White hats and black hats. In its simplest form that is the way the reputation game is played. I attributed this in Now Is Too Late to the move of Walter Cronkite style journalism into prime-time television with the launch of “60 Minutes.” Having to compete with drama on TV, they adopted the simplest and most satisfying form of drama: melodrama. And the melodrama is characterized by overly simplified portrayals of white hats (good guys) and black hats (bad guys) fighting over the maiden in distress (any form of public good).
In crisis communication and reputation management, you normally have the black hat on. Someone is accusing you of something. The accusers, as portrayed in media reports, almost universally where the white hat with little attention paid to their motives, interests, or even credibility of their accusations. Why? Because it fits the formula. Nuance doesn’t play well in melodrama or “investigative reports.”
But a major strategic question in these issues is when and how do you get the black hat off you? One response is to do your best to change hats. Knowing that the media will only play this white hat black hat game, unless the hat colors switch, you are going to be stuck.
Being very involved in food related issues, this is a particularly challenging question. I’ve watched the GMO debate with great interest (and frankly, great frustration as long time readers here know). The very voices who rail at the ignorance of climate change deniers for their stubborn resistance to scientific consensus, completely change position when it comes to GMO. The scientific consensus is very clear: GMOs are safe, in fact, likely help make food safer. But, despite the incredible amount of scientific study, the anti-GMO activists cling to their attacks. Even Michael Pollan, the respected food writer, says in effect, well, I’m not really saying that GMOs are bad, but they should be labeled. As I argued before, that for 57% of the population would be putting a poison label on these foods. Do Michael and company really think putting the skull and crossbones symbol on food that is known to be completely safe is in the public interest?
While it seems that the pendulum is swinging and that in general the public is coming to understand that the activists are out to lunch on this, those defending continue to be on the defensive. They continue to wear the black hat, which may only be turning slightly gray. The only way to really move the dial on this issue is to switch hats.
And that is what William Saletan has done in this very important article in Slate. In this meticulously researched article, he demonstrates the dishonesty and hypocrisy of the anti-GMO activists. As the subhead states: GMO food is safe. The rhetoric is dangerous.
As always, these debates involve the public good. If you are going to put a black hat on someone, you have to demonstrate that what they are doing is harmful to innocent people or the environment. Clearly the activists have been harmful as he makes very clear.
Moving the hats isn’t an easy thing, particularly when the accusers have had the benefit of media presenting the story in their typical melodrama fashion for so long. And personally it can be dangerous. The “true believers” in the anti-GMO camp will likely turn on Slate and Saletan with a vengeance. Until many other voices like Saletan’s join in the discussion, calling out the Chipotles and Whole Foods of the world for their participation in something they see as harmful, there will be continuing confusion about who are the good guys and who the bad guys here.
It is interesting to see how the major media are dealing with the shift. Case in point: New York Times published a guest editorial from Mark Lynas in April. Lynas is the well-known British anti-GMO activist turned GMO promoter. But we do not see a NYT article or other mainstream outlets doing the melodrama treatment on Greenpeace or the other activist groups. When we do, we will know that the melodrama game has turned against those anti-science true believers.