I spent much of the latter part of last week doing one of the things I do best (and enjoy most): being a thorn in the side of lockstep thinking. Even though I’m too much of a speck to truly change anything in this instance, the least I can do is challenge the assumptions people put forth as “common sense” (or even “commonly agreed upon”).
In my experience, it is very easy in marketing meeting type situations for people to blindly acquire and use the language presented as their baseline. What I mean by this is that, if the people running a meeting use a word like “spin,” the people in the meeting will think in terms of spin. This happens for a variety of reasons: people want to impress those who have more power and therefore don’t question underlying premises of a discussion; people are afraid of losing their jobs so they play along even if they’re annoyed; or people – when faced with contributing to something they disagree with – hold their tongues rather than speak up. The reluctance to speak up is sensible. It’s self-protection, but it’s just as likely a result of the speed with which and the manner in which people construct thoughts and arguments. Some people need to take time to dissect and construct and are marvelous thinkers – but aren’t quick thinkers.
Anyway, the series of discussions was about something of a pretty broad scope. It’s something I consider both potentially incredibly beneficial and dangerous simultaneously and my hunch is that it will be used in both ways, which I can’t do anything about. The most I can do is try to help construct and frame positive uses. But that’s not what I’m talking about here (if I tried to sum up everything I said, we’d be looking at an even more long-winded blog post than usual).
What I want to talk about is how we develop a lexicon and how destructive a lexicon can be once it is assimilated into regular speech. In this instance, the term “spin” came up (as in: how to “spin” the U in a positive light), as did the term “loyalty” (as in: how do we create loyalty to the U – implicitly, how do we create loyalty to the brand of the U?)
Let’s take on the word “spin” first, because it’s easier to deconstruct. In fact, Jon Stewart did it quite well several years ago when he deconstructed what “Spin Alley” (the place the cable news people cut to when discussing a debate) actually means during his infamous Crossfire appearance:
You go to spin alley, the place called spin alley. Now, don’t you think that, for people watching at home, that’s kind of a drag, that you’re literally walking to a place called deception lane?
But what I believe is, they’re not making honest arguments. So what they’re doing is, in their mind, the ends justify the means.
Honesty is the core here. In “spin alley” you’re talking about dishonest argument, in “spinning the U” you’re talking about a dishonest presentation of the University. Nothing is inherently positive. No one is going to have exclusively positive interactions with anything ever. So the question is this: are you going to try to artificially force positivity or are you going to spend your time and money creating experiences and opportunities that people actually feel happy to be a part of?
For instance, if I say that the faculty of my PhD program areas of Culture & Teaching and Learning Technologies are freakin awesome, that isn’t spin. That is genuine sentiment based on a positive and ongoing experience. Creating positive experiences and painting positive pictures are very, very different things.
You get the picture. Let’s move on to the concept of loyalty.
In the context of this discussion, we’re essentially talking about getting people affiliated with the U to be loyal to the U. And here is where the problem of the lexicon comes in. If there is a group and those leading a session ask a question that is (paraphrased) “how do we increase people’s loyalty to the U?” then the group’s job is to respond to that without actually questioning the question. You respond with ways in which to increase loyalty, rather than to ask whether loyalty is what we should be working towards.
Since we’re talking broad scope here, we’re talking students, alums, external folks, faculty, staff…can anyone see the issue of using a term like loyalty with all its connotations (faithfulness, obedience, devotion) in regard to people whose economic and professional fates are tied to the institution? Additionally, the notion that we ought to be loyal to an institution rather than committed to a collective purpose strikes me as terribly hollow. If the U is merely a shell or a brand, then commitment is meaningless. It’s the U’s purpose that people are committed to, not a tagline or an institutional brand.
Of course, purpose is a tricky thing: it actually needs to be actively developed and worked at. A brand can coast on its merits and has sale value. A purpose is a moral imperative; veiling that moral imperative in branding language allows people to forget the purpose exists, it allows people to pursue the game of marketing for its own end rather than the higher purpose they are supposed to be serving.
Loyalty, however, if induced – the concept of “raving fans” was discussed – is a blind, emotional, and arbitrary tie. What does it mean to be a fan of the Vikings who paints his/her face purple? Who cares! They come to the game, buy the jersey, drink beer in the stands…they give us money.
That is the source of my aggravation. The thing that twists me in knots. If the goal is loyalty – a word chosen in a winnowing process of meeting after meeting after meeting – then it appears we want nothing more than consumers. We’ll provide them as much as the bare minimum they require in order to come back and purchase something another day.
And this is why language is important. If, instead of asking how to create “raving fans,” we asked questions about facilitating and building community, and how to maintain our own authenticity so that the actual experiences people have with us are positive/beneficial (rather than just spun to be so), we would be asking far better questions and getting entirely different answers.
(Now, one could say that my professors/TAs back in undergrad at the U did a pretty damn good job of helping me develop my critical reasoning skills, but none of these discussions are really about quality – just perception – so it’s kind of irrelevant.)