Gave guest lecture at the Canadian International Council (CIC-Hamilton) on Wikileaks.

I just got home after a wonderful evening that blended all the things I like: politics, public affairs, government, food and fascinating people who wanted to talk. I spoke on the topic of “Wikileaks: Has government communication changed forever?”

I was speaking to the Hamilton Chapter of the Canadian International Council.

I was amazed to see that we had an overflow crowd with people standing. I spoke on what I think Wikileaks has done: served as a harbinger of change, a harbinger of a new society that is just around the corner. A society of the panopticon, a society of surveillance. I described how Canadian government communications works: that we have a relatively secretive polity, and that we would have less exposure should a wikileaks-style disclosure happen here.

After I finished talking, we had over an hour of questions and comments! It was amazing. People didn’t want to stop or to leave. Truly inspiring crowd.

Afterward, I went to dinner with the organisers, Tatiana, a McMaster science student and Dwayne Ali, a McMaster Multimedia alumni from my Department. We all enjoyed a very tasty dinner at Indian Garden on Main St. near the uni. Great conversation too – we closed the joint!

All in all, it was a wonderful evening. My heartfelt thanks to CIC-Hamilton for inviting me and affording me the opportunity to share my thoughts on government communication with such a great crowd.

It’s nights like this that make me very thankful to have the privilege of being a professor.


Want to be a good communicator? Learn to know yourself.

Communicating effectively with those around you requires empathy and sympathy. Does this mean that you, as an effective communicator, must be a touchy-feely person or ascribe to new age values? Not at all (unless you want to, of course!). Rather, empathy and sympathy can be learned. But before you can be empathic and sympathetic, you need to know yourself. Self knowledge is like a muscle – with practice it gets stronger, leaner and more toned. It is your mind’s reality-muscle.

What is it that troubles most people in the world today? Surprisingly, it isn’t really a lack of material things, beyond a certain point.

We all want to have a comfortable life. We seek the little things that make us feel safe and that are familiar to us. For some, this means the enjoying a short daily ritual around a cup of coffee, listening to it brew, smelling its tell-tale aroma, watching the steam rise from your cup in a beam of clear morning sunlight, the stillness of the morning around you. For others it is walking through a park that brings back a cherished memory of a happy moment. Perhaps it was a moment of companionship with friends, a soccer or frisbee game. For others it could be a look through a picture album that brings back memories of times when we felt loved, included, valued and secure.

We live in such a lonely world. It is a world of fantasies played on glowing screens that draw our eyes with flickering images of possibility. The visions of freedom offered by the screens that surround us are in contradiction with our structured and super-busy lives. Our days our structured and boxed. Even our socialising is becoming conventionalised –  we date through sites which are a sort of catalogue of features and benefits which are display, a performance, a branding exercise and then a purchase that culminates in communication between the dater profiles… not between the people! Another place we socialise is at night clubs where we put up with obnoxious, aggressive behaviour and displays of machismo or hyper-sexualised femininity. Vulgarity and loneliness. Everyone in the club is alone, separated by the invisible wall of the throbbing music and the gender display they are seeing around them, and putting on themselves. The night club is really just people living out the experience of the dating site. Social media reality has switched with physical reality. The people aren’t attracting one another, it’s their profiles… the performance of themselves that is attracted to another person’s performance of himself/herself. It’s very lonely and thin.

While performing stereotypical self-images and behaviours may seem to be the pop culture ideal – many people find trying to conform to stereotypes dehumanising and exhausting. So we seek respite. We seek a more human connection – we go to the neighbourhood pub and seek a real conversation. We try to make real friends. But even there, we are often mislead – it doesn’t feel real. People are never what they seem. They continually let us down or manipulate us. We go home and don’t feel like we have really connected with others. We feel that the connection was superficial.

People seek to get a hold of reality to make sense of this confusing storm of representations, images and information.

