Collective Intelligence: Marketing Insights & Ideas to Help Brands Thrive

CI Conversations: How Companies Can Navigate Increasing Societal Polarity

February 02, 2022 Interpublic Group of Companies (IPG) Season 1 Episode 7
Collective Intelligence: Marketing Insights & Ideas to Help Brands Thrive
CI Conversations: How Companies Can Navigate Increasing Societal Polarity
Show Notes Transcript

Join host Paul Parton as he talks with Jonny Bentwood, Fred Cook and Scott Farrell about the increasing polarity in American society around a large range of issues, and how companies can best navigate these divisive times.

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Intro:  0:01  

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Paul Parton 0:21  

Hi, everybody. I'm Paul Parton, I'm very pleased to have a power trio of communication thinkers here today from Golin. We have the combined brilliance of Fred Cook, Chairman Emeritus, Jonny Bentwood, who is the Global Head of data and analytics, and Scott Farrell, who is the president of Global Corporate Communications. Hey, guys, great to see you. Thanks for taking the time to be with us today. Good to see you. So we're going to talk today about a new study you've launched called the polarization index. So maybe, Fred, if I could start with you. You're the instigator of this idea. So what is polarization? And why did you want to index it?


Fred C:  1:00  

Well, polarization is an enormous problem in America, and I think in other countries around the world, and it's been evident. Over the last decade, it's gotten even worse to the point that people can barely communicate with one another on a lot of different topics. And our research shows that 80% of corporate communicators believe this is a problem for their companies, because they can't talk about important issues without alienating their customers and their employees. And more and more, they are faced with having to weigh in on very serious issues that are very polarizing in the United States.


Paul P:  1:37  

You mentioned corporate communicators there. And I believe that you see that the polarization index is focused on media and communications. Why do you think polarization is a communications problem?


Fred C:  1:49  

The way we looked at it was through analyzing media and social media, and much of the polarization today is created by politicians, media outlets and political strategists; we're using the media and social media in an echo chamber to reinforce the views that they already have. They realize that polarization gets them viewers, it gets them votes, it gets them money for fundraising. So polarization has become a tool of people on the extremes. And they're using media to drive it. And that's why we think it's a communications problem.


Paul P:  2:26  

How do those echo chambers work, Jonny, power social media reinforcing or creating those echo chambers?


Jonny B:  2:32  

It's really interesting. In the past, people used to form their opinions by where they left their parents, who they socialized with. But now I'm almost in this perfect storm of covid with people at home; they were finding that their more extreme views were normalized. They met people with similar views across the internet who reaffirmed their beliefs. So no longer did they feel like a minority, they felt validated by it. So these echo chambers had weight. And what we found is that people were confident in these new tribalistic groups that they found other like-minded people, and that gave them power. And so more and more, people were finding connections. So what used to be a hidden minority now became a vocal minority whose influence outweighed their size, and people were sharing their content more and more. And this is where polarization measurement comes into the fact, because in the past, people used to analyze, maybe ask 1000 People and get 600 responses, what they thought about different issues. And that's just not good enough. With big data, we analyzed all the media in America. What are the top 500 different outlets, according to Advantus Media, we analyzed what people shared, what content they found important. And that acting alone, that 60 million mentions alone, just on the most important issues is what we counted. And that was the first step to looking at how we measure polarization.


Paul P:  4:08  

Is that what makes this study different from other studies of polarization?


Jonny B:  4:13  

Yes, when most studies are just by asking people, people sort of misuse the term big data, but this is absolutely where it's applicable, where we can look at the individual actions of people and see what content they have shared from media stories, but then understand that those media stories, how biased they are, are they Left-aligned or are they Right-aligned, are they fact-based opinion-based, or misinformation-based? And those are the ingredients that allowed us to understand just how polarized society is. 


Paul P:  4:45  

What role does misinformation play in polarization of issues?


Fred C:  4:50  

What we found is the most polarized topics contain the most misinformation, so in our study, immigration was the most polarized topic in the past year, and that more than 60% of the information shared about the topic of immigration was from unreliable media.


Paul P:  5:09  

That's surprising and troubling, at the same time. Was that something you found shocking as you looked at the data?


