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Public relations agencies and other creative agencies like mine can still host honest, even divisive conversations about everything under the sun. Creative people need room to talk out loud and think through problems. They should face criticism and argument to help refine their ideas. Shutting down conversations does not generally lead to good outcomes.
To be sure, I don’t know if big companies can encourage a free-thinking culture. I sure admire the companies like Basecamp that are trying in these weird times. But the signs aren’t good. Recently, woke Twitter (which is to say, Twitter) sure hated it when Basecamp’s founders announced they were effectively banning “societal and political discussions” on the company account.
The reason? “Sensitivities are at 11, and every discussion remotely related to politics, advocacy, or society at large quickly spins away from pleasant. You shouldn’t have to wonder if staying out of it means you’re complicit or wading into it means you’re a target… People can take the conversations with willing co-workers to Signal, Whatsapp, or even a personal Basecamp account, but it can’t happen where the work happens anymore.”
Which is to say, divisive political conversations were demoralizing and time-wasting. These are generally things that businesses try to avoid. That goes double for a company that’s all about fostering productive project management and team communication.
Too much divisiveness by the digital water cooler?
Basecamp is far from the first company that’s gotten hurt by too much politics by the water cooler (or lately, on Zoom, Slack, or however we talk to each other under lockdown). Coke went woke (and then pressed pause, indicating the problem was not enough internal discussion at the top levels of the consequences of allowing one stream of politics to direct core business functions). Stifled revolts by social justice activist employees at publishing houses for Jordan Peterson and JK Rowling show a similar trend. In these cases, it would seem that honest conversations about politics, speech and respect for diverse opinions (the really valuable kind of diversity) actually needed to happen years ago.
I’ve experienced this kind of weirdness at work before setting up my own PR agency. I was working in-house in the marketing department at a startup. Gillette had just launched a new “Is this the best a man can get?” marketing campaign, effectively insinuating that a large proportion of its target demographic (that is, all men who shave) was a bunch of toxic jerks.
Another employee in a different department threw a message into the #marketing channel on Slack, linking to Gillette’s commercial: “What a great marketing campaign!”
To which I replied with a message I’d coincidentally discovered on Facebook that summed up my view: “We are living in an era of woke capitalism in which companies pretend to care about social justice to sell products to people who pretend to hate capitalism.”
Boy was that dumb. More than dumb — I knew perfectly well that such a statement could be risky, given the well-known progressive views of my employer and the vast majority of the startup’s team. But what the hell. I figured it was worth the risk.
Another Slack message from the same employee in the thread: “What do you have against such a brave commercial?”
Well, I hadn’t started this… but fine, I’d take the bait. “It looks like they’re going out of their way to insult their customers,” I wrote back, or something to that effect. And so, my downfall began.
That message got me thrown into a Maoist struggle session with my “progressive” boss, followed by another one-on-one with them a few weeks later. I couldn’t really opt out of meetings with my boss, but then I refused the next step: to schedule meetings to confess my wrongthink to fellow employees and be schooled in the correct thinking.
I tried to hunker down and focus on my task list, as usual, but work became… stressful. That was followed by me leaving the company for an uncertain future. Founding my PR agency wasn’t a plan so much as an escape hatch that fortunately worked out well.
That is to say, I know on a deep, personal level just how stupid, time-wasting, demoralizing and ultimately career-defeating many political discussions at work can be.
How creatives can allow politics into a conversation
After such an experience, you might expect that I’d institute a similar rule to the new Basecamp status quo. I haven’t.
The reasons are partly philosophical, partly for business — and maybe, partly hubris. First, I’m pretty much a free-speech absolutist. People should say what they think. But from the perspective of a guy running a PR agency, I want creative people to be able to say what’s on their minds. Good ideas come from all directions.
The more I stifle speech that treads incidentally or more deeply on political trends, the less creative we can be. That’s particularly true when politics bleeds so much into our culture, in a way that didn’t seem to be as important when I was coming up.
How do I make this work? I have a few rules:
Don’t force politics into conversations. If it happens organically, go with it. Let’s say we’re talking about green energy ideas. One person brings up an interesting news story about climate change, the oilpatch and government policy that we can reference in a pitch. It’s all good. If we’re talking about AI and the conversation turns to how machine learning algorithms seem to be creating biased outcomes that affect certain identifiable groups negatively, we can debate facts around this. Everyone remains respectful. No interrupting. No snide remarks. And the moment it seems one person wants to shift from the political back to the tech or business angle, that’s what happens.
Recognize your own bias. As a PR guy, I’m a keen observer of the media. One trend I’m not happy with is the odd disconnect between what some media organizations say about themselves and how others perceive them. When CNN says they’re “the trusted name in news” or The New York Times masthead says “all the news that’s fit to print” I know that there are reasonable people who would disagree with those characterizations. In conversation, it’s sometimes just easier to recognize the bias you see in yourself and name it. “I know what I’m about to say might sound like a right-wing talking point, but…” Be up-front about where you’re coming from, and people will respect you for it.
No indoctrination allowed. We have conversations, not lectures. Questions are encouraged as opportunities to check whether we really know what we think we know. Especially if I’m the one kicking off a political discussion in the context of a business, I’ll preface it with phrases like “I could be wrong about this” or “even if you think what I’m saying sounds right, or if you suspect it’s not, do your own research. See what you find.” No team member should ever feel like they need to support anyone’s political views to protect their job.
For a creative agency, political chatter can work. For other kinds of companies, maybe not
Let’s face it: encouraging political conversations at work did not work for Basecamp. In practice, encouraging such conversations may have actually helped lead to a new, one-sided, woke corporate culture that’s here to stay.
When groups get too big, in-groups and out-groups can naturally form. Maybe we’re okay with it because we’re small and nimble and staffed by the right mix of creative people who are genuinely interested in learning about new perspectives.
Then again, maybe it functions because it’s led by a guy who learned the hard way how badly political discussions could poison a workplace; and that person is determined to show how it can be done better.