How to Speak with Social Activists

Find and use your brand’s high road tonality.

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How do you speak with social activists?

Local com­munit­ies or act­iv­ist groups have always spoken up when they see an organ­isa­tion step­ping over the line. Peaceful protests are vital signs of healthy democracies.

As a PR pro­fes­sion­al, I’ve helped many organ­isa­tions deal with angry pub­lics. It’s a per­fectly nat­ur­al part of our job description.

But lately, these attacks seem to have spir­alled out of proportion.

In this blog post, I’ll dis­cuss why social act­iv­ists are becom­ing a lar­ger and lar­ger PR threat in today’s amp­li­fied media land­scape — and how these social act­iv­ists ought to be addressed.

Here we go:

Social Activists = PR Problems

There have always been groups of people who speak out against brands. However, social act­iv­ists are becom­ing an even more severe PR prob­lem that seems to be grow­ing out of proportion.

But the play­ing field used to be more bal­anced. While organ­isa­tions are typ­ic­ally strong, the tra­di­tion­al media logic has always favoured social act­iv­ists as underdogs.

But when social media is com­bined with influ­en­tial soci­et­al trends of polit­ic­al cor­rect­ness, vir­tue sig­nalling, woke cap­it­al­ism, and post­mod­ern­ist iden­tity polit­ics, social act­iv­ists can grow their strength expo­nen­tially in hours.

And their attacks are often relent­less and unbal­anced. They use social media not as a plat­form for dia­logue but as a tool for coer­cing organ­isa­tions into compliance.

Where is this imbal­ance com­ing from?

Moral Slacktivism — Amplified

Slacktivism (a port­manteau of slack­er and act­iv­ism) is the prac­tice of sup­port­ing a polit­ic­al or social cause by means such as social media or online peti­tions, char­ac­ter­ised as involving very little effort or com­mit­ment. Additional forms of slackt­iv­ism include enga­ging in online activ­it­ies such as ‘lik­ing,’ ‘shar­ing,’ or ‘tweet­ing’ about a cause on social media, sign­ing an Internet peti­tion, copy­ing and past­ing a status or mes­sage in sup­port of the cause, shar­ing spe­cif­ic hasht­ags asso­ci­ated with the cause, or alter­ing one’s pro­file photo or avatar on social net­work ser­vices to indic­ate solid­ar­ity.”
Source: Wikipedia 1Slacktivism. (2023, November 7). In Wikipedia. https://​en​.wiki​pe​dia​.org/​w​i​k​i​/​S​l​a​c​k​t​i​v​ism

Why does­n’t your brand speak out against X?”

Anyone can tag a busi­ness on social media and hold it account­able for any­thing. And fel­low online act­iv­ists will quickly know how to tag along and whip up tensions.

Their author­ity stems from pro­fess­ing their mor­al superi­or­ity to mute any­one who does­n’t share their polit­ic­al ideas. This is often referred to as “can­cel culture.”

How To Navigate Cancel Culture

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Cancel Culture and Social Media

Cancel cul­ture on social media is a form of pub­lic sham­ing that aims to dif­fuse pub­lic dis­course and pro­mote tol­er­ance, but can also be viewed as a form of intol­er­ance against oppos­ing views.”
Source: Rupkatha Journal on Interdisciplinary Studies in Humanities 2Velasco, J. (2020). You are Cancelled: Virtual Collective Consciousness and the Emergence of Cancel Culture as Ideological Purging. Rupkatha Journal on Interdisciplinary Studies in Humanities, 12. … Continue read­ing

Cancel cul­ture, de-plat­form­ing, and woke journ­al­ism are becom­ing chal­len­ging PR problems:

Cancel cul­ture or call-out cul­ture is a phrase con­tem­por­ary to the late 2010s and early 2020s used to refer to a form of ostra­cism in which someone is thrust out of social or pro­fes­sion­al circles — wheth­er it be online, on social media, or in per­son. Those sub­ject to this ostra­cism are said to have been ‘can­celled’.”
Source: Wikipedia 3Cancel cul­ture. (2023, January 4). In Wikipedia. https://​en​.wiki​pe​dia​.org/​w​i​k​i​/​C​a​n​c​e​l​_​c​u​l​t​ure

Public opin­ion often forces brands to de-plat­form indi­vidu­als, part­ner organ­isa­tions, advert­isers, col­lab­or­at­ors, etc.

