To act or to react: shaping external conversations through social media

After listening to our October 27th blackboard collaborate session I was very intrigued to analyze aspects of Gramsci’s theory of hegemony, Habermas’s critical theory and Gleick’s book Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything. One comment that really sparked my interest is that we live in a society where “we act, rather than react” to important issues. This statement struck a chord in my professional life, as the industry I work in strives to understand what Canadians know and think about energy in order to “react” to negative opinions.

Growing up in Fort McMurray and now working in external communications for an oil sands company, I have found myself smack dab in the middle of an “oil sands PR war.” There is rarely a day that goes by where at least one special interest group, environmental activist or Hollywood celebrity, isn’t trending online for taking another critical shot at Canada’s oil sands. These debates mostly materialize on Twitter, Facebook and blogs, highlighting the idea that social media is breaking the hegemonic dominance of mass media. Gramsci’s theory of hegemony describes the “ways particular political forces achieved hegemonic authority, and the delineation of counterhegemonic forces, groups, and ideas that could contest and overthrow the existing hegemony” (Durham & Kellner, 2006, p. 15-16). The Internet gives people the ability to freely share their thoughts and express views that often differ from traditional mass media outlets. This online world has created a counterhegemonic platform of conversation and debate where marginalized voices utilize the virtual sphere. Social media heightens the public voice and demands a level of connectivity that companies cannot choose to ignore.

Social Media consumes my working life from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. and sometimes even into the wee hours of the morning. My team’s approach is to turn on all commenting functions and enable direct engagement with company spokespersons. This open dialogue requires us to respond quickly in order to stimulate conversation and share our company’s story effectively. Gleick (2000) comments on this quest for speed in our lives, from television without commercials, smartphones, to “instant” microwavable meals. We desire instantaneous communication and loathe devices that waste or delay our time. We live in an age where information spreads like wildfire and companies need to monitor the Internet carefully. The worst thing a company can do is stay silent or refuse to comment during a conversation or issue. While the answer may not be readily available, I have learned that it is important to emphasis accessibility and availability – to put the brakes on potential controversy.

Habermas’s principles of the ideal speech situation outline mutual understanding, truth, sincere expression, the right to speak and legitimacy as key factors to maintaining communication and developing common understanding (Gingrich, n.d.). These values speak to the fact that companies cannot just act, but need to react with knowledge to build credibility with audiences. Cenovus Energy has attempted to “react” to negative perceptions of the oil sands industry with the following ads:

Through the lens of Habermas’s principles, the company’s attempt to foster a responsible conversation hinges on the mutual understanding that oil adds legitimate value to our daily lives. Furthermore, their ability to connect the resource to life-changing, inspiring situations leaves the viewer with impressions of sincere expression and truth. Cenovus has placed these ads on YouTube and Facebook in order to tap into the social media realm and encourage dialogue on one of the industry’s most controversial platforms. Many oil sands companies are following suit to help set the stage for a more open and honest debate. This discourse is explained by Habermas as one where “all concerned take part, freely and equally, in a cooperative search for truth, where noting coerces anyone except the force of a better argument” (Gingrich, n.d., p. 10). His thoughts capture the ability of social media to bring diverse people from all over the world together to talk about common concerns. While social media comes with its own set of unique challenges, it ultimately forces companies to actively listen and guide their business with transparency. My daily attempt to react, rather than simply act in the face of controversy has become the most rewarding aspect of my career.

Please feel free to share your comments below. I’m very interested to learn how other companies/industries use social media to shape external conversations.

References

Durham, M.G. & Kellner, D.M. (2006). Media and Cultural Studies: Keyworks. UK: Blackwell Publishing.

Gingrich, P. (n.d.). An Introduction to the Work of Jurgen Habermas. Retrieved from http://moodle233.msvu.ca/m23/course/view.php?id=3449.

Gleick, J. (1999). Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything. New York: Pantheon Books.

