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Top-Down Communications, Union-Style

You might think that corporations are the most top-down oriented institutions when it comes to communications. I suspect that tendency is widely shared — and that unions are among the more reluctant when it comes to embracing conversational media.

This seemed clear this morning during a speech and subsequent workshop this morning with PR people from the National Education Association, the biggest union representing public-school teachers in America. Again again, the discussion came around to what some of the union folks clearly considered the dangers in being considerably more open and conversational with the NEA’s various constituencies.

I urged them to consider the opportunities more strongly than any potential dangers. I say the same thing when offering ideas to corporate folks, and am continually struck by the old-media orientation that persists in both camps.

One of the most telling moments of the session came when we were chatting about whether the union websites should point to their opponents’ sites. To me, this is an obvious thing to do — to create educational portals that lead people to varying sides of a vital national debate over the future of public education. To the NEA folks, this was a lot less obvious, and in at least one man’s view a total nonstarter.

People who are advocating for one side of an issue make a mistake, I believe, when they don’t directly engage with their opponents. I’m not suggesting that the NEA put up prominent links to some of the nuttier organizations that consider public education an evil, not a vital national policy and resource. (Actually, it might be a good idea, given that most rational people would find the NEA utterly moderate by comparison).

But there’s lots to gain, and little to lose, in having the confidence of one’s own ideas to publicly debate the issues. At the very least, it forces people to make a better case for their own views, because the other side(s) will poke holes in flimsy arguments.

We all learn more from people who disagree with us than from people who agree. That argues for more transparency in communications, and more conversation.

14 Comments on “Top-Down Communications, Union-Style”

  1. #1 Seth Finkelstein
    on Jan 6th, 2007 at 6:31 pm

    But what if the opponents aren’t interested in “debate”, but in talk-radio style ranting? Y’know, I wish there were more recognition that people who don’t like dealing with ideologues, liars, trolls, and A-list attention-mongers, have a reasonable point of view – and that there’s a lot of underacknowledged downside where the prescription of blog-evangelists for “conversation” can be a quack-medicine of being berated and bullied by hacks and flacks.

    I assume you saw this – it’s funny because it’s true:,0,3287162.column?coll=la-opinion-columnists
    “Not everything should be interactive. A piece of work that stands on its own, without explanation or defense, takes on its own power.”

  2. #2 Dan Gillmor
    on Jan 6th, 2007 at 6:41 pm

    I have rules about what people can do in my living room. For example, they can’t spit on the floor. If they do I’ll invite them to leave.

    The one rule I suggest that people enforce is civility. If your opponents can’t be civil, then you’re entitled not to add to their attention.

  3. #3 Dan Gillmor
    on Jan 6th, 2007 at 6:43 pm

    I assumed that Stein’s piece was as much a joke as real. If he’s actually that contemptuous of his readers I feel sorry for him.

  4. #4 Seth Finkelstein
    on Jan 6th, 2007 at 7:47 pm

    But that can be a trap – the trolls screams “I’M BEING CENSORED!”, and starts out on a campaign about the hypocrite who can’t handle “conversation”. Now, this isn’t much of problem for many A-listers, because they deal with this situation from being “on high”, from having the audience (and the sycophants). If they say someone is being “uncivil”, right or wrong, often that’ll just reinforce the sort of group dynamics they cultivate. “Conversation”, is what they say it is. But, crucially – not everyone is good at creating this sort of emotional appeal. It’s a skill, akin to being a talk-radio host. I’d say it’s reasonable if someone just wanted to avoid it.

    Fundamentally, I think there’s a little-examined possibility that you might be telling people to play on their opponent’s home turf. In a game of rationalists vs. rabble-rousers, the rabble-rousers have a lot of advantages (certainly rationalists can hire their own rabble-rousers, but that has problems too, particularly the monetary imbalances involved). And to make matters worse, the explanation can be the rationalists didn’t do things “the right way” (for which they should have hired a blog-evangelist to show them, of course …). In a situation where the rationalists are socially held to a high standard and expected to be examples of good behavior, while the rabble-rousers can sling any mud, make any sleazy accusation, and that’s their job, it’s what they’re paid for – that’s a set-up for people to get *HURT*!

    Oh, yes, the article is humor. But it’s using the humor to making some good points:
    “I get that you have opinions you want to share. That’s great. You’re the Person of the Year. I just don’t have any interest in them. First of all, I did a tiny bit of research for my column, so I’m already familiar with your brilliant argument.”

  5. #5 Garrick Van Buren .com » The Call for Public Debate That’s Actually Both
    on Jan 7th, 2007 at 6:53 pm

    […] The Call for Public Debate That’s Actually Both “…there’s lots to gain, and little to lose, in having the confidence of one’s own ideas to publicly debate the issues. At the very least, it forces people to make a better case for their own views, because the other side(s) will poke holes in flimsy arguments.” – Dan Gillmor America, Technorati […]

  6. #6 Delia
    on Jan 8th, 2007 at 2:57 pm


    re: “We all learn more from people who disagree with us than from people who agree.”

    absolutely! especially when the agreement is just to be agreeable (and that happens plenty of times); those who agree but elaborate potentially enhance our understanding of the situation but those who *earnestly* disagree and tell us exactly *why*… I think they are doing us a big favor!