Deplatforming, also known as no-plat­form­ing, has been defined as an ‘attempt to boy­cott a group or indi­vidu­al through remov­ing the plat­forms (such as speak­ing ven­ues or web­sites) used to share inform­a­tion or ideas, or ‘the action or prac­tice of pre­vent­ing someone hold­ing views regarded as unac­cept­able or offens­ive from con­trib­ut­ing to a for­um or debate, espe­cially by block­ing them on a par­tic­u­lar web­site’.”
Source: Wikipedia 4Deplatforming. (2023, January 8). In Wikipedia. https://​en​.wiki​pe​dia​.org/​w​i​k​i​/​D​e​p​l​a​t​f​o​r​m​ing

Here’s how to nav­ig­ate the mor­al war as a business:

  • Avoid breezy grand­stand­ing. CSR- and ESG activ­it­ies should be laser-focused, clearly defined, and business-relevant.
  • Internally, cel­eb­rate the diversity of thought. Having cowork­ers who think dif­fer­ently is an asset to any busi­ness culture.
  • Don’t let the can­cel cul­ture intim­id­ate you. Protesters are loud and noisy, primar­ily online, but they don’t have the num­bers to match.
  • Direct your resources towards your brand com­munity. Most of your cus­tom­er base will be in the silent major­ity, not in the extremes.

Learn more: How To Navigate Cancel Culture

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De-platforming: An Anti-Democratic Strategy

Deplatforming of extreme Internet celebrit­ies leads to increased use of Telegram and oth­er altern­at­ive social media plat­forms, impact­ing both their repu­ta­tion and crit­ic­al social media research.”
Source: European Journal of Communication 5Rogers, R. (2020). Deplatforming: Following extreme Internet celebrit­ies to Telegram and altern­at­ive social media. European Journal of Communication, 35, 213 — 229. … Continue read­ing

College cam­puses have long grappled with the ques­tion of allow­ing con­tro­ver­sial speak­ers on cam­pus, but recent years have seen increas­ingly divis­ive pub­lic fig­ures invited and dis­in­vited, with being “deplat­formed” becom­ing a badge of hon­or for these pub­lic fig­ures.”
Source: Journal of Intellectual Freedom & Privacy 6McDowall, M. (2019). Hate Speech on Campus: Reframing the Discourse. Journal of Intellectual Freedom & Privacy. https://​doi​.org/​1​0​.​5​8​6​0​/​J​I​F​P​.​V​4​I​1​.​6​906

Rather than pro­pos­ing dia­logue or debate, online act­iv­ists tend to grav­it­ate toward mak­ing severe threats, demand­ing total con­form­ity, and organ­ising efforts to smear or deplat­form the brand and its spokespeople.

From a PR per­spect­ive, social act­iv­ists seem to resort to increas­ingly more anti-demo­crat­ic meas­ures to coerce brands into total obedience.

Deplatforming, also known as no-plat­form­ing, has been defined as an ‘attempt to boy­cott a group or indi­vidu­al through remov­ing the plat­forms (such as speak­ing ven­ues or web­sites) used to share inform­a­tion or ideas, or ‘the action or prac­tice of pre­vent­ing someone hold­ing views regarded as unac­cept­able or offens­ive from con­trib­ut­ing to a for­um or debate, espe­cially by block­ing them on a par­tic­u­lar web­site’.”
Source: Wikipedia 7Deplatforming. (2023, January 8). In Wikipedia. https://​en​.wiki​pe​dia​.org/​w​i​k​i​/​D​e​p​l​a​t​f​o​r​m​ing

The Spiral of Silence

Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann - Spiral of Silence - Doctor Spin - The PR Blog
Professor Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann (1916−2010).
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The Spiral of Silence

Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann’s (1916 – 2010) well-doc­u­mented the­ory on the spir­al of silence (1974) explains why the fear of isol­a­tion due to peer exclu­sion will pres­sure pub­lics to silence their opinions.

