Report on Promoting the V-DAY Campaign

Being the publicity director for The Vagina Monologues and its offshoot the V-DAY movement during the Hong Kong 2007 campaign brought its share of rewards and positive experiences, though not without marketing and public relations hurdles and challenges. The V-DAY Hong Kong 2007 campaign revealed that any publicity director who takes on marketing and public relations responsibilities for this kind of project needs to be fully aware that s/he is walking on eggs and must manage publicity and public outreach efforts with considerable tact and diplomacy, adapting carefully to the audience and its perceptions.

The movement’s mission is to raise awareness of violence against girls and women, as well as to inspire them to develop more self-confidence and self-respect. The play that gave birth to the movement was first presented in 1996 and started as a solo artistic project. The V-DAY movement was later born as a result of the positive impact the play had on girls’ and women’s lives, and the pressing need for an organized group devoted to helping them. This movement, entirely managed by women, now aspires to be the world’s leading female movement for peace and freedom, thanks to impressive media attention the play has received over the years and the thousands of volunteers who have invested time and energy into the cause. Ever since 1996, V-DAY campaigns have sprung up all around the world, under the umbrella of the global movement, organizing thousands of consciousness-raising events, public performances, as well as education, networking and fundraising activities, along with the presentation of its star production The Vagina Monologues.

Although progressive audiences have warmly welcomed the play and the movement, in more conservative parts of the world V-DAY suffers a popular perception that the movement derives from radical feminism, motivated to spread inflammatory and controversial messages via the promotion of scandalous female eroticism. It’s therefore no surprise that local Vagina Monologues/V-DAY promotion teams occasionally face strong local opposition and must engage in significant damage control measures before, during and after their promotion campaigns—and only when the play is not completely banned outright. Surely, the descriptive title of the play creates uneasiness because in most cultures the word ‘vagina’ is frequently censored; some people have experienced an almost instant repulsion for the play and its content because of the emphasis on the V word. Others have even identified the play and the movement with a group of enraged misandrists motivated by rampant feminism out to seek justice because of their frustrations towards men. These reactions can be disconcerting but must be expected when introducing a project that so bluntly challenges the taboos of a society.

I quickly learned how communications strategies and tactics for the V-DAY campaign should strongly focus on accentuating the humanitarian aspect of the campaign, while diluting the impression that it originates from an uncompromising and spiky feminist movement. Indeed, feminism runs through it, but a caring and inclusive form that needs introduction to the public. Also, while promoting the play, I realized that every word had to be carefully measured not to appear to be voluntarily seeking controversy. Some publicity gurus may say that controversy is great for publicity because of the attention it draws. But, let’s not forget that it is also a double-edged sword that can easily antagonize a portion of the public. In this case, every promotion effort should concentrate on rallying the public to the cause.

I found that future promotional teams will increase their chances of overall success if they include a strategy handling the queasiness over the word ‘vagina.’ The more conservative the audience, the more important it is to be proactive. I suggest reshaping perceptions through press conferences, public discussion sessions about the local taboos surrounding the word ‘vagina,’ published articles and other educational spin-off events around the movement and its use of the controversial word next to its overall purpose. To increase credibility, I find also useful to mention famous past contributors such as Oprah Winfrey, Glen Close, and local celebrities, should there be any, and talk about the most significant achievements of the movement.

The movement mainly targets women and young girls. However, a promotion campaign making the movement come across as gender discriminative may result in ostracising the male audience and compromise the success of its greater purpose. One should keep in mind that the movement needs this other half of society to bring about changes in the way women and young girls are treated, but the nature of the movement is intimidating for men. I therefore strongly recommend developing promotion strategies that include ways to make the movement attractive for men, as well. Extending a warmer invitation to the male audience can reduce the feeling that V-DAY is misandrist. By doing this, you reach out to a larger group of people, to men who can sympathise, but also to women who are supportive of women’s causes and projects that are not gender exclusive.

In the end, I realized that the greatest challenge for a V-DAY publicity director is leading a campaign in ways that are acceptable and attractive to both the male and female audiences, while being considerate of their cultural sensitivities and respectful of the integrity of the movement and its play. This can result in increased public and media support for the cause which is the best measure of the movement’s success.


Individualism in American Culture

As briefly explained in Cultural Aspects of Communication (May 17, 2007) when people communicate, cultures communicate. However, culture is an abstract concept that reveals little about what it entails. For example, if you refer to “Japanese culture,” what comes to mind? Perhaps images related to general stereotypes: their stoicism, politeness, reserve, their habit of bowing to greet one another, or their relentless pursuit of group harmony. As for “American culture,” it could allude to assertiveness, optimism, boldness, a sense of enterprise and…a solid handshake. All these characteristics are merely general and superficial expressions of what lies beneath, i.e. tendencies that are associated with learned and nuanced collective programming.