We wander through our lives, dazed and confused, convinced that somehow, an understanding of the world, its order and some personal comfort is just around the corner. It never seems to arrive.  What is going on? Why do we feel like we’re floating? Because deep-down, we know that none of it feels real.

Reality is something that we build in our minds. We build it through our experiences, our principles, our understandings of the world. We seek opinions of trusted people and then we use those opinions as anchor points. We adopt principles and then we try to understand them and apply them in our lives.  So what has gone wrong?

A big part of the problem is that learning is really hard.  Learning takes a lot of context and background and repetition and trial and error to get something right. Just think about when you tried to learn a new language or how ot play a musical instrument. It seems overwhelmingly complicated. It’s daunting. It take a long time and a lot of practice. We often give up or only get marginally better at it after tons of practice.

The good life takes practice. It takes reflection on what you are doing every day. At the end of each day, you can take 10 minutes, breathe deeply, clear your mind and then go through his day, going over what you did. Think about the meaning of your actions. You can ask yourself three questions:

  • Did they fit into to what you wanted to accomplish?
  • Were your actions good actions?
  • How did your actions impact the lives of others?

A good communicator needs to be honest with herself or himself. If you want to live a real life – a good life – you need to know what is real. But it is hard to discern what is real around you without knowing the truth about yourself.

Know yourself and you’ll know the world. You’ll start to have a grasp of reality and the floating and swirling images and information around you will start to take shape. Reality will look crisp when viewed through the lens of your mastery of self. The unreal will start to look faded, yellowed and two-dimensional. Reality will pop out at you. You’ll feel more alive than ever before.

The nice thing is that once you have a grasp of what is real in your perception, you’ll start to be able to see what’s real for others. Instinct will tell them that you empathise with them. That you are listening to them. Then they will pay attention to you. They will trust rust you. Reality is contagious.

It won’t feel superficial or confusing anymore.

Excellent first on-line MCM733 CommTheory Class

Tonight I led my first on-line tutorial with my class of professional communicators in the Communication Theory course I teach for the Master of Communications Management program (joint between McMaster U’s DeGroote Business School and Syracuse U’s Newhouse School of Public Communication). We had an excellent session.

The students in the class, whom I have listed before, are a very engaged and thoughtful group. They’re well prepared and full of examples, ideas and opinions. I think that creates a really good scenario for on-line learning – student and professor engagement and student-student engagement. As well as good preparation.

We use the Elluminate 9.7 software that McMaster prefers. It worked quite well – a great improvement over the last version of the software. It allows written chat, as well as full-duplex audio conversation among multiple parties. The moderator can also share documents through other applications that are open on the moderator’s desktop. That was really useful.

Today we discussed cultivation theory, framing theory and cognitive dissonance/resonance. It was a great discussion. We discussed the textbook examples, and then got into examples such as how to ethically handle the recent Lindsay Lohan scandal, how an organisation would handle the Virginia Tech shooting and the display of the shooter’s manifesto video, Apple Inc’s famous cultivation of a mainstream audience through their “Rip. Mix. Burn.” campaign, which was a very powerful campaign involving active cultivation of an audience. Here’s the first TV ad for iTunes – amazing how this started a culture of personal album creation that shattered the music labels:

Then we discussed the first two assignments, which are critical reflections on a theory using an example from professional practice as a mini-case study. I am really looking forward to getting the first assignments in and reading them on July 25th

All in all – a great class. Two hours well-spent!

For communicators, listening is key. A few tips to improve your skills.

There is very little that is natural about communication. Word associations. Metaphors. Our vision of the world is like a kaleidoscope of moving bits of glass, settling in a slightly different configuration every time we pause to ponder.

In fact, most of concepts, symbols and metaphors that we process as we communicate are of a conventional nature. This means that, for example, the word “cat” is not intrinsically linked to what it represents – the furry, meowing creature that sleeps 18 hours per day. Rather, the string of sounds, “k a t” is a symbol that we have arrived at arbitrarily: as a speech community of anglophones, we agreed conventionally that it should be understood to mean what it means. In fact, if we all decided tomorrow to change our interpretation, we could call cats by another name – fripples, or sniggles or whatever.

