The Crisis. What else? Jean Pierre Beaudoin: social networks rather than storing oil and sugar.

Is public opinion, like the mythic Penelope, undoing in the night of the crisis what it reluctantly had accepted to weave in the light of growth? Has public opinion thus unmasked the cupidity of the princes who were waiting for the woven fabric to become the new masters? Where is Ulysses? And will he return in time to restore order on the public arena?

One of the merits of great texts is their ability to serve as metaphors for all sorts of current situations. The temptation was too strong to be resisted, but let’s not take it too far…

One of the features of our extreme times is that they make the underlying fundamentals of societies more obvious. Some such fundamentals are now emerging clearly enough to be taken into consideration on what is happening to the relationships between companies and their brands, with public opinion.

The credibility of the heads of corporations has been permanently weakened, and for some of them, definitively destroyed. Their function will be restored only with a change of the people, i.e. with a new generation taking over. There are initiatives being taken to speed up the process, especially at the head of large financial companies. The question of the conditions for the corporate leader to be legitimate has been on the table for a while. The answer is now clear: he must be competent, fair, and face up to his risks. In essence, he must be accountable, in economic, social and moral terms. And, in some cases he must face the judge.

In the eyes of public opinion, the battle between the rules of the market and the rules of society has gradually become, over the past few decades, the key to understanding the issue of corporate reputation and acceptability in the context of globalisation.
The rules of the market today appear as the cause of their own defeat, and State intervention in all areas to enforce the rules of society is not coming up against much opposition.

Public opinion that had become resigned to submitting to the rules of the economy is once again looking to government for a new order. The promise of change in the US presidential campaign came at the right time.

The promise in the French presidential calendar came a year too early, and the drive for reforms to adapt France to the new world looks off beat today, whatever its longer term relevance.

The discredit of the financial paradigm opens the door to a wish for utopia, which had so far been censored by the impression that there was no alternative to finance as a measure of everything.

The “militants” of public opinion who claimed that globalisation was driving us into a wall are discovering today, at the same time as the public at large, that in fact globalisation’s financial engine was taking us into an abyss.

Not that there is any alternative paradigm ready to take over, but the place is open and public opinion is seeking outlook. However vague the idea of sustainable development is today, it is sufficiently accepted by public opinion to create the spirit for a new project to emerge.

However also vague, is the energy that is needed to generate a new project, and paradoxically, it would seem that this energy might well be the United States, after being its main obstacle. The hopes of Europeans have, once again, crossed the Atlantic.

Consumer behaviour is showing reactivity and plasticity in our current context.

In times not so old, households would store oil and sugar at the first alarm signals, and currencies were devalued.

People today seek not to protect themselves against possible shortages of food, but against the loss of social links.

They spend less on the car and maintain the spend on the mobile phone.

Not on the object itself, which they replace less, but on the subscription to take advantage of it.
Precautionary storage has turned virtual, in a way.

The link is not around the household of family subsistence, but around the elected social network.

People don’t go out so much to buy more at cheaper prices, but rather to spend on fewer purchases with clearer priorities. More selectivity. There is a clear value in this for brands: to make sustainability real, to chart channels that access values, including societal ones, and not just to label commercial offers along the tracks of compulsive desire.

The dimension of brands as a medium is growing.

Innovation is more than ever brandished as the antidote to collapse.

What the word means is nonetheless more ambiguous than ever.

During the unequivocal times when there was no alternative to the dominating paradigm, innovation mostly meant improving something that already existed.

Today it could be said that it consists of trying radically new paths.

Maybe, but is there the will, or the need? That is a matter for management to decide.

Draw a line all the way between responsibility (carried by people), to societal issues (that specific groups embody), to the materialisation of a brand (charting a course through perceptions to find meaning) and to the sense of innovation for one’s own situation: this is the equation for communication to solve in times of uncertainty, because communication is one of the means to have answers emerge (not to pretend).

The uncertainty is about how long the journey is going to be, and where it is taking us.

Penelope did not recognize Ulysses when he returned home. His dog did and licked his hand.

Trust and loyalty are all the more robust and instinct-based that rationality seems to have taken leave.

Public opinion is also like that.


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6 Replies to “The Crisis. What else? Jean Pierre Beaudoin: social networks rather than storing oil and sugar.

  1. I find all this very interesting but would like, before proceeding on my part, to better understand the difference Jean Paul indicates between individuals and persons. thank you.

  2. I share JPB’s love of the insights of Tarde and his relevance of his thought to today’s fragmented internet world. He believed that public perception had little to do with the immediacy of people’s lives. In contrast to those who talked about the crowd and class, he talked about, “a spiritual collectivity, a dispersion of individuals who are physically separated and whose cohesion is entirely mental”. He believed that the media, surely including the internet today: “provided channels, if properly managed, through which consciousness might be managed, a chaotic world brought to order”. (Suart Ewen, PR, 1996).

