Perception and Reality – with irritability and responsivity against demagoguery

Digital echo chambers, truth-free discourse, the post-fact public – commentators are currently making great efforts to explain the continued punishment of established political and economic elites by wide sections of the population. The reproach goes like this: In an increasingly complex and rapidly changing world, demagogues exploit people’s anxiety about the future by simply adapting reality to fit their crude worldviews. The internet in particular, they suggest, plays right into the hands of demagogues as a tool offering various technical phantasmagoria – like for example digital chatbots – to spread the corresponding half-truths or even complete lies among an unsuspecting public. This point of view is based on the tacit assumption that there was once an “age of facts” in which well-informed actors in the media, politics and business engaged in honest intellectual dialog with one another and the rest of the populace – an assumption that leaves communications professionals shaking their heads in astonishment.

Indeed, the essence of communicative exchange does include subjective references to reality such as perceptions and feelings in addition to (allegedly) objective elements of reality like data and facts. The world simply has a dimension perceptible to the senses and an intellectually subjective one as Plato teaches us in his allegory of the cave, and people, particularly in times of uncertainty, prefer their familiar shadow-world of half-truths cast upon the cave wall over the precise but glaring image of truth. “Perception beats reality,” PR people say, a phrase that is neither cynical nor diabolic but one that reflects the communicative needs of people from Neanderthals to today’s homo digitalis.

If you want to reach people, you do have to deliver facts. But you also have to be able to tell a story. That’s the view expressed by US economist Pankaj Ghemawat in connection with the one-sided critical discussion of the consequences of globalization when he said: “Stories are rhetorically far more powerful than references to elaborate economic models.” Topic planning also plays an increasingly important role in corporate communications, as can be gleaned from the latest TOPKOM survey by Claudia Mast (University of Hohenheim). 77.2% of the Top 500 companies surveyed indicated that they have “addressed issues that are interesting and entertaining for stakeholders.” Unfortunately, when it comes to topic planning, the explicit interests of the stakeholders in question, at 12.6%, are in fourth place.

It’s not enough, however, to state the dangers of a one-sided focus on empirical facts that neglects orientation-providing narratives and do that solely on behalf of the practice of communication. This one-sided focus also poses a threat to the relevant academic disciplines. David Dozier, who teaches Public Relations in San Diego and combines long years of practice with decades of teaching, cut right to the heart of the matter at the Annual International Public Relations Research Conference in March: “PR professorates busy themselves too much with research that fails to extend beyond their own little world and instead answer increasingly more detailed questions within the confines of the current understanding of the discipline.” In this context, Dozier talks about “normal science” and calls for the courage to begin the search for a new comprehensive paradigm that allows PR to have a credible role in social dialogue. In other words, PR needs a new narrative, too, and that’s where it comes full circle. It’s not enough to have the “right” knowledge on hand. You have to be able to communicate it and integrate it believably. In times of social susceptibility to demagoguery, successful communications management becomes the inheritors of a social role, one that we objectively (and normatively) must fill. The young academic Joachim Preusse has developed an interesting perspective on this issue in his recently published work “Bausteine systemtheoretischer PR-Theorie” (Fundamentals of systematic PR theory). PR, he suggests, creates the “guarantee of organizational irritability and responsivity”. He’s right – for economics and politics in equal measure.

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