The trick to enhance positives and mitigate negatives
Just a few weeks ago, after days and days of strenuous deflection, gesticulation, self-victimization, media-aided campaigning and incoherent bilge about the pending coronavirus assault, Donald J. Trump suddenly talked of the number of deaths. It was a stunning reversal. Suddenly, after promising that we would soon dodge the virus (because of warmer weather… great gut science), he was delivering hard numbers: 100,000 – 200,000 deaths from Covid-19.
Trump frowned theatrically for the camera, played a vigorous air accordion and did a few air karate chops. It was going to be tough. Well… we who keep an eye on the news outside Jerkwater, USA, knew that, but… The news media went into a tizzy, Twitter “lit up” as they love saying. But the big question is this: Where in earth did those numbers come from? Maths? Real stats? Fauci? His covfefe? And moreover: What do they mean.
They are perhaps the only real indicator that the Trump re-election team is engaging in some form of crisis management, at least on the public relations front, since everything else, to date, has been a pretty well-formed catastrophe, nothing unexpected, by the way, from an administration and a political party determined to destroy everything left by the previous administration (the GOP never forgot FDR…).
It’s about expectations management, which I have already written about before. Let us say, you know something good is about to happen, and you would like to enhance the pleasure/joy experienced when the thing comes to pass: You lower the expectation by casting a little doubt. We do it to ourselves. “Well, I’m not sure I did well at that test…” When the expectation is more than met, the joy is greater. If not, you still have an escape hatch. (See 4/ at the end for a really brief example).
The same happens with negatives, as in a crisis: The expected result must be announced as worse, so that when the expected figures turn out to be lower or the just less disastrous, everyone breathes a sigh of relief and the crisis managers come out looking better, even if they were a major factor in the crisis unfolding in the first place.
Chances are, Trump’s 200,000 deaths from the coronavirus will not happen, thank goodness. The figure could be reached, of course, as the virus spreads in a second wave throughout the country. It might be reached in June. If we are all back at work in some form, we may not even know about it. The hospital crisis will have been mastered, the public focus will be elsewhere – Trump’s team certainly known how to shift attention from the man’s incoherent administration. The statistics will be unclear. But at some point, we’ll have stopped counting, maybe at 35,612, or 42,590, and by then it will be merely statistics, as Stalin would have said, and they can be massaged this way, or that, usually by the fallacious comparison to 1918. And we’ll breathe a sigh of relief.
There you have it. The point is not the figures, it’s how we got to this point.
Thanks for reading. This is not cast in stone. But if you are interested and have the time, below find a few examples I’ve collected of very public expectations management.
1/ The Muller Report: Ever wonder why the Trump administration kept talking about it loudly for months. Saying it was a hoax and a lie. And attracting attention to it? That is not what normal PR looks like, you don’t attract attention to what could be a disaster. As long as Muller was mulling, the Trump admin raised the expectations of some absolutely incontrovertible proof of wrongdoing, pee tape and all…. The report was released, bowdlerized for public consumption, Trump was not exonerated, but the evidence was simply not massive enough and incontrovertible. Muller himself said so. Shady activity does not have the power of a real crime (and white collar stuff is not really considered a crime by many).
2/ Deepwater Horizon Spill: The oil rig exploded killing eleven workers and then pumped oil into the Gulf of Mexico for months. After many attempts at stopping the spill, an effective solution was announced (in early July 2007) for two months hence, so when an announcement was made that the flow had been slowed two weeks later, it sounded like a huge success. The actual capping happened in September, but by that time no one was really talking about the worst marine oil spill in US history (nor of the families of the dead oil men).
3/ The two Iraq Wars (1991 and 2003). The armies of Saddam Hussein were described by much of the news media as almost unbeatable. Absolute apocalypse awaited. A friend of mine was in such a panic, he filled his car with food and slept with a radio next to his ear (in ’91), convinced that a nuclear war was about to break out. But in 1991, Iraq had come off an eight-year war of attrition with Iran, and dictators are rarely the best leaders (Trump, take note), since fear is not the best motivating tool. I told my friend to relax, it would be over soon… He got mad at me for being so unconcerned. I was concerned, but not about the military stuff.
Same with the Iraq invasion of 2003. The country was sick and tired of Saddam Hussein, and had been subjected to some very damaging sanctions. Where the media came up with so much apocalyptic stuff was beyond comprehension. In fact, even the usually staid German media joined in. At which point the TV I had used for 2 months went back into the cellar (I used it for video films) and I cancelled my payments to the German television stations stating explicitly that they had adapted to the low sensationalist standards of private TV companies, and I didn’t think it was worth paying for. I also ceased using CNN as a general reference. Their cheer-leading was embarrassing to watch (I was traveling a lot in those days and would catch their reports in hotel rooms).
4/ Ever play chess with someone spontaneously ? What do you say? “I haven’t played in twenty years.” If you win, it’s really great, if you lose, you have an excuse…. Expectations management in a nutshell…