Fred C:  5:17  

Well, I don't think it was shocking, Paul, I think that we suspected that a lot of this polarization was being caused by the media that was using the facts loosely. But the fact that the majority of these have this information being shared is suspect and does give you some cause for alarm. And we saw it across all the different issues, there's a certain amount of misinformation being shared, and it's also being shared by very prominent people. And those are the ones that are sort of driving the conversation in these echo chambers. So the combination of people who have lots of followers sharing information that is inaccurate creates a real problem in polarization.


Paul P:  6:00  

And this fraud is that what's making it such a powerful political tool?


Fred C:  6:03  

Yeah, I think what we've seen is, we were wondering whether polarization would decrease after Trump left office, that was the reason we timed the study to the election. And what we found is that it hasn't, it's only dropped slightly in the past year. And we think that is evidence that people are purposely driving polarization to keep it at a high level, because they want it to be at a high level. So it gives it a certain permanence that it didn't have in the past. And I think it makes polarization even more toxic of a force than it has been in previous generations.


Paul P:  6:42  

And is it driven more by one side of the political aisle than the other? Or is it bipartisan?


Fred C:  6:49  

There was an interesting discovery for me. I thought it would be mainly driven by the Right. But it turns out that of the top ten issues that we studied, eight of them were driven by the Left; more engagement on the Left on those particular topics. A survey that we're doing right now of corporate communicators, they agree that most polarization is equally attributed to both the Left and the Right. And what you see is after time, these extremes begin to resemble one another in the way that they act and the way they talk, they just have different points of view.


Paul P:  7:23  

And, Scott, if I could turn to you, what makes the information in the index valuable to you know, CEOs or to communicators? How do you see them using it?


Scott F:  7:33  

Well, over the past two years in particular, but actually dating back as Trump, as Fred said, they wondered whether polarization was going to get worse when Trump left office. He was actually kind of born as he came into office, right? And CEOs were sort of torn between was really, literally a bipolar picture. Do I support Trump and his policies, do not support Trump and his policies right over the course of that administration? Polarization became much more nuanced, right? And as we've seen over the last two years, now we see polarization across, really contemporary pressing social issues, like racial equity and immigration, and even you know, COVID vaccines. The reason this is such a valuable tool for us now, is that CEOs are hearing in one ear that they need to speak out. There are a number of surveys, one from one of our competitors, who says it's a CEO’s obligation to speak out. There's other research that says stakeholders, like customers and employees, want CEOs to speak out. Yet, Fortune Magazine, in a survey with CEOs just last June, found out that it's evenly split among CEOs, 50% are willing to speak out, and 50% do not want to speak out. And that's because the consequences of speaking out or engaging are so high in a polarized environment, right, it's a win-lose sort of game. Up until now, most of the work that we've been able to do with CEOs has been largely subjective, right? We've been able to express an opinion, a point of view. It might be informed on some quick internet research that are conversations with our peers. When a CEO says I'd like to speak out on a topic, it's been largely subjective. Now for the first time, we've got data that we can show. This is the way the population of the US writ large views this issue. And we can see right now from a data standpoint, whether there's either a tailwind or headwind that they're walking into. So it's incredibly valuable.


Paul P:  9:38  

When you think about the split between the companies that seem willing to engage and those that don't, is the split a constant or does it vary based on the issue?


Scott F:  9:49  

I don't have the data to support an answer on that, Paul. Fortune just lifted CEOs in general and asked them whether they feel an obligation and a duty desire to speak out on social issues. And as I said, half said, yep, we do. And the other half said, we don't want to touch it.


Johnny B:  10:06  

If I could add on to that, Scott, one of the things I found interesting is flipping it from a CEO’s perspective to a customer's perspective. And there was a survey done in the summer of last year by Forrester. And they said that when choosing between two similar products from two different brands, 43% of US adults will favor the one that takes a stand on shared political values, almost like the consumers are forcing us to take a stance, even if they wouldn't normally. And we've seen situations where brands have been pulled into a situation to talk about topics they'd never would normally get involved in. I know, Scott, you had an example about Uber and how they got pulled into a conversation they never would normally discuss.


