Foraging the Web of science in my first PhD year, in-between somewhat monotonous papers and dry language, suddenly a “blinking” word-portal caught my attention and the tectonics of the world behind my eye moved.
The word was “enthymematic”.
Little I knew back then that it was a word that will slowly but steadily lead me in the deep waters of the dialogic theory and towards several interdisciplinary affairs with the concept of dialogue in relation to marketing communications.
That word, the “enthymematic” one, was there in an article about blogs!
“Blogs are also enthymematic (Aristotle, 1991). Blog readers already come to blogs with information and views of their own. Self-persuasion and influence are more easily accomplished when individuals and publics already have knowledge of issues and important events. Blogs bring homogenous groups of individuals and publics together, allowing the power of the enthymeme and self-persuasion to be used.”Critical analysis of blogging in public relations
I looked up the word, I have to admit, as my knowledge of Ancient Greek roots, never what it was supposed to be, has been shrinking over the years. Yet, the little I know manages to connect me to deeper meanings and … people.
Thrilled by the opportunity to conceive of blogs through Aristotle, I also moved on to read more and discover more and … I ended up asking Michael Kent, the author of the cited article for another piece of his academic writing. Inevitably, the connection grew into a Dialogue.
So, today, I want to introduce you professor Michael Kent and his perspectives on dialogue and communication.
About Professor Michael L. Kent
Michael L. Kent is a Professor of Public Relations in Public Relations and Adverting, School of the Arts and Media, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, at UNSW (University of New South Wales) in Sydney.
With an academic training in human communication, and rhetorical theory and criticism, prof. Kent’s conceptual toolbox for looking through the World Wide Web is wide and rich. His scholarly contributions include recognizing the importance of mediated technology to public relations, and advancing dialogic theory as a normative model for enacting ethical and effective public relations. As dialogic theory has moved from an interesting concept in public relations to one of the central theories guiding research and empirical exploration in the field, several of Kent’s recent articles have examined an assortment of metaphorical models for thinking about dialogue and engagement and include a Homo-Dialogicus vs. Homo-Economicus approach, a Rhizomatous approach, and using Shiva the Destroyer as a critical model for understanding dialogic theory. [Source: UNSW Sydney]
And now, please, enjoy the seeds of deeper meaning and take one to plant in your knowledge garden. Like I did. :)
What brought you to the dialogic theory in the first place?
I read Buber’s work as an undergraduate and found it inspiring. When I started reading about public relations as a graduate student, there were people in the field whose work I found to be troubling—”influential” scholars who would make claims about scholarly ideas without citing the source of their ideas (Aristotle, Buber, Dewey, Burke, etc.) and presenting the ideas as if they were their own. This has always been a pet peeve of mine.
People did this 50 or 75 years ago, but modern scholars are supposed to give credit for their ideas. I thought dialogue might be a better way of thinking about public relations that was not a management centered approach.
Is there an elevator pitch for the dialogic potential of the Web?
Harlan Ellison writes about how the producers of the movie Outland (1981, Sean Connery) pitched the ideas as “High Noon in outer space.” Indeed the Outland Wikipedia page describes it as “a science fiction remake of High Noon.” I won’t go into his critique or what he says about it, except that he was critical of it, but the idea of a pitch is to summarize something complex in a few sentences. So my pitch would be “Teaching people how to make dialogue more ethical.” Although we will never solve the problem of individuals being unethical, by teaching people to be more critical of our place in the world and the organizational hierarchy, we make them more valuable organizational members.
In terms of a pitch that does not revolve around public relations, I would say “unconditional positive regard for the other, a willingness to be changed, learning to be comfortable with the encounter with strange otherness, being willing to risk, learning trust, and having empathy for others. Dialogue is about the process of uncovering the truth and understanding other people, not about getting your way.”
What are the processes /practicalities for dialogic relationships?
Can a “corporation” encounter its users. Is there something wrong with the discourse of “corporate communication” when it comes to communicating on the Web—this wildly free medium, environment and dialogues arena? Could it be that if we change the narrative other insights would emerge.
Corporations cannot “encounter users” but people can. The idea that we are in organizations to “do what we are told” rather than help the organization do better is the first mistake. We often criticize millennials for being naive and expecting organizations to be there for their needs, but our job is to create the environment where organizations stop seeing what they want as more important than what their stakeholders and publics want and need.
In regard to the “processes and practicalities for dialogic relationships,” in order: (the short list)
- positive regard
- willingness to be changed.
I noted these above. What I would say is we need to resist the urge to try and reduce dialogue to “fewer” and “easier” principles and accept its complexity and experiential nature.