Geert Hofstede developed the concept of cultural dimensions which are psychological/behavioral constructs that help measure the general tendencies of a society to ultimately provide a clearer portrait of its culture. Among the five main dimensions he identified (power distance, individualism, masculinity, uncertainty avoidance, and long-term orientation), individualism is certainly the construct that stands out most when defining American culture.

Individualism is a concept often confused with egoism, or selfishness. If they both focus on the supremacy of the “self”, individualism doesn’t necessarily imply a complete disregard and disrespect of others. As a cultural dimension, individualism is, in a given society, the measure to which people feel that they must care for themselves, and to what extent they feel that their rights and needs prevail over those of their collectivity. Harry C. Triandis – whose studies complement those of Hofstede - suggesting that a person who shows strong individualism will value competition, personal achievement, promotion of one's own interests, well-being, freedom, uniqueness in personality, dignity, pride, self-satisfaction, independence, autonomy, initiative and creativity - just to name a few. There are many more characteristics recognized in the individualistic culture/individual, as well as many more layers of attributes.

Hofstede’s studies have shown that of all the cultures he analyzed, American culture possesses the highest level of individualism. It is the ultimate individualistic culture. This permeates every aspect of American society and is solidly embedded in the country’s constitution, a document inspired by the principles of the Enlightenment, which encourages acknowledgement and respect of individual rights and liberties. The United States has evolved around these ideals to become a modern republic in which power rests in the body of citizenry, thus reinforcing a culture in which the individual has a strong voice in his society and can feel free and his strongly encouraged to pursue his interests to his own benefit.

American psyche is reveals individualism through much more than a strong handshake. Glorifying the “self-made man”, holding social and political heroes in high esteem, practicing a form of capitalism free of excessive state control, supporting a justice system based on the presumption of innocence, resolutely believing in individual freedom, declaring the ideal of democracy as the foundation of the society shows the extent to which individualism is ingrained in America . What lies beneath American culture also resurfaces through interactions between Americans and foreigners, and betweem American government and foreign governments, through contrasts as well as through the way the country handles the many issues its society is facing. All these opportunities to grasp American culture show the evidence of a social fabric sown by a form of individualism that unites even the most divided Americans.

American culture is cemented in the right of each individual to be free to express himself, and pursue his dreams and passions. This core value is the brightest side of American individualism. Admitting that this value is strong at home, we still must wonder how the whole American individualistic construct relates to other cultural constructs that are rather structured on the basis of collectivism, implying they don't necessarily have compatible needs, goals and ambitions. Such considerations cannot be ignored. These cultures could easily misunderstand American individualism and perceive American culture as a culture of imperialism, abandonment, arrogance and immorality in complete contrast with how American people most likely want to be perceived, how they see themselves, and what they aspire to be. After all, American individualism was born from the noblest hopes of a few to make America a model society.


Editorial: Entertainews

I was recently discussing the US television broadcast news delivery style with an American student in journalism. Though a decade separates us in age, we both deplore the fact that in the last few years, news has truly become a new form of entertainment in its own right – especially in the US compared,to say, Canada or Japan. And we were not talking about the loss of objectivity, not that we had nothing to complain here, or that we never believed it existed. But, not too long ago it seems, subjectivity was so well hidden that you could almost believe in the pure objective reporting of facts. Nowadays, there is an apparent carelessness, a laxness close to negligence when it comes to disguising subjectivity. That is pretty much out in the open. We won’t even discuss that. What we strongly disapprove of is how covering of the news in the U.S. has turned into a tragicomedy.

What we have seen is a growing trend in anchors and reporters trying to rival each other’s performances by outwitting their counterparts using puns or funny comments, with hit or miss results that can really cause an attentive audience to either cringe or express relief. During the reporting of more dramatic or catastrophic news, you may see a display of emotions bordering on sadness, distress and even outrage, with comments that leave you suspicious. You find yourself doubting the credibility of the report –while it continues – as you evaluate the acting skills of the journalists, and wonder if you can trust them.

Unfair? I am aware there is a human being with feelings behind the journalist, and I do expect an occasional relaxation in self-control. But to completely abandon poise and aplomb to improvise humor or drama on every possible occasion leaves me dumbfounded and somewhat disappointed.

