How to stay calm in a storm

Why organisations need to be better prepared for media pile-ons, the reason so much politics happens in the middle, and the beauty of other people's first drafts.

Jess de Wahls. Getty Images.

The Royal Academy, founded in 1768, is one of Britain’s most august cultural institutions. It also has a gift shop and a Twitter account. The RA recently declared on Twitter that it would no longer stock products made by the artist Jess de Wahls in the shop, after being informed that she was transphobic. The RA was reacting to a social media campaign organised against de Wahls by trans activists and supporters, who disapproved of an essay she had written about gender identity. When news of the RA’s decision spread, another campaign began in the opposite direction. It defended de Wahls’s right to make the arguments she did about gender, and it pointed out that the RA stocks products associated with paeodophiles and murderers and so maybe there was a double standard here. Within a week or so, the RA recanted and apologised to de Wahls.

There are a few distinct questions here - like whether de Wahls had actually said or written anything transphobic or otherwise hateful, and whether the RA should make decisions about which products or works of art it houses based on the moral resumé of artists. I’ve put a couple of links pertaining to the wider debate below. But I want to focus on this from a communication and decision-making point of view.

When the RA wrote to de Wahls informing her that they were considering this move, they had received eight complaints about her. Eight! Then, having made the decision, they took to Twitter to proudly announce they had done so, before de Wahls had been informed. (This was despite de Wahls suggesting to them, on receipt of that letter, that maybe they ought to discuss this privately, since otherwise - oh never mind, too late). When the pro-de Wahls campaign got going - as it was bound to - the RA went silent, as if petrified. It declined to issue a clarifying statement or to put a spokesperson on the BBC Today programme. Its executives didn’t present a defence of their decision because, as it turned out, they didn’t have one to present. The climbdown, when it came, was abject.

The speed with which the RA moved in the first place is striking, as is the paucity of thought they gave to what they were doing. It suggests that the organisation runs on a basic internal algorithm: when publicly accused of offending an identity-based group, accept that you’re in the wrong and react accordingly. Don’t pause, don’t consider, don’t debate internally, don’t think it through. Just act.

This is stupid.

Of course, the RA is not the only public-facing organisation that behaves this way. But I find it astonishing. How can any decision-maker not have realised by now that on issues like this one there is no ‘non-controversial’ position, and that you will be flayed from both sides, whatever position you adopt? Online flash mobs are more easily raised than ever. Rolling over when one comes your way only makes you more likely to be targeted by another.

Being subject to this kind of moralistic ransomware attack is only intimidating if you’re uncertain of the ethical ground you stand on. I think institutions need to engage in ethical scenario-planning to help them make good decisions in the heat of a media firestorm. What are the cultural and political fault-lines that intersect with our work? What are we likely to be accused of at some point? They can’t predict specific controversies, but they can predict what kinds of situations are going to arise and how to think about them.

The firm or its leaders need to understand the different arguments involved around these hot topics. That means rehearsing the debates internally, and - crucially - airing conflicting points of view. Organisations can’t simply outsource this work, if they ever could. It is not enough to adopt a script from a pressure group like Stonewall, since these groups increasingly take extreme positions that are at odds with a large swathe of sensible opinion.

Failing that, just slow down. You might be unprepared but that doesn’t mean you have to react mindlessly. It is worth thinking through these kinds of decisions, regardless of how much shit is being thrown at you on Twitter. Act in haste and you not only risk escalating the controversy, you can end up making a decision you don’t agree with yourself and have to reverse.

For a contrast with the RA’s example, look at how Octopus Energy responded to a recent controversy. A pressure group called Stop Funding Hate had ginned up a campaign against Octopus and other advertisers on the grounds that GB News spreads hate, a claim which as far as I can tell is specious (as I say, it’s very unwise to treat pressure groups as level-headed ethical arbiters). The CEO of Octopus responded to a pile-on about the appearance of its ads on GB News by saying he’d take time to consider the right thing to do. It’s possible!