So words are pretty arbitrary. Famous Swiss professor and founder of the field of modern linguistics, Ferdinand de Saussure, called this the arbitrary nature of the sign. This concept has huge implications for the field of communications.

Let’s think about this for a second.

If all signs (words) are arbitrary, then there are very few natural readings of what we are saying. Hmmm. The implications of this are powerful. This means that to truly understand what others mean, we have to be very conscious of several things:

  • Our co-communicator’s personal history and experiences;
  • The dialect or variety of English that she uses;
  • The person’s socio-economic station;
  • The person’s experiences with people who look and feel like us.

Think of how complicated this process is. We all have a wealth of experiences that we had stockpiled. Some of them are simple, like what our favourite foods are or the colours that make us feel happy and cheerful. Others are very deep and complicated – the mixed feelings we have about failed relationships, the sadness we have experienced at the loss of a loved one, the conflicted feelings of guilt at things we have done that we now regret.

These deep feelings and ideas are very difficult to communicate to others. Often we do not have enough of a grasp of our own perspective on them to put them into words. Nonetheless, these deeply-seated thoughts shape and colour our interpretations of the world. They influence our reactions to other people. They trigger fear or trust responses in us.

Now imagine how challenging it would be to take that kaleidoscope of tumbling and rolling personal experiences in your mind and fit it onto the jigsaw puzzle of language and language and words. It’s tough – it requires many many words to paint an adequate picture. Honesty is key, because once you introduce a lie into that stormy ocean of words, it has to be true forever and that can become exhausting and very, very complicated.

So what does this mean for effective communicators? Several big points:

  • Honesty is the best policy. It will make you feel solid and authentic to others, if your language is always consistent.
  • Self-knowledge and self-reflection is key. Tell yourself the story of yourself. Evaluate your many experiences and how they fit in with one another.
  • Listen carefully to what others are saying. Keep the big picture of what they are saying your mind – it will allow you to understand communication that may seem unusual.
  • Be a compassionate listener – remember that everyone says everything for a reason. That reason may come from their experiences, from their state of mind, from how they feel that day.
  • Remember that words are arbitrary and reductive. Even in the mouth of an expert communicator, they are an impoverished representation of the complexity of what is going on in that person’s mind.

Keep these things in mind as you develop your skills as a communicator. They will deepen your understanding of others and enrich your life and practice.

The study of how we understand one another.

I have always been fascinated by hermeneutics, which is the study of meaning and understanding. What does it mean to mean something? More importantly, how what does it mean to understand something that someone else is communicating?

In my PhD thesis, I explored whether it was possible to use the structures in a text (syntax, mostly) to help decipher its meaning. I wanted to understand how we understand the writing of others – not necessarily from a neuroscientific perspective, but more from an interpretive, subjective one.

Why? Because when an average person understands what another person has said or written, they don’t achieve that understanding by consciously knowing the brain processes that are functioning under the hood. Rather, the person feels more or less confident that they understand. Sometimes, they even know that they have understood – but that is actually quite rare. Think back to the times you have heard or read what others have said or written to you.  Be truthful – did you feel 100% confident that you fully understood what the person really meant?

I have always be fascinated by the subjective process of arriving at understanding. Is it measurable? I think it is. How is it measurable? Now that is a great question!

If you think about it, this process of arriving at knowledge of how we understand one another is central to theory of communication and public relations.

In a series of blog posts to come in the next few weeks, I will be exploring this idea.

Stay tuned and click on the “Discourse Analysis” link to your right to keep track.

Public Relations and the Social Media Revolution

Mass broadcasting systems permitted the marketing revolution of the 50s and 60s. Now, the social media revolution is opening up the same radical possibilities for public relations.