“Corporations” do not care about people. Corporations cannot come to their individuals with “positive regard for others” because of their managerial imperatives. As Sproule suggested in the 80s, organizations are becoming increasingly more managerial. He had no idea how bad it would get. Getting in touch with organizations has always been hard, especially before the internet. Three decades ago, if you wanted to ask a question of a corporation, you could write a letter to an organization, or you could try and get their telephone number from an 800 operator. Now in the age of limitless free information, it is still just as hard to get in touch with organizations.
As long as organizations see social media as a tool for marketing and advertising, they will never come to their customers or “users” with positive regard or trust. As Freire (1970) wrote:
Dialogue, as the encounter of [wo]men addressed to the common task of learning and acting, is broken if the parties (or one of them) lack humility. How can I dialogue if I always project ignorance onto others and never perceive my own? How can I dialogue if I regard myself as a case apart from other men—mere ‘its’ in whom I cannot recognize other ‘I’s? How can I dialogue if I consider myself a member of the ingroup of “pure” men, the owners of truth and knowledge, for whom all nonmembers are “these people” or “the great unwashed?” How can I dialogue if I start from the premise that naming the world is the task of an elite and that the presence of the people in history is a sign of deterioration, thus to be avoided? How can I dialogue if I am closed to—and even offended by—the contribution of others? How can I dialogue if I am afraid of being displaced, the mere possibility causing me torment and weakness? Self-sufficiency is incompatible with dialogue. Men who lack humility (or have lost it) cannot come to the people, cannot be their partners in naming the world. (p. 78).
I have been writing about positive regard in recent articles and I believe that organizations can use dialogue ethically and effectively, but the people who use it first have to have the will and desire to make the world a better place, not just increase their profitability.
Yes, we can change the narrative. I (and many others, e.g., Virginia Held) have written about this. We do not have to treat people as “customers” or “clients,” we can treat people as family and friends. Change the metaphor we use to talk about people and we change how we think about people (cf., Kent, 2001; Kent & Lane, 2017; Kent & Theunissen, 2016; Kent & Taylor, 2016; Lane & Kent, 2018; Taylor & Kent, 2014).
Do you think digital marketing changed the practices and the thinking around the dialogic theory?
Not at all. Marketing and Advertising, and, for that matter, most public relations, has no interest in genuine dialogue. As Freire said, you have to first be willing to accept that you are wrong. Dialogue in name only (DINO) is used by professional communicators all the time. What a marketer or advertiser means by dialogue is not the same as what Buber, Freire, Rogers, or anyone else who studies dialogic theory means.
Marketers are interested in persuasion, adherence, getting people to buy things that they do not really need, making people feel bad about their lives and thinking that a new iPhone (or whatever) will make them feel better. Marketers don’t build any genuine relationships with people. Name one marking professional who you know by name. Name one brand you use where you know anyone who works for the company (apart from the CEO or sales people). Treating dialogue as a tool of persuasion is not even using dialogue at all; so the answer is no, digital marketing has had zero impact on dialogic theory.
An Interlude: Prof. Kent’s bookshelf (literally)
What is the first thing you want your students to learn and understand about communication on the Web?
It is about your audience not you. I taught public speaking for many years as a graduate student and professor, I also have two degrees in Rhetoric, so I tend to come to issues critically and rhetorically. Many web sites (and other electronic content) are designed for young people. Consider the use of tiny, hard to read, fonts that emerged about a decade ago, or website interfaces that are designed to work on hand-held-devices not computers. I cannot tell you the number of people I know over 40 who hate trying to use computers and phones now because we cannot read anything. When I learned to use HTML three decades ago, one of the most exciting things about the technology was that what I created on my screen would be replicated, exactly, on someone else’s screen.
That is conviviality.
The best technologies are convivial. They are for the user not for the creator. Using the web should begin with the following questions: What do my web site or social media visitors know? What do they want to know? And how do they want that information delivered? The rest is irrelevant. Except for the fact that we often need to spend time telling people what they do not want to know rather than what they know, and organizations outside of sales should not actually pander to users.
Did the Muse learn to write on the Web?
Your background is in Rhetoric. Navigating the Web, how do you feel cyberspace changed (or didn’t) the art of persuasion. Did the Muse learn to write on the Web (ref. the book The Muse Learns to Write), or not yet?
