We recently discussed the subject of gaslighting in depth here and wanted to further explore another example of it in the first of what will be many Tiger Tips. You’ll learn about what polarization is, how people use it in media relations, and why it’s bad for your business.
Tiger Tip No. 1: Don’t Do It!
There are various theoretical frameworks upon which public relations professionals may draw as tactics to use in their business. Like other fields, it’s up to the professional to choose the right approach. Sometimes, the approach people use is one of personal preference or business strategy. Other times, the nature of the business dictates their choice or it’s the ethics of the individual.
For example, people who work in the nonprofit sector often choose models of inclusion and unity while people who work in modern politics choose the tactic of polarization to engage with their audience in the public relations sphere. It’s a form of gaslighting.
The purpose of gaslighting and polarization are to gain control over unsuspecting people to convince them of thoughts, feelings, and actions related to your objective. Polarization gives power and control to the operator that uses it and removes the independent decision-making of the recipient. By reducing decisions to one out of two choices, people can be easily pigeonholed and profiled for predictions about their current and future behavior.
What Is Polarization?
Polarization is an aspect of collective behavior theory in social science. It is defined as the activity of forcing people to take sides on an issue and eliminating the middle ground. It’s the process of splitting society into two groups that are at opposite ends of a spectrum, or pole. People are said to be at one polar end or the other of any given issue.
Polarization is a tactic used as a means of gaining control over individuals or groups of people. Its use has increased over the past two decades, especially in the political sphere. Before it was widely used, the approach of unity was more popular. That tactic helps people identify with each other and with issues they share in common by focusing on their commonalities, the fact that people are more alike than different, and how we all share the same civic duty to society when considering critical issues.
People were making great strides in progress until that came to an abrupt halt as polarization’s use became rampant. Now, everyone is very individualistic and separate. Unity is hard to find.
A society that is divided, or polarized, has a low chance of success. Nevertheless, it’s a common go-to for many in politics and the media. Some public relations processionals make use of it on a daily basis to promote their clients to the general public.
How Do People Use Polarization in Media Relations?
Polarization in media relations takes the form of brainwashing, indoctrination, propaganda, and villainizing, to name a few approaches, or tactics. People are told what to think in order to fit in, which creates a gang culture, or mafia rule. In order to be part of the gang, or club, you have to think a certain way no matter how inaccurate it is – remember, gaslighting also deceives the victim about reality. In other words, victims are deceived about the truth. Polarization works through manipulation as a means of control over people by forcing them to choose between two feigned options.
Brainwashing alters, or controls, the human brain by making use of certain psychological techniques to deceive the victim about reality and convince them of an alternate one. By reducing a person’s ability to think critically or independently, brainwashing allows for the introduction of alternate and unwanted thoughts or ideas that are reflected in attitudes, beliefs, and value systems.
The Manson Family is a prime example of brainwashing in criminal cult behavior, sparing the details of their crimes here. Suffice it to say that Charles Manson led a cult and brainwashed its members into thinking about their victims in a negative way so they would be convinced to murder innocent people. This is an extreme example of brainwashing, but it drives the point home.
A modern example would be the concept of Cancel Culture. Groups of people on the Internet – sometimes real and sometimes trolls – become convinced by a group leader, or influencer, of a certain reality about a person or business. This belief, which is not necessarily based on fact, motivates the group to remove the person from their lives and professional relationships in an aggressive way. Worse, the mob invades their personal lives and negatively impacts their work, home, and relationships in an effort to “cancel,” or erase the person from society. It’s sinister stuff.
Be wary if you find brain washing in public relations as a tactic to polarize you into taking a stance or action out of only two, narrow choices. Usually, there is nuance to every issue and social media is perception. People also make mistakes and learn. Whatever the reason, group think is limited and dangerous. Be wary if anyone takes offense to your line of questioning to see complexity; they are likely using polarization as a tactic against you. It’s disingenuous. They are trying to control you.
Indoctrination is the process of manipulating and deceiving people with certain attitudes, cognitive strategies, ideas, or professional methodologies to retain long-term control over them. It’s a systemic form of manipulation and gaslighting.
Indoctrination is seen as negative because it removes free will and choice from individuals. Indoctrination imposes ideas and beliefs on people for control. It impacts their ability to make informed decisions, reflect on ideas, choose actions, and establish values. Indoctrination removes decision-making and eliminates choice by inserting the beliefs and values of one person into the cognitive thoughts and values of another person. Similarly, people are shown how to feel about certain topics and persons to polarize them. It’s an “Us” vs. “Them” model.