Another distracting behavior is the news crew engaging in a round of self-indulging camaraderie, with teasing and innocent games of seduction. Oh dear. And while this occurs, the audience forgets about the news. The anchorman becomes Joe, wine aficionado father of three, and the meteorologist becomes Laura, owner of a cat and a dog that get along: “Isn’t that crazy Joe? Oh, and by the way, it’s raining cats and dogs ha-ha!” What a plug.

Yes, the forces of the market have spoken. People want to be entertained. Broadcasters know they are competing with a gazillion other entertainment oriented channels, and they want to keep their viewers from changing the channel. Who can blame them? That's where the money is. They need an edge, a competitive advantage. They have the news that people want, but this audience needs more sugar coating. Their TV is primarily their sensation feeding tube, and they can get their “fix” just about everywhere. The solution is to merge entertainment with news, resulting in entertainews, the perfect candy for the masses.

I can only sympathize with those elegant, smart and serious anchors, reporters, and journalists who may be under pressure to be funny, dramatic, overly sympathetic , and buddy-buddy with their colleagues to reach the audience…or rather to keep it. It’s no longer enough to look "glamour good" -which in itself is a rather debatable recruiting criterion- you must perform. I am indeed frustrated with the current trend and wish we could stick to a classic approach in news delivery. But, this is wishful thinking, as more people in the U.S.A. are asking for entertainment, perhaps to maintain a certain level of optimism during testing political and social circumstances. Fair enough. So I momentarily and diplomatically surrender to the will of the majority, by adapting and accepting this reality: at 6pm news time tonight, I will provide the popcorn for everyone.


Cultural Aspects of Communication

"Deep cultural undercurrents structure life in subtle but highly consistent ways that are not consciously formulated. Like the invisible jet streams in the skies that determine the course of a storm, these hidden currents shape our lives; yet their influence is only beginning to be identified. "
-Edward T. Hall

In a general sense, culture is a conglomerate of values, beliefs, symbols and behavior that we have inherited from our closest group(s) of influence. It is therefore acquired rather than innate. It partially defines us because we have the ability to evolve away from our original influences. Some of our cultural influences are visible, but since most are burried in our subconscious, we are usually unaware of their existence. The display of traditions and customs is just the tip of the iceberg, because our culture shapes the most inner dimensions of our personality.

People are strongly influenced by their culture and usually promote it unknowingly. When individuals meet, cultures meet. Many believe that the closer the cultures, the easier the understanding; the further apart, the greater the possibility of miscommunication.

There have been many attempts at trying to understand the impact of culture on communication. Often times the focus has been on observing and analyzing what happens when subjects from different cultural backgrounds communicate. Some studies have tried to determine if cultural influences have any impact on exchange and mutual understanding, if individuals are aware of their own cultural influences, if the cultural gap between them has the potential to lead to division, miscommunication and conflict, and if so, what are the ways to reduce that breach.

There is an abundance of scientific literature dedicated to shedding light on the relationship between culture and communication, and to answering the questions above. In fact, it is so substantial that it can easily convince one of the importance of paying attention to it. Though interestingly, one will notice that it still doesn't solicit much interest among the population. We should be concerned, considering the ever increasing volume of intercultural exchanges brought about by the internet and the overall impact of globalization. And sadly, opportunities to introduce the notion to the public are recurrently missed to the detriment of intercultural respect and understanding.

To give an example, it would be pertinent to familiarize more government leaders, representatives and spokespersons with the intricate art of intercultural communication. Within the context of international relations, before meeting with their foreign counterparts (in a neutral location or their own country), our representatives usually have the opportunity to be briefed by advisors on certain dos and don’ts. But so many forget to worry about the use of some words, ideas and symbols, which may not translate well in the other culture, or may deeply offend and antagonize the foreign audience.

We can remember the commotion created by the use of the word "crusade" in early pre-Iraq war speeches by President Bush. The word reverberated in the Arab world as a declaration of war on all Muslims. In the Arab culture, the word "crusade" is strongly frowned upon because it recalls the barbarous military campaign lead over hundreds of years by leaders of the Catholic Church to recapture Jerusalem and the “Holy Land” from Muslim rule. This slip damaged the President’s image so severely that we can only imagine the kind of time, work and money put into trying to redress it, and to regain the trust of Muslims around the world.

Culture matters. It matters for good human relations, for clear communication, for successful negotiations, for mutual understanding, for respect and for peace. In the pursuit of reducing further “clashes of civilizations” – as elaborated by Samuel Huntington- we should begin by clarifying that it is the culture of those civilizations that clash rather than these organized societies themselves. And those collisions often occur because of a poor choice of words, an inappropriate use of an idea, what we could call a "blind intercultural communication" exchange.