I’m unfamiliar with that book. But most aspects of persuasion are ignored in social media and on the web. Most people seem to think that if they do what everyone else is doing they are making the best choices. I taught a graduate presentational skills class once in Jersey. One assignment was to write a speech for someone else and give a speech someone had written for you. A student had written an excellent special occasion speech (an acceptance speech) and I had given her a B on it (or “distinction” (DN) here in Australia). I told her it was very good and she wanted to know why it was not an A (HD)—students in Jersey are generally “grade grubbers.” She said she had just watched the academy awards and her speech did everything that those speeches did. I explained to her that no one will remember 90% of the speeches that did “exactly what everyone else did,” they will remember the speech that was different, the protest speech, the speech that took a different path.
This is the mistake about how persuasion on the web works. People copy what everyone else does and think they are being clever or persuasive. The best persuasion is self-persuasion. You have to know your audience and what s/he/they believe and trust. To be genuinely persuasive people need to be able to weigh information and make choices. Getting people to buy your product is not persuasion. That is just audience analysis applied to sales.
Taking an action in response to stimulus is conditioning not persuasion. We use a lot of sales and marketing techniques on the web that worked really well offline for decades, but we use little genuine persuasion. Pick up an introduction to persuasion textbook and look at all the different topics and then look to see how many of them are used on the web.
Is there a way to embed dialogue into texts on the Web?
There should be a way to “embed” dialogue into our texts on the Web, apart from the technology, and more into the techne of writing and communicating. What is it?
Dialogue is not embedded it is experienced. However, if we talk about dialogue as an act of interpretation as Gadammar Bakhtin, and others do, then yes, the nonlinear nature of the web allows us to embed “dialogues.” I.e., every link to a wikipedia page or other document within another document links us to new ideas, etc., much like how a page in the Torah contains the original Hebrew text, a translation of the text, interpretations of the text, and commentaries on the text, the internet can be used “dialogically.” But that is not buberian dialogue which is what I focus on.
However, the problem we increasingly see now are people who are unwilling to be changed. Who will not open themselves up to new information. I saw one of those comedy interviews yesterday with Trump supporters where they ask people about “how important the transcripts are” and should people actually read them. The people all respond, “yes, people should definitely read the transcripts, we need to be informed and be good citizens.” Then they ask them if they have read the transcripts and they all say no. As ironic and funny as that is, that is 99% of all people. The people who actually check facts and verify their perceptions has dropped to minuscule levels. We now only engage with people who share our views.
I remember using IRC 25 years ago, AOL before that, and my LAN at the University of Alaska Fairbanks to talk with people (strangers). I often came away with a new way of seeing the world. I made friends with people I had not known—in one case, a woman from my major who I took classes with but had never talked to. I joined new groups based on those conversations, etc. I was (and still am) open to change and not afraid of it.
We can now embed nearly limitless information into web content, but we cannot make people read it because we are not teaching the important skills of being critical, suspending judgement, skepticism, etc. I often feel like the invention of the internet was the greatest thing that ever happened to the world and the worst thing.
Could there be formal signs of dialogic relationships in textual content on the web?
Could it be that dialogic principles are intrinsically part of good writing (for good, I use Wittgenstein’s “serving its purpose”). Or in other words, can we pinpoint some formal signs of dialogic relationships in textual content on the web.
As noted above, dialogue as textual interpretation is not what I study, but I have always found the idea compelling. Ever since I started reading books and comic books as a kid, my encounters with texts were profound. I’m a glacially slow reader, but I pick up nearly every nuance of meaning, thinking about the words used and ideas as I read. However, I tend to think rhetorical principles are part of writing. Dialogue is about meaning making.
Sell a tools for managing social media accounts vs. “selling” conceptual tools
Why do you think it is easier (that might be a no brainer but I am truly interested in this) to sell a tool for managing social media accounts and much much harder to “sell” the conceptual tool of simply, purely understanding and talking to people in an authentic way?
As Don Marquis said, “If you make people think that they are thinking, they will love you. If you really make them think, they will hate you.” Most people are (all of us in varying amounts) “cognitive misers” and do not want to have to think. Social media has evolved to make us feel good about things that are largely meaningless—we took a pretty picture, found a funny meme, linked to someone else’s story, etc.—but we are not encouraged or rewarded for having a deep conversation or thinking about hard ideas. Does anyone still chat with strangers with an open mind. Most of my interactions with strangers online seem to involve trolling more than understanding.
A great many people, especially the young who spend so much time engaging via mediated tools, lack the interpersonal and social skills to engage with others in a productive way. This observation is not meant to be a diss (apologies to my friend Adam Saffer who does not like it when people are critical of millennials), the boomers had distinctive patterns of communication and intellectual skills that were formed by the environment that they grew up in, just as generation Xers do.