The the­ory was developed in the late 1970s in West Germany, partly in response to Noelle-Neumann’s obser­va­tions of how pub­lic opin­ion seemed to shift dur­ing the Nazi régime and post-war Germany.

The spir­al of silence the­ory is based on the idea that people fear social isol­a­tion. This fear influ­ences their will­ing­ness to express their opin­ions, espe­cially if they believe these opin­ions are in the minority.

Rather than risk­ing social isol­a­tion, many choose silence over express­ing their opinions.

To the indi­vidu­al, not isol­at­ing him­self is more import­ant than his own judge­ment. […] This is the point where the indi­vidu­al is vul­ner­able; this is where social groups can pun­ish him for fail­ing to toe the line.”
— Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann (1916 – 2010)

As the dom­in­ant coali­tion gets to stand unop­posed, they push the con­fines of what’s accept­able down a nar­row­er and nar­row­er fun­nel (see also the Opinion Corridor). 8Opinion cor­ridor. (2023, April 8). In Wikipedia. https://​en​.wiki​pe​dia​.org/​w​i​k​i​/​O​p​i​n​i​o​n​_​c​o​r​r​i​dor

The smart way to keep people pass­ive and obed­i­ent is to strictly lim­it the spec­trum of accept­able opin­ion, but allow very lively debate with­in that spec­trum — even encour­age the more crit­ic­al and dis­sid­ent views. That gives people the sense that there’s free think­ing going on, while all the time the pre­sup­pos­i­tions of the sys­tem are being rein­forced by the lim­its put on the range of the debate.”
— Noam Chomsky

Noelle-Neumann emphas­ised the medi­a’s role in shap­ing pub­lic per­cep­tion of what opin­ions are dom­in­ant or pop­u­lar, thus influ­en­cing the spir­al of silence. 

Populism and Cancel Culture

The mech­an­isms behind Elisabeth Noelle Neumann’s spir­al of silence the­ory could fuel destruct­ive soci­et­al phe­nom­ena like pop­u­lism and can­cel culture:

  • Populism. The spir­al of silence the­ory sug­gests that indi­vidu­als are less likely to express their views if they per­ceive these views to be in the minor­ity or socially unac­cept­able. In the con­text of pop­u­lism, this can lead to a situ­ation where main­stream or mod­er­ate views are under­rep­res­en­ted in pub­lic dis­course, giv­ing dis­pro­por­tion­ate voice and momentum to more extreme, pop­u­list opin­ions that may appear more wide­spread than they are. 9Silfwer, J. (2018, August 6). How To Fight Populism. Doctor Spin | The PR Blog. https://​doc​tor​spin​.net/​h​o​w​-​t​o​-​f​i​g​h​t​-​p​o​p​u​l​i​sm/
  • Cancel Culture. The spir­al of silence may amp­li­fy can­cel cul­ture by dis­cour­aging indi­vidu­als from speak­ing against or ques­tion­ing the dom­in­ant nar­rat­ive for fear of social ostra­ciz­a­tion or back­lash. This can cre­ate an envir­on­ment where only one view­point is heard or deemed accept­able, and oppos­ing views are silenced, some­times lead­ing to the pub­lic sham­ing or ‘can­cel­la­tion’ of indi­vidu­als who express these con­trary opin­ions. 10Silfwer, J. (2020, August 24). Cancel Culture — A Serious PR Problem. Doctor Spin | The PR Blog. https://​doc​tor​spin​.net/​c​a​n​c​e​l​-​c​u​l​t​u​re/

In both cases, the spir­al of silence con­trib­utes to a polar­ised envir­on­ment where views become dom­in­ant not neces­sar­ily because they are more pop­u­lar but because oppos­ing views are not expressed due to fear of social isol­a­tion or repercussion.

Learn more: The Spiral of Silence

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Freedom of Speech is a Two-Way Street

In a demo­cracy, all organ­isa­tions must be open to cri­ti­cism — how­ever unpleas­ant or unsubstantiated.

Freedom of speech is a pil­lar of PR as well. Whenever the man­age­ment of an organ­isa­tion is under heavy fire and they’re try­ing to hide, escape, or deflect, the PR func­tion is there to pro­mote trans­par­ency and pub­lic action.

