02/26/2015 03:42 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Influence Abuse: Trust, Truth and Games of Gotcha

Is it time for the spin police?  Sitting in the theaters of entertainment, politics and business, one wonders if practitioners of influence are abusing their tradecraft and the trust of their markets.  One wonders then if they'll self-correct or be market-corrected.  Bullshit detectors are redlining as these cases suggest:

This winter, when Sony Pictures Entertainment primed the market for its stoner comedy, The Interview, it ran a play we call a bait, playfully aimed at the hyper-sensitive and culturally daft regime of North Korea's Kim Jong-un.  When Sony was hacked, allegedly by North Korean operatives, the studio cried foul and invoked its right to free and creative expression. This second play was a screen, as defined in The Standard Table of Influence.  Self-described reputation specialists argued that Sony's good name was sullied through leaked emails.  In fact, Sony's plays served to sell another B-grade movie and position the company as a rampart of the first amendment.  Bravo!

When the 2016 presidential hopeful Scott Walker was asked recently about the quips of former New York City Major and fellow Republican Rudy Giuliani -- that President Obama doesn't love America -- the sitting Wisconsin governor was nonchalant: Gosh I don't know.  He did the same when asked if Obama is a Christian.  Innocent enough?  Hardly.  His play was a disguised ping, what David Mark's new book of political lingo defines as a dog whistle, to the conservative 17 percent who believe Obama is a Muslim.  I got your back, Walker winked to his hard-right base.

Last month, when Richard Edelman, chairman and CEO of the PR agency giant Edelman released his firm's Trust Barometer, he warned that in everything from tech to government to journalism trust is falling like a rock.  His play was a trump, a clever co-option of an illness the PR industry might reasonably be accused of causing.  Trust, after all, is not something one can or should prop up, not for long; it's the byproduct of deeds, not words.  And yet legions of PR pros are keen to sell services that ostensibly restore it.  That PR is self-regulated and self-policing is a fact not lost on this industry's opportunists.

These are the abuses of influencers who are well-versed in the strategies of their respective trades.  Their handiwork is telltale evidence that entertainers, politicians and businesspeople are too clever by half.

Preaching from a similar pulpit, Roger Bolton, president of The Arthur W. Page Society, is lately keen to remind his members: Tell the Truth.  Aiming his message at corporate communications chiefs, he's referring to the first principle of the association's namesake, the late AT&T communications boss, Arthur W. Page.  Bolton is surely correct, that influencers of all stripes should strive to play it straight, lest their company's reputations and given trust be mortgaged.  But like Sony, Walker and Edelman, he can hardly help himself.  In his zeal to enshrine his idol as a prophet, Bolton ignores this truth: that in his service to the early phone company monopoly, Mr. Page never uttered or wrote the words "Tell the truth."  The principles that bear his name today were only derived from his recorded works.  Readers should know that I was a ten-year member of Page and a consistent contrarian of its research and writings.  Even so, Bolton's central strategy is to recast Mr. Page's legacy, a framing play that's form fit with the spin that Bolton so loathes.  Who knew!?

Journalism, whether mainstream or social, is no less culpable.  It frolics in games of gotcha -- the practice of asking questions that are designed, first, to score moral victories and entertain and, second, to illuminate an irony or suffer an ambiguity.  Think again of Scott Walker, this time a victim, who was asked if he believes in evolution, a gotcha because his frame is of God and creation.  The reporters' play was the familiar bait, disguised as a simple query.  When Walker ignored the lure, he was called out for evading a basic question.  Republicans seethed at the liberal litmus test, but soldiers of the Fourth Estate were quick to copy Sony, running a screen on the first amendment.

We all run plays.  But too many practitioners of influence and too much of their energy is straining the trust of the people and institutions they seek to influence and assure.  It's starting to smell.

Graphic courtesy of Playmaker Systems, LLC