- 1996 to 2009: Gen Z, iGen, or Centennials
- 1977 to 1995: Millennials or Gen Y
- 1965 to 1976: Generation X
- 1946 to 1964: Baby Boomers
- 1945 and before: Traditionalists or the Silent Generation
- (Generational Names in the United States)
The Silent Generation and Boomers, for example, were children in the age of radio. Television was nascent and not available in most parts of the world. People read books and talked to people. Generation Xers grew up in a golden age of movies and television, but had no internet until they were adults. I was nearly thirty years old when the Internet came along. I spent a decade playing “role playing games” and other strategy games as a kid. I also had a relationship with radio that kids today do not have. Luckily I largely missed modern video games (although I was pretty good at a number of the classic games) and time wasted by that. Our formative experiences shape how we see the world and how we interact with others.
The Web as a Public Sphere or How Do We Take the Web Back?
In a blogpost from 2012, you say: “As professional communicators we need to take the internet back. The principles of community and civility, what the internet was founded on, should drive how we interact with our fellow humans. We need to take back the internet.” So, how do we take the Web back?
Really? You are going to quote me?
We take it back by disengaging from it. The internet needs to go back to being a tool that we use and not the focus of our lives. Social media can be addictive and time consuming. We need to develop strategies for managing it. For example, no social media on the weekends; disengaging from social media for a month every year, etc. As a kid growing up in Alaska we spent a lot of time outdoors. We made wooden swords and other “weapons,” had epic battles, played D&D, listened to music, read books, etc. but a lot of our lives were spent doing things in and from our heads. We had no one to teach us stuff, we figured it out on our own, or our parents taught us.
Now, the greatest informational tool in the history of the world exists. With Youtube, for example you can learn almost anything. I taught myself wood turning, knife making, leather working, book making skills, and many other things. As a kid growing up, if we knew how easy it was to make a “real” knife or throwing stars, we would have. My point is that the positive (informational) side of the internet needs to become more appreciated, rather than the dopamine stimulant of social media that does nothing for us but keep us sedated intellectually.
I’m not going into details here, but parents need to play a bigger role with socializing children how to do this (and most do not know themselves), schools and teachers need to use the internet more for education not for making teaching easy. If we shift our focus from the internet as being about entertainment (which most of us implicitly do), and think about it more like a library or the set of encyclopedias that families had (or you went to the library for) back in the “old days,” our relationship with technology would be more positive, as would our interpersonal relationships I suspect.
Can we conceive of the Web as a means towards getting back to Habermas’ “bourgeois public sphere”?
Can we conceive of the Web as a means towards getting back to Habermas’ “bourgeois public sphere ”—where we have disputes and debates and not displays and detached (heavily-mediated) threads of “connecting” with publics?
Not being a Habermas fan (he puts me to sleep almost instantly) I cannot answer this. However, I suspect I have already talked about this issue above. Our relationship with the internet and social media before advertising and marketing moved in was like this. It can be achieved, as suggested above, but we have to work hard to avoid the current addictive behaviors.
Is academia ready for a dialogue on the Web?
I know that’s too broad but nevertheless, intellectual exchange in the context of the Giant Global Graph is something worth exploring.
Not yet, but neither are people. We’ll need to “adjust ideas to people and people to ideas” first as the Bryant quote goes. Dialogue is a process that takes practice, training/understanding, etc. That can be done on the web, but people need to know how, want to, and be able to do it with some privacy.
Why is it so hard for people to give up their agenda in a talk?
Why is it so hard for people (let alone people communicating under the umbrella of corporate) to give up their agenda in a talk.
I do not think it is. I grew up with smart friends. We argued all the time. I discussed things and argued with my parents. When we were wrong we admitted it. Academics in general (there are exceptions) have no problem with being called out on our beliefs. The scientific method is founded on it. There are also a number of issues here that are probably related no Narcissism, something that scholars like Lasch predicted was increasing back in the 70s. With social media and new technology many people put themselves into their own little bubbles and only hear what confirms their beliefs. The issue is complex, but being socialized to be critical and skeptical is not something we do much of any more. People need to be taught how to argue and critique, and understanding that being wrong is not bad, but something to be appreciated. Being wrong means you can learn to be right.
(Eco)systems to apply the dialogic principles in our day-to-day marketing communication
And finally, the one-million dollar question: What (eco)systems do we put to work in order to at least try to apply the dialogic principles in our day-to-day marketing communication?