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A little bit of everything…

Sex. Terrorism. Elections. Theory. I sit here with a rather large dilemma: what should I blog about? My head is filled with thoughts and ideas, applications of theories and general questions about Habermas and recent events that I could tie him (and critical theory) to. Not a bad problem to have. Among the swirling thoughts:

  • There’s the Ottawa shooting, and ideas about state surveillance, open government, mental illness versus terrorism, the media’s failure (or not) and official statements. Will an “ideal speech situation” occur about the different aspects of the shooting and will we come to a “mutually understood truth,” as Levine puts it in his blog? Call me a pessimist, but I’m not holding my breath. (More on that later).
  • I won’t be attending the Collaborate session because I’ll be covering the municipal election here in London (aka The Other London). I’ll go in for 4 p.m., hopefully get pizza (a must, despite dwindling newsroom resources, on election night. We might not have pens, notebooks or a future in newsprint, but we will eat free election day pizza, damn it). How do we get people to recognize each other (and each other’s opinions and discourse) as equal? Habermas assumes that it’s possible, but I’m not so sure. What is my role, as the journalist, to cover all campaigns equally? Is it the responsibility to of the media to give every candidate or issue equal space? Who decides who is a front-runner (an opinion poll?) and who is a fringe candidate not worth spilling ink over? It’s interesting how angry some people get if we don’t cover every candidate, but if we covered everyone, we’d have less space for the people who might actually win. I know that puts an awful lot of power in the hands of the journalists and editors in the (mainstream) media, and it’s not one that anyone involved takes lightly. Also interesting are the things we choose to release about ourselves – the hashtag you choose to end your tweet with or the simple act of affixing an “I voted” sticker to your jacket says a lot about you, I think.
  • On a slightly different note, though related to communication theory and PR, I’ve become obsessed in the last 24 hours with the whole Jian Ghomeshi/CBC scandal, on so many different levels. The sequence of how it all went down is so instructional and I’m guessing will be studied in PR courses. First, the fact that, although Gomeshi hired a powerful PR and law firm which put out a bare-bones press release/statement (Sunday afternoon) of his intention to sue the CBC, he used his Facebook page to explain his own side of the story (Sunday evening) before anyone else was able to do so. A brilliant PR move, if nothing else, right? (Maybe those of you in PR will disagree). But here’s how I see it – most people (perhaps those not quite as obsessive about getting all the facts and sequence of events) will see it as a personal letter (“Dear Everyone” his Facebook post begins) to the masses. Much more poignant than any statement someone might release through a PR or law firm (though undoubtedly his FB statement was vetted and revetted, written and rewritten, but both his PR and law firm). What began, on my social media, anyway, as some people sharing his statement, has now turned into people sharing the mainstream media links (CBC, The Star, National Post, Globe and Mail, Huff Post) as well as critical blogs and podcasts, etc. Now it’s turned into, ‘wait, why aren’t we hearing from the women?’ Interesting to see who in my social network is linking to what. What does it say about them? I routinely stop myself from posting links of any kind on my Facebook wall because I’m weary of how people will interpret the source. Are you guys that hyper-aware when you post stuff on personal social media (blogs, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook)?

Now that you all know what I’m thinking about today, let me briefly turn back to Habermas. From the very first reading (Levine’s blog), I understood the Frankfurt School’s dilemma. Why, given all the tools, has there been no revolution? Why did humans turn to totalitarianism instead of rising up? I’ve always tended to think that it’s because we’re born selfish, or at least selfishness is socially constructed in us from birth. Marcuse’s theory of capitalism as a clever ruse to make us think that we have all these needs for which it is providing us choice (Sudersan, 261) really hit home.

I can get behind Habermas to a point, probably more than any of the other theorists we’ve studied. I get that our life-world is being colonized by overarching systems that have come to dominate all areas of our life. I might even agree that society is ultimately redeemable, as Stowe says in her blog. I understand how truth can be empirical and/or normative (Levine). I see communication getting distorted because of power and ideological domination all the time, and I agree that a society free of distorted communication is a noble goal. I just don’t know if an ideal speech situation is possible. (Maybe that’s because we’re still working toward this goal?). I can’t think of a single instance where everyone gets an equal chance to argue and question, where rationality prevails because power doesn’t matter (particularly in the public sphere). I guess I’m not sold on that Utopian ideal, though I don’t know yet if that’s because our life-worlds are still being colonized and will continue to be for a long while yet, or if I even believe that it’s possible to end the colonization.

I like that Habermas’ end goal isn’t victory or defeat of any standpoint, but rather consensual agreement (Sudersan), I just don’t know if that emancipation is possible. I’ve either not seen an example of it (on a micro level), or it hasn’t happened yet. Curious to find out what the discussion leads to tonight. We’ve had a mayoral candidate here in London (the likely winner, if the polls prove correct), who has talked about change and consensus building. He claims to be more concerned with consensus than ideology, to recognize his opponents as equals. Will rational discourse, or ideology, prevail? How do we get people who claim to be concerned about their property taxes, to care about city-building (figuratively, not literally)? Maybe we’re experiencing a mini social-movement here in London. Or maybe we’ll wake up tomorrow and it’ll all be the same.