PR is the business of building relationships, in Canada that means preferably symmetrical relationships between an organization and its various publics. In the past, it was very hard to measure how these relationship-building processes operated and what the value of their outcomes were. To many members of the executive suite in organizations, PR seemed like a magical process that was hard to value.

Social media changes all of that. PR is a symbol-industry. It deals entirely in mental representations. That is to say, PR’s currency is the representations of the world that are formed in the minds of the publics that the practitioner deals with.

Mental representations are images held in the brain which are the result of translations of sensory input. So, when you pet your cat on your way out of the door, your mind forms a mental schema of the feeling, the meaning and the context of what it feels like to pet the cat, when you petted it, what it did when you petted it, etc. Our reality is shaped by the mental representations we store from our experiences.

The quickest way to access what is going on in people’s minds is through language communication. It is where people express their “inner life” most clearly, with the most fidelity to what is actually going on in their minds. Visual arts production is more complicated – it involves layers of visual metaphors, colour allusions, shapes, etc.

But language is clearer. While there is certainly not a one-to-one relationship between what we think and what we say, language has the closest relationship to our thoughts of all of the communication modalities (painting, drawing, dancing, singing, etc.).

So how does this relate to social media?

Well, social media permits us real-time access to people’s evolving mental landscape through that truest representation of what is going on in their minds – language. For the first time, we can watch relationships evolve and follow the shape and colour of those relationships as they develop, rise and decline.

But wait, there’s more! Anything digital can be measured. One of the strengths of marketing professionals is that they have been able to provide precise approximations of the value of their contributions to an organization’s well-being. The measurable nature of social media provides to PR the same window to dive into a new world of measurement.

Social media is a huge opportunity to justify PR as a core strategic function. Time to jump in with both feet.

We live two lives, in two realities: physical and online

People no longer live one life, but many. Physical. On-line. With whom are we really communicating?

You may think that this is a silly topic, if you’re someone who hasn’t grown up on-line or thrown yourself into the world of the Internet and social media. But you would be mistaken – a significant proportion of the population, young and old now have two very distinct lives: physical and online.

As a parent or a friend, this means that you have to become savvy to how other people may have several different presenting selves or personas – each which is as real to them as the one they live in physical space.

In a world of symbols and representations, that is, the world of communication and the internet – there is no real distinction between the physical and cyber-reality. It is all symbols flowing through wires into your brain.

Let’s think about this for a second. You touch the stove and it feels hot, right? So you take your hand away quickly. Your pet saunters over and you grab it. It feels soft and warm in your arms. This all feels real, right?

Well, the answer is… sort of. The fact is that you are feeling emotions and sensations because your brain is processing the outside world as information. As Bishop Berkeley, a British philosopher implied, reality exists in the mind of the beholder.

So, what does this mean in terms of cyberspace vs physical-space? Well, the fact is, since our eyes and ear pull create nervous impulses that are translated in our brains as information, and if reality lives in the mind, it would seem that, for the mind, cyber-reality and physical reality are similar – two streams of information which blend and blur in the electric storm of the brain.

This PBS Frontline documentary lends significant insight into how teens are living in two parallel realities:

The young people seem to live in two separate realities with two very different moral codes. Parents are present in physical reality but neutered in virtual reality. Also, the interview demonstrate that the young people don’t really understand that what happens in cyber-reality can have consequences in physical reality. This must be terrifying for parents of children.

For PR pros, this is both an opportunity and moral hasard. As the relationship-builders for organizations and individuals, we have to be at the frontlines of understanding how people are building their identities on-line and what this means for the practice. How does one create and organizational “avatar” (an online identity) that interacts in cyber-reality in an ethical yet persuasive fashion?

To achieve this, PR pros have to become familiar not only with what is being said online, but also how it is being understood. Understanding leads to empathy, and empathy is at the core of PR practice.