PR has this func­tion, not due to mor­al high ground but because pro­mot­ing open­ness in adversity is good for busi­ness. If an organ­isa­tion fails to adapt to neg­at­ive feed­back, the prob­lems don’t dis­ap­pear. Hence, open­ness is neces­sary for survival.

However, the basic prin­ciples of free­dom of speech also apply to social act­iv­ists. Self-pro­claimed mor­al superi­or­ity should­n’t jus­ti­fy anti-demo­crat­ic and dis­pro­por­tion­al attacks on organisations.

But some­times, it seems that it does.

Too Woke — or Not Woke Enough

With CSR issues becom­ing increas­ingly import­ant, brands must find strategies to deal with social activists.

Arik C. Hanson, the PR blog­ger, writes:

[…] we’ve seen numer­ous reports from vendors and agen­cies like Edelman telling us 1 in every 2 cus­tom­ers is a ‘belief-driv­en buy­er.’ And, of those buy­ers, 65% will not buy from a brand because they stayed silent on an issue it had an oblig­a­tion to address.”

So, how do we nav­ig­ate the jungle of mor­al issues?

A com­mon brand strategy, albeit insig­ni­fic­ant, is to wait and see which issues become press­ing enough to war­rant action. 

At best, such a strategy is oppor­tun­ist­ic and cal­lous. If you choose this route, the media will expose your brand to accus­a­tions of piggy­back­ing on the social agenda. Being too woke is just as bad as not being woke enough.

It back­fired when Gillette came out in front of ongo­ing gender dis­cus­sions by sham­ing them­selves and their cus­tom­er base for being per­pet­rat­ors of tox­ic mas­culin­ity.

I would­n’t recom­mend brands make it their busi­ness to inform adults how they should live their lives. I would recom­mend more focused CSR activ­it­ies instead.

Opting to score points by going for the mor­al high ground is risky. Opting to please social act­iv­ists while dis­reg­ard­ing the busi­ness strategy is mad­ness.

Moral Pragmatism: Diversity of Ideas

Social reforms are com­plex by nature.

Whilst both the news media and the social algorithms are pref­er­en­tial to por­tray­ing con­flicts as hav­ing only two polar oppos­ite sides, the real­ity of social change is bet­ter under­stood as a spectrum.

A brand could be super pro­gress­ive by design, but it must remem­ber that its cowork­ers might have vari­ous polit­ic­al per­sua­sions. Diversity is good — also when it comes to polit­ic­al ideas.

  • A truly diverse organ­isa­tion allows employ­ees of dif­fer­ent polit­ic­al per­sua­sions to work side-by-side towards a com­mon busi­ness goal.

Should brands sit down every morn­ing to review all poten­tial social issues and ask, “Where do we stand on this par­tic­u­lar issue?” Should a social policy team spend days draft­ing pos­sible responses while con­tinu­ously updat­ing a grow­ing lib­rary of documents? 

Well, maybe they should. But for most brands, this type of setup would be fin­an­cially impossible. Irresponsible, even.

There must be a way, right?

Teaching Brands to Speak Human

How hard can it be to stand up against injustice?” someone might ask. 

As humans, we’ve evolved to com­mu­nic­ate with each oth­er, not with abstrac­tions. This is why we tend to human­ise brands, to think of a brand as a liv­ing entity with a mind of its own. In pub­lic rela­tions, we human­ise brands for this exact reason.

But while an organ­isa­tion is not “human” in any sense, it must still be taught to imper­son­ate a human being.

And make no mis­take about it: 

Getting an organ­isa­tion to “speak human” with many unique indi­vidu­als is challenging. 

So, how should a com­munity man­ager respond to social act­iv­ists online?

The High Road Tonality

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The High Road Tonality

An organ­isa­tion is the poly­phon­ic sum of all its cowork­ers. Imagine tak­ing the most mature traits from each cowork­er and com­bin­ing them into one voice — the High Road Tonality.