Fred C:  10:52  

But I had a call last week with the Head of Public Relations for Lyft. And they were one of the first companies to speak out in Texas, when the abortion laws were passed there. And I asked him what the rationale was for that. And he said, it was very simple that the owners of the company felt that they had a responsibility to do that. It wasn't an issue that related to their business in any way. But they thought they needed to use their platform, as a big brand, to speak out on something they believed in. And they didn't really weigh the risk and the rewards. But ultimately, their stock went up. Their business went up in Texas. The decision was made based on their own conviction that they needed to do something.


Paul P:  11:39  

And I guess, Fred, they were just one of many companies that spoke out on abortion laws and taxes, is that something I mean, that's a pretty polarizing issue, you would imagine?


Fred C:  11:50  

It's amazing to me that abortion was always an issue for businesses that was way outside of their comfort zone, that it didn't relate to any of their business. And it was so controversial and so personal that most companies would never speak up about it. But in addition to Lyft, and Uber, there were dozens of other companies in Texas that had to voice their opinion about this. And it's just evidence that we're seeing more and more companies speaking out about social issues that are important to them, or their customers or their employees. In our survey that we're working on right now, it says 85% of PR people believe that business can play a role in reducing polarization. 


Scott F:  12:35  

And in that sense, having this data, it can help us give a CEO a level of comfort, in terms of the environment that he or she is facing when they engage in controversial or polarizing issues.


Paul P:  12:48  

So Scott, just following up on that, what role does business play? Is it all about the personality of the leader? Or is it about the category that they're in? How do they know what issues to tackle where the responsibility lies?


Scott F:  13:04  

Well, I do think that businesses have a role to play in the social conversation, in the social dialogue. But that conversation first has to begin with whether the organization has a rightful role to speak. And we talk to companies about that a lot. Is it just picking at random whether they want to speak on one topic or another? We asked them to look at their rightful role, and the rightful role it comes from is this: does it align with the corporate DNA of the organization? Right? Does it align with the way the corporation has walked and talked before? Right? Does it align with the values of the organization? Where does it sit in terms of where the organization's employees feel, because employees are often the very first audience that we think about when we're talking about engaging. So, there's much more of a thought process that we'd like to take our clients through on the front end, to make sure that the issue is meaningful and relevant to the organization. Before we deal with whether it's polarizing or not. If it aligns with DNA, if it aligns with values; that it aligns with the internal organization, and employee feelings and behaviors. That's probably more important than if it's polarized. And then if it's polarized, we can say, here's what the data says about it. But if it's the right thing to say, and the right thing to do, it's the right thing to say it's the right thing to do, regardless of what the data tells us.


Fred C:  14:26  

And there are different kinds of issues what we found in the top issues. We looked at ten, and that the dynamics of their polarization is different for each one. There are some, like immigration, which are driven heavily by the Right, and it's really a hot button for discord and disagreement. And they use it to get people excited. And then there are other issues that are more bilateral, like gun control that both sides are passionate about, that is sort of like a tug of war. It's an issue that's going to be around for a long time, because people on both sides believe strongly in one position. And then there are other issues like voting integrity, which sort of flip-flop during the Trump election. It was a big issue for the Right; it created the protests in the Capitol in January. And then that shifted to the Left in Georgia, when the gerrymandering with legislation was taking place. So, it's interesting that each of these issues has a different dynamic associated with it. It gives CEOs a little bit of a flavor for what they can expect, if they get involved in that conversation. Who are they going to alienate with; it might change over time. And, and we also saw that a number of issues, like climate change and health care reform, and which were really hot topics during the Trump administration, driven largely by the Right, are no longer as controversial as they used to be. So, they're a little easier for companies to engage in without worrying about the pushback from one political party or another.


Paul P:  16:09  

Fred, how did you choose which issues to investigate?


Fred C:  16:13  

We did a survey of public relations communicators, both agency and in-house and asked them what they thought were the ten most controversial topics in the coming year. And then we have some flexibility in the way we do this study. So if something comes up, we can add it to the mix. And in this case, we added the COVID-19 vaccine, because that obviously became a very controversial issue. So we added that to the mix. So that that's how we determine it. So if things come and go, we started out looking at marijuana legislation. But that was one of the issues that we found really isn't that controversial anymore. Half the states in the United States have legalized it. So it sort of died down. So we sort of look at what's emerging, what's hot, and then what's transitioning out.