Now, it’s good that Octopus didn’t just succumb to pressure immediately, but even so, it seems like they weren’t prepared for this. The letter takes a ramble around a few different criteria for judging the appropriateness of a media platform - hate, or ‘balance’, or its position on climate change. In the age of ad-tech your brand is bound to pop up on controversial platforms - so why not do the thinking about those criteria in advance? There’s no excuse for working this stuff out on the hoof.

The point is not that a brand or institution can or should avoid controversy, it’s that leaders have to be as clear as possible in their own mind of the right thing to do. To achieve that they need to understand these political and ethical arguments in the round. If leaders are not doing this kind of work it’s probably because even internally, everybody is too nervous to disagree openly on controversial topics, so the issues are avoided and no real thinking gets done. That leaves organisations completely unprepared for a public roasting and perilously dependent on whoever happens to be in charge of the Twitter account or the gift shop.

More on de Wahls. To learn about how it unfolded from the artist’s perspective, I recommend this excellent video interview with de Wahls, who speaks with tremendous brio and good humour. Sarah Ditum has background here, including a summary of the 2019 essay that made de Wahls a marked woman among trans activists (you can decide whether it constitutes hate speech or not, personally I don’t think so). I happen to be sympathetic to the side that ‘won’ this particular skirmish but I don’t want institutions to make decisions based on who can organise the biggest social media pile-on. Ultimately, I think the activists do the trans community no good by attempting to suppress disagreement and debate (I suspect a lot of trans people agree). A theme of CONFLICTED is that when you avoid open disagreement on contentious issues, it doesn’t go away, it just becomes more toxic.

A common complaint about democratic politics is that while it appears to offer different choices to voters, in reality voters don’t get much choice because the main parties stick very close to each other. On most major issues, Labour and the Tories are not that far apart. You could say the same about Republicans and Democrats. You might call it centrist clustering. Hotelling’s law, which comes from economics, is used by political scientists to explain why this happens.

Imagine a beach (a lot of us are, right now). It’s midday, plenty of sunbathers, a general thirst is setting in. There are two guys with pushcarts selling soft drinks, one at either end of the beach. These guys are in competition with with each other for customers. Assuming that people will go to the nearest pushcart, then each pushcart can be confident of winning half the market up to an invisible line crossing the middle of the beach. However. The pushcart in the east thinks, if I move towards the centre of the beach I’ll be nearer some of those customers from the other side of that line, who might then come over to me. Makes sense. But the pushcart in the west is also thinking that. So they both start edging along the beach until they are standing next to each other in the middle.

Hence centrist clustering, particularly in two-party systems. Both parties have their own natural constituencies, but they’re also interested in winning some of the voters from the other side, so there’s a pressure on both to move towards the middle.

When people argue for one of the main parties to be more “radical” they often use the language of marketing and talk about the need for differentiation. But in many consumer markets you find the same phenomenon, and indeed that’s what the law was originally invented to explain. Coke and Pepsi: two very similar products that carved up the soft drinks market between them for decades. Or think about the menus at Burger King and McDonalds. It’s not that markets or democracies don’t rewards differentiation, they clearly do, but there are countervailing incentives at work too, and that’s what Hotelling’s law - ‘the principle of minimum differentiation’ - tries to account for.

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The Gresham College lectures on YouTube, on all sorts of topics, are a great resource. I recently watched this one on Shostakovich’s piano music. The lecture is also a conversation between Shosta expert Marina Frolova-Walker and pianist Peter Donohoe, who sits at the keyboard. Shostakovich was a virtuoso pianist himself, but when he played his own pieces, he played them too quickly. Donahoe says that’s quite common when composers perform their own work - the piece is so much in their head, they don’t even realise they’re playing too quickly. He thinks Beethoven was like that - his metronome markings are way too fast, probably because he just didn’t realise how complex the music is for the listener. (There’s also a lecture with the same presenters on Rachmaninov.)