  • Openness. A mature organ­isa­tion under­stands that every­one must be allowed to express their thoughts and opinions.
  • Fairness. A mature organ­isa­tion will see (and respect) both sides of a divis­ive argument.
  • Strength. A mature organ­isa­tion is con­fid­ent in its chosen strategies and acquired abil­it­ies, not because they’re per­fect, but because they are grounded.
  • Wisdom. A mature organ­isa­tion will take the time to explain com­plex top­ics without condescending.
  • Humility. A mature organ­isa­tion under­stands that no one can have everything com­pletely figured out and that we all have learn­ing and grow­ing to do.

Learn more: The High Road Tonality: Don’t Be Pushed Around

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Thanks for read­ing. Please sup­port my blog by shar­ing art­icles with oth­er com­mu­nic­a­tions and mar­ket­ing pro­fes­sion­als. You might also con­sider my PR ser­vices or speak­ing engage­ments.

PR Resource: Publics in PR

Publics in Public Relations - Doctor Spin - The PR Blog
The pub­lics in pub­lic relations.
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The Publics in Public Relations

Here’s how to define pub­lics in pub­lic relations:

Publics = a psy­cho­graph­ic seg­ment (who) with sim­il­ar com­mu­nic­a­tion beha­viours (how) formed around a spe­cif­ic issue (why) affect­ing the organ­isa­tion (to whom). 11Silfwer, J. (2015, June 11). The Publics in Public Relations. Doctor Spin | The PR Blog. https://​doc​tor​spin​.net/​p​u​b​l​i​c​s​-​i​n​-​p​u​b​l​i​c​-​r​e​l​a​t​i​o​ns/

Please note:

Psychographic seg­ment = sim­il­ar­it­ies in cog­nit­ive driv­ing factors such as reas­on­ing, motiv­a­tions, atti­tudes, etc.

Communication beha­viours = how the pub­lic’s opin­ion is expressed (choice of mes­sage, rhet­or­ic­al fram­ing, and medi­um type).

Specific issue = determ­ined situ­ation­ally by a spe­cif­ic social object, often high on the agenda in news media or social media.

Learn more: The Publics in Public Relations

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PR Resource: Framing in PR

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Persuasion Approach: Framing

Framing is a use­ful approach to per­sua­sion:

Framing (in per­sua­sion) = the rhet­or­ic­al use of dynam­ic lan­guage to emphas­ise the stra­tegic PR object­ive with­in the con­fines of a spe­cif­ic com­mu­nic­a­tion activity.

In oth­er words, there are 1,000 ways to say any­thing. In PR, it’s wise to choose words that pro­mote your cause.

  • In a demo­cracy, com­pet­ing interests will put for­ward the truths that best serve their pur­poses. If you care about your interests, you should spin for the win, too.

To per­suade (and mit­ig­ate con­firm­a­tion bias), PR pro­fes­sion­als can adopt an approach using the sev­en mod­els of fram­ing iden­ti­fied by Hallahan (1999):

This paper iden­ti­fies 7 dis­tinct types of fram­ing in pub­lic rela­tions, which can be used to stra­tegic­ally cre­ate mes­sages and audi­ence responses.”
Source: Journal of Public Relations Research 12Hallahan, K. (1999). Seven Models of Framing: Implications for Public Relations. Journal of Public Relations Research, 11, 205 – 242. https://​doi​.org/​1​0​.​1​2​0​7​/​S​1​5​3​2​7​5​4​X​J​P​R​R​1​1​0​3​_02

Each of these fram­ing strategies can be used to tac­tic­ally nav­ig­ate and coun­ter­act con­firm­a­tion bias, lead­ing audi­ences to recon­sider their pre-estab­lished beliefs and perceptions.

