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Tis the Age of the Offended

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In scanning Facebook like a good, semi-modern PR practitioner should, I came across a post of a news story involving a lady who took umbrage to a Salvation Army bell-ringer’s greeting of “Happy Holidays.” Evidently said lady was fed up with the politically-correctizaiton of the Yuletide season, insisted on a “Merry Christmas” and proceeded to deliver the 21st century equivalent of a “sprig of holly through the heart” to quote Ebeneezer, a quick punch to the bell-ringer’s arm.

Delightful. Nothing says Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays or whatever better than an act of violence. Not.

But perhaps it’s the age we live in. What I’m calling the Age of the Offended.

Seems you can’t scan a social media “News Feed” without reading how somebody is “offended” by something or other…usually relative to religion, politics…health, fashion, redheads, drinkers, non-drinkers, pot smokers, non-pot smokers, cat lovers, dog lovers, animal lovers, plant lovers, ant lovers (and that’s not a joke, check out this story: http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/art/news/artist-criticised-for-creating-sculpture-by-pouring-molten-aluminium-into-fire-ant-colony-mound-9003789.html) …well, you get the idea.

I’m sure some consortium of Harvard social psychologists are working on a clinical study on this subject even as we speak—why do so many people feel the need to declare to the world how upset they are about…well, all too often, something petty, of little consequence? Is it because they feel they have no control of their own lives, are desperate for attention, need to take an aggressive stance on everything in order to feel their lives have meaning? Yes, we can all speculate on the inner mind of the average internet troll. Personally, I like SNL’s approach: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/10/02/snls-the-comments-section_n_991093.html.

But we’re getting slightly off topic. The issue is, thanks to social media, every Tom, Dick and Helen can tell the world just how ticked off they are about electronic cigarettes, families who “lose it” at Chuck E. Cheese, Edward Snowden or why did the suits at CBS take that hot blonde Laura Logan off the air?

In PR, we seek to cultivate positive relationships with “opinion leaders”—that is, people whom the masses look to for guidance when it comes to major issues. Opinion leaders in the past were typically politicians, captains of industry, genius-breakthrough types like Einstein, in other words, very erudite, educated and successful people.

Now an “opinion leader” can be Ashton Kutcher or Paris Hilton anybody really who is willing to put in the time and effort to make an enormous nuisances of themselves online and cultivate 10,000 or more likes, friends, etc.

In the old days, the crazy person who wanted to wave his arms like a South African interpreter while shouting incoherently could do so, but only atop a soap box in a public park where all of 9 people might pay attention...now that person has access to a world forum…and even if he doesn’t, chances are someone will video tape his ravings in the park, post them online and watch them go viral.

This, in the PR world, is what we call “a concern.”

Edward Bernays, a man considered the founder of modern public relations, was particularly interested in the power of mass opinion, and, utilizing ideas gleaned from Uncle Siggy (as in his uncle, Sigmund Freud…yes, THAT Sigmund Freud), sought ways to control it, guide it, manipulate it.

Problem is, in today’s online world, everyone has the ability to be a “mass audience,” given the reach they may have via social media.

So a person isn’t just a person anymore. A person IS a crowd. Potentially anyway.

Again, concern. Particularly given people’s penchant for being OFFENDED…lest they become offended by whatever it is your clients are saying and doing.

Personally, I wish people would just STOP being offended all the time, by everything. It’s a sort of “boy who cried wolf” scenario. When we constantly cry foul about everything and anything, when there really is something big to cry foul about, nobody’s going to listen or, more importantly, CARE…unless the issue is “particularly sexy,” “has legs” as the newsies say, and likely involves a Kardashian.

The best thing about social media is, it helps us gauge what people are thinking, what they are talking about, and if they have a problem, we have an opportunity to swoop in, correct it quickly, and turn the would-be troll into an ambassador for the client.

It’s important, because evidently people are a lot more sensitive than they used to be. If someone says, “I support the Tea Party,” I don’t take offense at that any more than if they said “I like tea.” Well, good for you. Some people like tea. Your “liking of tea” is not perceived by me as some kind of insult against me as a coffee drinker, for example.

If someone wishes me a “Merry Christmas” and I don’t celebrate Christmas, again, I don’t take that as an insult. I look upon it as, well, of course someone might say that, it’s December. This person’s celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ is not an insult to me and my belief in, whatever I may believe in. It's expected. If I go into an Indian restaurant, should I be offended if I'm offered chicken tikki masala (I definitely would NOT be, love the stuff)? Should I be offended I can't get a hamburger at the Persian Delite cafe? Of course not. Yet, people do. I'm reminded of a "fun fact" my pre-Google info source (Dad) used to tell me: "Over 80 percent of people driving on the road are mentally ill." Given what I'm reading online, I think he might have been low in his estimate. It's like "road rage" but it's happening online Why are so many people’s reactions so…ANGRY?

Again, another point of PR concern, as generally one doesn’t like one’s target audiences to be angry as a rule. The best we in PR can do is to monitor what people are saying, understand the difference between legitimate concerns and just “trolling,” always be true to the client’s mission and messages, and as Ann Landers might say, "Suggest you see a professional therapist."

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