The example of Charles Manson further illustrates the tactic of indoctrination. He chose his disciples carefully for the qualities he felt would make it easy to deceive them. He then indoctrinated, or taught and trained them, in his extremist cult’s practices and religion. He established a set of cultural norms and values that his followers all held, without getting into the specifics for ethical reasons. The indoctrinated members of his cult held a set of beliefs and behaviors they used to commit their crimes. He removed their ability to make decisions because they followed the path he laid out for them.
Indoctrination is often associated with dogmatic religions and the military, as just a few examples. They use it to keep control over the large bodies of people who are members of their group. There is a polar end of a spectrum that people who use indoctrination fall on (Our Team and Their Team), leaving only two sides to any one issue. Some public relations professionals may indoctrinate the public to their client’s point of view through repeated use of polarized media. This leaves out everyone else in between the two sides of the pole.
Propaganda is used to influence, or persuade, an audience to further an agenda. The agenda is usually not objective, or a different tactic would be used. People who avail themselves of propaganda cherry-pick facts in an effort to portray a narrative. Propaganda establishes a set of beliefs and values in the person subjected to it. Often, propaganda makes use of heavy emotional rhetoric and imagery to invoke strong feelings in a person and persuade them to think and act in certain ways out of fear.
You may have heard about military propaganda ads used by countries at war that motivate citizens to join the army and fight the “Other” side. This is a form of polarization. There’s the good guys and the bad guys, which leads to dehumanization.
In the media, you see propaganda widely used in political ads. There are even personal attacks that contain damaging untruths in these ads. The goal is to persuade the public that the other person is a villain, which is one polar end of the Hero and Villain spectrum.
Vilification makes foes out of people. To elaborate, if you vilify a group of people, you identify them as the enemy. They are at one end of the pole and you are at the other end. They are bad and you are good. They are the Villain and you are the Hero. You portray them as evil and wrong; you are right and good, whether true or not.
For example, people with mental illness may be vilified as “less than able” to make their own decisions in a concept known as ableism, which is a form of prejudice against people with disabilities. It is based on the belief that the person controlling someone else is somehow better than them, which is not true. The person with mental illness is vilified if people instill fear and condemnation in others about that person. Britney Spears was vilified by the media and is still trying to repair the damage done to her professional and personal reputation.
Another form of vilifying takes place in political ads. One side shows their opponent as a villain and depicts them as the evil doer to gain your vote, or control your decision-making. There are only two sides, or poles – good vs. evil. The villain isn’t you. It’s always the the other person. In reality, life is a bit more complex than that.
Alternatives to Polarization
Instead, try a different approach. Perform a market analysis to identify gaps and needs that your business is meeting. Share customer satisfaction stories and personal testimonials with the public as part of your PR strategy. Provide information to the public as content marketing and inspire them to support your business or cause as you use the media to deliver your message. Leave your audience with a good feeling in all of your public relations.
Tell your personal story, lay out how your product or service is meeting that need, and set the stage for growth to demonstrate the possibilities. This creates a sense of forward movement people want to be a part of – it keeps things moving and people like that. Then, lead your audience to your call to action as they’re in the right frame of mind. This approach works. It’s the person’s choice, and you’re not controlling them.
If you instill a sense of inspiration and hope in your business and the future, you set the tone for collaboration instead of polarization and fighting. There is no “Us” against “Them.” There is only “We” in the spirit of partnership. People have a choice about whether or not they partner with you, but you’ve made it really hard for them not to do so.
Remember, all human decisions are based on feeling. Create the right feeling for your business as it relates to the public through media, no matter what line of work you’re in or what you do. That leads people to your product and/or service, converts them into customers who refer their family and friends, and engages them for retention in many years to come.
Why is Polarization Bad for Your Business?
Suffice it to say that business ethics is a hot topic among professionals. Individuals must also hold a personal set of ethics to guide their actions in life. Public relations is no different. People have to ask themselves who they want to be and what sort of businesses models they want to support as employees or entrepreneurs.
Unity and inclusion models lead to positive business outcomes and better societies over polarization models. Polarization leads to strife and eternal conflict. If you give people education and the freedom to make their own decisions, they are happier and find their role in life and business. If you share truth with the public and allow for divergent points of view, then you achieve democracy in business and life instead of a virtual civil war and a competitive business model.
Whether within yourself, your business, or society as a whole, Darwinism leads people to fight with each other under a polarization model. Inclusion models don’t polarize people into taking a side while deceiving the other side, which leads to a winner-take-all approach. Inclusion models are win-win.
There are many strengths-based community engagement and business models you can use to promote your business instead of gaslighting and polarization. Do a bit of research and choose the model that feels right to you as a professional and person. Interview prospective public relations professionals if you choose to work with one. Ask them about their approach – their strategies and tactics to media engagement. You will find someone who is a good match for your business. Just let your conscience be your guide. If you manage your own PR, please don’t polarize or gaslight people. There’s always a better way.
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