  • Framing of situ­ations. Present a busi­ness situ­ation in a new light to chal­lenge exist­ing biases. For example, fram­ing a busi­ness set­back as an oppor­tun­ity for innovation.
  • Framing of attrib­utes. Highlight dif­fer­ent product or ser­vice attrib­utes that may not have been pre­vi­ously con­sidered to alter pub­lic perception.
  • Framing of choices. Offer choices that lead the audi­ence to recon­sider their pre­con­ceived notions, such as present­ing an envir­on­ment­ally friendly, eth­ic­al, and cost-effect­ive option.
  • Framing of actions. Frame the organisation’s actions in a con­text that con­trasts with the audience’s expect­a­tions, like show­cas­ing a corporation’s char­it­able efforts in a way that coun­ters a ste­reo­type of cor­por­ate greed.
  • Framing of issues. Re-frame pub­lic issues to align with organ­isa­tion­al goals, subtly shift­ing the audience’s focus and preconceptions.
  • Framing of respons­ib­il­ity. Shifting the nar­rat­ive about who or what is respons­ible for a par­tic­u­lar situ­ation can change the audience’s beliefs about caus­al­ity or fault.
  • Framing of news. Leverage media fram­ing to present stor­ies in a light that chal­lenges exist­ing biases, for instance, by focus­ing on under­re­por­ted aspects of a story.

Learn more: Framing in PR: How To Bypass Confirmation Bias

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ANNOTATIONS
ANNOTATIONS
1 Slacktivism. (2023, November 7). In Wikipedia. https://​en​.wiki​pe​dia​.org/​w​i​k​i​/​S​l​a​c​k​t​i​v​ism
2 Velasco, J. (2020). You are Cancelled: Virtual Collective Consciousness and the Emergence of Cancel Culture as Ideological Purging. Rupkatha Journal on Interdisciplinary Studies in Humanities, 12. https://​doi​.org/​1​0​.​2​1​6​5​9​/​r​u​p​k​a​t​h​a​.​v​1​2​n​5​.​r​i​o​c​1​s​2​1n2
3 Cancel cul­ture. (2023, January 4). In Wikipedia. https://​en​.wiki​pe​dia​.org/​w​i​k​i​/​C​a​n​c​e​l​_​c​u​l​t​ure
4, 7 Deplatforming. (2023, January 8). In Wikipedia. https://​en​.wiki​pe​dia​.org/​w​i​k​i​/​D​e​p​l​a​t​f​o​r​m​ing
5 Rogers, R. (2020). Deplatforming: Following extreme Internet celebrit­ies to Telegram and altern­at­ive social media. European Journal of Communication, 35, 213 — 229. https://​doi​.org/​1​0​.​1​1​7​7​/​0​2​6​7​3​2​3​1​2​0​9​2​2​066
6 McDowall, M. (2019). Hate Speech on Campus: Reframing the Discourse. Journal of Intellectual Freedom & Privacy. https://​doi​.org/​1​0​.​5​8​6​0​/​J​I​F​P​.​V​4​I​1​.​6​906
8 Opinion cor­ridor. (2023, April 8). In Wikipedia. https://​en​.wiki​pe​dia​.org/​w​i​k​i​/​O​p​i​n​i​o​n​_​c​o​r​r​i​dor
9 Silfwer, J. (2018, August 6). How To Fight Populism. Doctor Spin | The PR Blog. https://​doc​tor​spin​.net/​h​o​w​-​t​o​-​f​i​g​h​t​-​p​o​p​u​l​i​sm/
10 Silfwer, J. (2020, August 24). Cancel Culture — A Serious PR Problem. Doctor Spin | The PR Blog. https://​doc​tor​spin​.net/​c​a​n​c​e​l​-​c​u​l​t​u​re/
11 Silfwer, J. (2015, June 11). The Publics in Public Relations. Doctor Spin | The PR Blog. https://​doc​tor​spin​.net/​p​u​b​l​i​c​s​-​i​n​-​p​u​b​l​i​c​-​r​e​l​a​t​i​o​ns/
12 Hallahan, K. (1999). Seven Models of Framing: Implications for Public Relations. Journal of Public Relations Research, 11, 205 – 242. https://​doi​.org/​1​0​.​1​2​0​7​/​S​1​5​3​2​7​5​4​X​J​P​R​R​1​1​0​3​_02
Jerry Silfwer
Jerry Silfwerhttps://doctorspin.net/
Jerry Silfwer, alias Doctor Spin, is an awarded senior adviser specialising in public relations and digital strategy. Currently CEO at Spin Factory and KIX Communication Index. Before that, he worked at Kaufmann, Whispr Group, Springtime PR, and Spotlight PR. Based in Stockholm, Sweden.
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