Scott F:  17:03  

And that's how abortion got into the mix. Because when the Texas situation flared up, that popped into the top ten for us to measure.


Paul P:  17:12  

Will it always be a list of ten? Or do you think you'll expand that list any point?


Johnny B:  17:16  

I think you need to think of this like the retail price index; for just much the retail prices, you've got a basket of shopping goods, and we look at the combined price of those things. And over time, maybe you no longer looking at the price of a pint of milk. Maybe it comes to price, maybe it's a loaf of bread, and things come and go. But you still look at that consistent top items in the basket. So as some issues become more important. It's very quick and very simple to add these in and take others out. It's monitoring everything. But we're normally looking at the top ten. And I think one of the things that worries me the most if just going back to immigration, is how much of the shared content that makes it most polarizing, and if we look at the over combined Left and the Right side of Bias over lower medium bias, that's 93% of all content that was shared. So if you just take away those facts based articles, and move only to opinion based on or misinformation based for immigration, that's 93%. That's huge. So in these highly polarizing topics, fact based discussions are being shared are the emotional ones, regardless of the truth within it.


Paul P:  18:34  

That's fascinating. An issue like immigration doesn't, from an outsider's perspective, doesn't seem to be one that an awful lot of companies are leaning in on. And yet you're saying it's the most polarized issue in America right now? How do we reconcile those?


Fred C:  18:48  

It's really an interesting phenomenon. And it's one of the things we discovered, if you just analyze these issues by how often they're mentioned in the media, COVID-19 would be at the top of the list above immigration, but based on the way it's presented, immigration is the most controversial, the most polarizing issues. And I said before, it's sort of a hot button issue that is being used to rile people up. So it's not always the thing that's most talked about that's the most polarizing. And you can see it when you historically look back on immigration, the most of Trump's campaign was about building a wall, and then that bleeds over into COVID-19, blaming people coming to the country for bringing COVID in. And so these issues sort of overlap, but that one is one that is so core to our country. It's almost as if it is building a wall not between US and Mexico, but between the Left and the Right in the United States. And it's a very powerful topic and the emotions are very strong about it. COVID-19 also is a polarizing issue, but it's a more personal one. And more of the information that is shared about it is factual.


Scott F:  20:10  

You know, I think following up on Fred's point, as we look at the data, you begin to see that polarization can be as much a strategy as it can be an outcome, right? And to Fred's point, that the Right has been pushing polarization, pushing immigration, and creating polarization, could indeed be a strategy by the right to mobilize a base. So we're now seeing polarization both as a strategy and as an outcome.


Paul P:  20:39  

Just picking up on that the word you use there, that it does, it does seem that within the list, there are some issues which are kind of very macro and geopolitical, like immigration, and some which are very kind of individual and personal, like abortion, or you know, COVID-19. Do you think that business has a greater chance of impacting one set of issues rather than the other?


Fred C:  21:05  

Well, when we, when you ask communications professionals, which issues they're mostly likely to tackle, they will say racial equity and gender equality are the two top ones. And they're ones that are more connected to business, fewer companies want to talk about immigration and abortion, probably because they don't think it's relevant to what they do. But it's also there are also topics that have a high risk associated with them. It's as Scott said, when you're choosing the number of topics to get involved with or the which topics you want to get involved with, you have to decide what aligns with your business. And then where do you have a, what do you, where do you have something to say that's going to be relevant? Most companies, most communicators, think that they can't respond to every single issue. Most of them feel comfortable, three, four, maybe five topics that they're willing to speak out about, but not everybody's going to talk about all ten topics. It wouldn't be advisable or wouldn't probably make sense.


Paul P:  22:15  

And does that level of risk correlate to the degree of polarization or are they separate?


Scott F:  22:21  

I, in a sense, I think it does. So let's just take a look at racial equity, which is, as Fred said, one of the areas where companies do feel an obligation to engage in social dialogue around it, but it's also one of those bipolar examples of polarization, meaning it's pretty evenly split 50-50 in America. So that's where we run into the really dicey conversations with CEOs about how do you engage, because there are clearly two sides evenly split on this issue. And a conversation can create winners and losers here. As opposed to something like climate change right now, which is largely driven by the Left, pretty safe conversation, afford an organization to jump into? And I think, I don't know that it's causal or not, but you're seeing a lot of organizations more willing to jump into climate change debates than ever before, because they see less headwind facing them. Hmm.


