe quoi pour l’argent

Public fellations       A conslutant with a specialty/Conslutant qui se spécialise (Yes! I really did type that – by mistake!)

Et enfin . . .finally . . .

Bonjouir               Enjoy your day!