Tucson Progressive

Pamela Powers, a progressive voice for Arizona

Futurist Watts Wacker on Corporate Goodness & Storytelling


Has social media pushed us beyond the information age and into the age of goodness?

With the blurring of the lines between news and entertainment and the blurring of the definition of a “friend”, futurist Watts Wacker told attendees of the Public Relations Society of America Western District Conference that we are creating a macro culture that will “replace the information age”.

Wacker’s presentation was a string of observations about “cultural transformation” in our evolving world.

In the global village that is social media, people and corporations can no longer differentiate themselves by what they do-– for example, sell cars, bake bread, play music– because so many others are performing those same services, and thanks to social media, we all know about them. In the information age, we relied on corporate media and advertising to tell us where to buy a car, what bread is best, and who is the greatest rock band ever. Now we get information from our “friends”. According to Wacker, corporations, celebrities, and just plain folks have to differentiate themselves by who they are… as people (since corporations are people, my friend.)

The Age of Goodness

This cultural transformation has brought us to “age of goodness” — corporate goodness– Wacker said, as he proceeded to use Whole Foods as an example.

Failing to mention Whole Foods CEO John Mackey’s now infamous comments likening the Affordable Care Act to fascism, Wacker said that Whole Foods is trying to build a positive image by supporting local produce and sponsoring farmers’ markets in their parking lots. (As an aside, he mentioned this exercise in corporate goodness increases Whole Foods’ produce sales by 20% on the days they allow farmers’ markets in their parking lots.)

But perception is the hardest thing to change, and many still view Mackey as a stingy capitalist who wants to pass the cost of healthcare on to customers or employees– rather than paying for the healthcare insurance (and taking the tax deduction). Mackey now says he regrets the Obamacare = fascism comment, but is it too little too late? In the past year, Whole Foods and other corporate giants– particularly Papa John’s, Applebee’s, and Denny’s– faced customer backlash through social media, when they announced their opposition to expanding healthcare insurance to their employees.

“All problems in business are cultural,” Wacker noted. This seems like a simple statement, but it is quite profound. Operating in the global village of social media, corporations can no longer hide how they treat their workers. Corporations should consider putting workers first, not customers, according to Wacker. Why? Because workers are story tellers. Workers can be a company’s best or worst advertising.

We are the media

In what Wacker calls the neo-tribal world, we natives are talking with each other. News, gossip, images, and video are shared at the speed of light through social media where anyone can have 50-5000 “friends.”

Look at how one hand-held video clandestinely shot by a bartender changed the 2012 presidential election. In fact, the headline on the ABC News story about the video says it all: The Lesson of Mitt Romney’s 47-Percent Video: Be Nice to the Wait Staff? Yes! Be nice to the wait staff and your employees because we’re all talking and sharing.

In the neo-tribal world, corporations “can’t push or pull products” through traditional media, according to Wacker. They must “build a tribe around their brand”. This is where the fresh-faced, well-dressed PR people attending the PRSA conference come in. Now more than ever armed with blogging and social media, they are being charged with telling the “good news” about corporations. Anyone who has been on Facebook since before they went public on the stock exchange knows how it has shifted from a personal focus to become more advertising oriented. (Will greed kill the Facebook Goose that laid the Golden Egg, just as greed has made watching commercial television so annoying?)

Building Self

According to Wacker, there are five influences in “building self”: life stage (how old you are); enculturation (your culture and background); events you experience; whose opinion matters to you; and the media.

In the neo-tribal world of social media, whose opinion matters and the definition of media have changed dramatically. People growing up in the “information age” (AKA the age of television and corporate media) trusted wise talking heads like Walter Cronkite to tell them the truth; his opinion mattered.

In today’s world, people– particularly younger people– want and listen to a variety of opinions before they make a decision. Back in the Dark Ages before the Internet, people bought Fords, Budweiser, and Wonder Bread because their parents did. How did their parents make purchasing decisions? Advertising. How many of you have asked your Facebook friends’ opinions before making a purchase– rather than looking in the Yellow Pages or looking at newspaper ads? How many of you have looked at online reviews before buying a product or trying a new restaurant?

Media has flipped from being corporate to being personal, since the Cronkite era. Posting on Facebook, commenting on Amazon, uploading cell phone videos to YouTube– we are all content creators. We are all media. We are all pop culture.

Wacker observed, we can build an audience around ourselves (or our corporate clients/employers) and can build ourselves as brands. Arizona has several examples of bloggers who have built themselves up– built their brands– as media pundits. In the Cronkite era, these folks (including me) would have been just retired teachers, lawyers with spare time, community college math profs, or opinionated politicos. Social media and blogging have elevated opinionated people who can sting together a few coherent sentences to the level of “media”. The dearth of newspaper “news” has accelerated this process and made blogs more important news sources.

According to Wacker, editing is no longer taking out what is not necessary, it is about bringing what is interesting to the tribe.

“When we see change is coming, we try to deny it,” Wacker told the nearly 100% female audience of PR professionals, corporate communications specialists, writers, and editors. But the future is upon us, and we must seize the moment and ride the wave.

“I am pop culture” 

What drives pop culture? According to Wacker, there are classic stories that build pop culture and create “news”:

  • Lightning in a bottle: things you can’t plan or predict (eg, the World Trade Center bombing, the 47% video, the Boston Marathon bombing and the incredible saga that followed);
  • Breaking the membrane: people suddenly become know because of some event or discovery (eg, the Boston Marathon bombers or Louis Taylor);
  • Fall and redemption: the rise and fall of famous people (eg, Bill Clinton, Tom Cruise, John Edwards, the list goes on);
  • Archetypes and icons: archetypes hold up standards; icons hold the standard during a period of time (eg, Jesus, Pope Francis);
  • Edge surfers: the fastest, strongest, best (eg, the Red Bull space man);
  • Anniversary dates: look how many stories are built around anniversary dates (eg, the beginning of the Iraq War, 9/11, the end of WWII).

Encouraging the audience members to become good storytellers, Wacker also offered multiple themes that run through these classic stories: love and care for others, good and evil, truth, transformation (rags to riches), faith and justice, voyage and return, exerting control, beauty and awe, moral redemption, fall of the self, mistaken identity, joy, independence, revenge, courage and overcoming adversity (or the monster). 

According to Wacker, these classic stories “touch people in places they don’t have words for” because they can relate to them. (Think back to the Whole Foods example. Is Mackey’s apology for dissing Obamacare a story of fall and redemption?)

In the brave new world of social media, we are the story tellers, the story sellers, and story storers. We must use our power wisely.

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The Tucson Progressive: Pamela J. Powers

I stand on the side of Love. I believe in kindness to all creatures on Earth and the inherent self-worth of all individuals–not just people who agree with me or look like me.

Widespread economic and social injustice prompted me to become a candidate for the Arizona House, representing Legislative District 9 in the 2016 election.

My platform focused on economic reforms to grow Arizona’s economy, establish a state-based public bank, fix our infrastructure, fully fund public education, grow local small businesses and community banks, and put people back to work at good-paying jobs.

In the Arizona House, I was a strong voice for fiscal responsibility a moratorium on corporate tax breaks until the schools were fully funded, increased cash assistance to the poor, expansion of maternal healthcare benefits, equal rights, choice, unions, education at all levels and protecting our water supply.

After three terms, I retired from the Arizona Legislature in January 2023 but will continue to blog and produce my podcast “A View from the Left Side.”

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