Paul P:  23:21  

Is there anything that they can, that companies or CEOs, can communicators do with their own data, Jonny, to help them understand which issues are going to be most dicey for them, or which ones they should avoid, or which ones they should lean into?


Jonny B:  23:36  

I think part of that, as Fred correctly said, at the beginning, this is a communications problem. And part of the solution, regardless of whether to engage or not, is understanding your position within it. And this is what the polarization index can do. We can overlay a company within the polarization index to see how their audience, what they believe, what they don't believe, how polarizing they are on specific issues? Then a company can decide if they want to go and get engaged or not. This adds information, whereas before, it'd be my gut feel. So understanding the audience that's important to you, and how they feel about specific topics with your brand, or despite the industry, or this is easy enough to do now and can be worked out very quickly.


Paul P:  24:25  

Well, Scott, that's going to create some challenges. If the kind of values of the leadership of a company don't align with the values of the customer, of the company. How do you reconcile that?


Scott F:  24:39  

That's a really good question, Paul. As an example, let's go back to when Nike came out on the Kaepernick issue. Correct, right? I think they had a gut feel that what they were going to say was not going to align with the values of a good part of their current customer base, right? Older white guys who are buying Nike shoes just to walk around on a weekend. But they made the decision to align their inside values with the people who met the most of them in the future, right? And they were willing to alienate a certain group of their employees. Based on Nikes values, I think we'll see more and more companies take a look at where they want to place their bets, knowing that there could be business consequences. And hopefully those bets will pay off really big, when they engage in the right, and the most informed way.


Fred C:  25:26  

And for communicators, it is really clear from all the data that this is where we're going to be spending our time is helping our clients and helping our companies make these kinds of decisions. And it is really an interesting and very important role for us to be playing. Because I think that when you ask people how much time they're spending on dealing with societal issues, the amount of time is just going to increase in the future, this is going to become core to every communications job in a company and in an agency.


Scott F:  26:05  

Yeah, so let's go back to what we talked about earlier, right? We've got a preponderance of evidence and data that says stakeholders, businesses and CEOs to take stands and to speak out on important issues. Yet, we've got some other data points that say 50% of CEOs just don't want to do that. And if they don't want to do that out of fear, right? Can information allay that fear, and our counsel help them navigate back to a space where they can engage in a confident way with positive results?


Paul P:  26:37  

That just makes abundant sense. So I think, you know, I guess that if my math is right, if the delta between you know, if 84%, is that right, Jonny, if consumers want companies to lean in, but only 50% of CEOs do that? If this can help bridge that 35%, 34%, it's got to be a powerful thing.


Fred C:  27:00  

Yeah, and not everybody is going to be Ben and Jerry's, but I think most companies in the, especially in the consumer space, are going to feel compelled to get engaged with these issues over the future if they haven't


Paul P:  27:17  

Fred, talk about the future. What are the plans for the polarization index?


Fred C:  27:21  

Well, we're, we're continually updating it, Paul, with new information. And we follow these issues on a regular basis to see how they're evolving. And we're going to be issuing updates as required. And we, the report is available for free on at the polarization And we're presenting it to Davos, we're presenting it to the CEOs for social purpose, all kinds of different organizations that are interested in this information. And I think it's going to be become a part of the toolbox for CEOs and communicators in determining how to engage with these tricky issues in the future.


Paul P:  28:05  

The issues are no doubt tricky, but I think the fact that you're bringing big data to bear on them is, you know, going to be a help for so many companies. Frank, could you give us a little background on the study? Who was involved? And how did it come about?


Fred C:  28:23  

Not only can folks download it at the website, but we are currently taking it out to clients, sharing it with them, having conversations with them around it, and we're always looking for new folks to sit down with and, and share this really valuable information.


Paul P:  28:39  

Thanks so much for your time today, guys. I mean, tremendous work. It's given us lots to think about, you know, in our jobs and as members of society as a whole. That's all we've got. Thanks for being with us. And, and we'll be straight over to the polarize to read more.


All Participants:  28:57  

Thank you, Thank you, everybody.


Unknown Speaker  28:58  

Thanks very much.


Outro:  29:00  

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