  7. #7 Seth Finkelstein
    on Jan 8th, 2007 at 7:05 pm

    One more aspect – note also the asymmetry of risk involved. The blog-evangelist who leads someone into a career-harming situation can always say that s/he believes the tradeoffs (where *the other person* suffers) are worth it, for the cause of [insert buzzwords here].

    Delia: Actually, we learn nothing from people who merely disagree. And in many contexts, the arguments are well-known, and simply repeated to try to get through noise. Or as part of advocacy. One of my saying is: How many problems are there, really, where the solution is: “MORE PUNDITRY”?

  8. #8 Delia
    on Jan 8th, 2007 at 8:18 pm


    Unless you have a complete understanding of the situation from all possible angles (extremely rare), you can always learn more… and I think it’s important to stay open. I don’t see it as having to do with “punditry” — just honest desire to take as many things as possible into consideration.


    P.S. I agree that those who disagree just to disagree (I’m assuming that’s what you mean by “merely disagree”) are just as useless as those who agree just to be agreeable (maybe even more…) D.

  9. #9 Seth Finkelstein
    on Jan 8th, 2007 at 10:55 pm

    Delia, while it’s true you can always learn more, there’s a point of diminishing returns where you are very, very, very unlikely to learn more from people who haven’t studied the topic. And the probability of finding such a gem must be balanced against the effort of slogging through all the nonsense. It is not costless – which is my constant complaint about the marketing, denial that there is an extremely large and significant negative and downside.

    I didn’t mean just disagreeing to disagree. But that in many cases, the basic lines of argument ARE KNOWN, and repeating them doesn’t do much if any good in terms of advancing anyone’s understanding. All that happens is that the same old argument is gone around again and again. Or that each sides knows what the other thinks already, and that isn’t going to change anyone’s mind because there are various imperatives driving the actions. Repetition then doesn’t do any good for human knowledge, or even democracy. The major effect is to line the pockets of those who make a business off argument in various ways.

  10. #10 Delia
    on Jan 9th, 2007 at 8:04 am

    Seth: well… in order to *learn* something… it HAS to be new stuff! (if it’s just a repeat… it seems to me that it would fall either under “disagree to disagree” or “agree to be agreeable” — which, as I said, are both *useless*…) So… yeah! D.

  11. #11 Seth Finkelstein
    on Jan 9th, 2007 at 9:42 am

    I meant that there’s many people who have deeply felt and sincere opinions, that I wouldn’t say are “disagree to disagree” – but those opinions just aren’t very thoughtful or well-reasoned. Even well-intentioned community forums have real problems that, e.g. quick popular comments can drown out anything that requires some time to think through.

  12. #12 Delia
    on Jan 9th, 2007 at 3:47 pm

    Seth: I’m usually pretty tolerant with the *form* in which people express their ideas (provided there is some factual basis for the opinion); yeah, I do think controlling the flow of comments (especially in extreme cases) would improve quality. D

  13. #13 Anna Haynes
    on Jan 10th, 2007 at 2:05 pm

    re top-down communications – anytime we’re talking to newbies, we’ll find this sort of disconnect and need for education on best practices (and Seth, you can still link to your opponents while providing subtle meta-info on them, e.g. “some spirited disagreement can be found _here_…”)

    What I would find EXTREMELY valuable (does it exist in any 1 place?) is a JakobNielsen( “web community best/worst practices” site, with collected essays on the basics, explaining *why* practice A is good and practice B is bad. JN will forever be in my heart, for saving me much time/energy in the early years of the web by letting us say “see Jakob Nielsen _here_ on why this practice is undesirable” instead of having to re-explain for the 45th time…

    does this sort of site exist anywhere? (Robert Niles is making a stab at it, among others, but the web is too dispersed and/or I’m too lazy and/or ignorant as to how to do a quality search for this subject matter)

  14. #14 Seth Finkelstein
    on Jan 10th, 2007 at 10:16 pm

    Anna, sure, but that has problems of its own – some hate-sites deliberately seek attention to boost their rankings. Amusingly, for example, the Martin Luther King hate-site got linked so many places for being a bad example and a deceptive website, that those mentions helped send it to the top of the search results. Now, before someone objects that we’re not talking hate-sites, it’s posible to have this issue at a lesser level (though I think a few high-readership political bloggers edge pretty close, about as a close as you can get in modern politics). Right, there’s “nofollow”, but this is a pretty complex topic. I wouldn’t fault anyone for thinking they don’t want to play that game of navigating through all the attention power-centers and problems, that it’s not for them. And again, I really dislike the “head I win, tails you lose” lack of accountability aspect, where if the A-lister’s recommendation turns out to be deeply harmful, well, they’re gone, off to the next “conversation” prospect, and it was all your fault anyway.