    Walter Lippmann tells us it is stereotypes and symbols which unify us in the face of our very real differences. But he spells out in his book Public Opinion in 1921:

    “Because of its power to siphon emotion out of distinct ideas, the symbol is both a mechanism of solidarity, and a mechanism of exploitation.”

    There are no easy answers or off-the-shelf solutions. Game on.

  3. Thanks for circulating my column on your blog, Toni, and thanks to contributors for their reactions.

    You ask broad questions Toni, which would deserve books to seriously tackle, let alone answer…

    To me, the main feature of “public opinion”, not just published opinion, is that it has now mostly a topical structure. No longer age, wealth, or any other of the usual modes of categorization of populations allows to understand how public opinion “operates”. Topic by topic, individuals are going to get together to agree or disagree (or be indifferent). And those individuals who thus form a public in relation with a topic will be part of another public with other individuals in relation to another topic. If I may use a neologism, society, in its expression as public opinion, is “topicalized”.

    This makes that as concerns opinions, we must consider persons rarther than individuals. We are in a world of “dividuals” as far as opinions are concerned: as Gabriel Tarde put it already a century ago, I can be part of several publics at the same time, but I can be part of only one crowd at a time (“L’opinion et la foule”, 1901).

    The key job for PR is thus now not only to understand the sociological structures of populations on demographic, economic, institutional or other bases, nor to be able to produce signs (messages in all forms) which would produce effects, but to identify which topics will cause publics to assemble. Power today is not so much the control of media or the share of voice, but the ability to put in the public arena a topic and key elements of the topic’s interpretation which will cause numbers of persons to form a public sharing the appreciation of the topic.

    The “crisis” (and I put this in quotes because I do not say crisis, I hear that the word is used, not rightly in my view) opens new possibilities in the context of a public opinions which shows such features, because it allows a number of actors in society to express views which, when the “market” was seen as the only viable mode, could not be heard. Therefore the diversity of interpretations of key topics shaping evolutions of society is greater than before, and the role of public opinions stronger than before.

    What will come out of it remains open… and will emerge from wisdom of the elders (not “old leaders”, who are discredited) as well as from the imagination of the younger. In that case, “young” or “old” is not a matter of when you were born, but how able you are to think in terms which are not necessarily the replication of existing modes, systems, or paradigms.

    Sorry I’m a bit long…
    Again thanks to you bloggers !


  4. Toni,

    You say the leaders’ function will be restored only with a new generation taking over, but I wonder if this hasn’t been part of the problem and that what we need is a return to a recognition of the value of “elders” rather than the worship of youth.

    I’ve noticed that in many organisations, wisdom and pragmatism has been lost as those with experience have been made redundant. At the same time people change jobs and companies more frequently. Many of those leading companies have no real long-term perspective having spent their careers in this cycle of short-term results and tenure.

    Maybe we need to learn from an older generation – perhaps ever young manager should have a wiser mentor – like Pinocchio needed Jiminy Cricket?

  5. Does Jean Pierre really think “globalisation’s financial engine was taking us into an abyss”? Contrariwise, I stand behind President Barack Obama’s call of last week: we’d better stop knocking the get-up-and-go of greedy bankers. We’ll be out of this hole when they rediscover it.

    Moreover, there is no new paradigm in terms of markets versus governments. Capitalist governments have always been lender and regulator and everything else of last resort. Nobody seriously expects or wants governments to take over any industry, including banks, except as a temporary measure. The public is arguably as angry at state intervention with taxpayers’ money as they are at the private sector’s recent incompetence.

    Jean Pierre rightly identifies sustainability as the hot buzzword. But at the top of all the lists of competing sustainabilities is going to be profitability.

    If we want a glimpse of where PR might go over the next ten years we should examine Japan, as I do here:

  6. Jean Pierre, I couldn’t resist posting your comment which appeasr in the latest edition of your agency’s newsletter.
    It is very stimulating.

    I would like however to engage you on this question:

    if with the term public opinion you imply the collective opinion of publics and not just published opinion…
    then where are those publics today? how stabilized are they?

    Or are they at this point only situational and change according to the specific profile each individual represents as well as the single issue being discussed?

    When you evaluate the relationship between a brand and public opinion (as you say)… how do you know that their opinions will correspond, at least in part, to their behaviours which are what any client would like us to ensure?

    My impression is that the loss of certainties, the information overload, the debacle of this discontinuity (you say crisis) are such that public relations as a practice to modify the opinions of publics is facing a very serious credibility issue.
    What do you and other visitors of this blog think?

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