Tuesday, September 11, 2012

“Pressure vs. Persuasion”

One of the joys of cross country road trips such as the one Mugsy, my English bulldog, and I completed last month is time for reflection.  It is also a great opportunity each night to catch up on reading.

Overnighting in Missoula, Montana near a visitor center for the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation reminded me to read a white paper passed along to me by Ryke Longest, a friend who teaches and directs the Environmental Law and Policy Clinic at Duke Law School.

The paper, entitled Pressure vs. Persuasion was conceived and co-written by C.B. Pearson, a Senior VP for D.C-based M+R Strategic Services who graduated from the University of Montana in Missoula, which lost by the way on Saturday to North Carolina’s Appalachian State University.Pressure vs. Persuasion

Pearson heads one of the company’s offices nestled in the Northern Rocky Mountains where I grew up and worked before migrating to North Carolina nearly 25 years ago.

But he migrated the opposite direction, growing up in rural Fauquier County, Virginia about five hours up the Jefferson Davis Highway from where I live in Durham and an hour and a half north of Charlottesville in an area bordering the Blue Ridge Mountains along trails crisscrossed during the Civil War by famed Confederate General Stonewall Jackson and near the border with Maryland.

While always known as passionate during my now-concluded nearly-40-year career in community-destination marketing, I always tried to go about my business in a “ready-aim-fire” kind of way and with my decisions and strategy nearly always informed by research and data.

But Pearson’s white paper explains why I am often credited with success and also why I wasn’t very successful at other times, at least in my opinion.  The organizations I led during my career which spanned three different communities were in the “advocacy business” which involved not only promoting but sticking up for the communities I represented.

Especially on behalf of Durham, this meant using a mix of what Pearson calls persuasion tactics and “building power through pressure.”   Presenting factual, awareness-building arguments to overcome and reverse the condescension among residents in neighboring counties that was undermining and repressing Durham was only half the battle. 

The real change occurred when the persuasive information ignited the passion and community pride latent in Durham residents, empowering thousands to not only speak up in newsrooms, around water coolers and in co-owned regional venues such as the airport but then then to persist because these proactive Durham Image Watchers also had the facts on their side.

Pearson and his San Francisco-based co-author Aaron Eske suggest that it is the ratio that matters.  They recommend that for “every effort at persuasion, you build in three to four pressure tactics to compliment it.”

Often some pretty influential people in those surrounding counties would privately try to get me fired, or ridicule me and the organization I led in public meetings or even get some of my friends so worried for my safety that they would try to get me to back off, including a board member or two.

They mistakenly assumed that what cultural and moral psychologists such as Jonathan Haidt and public policy researcher Robert Putnam term “bonding capital” or trust within a group such as a community has to be zero sum with “bridging capital” or the trust between groups in a region, for example.

Like persuasion and pressure, it is both/and, not either/or that works best.  They also failed to see that what economist Adam Smith noted and what many dismiss as parochialism, such as that between communities, is a good thing because as Haidt summarizes, it leads “people to exert themselves to improve.”

These critics failed to comprehend the points that Pearson makes in his white paper which indicate that creating change requires a mix of persuasion and pressure, and one or two didn’t even want me to use persuasion.  I wasn’t always sure where the line was either until we began to see results.

Where I failed though was when internal stakeholders such as local officials were involved.  Because the organization I led was an independent public authority formed by state legislation and inter-local agreement, our policy dictated that it was inappropriate to go beyond informing decisions with facts and to get involved with “lobbying” or in the “push and shove” of politics.

But politics is personal, not logical and pressure always trumps persuasion.

The negative externalities spawned by some of those decisions which dismissed the facts will not be felt for many years and by then it will be much too late to reverse them.  But I can already sense their impact and wish we had somehow found a way to do more without crossing that important line.

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