Mastering Perceptions and Getting Results

What we see and know, or think we see or know is a by-product of how we perceive the information we’ve acquired. There is little objective reality in our world because we apply our thoughts to every thing that passes through the filter of our mind. The world is hardly ever as it is, but rather is as we “perceive” it. This is also true when forming an opinion or making a judgment. These subjective responses require calling upon an internalized collection of experiences and impressions stored in our conscious and subconscious to make sense of what comes within the radar of our senses, to ultimately produce a subjective response.

The implication of those internal references barely describes the more complex perception process, which involves acknowledgement of sensory information, selection, interpretation and re-organization of what is retained. Though being a fascinating mental operation, it can nevertheless greatly alter a message emitted by an outside source.

One could wonder why the understanding of the perceptual process would be relevant to communicators. But we can assume that in many cases, communicators’ real hope is not strictly getting their message across, but mainly causing the right response from their audience or from those people with whom they are communicating. And to achieve that goal, to even pretend to have the slightest ability to induce the right behavior in others, you need to know how they think, and more precisely, whatare the components of their perception process.

Can anyone claim to have this kind of skill? Yes, without a doubt. The best and most successful publicity and public relations strategists understand the importance of perception. This explains why they will take the time and invest the money in thorough studies and research focused on profiling their targeted audience.

Take the example of a politician trying to win the hearts of voters during an election campaign. The candidate will gather a team of strategists who will establish a profile of their targeted audience in order to reveal its collective “mind map” - which usually includes its values, belief system, inclinations and tendencies, likes and dislikes, perhaps even more. This is later used as the main blueprint for the design of the image and message that will most appeal to this audience. Everything is carefully planned down to the smallest details: the haircut, the attire, the colours worn by the candidate, his or her facial expressions and overall gestures, the words to use and not to use, the tone of voice, the flow of speech, the list could go on. In the end, you have the candidate the voters want, with sometimes little leftover of the real person behind the appearance. Since people will vote for whom they “perceive” to be as the most charismatic and most qualified candidate, the strategists have no other choice but to deliver. The ambitious candidate will play the game to increase its chances by letting this team of specialists shape his or her image.

Not everyone is working on large-scale communications, marketing or public relations projects, but we all use communication on a daily basis to get specific results. Getting into the mind of those individuals you interact with doesn’t necessarily involve expensive studies and research, but entails that you pay attention to those people, listen, analyze and learn. As a result, you may come close enough to think like they think, and perceive what they perceive. Thus, you will communicate more efficiently.

In case of doubts, there’s always the communications specialist.


The Illusion of Communication

"The problem with communication ... is the illusion that it has been accomplished."
-George Bernard Shaw

More often than not, many assume that the act of communication is solely defined by the exchange of thoughts in the form of words. As I discovered over the many years of trying to wrap my brain around the concept, I realized that this common perspective couldn't be further from the truth.

I think of the 90's as the decade when the concept of "communication" was loudly introduced in North America’s pop culture as the panacea of all problems between individuals and among collectivities. Many adopted “just say it” as their personal motto because communication promised to restore peace and order almost magically. Sure, couples were thrilled at the idea of reconnecting through "communication", parents were relieved by the promises of communicating with their teen, employees and employers were encouraged by new and innovative communication measures introduced in their organization, but sadly, confusion remained.

In the face of this communication chaos, I had to ask myself why the act of communicating was not helping, to the point of even leading to more conflict and misunderstanding. I heard people say “I’m communicating, so what am I doing wrong?” This question motivated me to engage in an in-depth investigation aimed at solving the enigma. Years of observation and analysis later, I came to the conclusion that the problem is not so much what you say but how you say it and who you are saying it to.

One cannot engineer a good message without a full understanding of its audience’s psyche whether it is your companion, your kid, your boss, your employee or a whole community. The how is about understanding the complexity of communication’s processes, and the who brings the focus on understanding the individual or the community’s labyrinthine mental programming.

The recipe for a successful communication exchange isn’t simple. But the first step is to recognize that the act of communicating is multidimensional and that getting the message across requires much more than expressing oneself with naïve spontaneity. It’s a science for which many have devoted years of study and practice. This means there are communication experts and doctors, and they would certainly tell you that their motto isn’t “just say it” but rather “say it right”. In other words, know your audience and keep it simple.

Well, that's a start.