So much of who we are and what we do are products of our upbringings. As a kid, my mom used to (and still does) read lots of conspiracy books. As a kid one day I looked at what she was reading (The Devils Triangle, UFOs, etc.) and became interested. I branched out into the Illuminati, government conspiracies, etc. I came from people who did not trust the government. By extension, the critique of capitalism goes hand-in-hand with these views. Once you understand the harms of capitalism, seeing corporate advertising or marketing as beneficial to society is difficult. In public relations we use advertising and marketing principles to achieve organizational goals, but my interest has always been in how activists and nonprofits can use them more effectively (“Can you sell brotherhood like you sell soap? As the question goes), and how to make organizations more ethical, not on how make marketing or advertising dialogic. Basically, I do not trust most organizations or the government to make choices in the best interest of society. I have always said, “thank goodness the republicans do not understand rhetoric and persuasion because if they did, the’d really fuck things up.” Although they are doing a good job if it in spite of their lack of intellectual acuity.
Dialogue (pretty much all dialogue) has no place in marketing because marketing is about the “action or business of promoting and selling products or services, including market research and advertising.” Marketing has absolutely no interest in their customers apart from seeing us as “resources to be exploited.” Thus, I tend to see marketing as philosophically and theoretically inconsistent with the goals of dialogue. As the meme says, convince me otherwise.
Brief questions for quick answers:
Favourite ancient greek author
Isocrates or Aristotle.
Favourite paradox in Public Relations
That organizations spend more time trying to figure out how to do things that everyone knows are bad, when being good is easier and more profitable.
“Who’s gonna interview the interviewer?”
And last, I have a section in the Dialogues series called “Who’s gonna interview the interviewer?” So, I would be grateful if you could spare several minutes to ask me a question.
M. Kent: Who are your three favorite dialogic theorists and why?
First, I am not deeply aware of the dialogic theory and the academic literature accompanying it. That out of the way, with my thing-finder’s hat, I would say: Bakhtin and prof. Bogdanov. I would also include Yiulia Kristeva, as I see intertextuality as a dialogue. Not the way you see it with well-defined concepts and ideas, but rather as the Web would see it – small parts, loosely joint. Prof. Bogdanov was my professor in Ancient Greek Literature and Culture. In the recent years, he was actively publishing hiw work on text and understanding. The most powerful conceptual piece I borrowed from him, to add to my kaleidoscope of understanding, is the idea of us as multitextual beings and of text as an inner and outer dialogue. From Bakhtin, I read and know that language is a dynamic not given, unfolding itself in a context and always eluding our attempts to formalize it (this is what keeps my interest in the Semantic Web and the idea of ambiguity – that beautiful tension). I will put a reference here, excuse my screenshot:
M.Kent: How do you define marketing and what do you see as its purpose or goals in society?
Through the relationship marketing. As an exchange. And marketers as farmers, not hunters. Seeing the purpose of marketing in society is hard. First because it is not a uniform set of activities, next because if I think about marketing and society as concepts, I will miss important details and context. For now, I am content with reading marketing history (ref. The Routledge Companion to Marketing History) and have found some pretty interesting directions. For example, thinking about how big the market is, what is its saturation, what are the people’s search and information foraging behaviuors (that I found in a cool concept: Information Foraging). So I see it as spreading the word about what you do, why you do it and trying to connect with people who are interested in you – not because you are an amazing, super cheap, or whatever strange, traditional marketing framing you got, but because you suit their information or other need.
M.Kent: How do you deal with all of the negatives of technology. You are probably aware of the Boston Dynamics Robots that very soon (or already) could be equipped with guns, etc. and will soon be as unstoppable as the Terminator. Or the new unmanned killing drones (and others) reported on in the news last week. Do you, or how do you, come to terms with the many bad ways that technologies are used?
On a very abstract level I believe human ingenuity, human society and human connection are stronger than anything else. On a practical level – when I bump in a poorly designed automatic door and the metal hits me, I just invent ways to be more “formal” when dealing with technology. On the “fear” level, even my son could tell me that he is scared of Atlas – he saw him (it?) in the book Machines of Loving grace. Here’s an image of two robots: The Atlas you are talking about (one of its version) and the almost Woodey Allen’s Shakey:
Could it be that there is more fear from the way we perceive things? I don’t know. What I do is try to stay on the bright side, and think about robots like caregivers, chatbots like the Standford empathy chatbot etc. Maybe I rewatch this Ted Talk to remind myself that we need to talk about all this and give things names and spesific characteristics, not discuss with metaphors or preassumptions:
I guess that’s why I am interested in the dialogic path. And I am grateful our paths crossed. Thank you for this Dialogue!
If you interested and ready for a deeper dive into prof. Kent’s work, check a list of his recent publications here: prof. Michael Kent’s Articles, Book Chapters, etc.