Woke Journalism is Bad News

When journalism becomes activism, we're all screwed.

Cover photo: @jerrysilfwer

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Woke journ­al­ism is bad news.

No one could have missed the ongo­ing cul­ture war.

In the spir­it of can­cel cul­ture, any­one who dis­agrees should be silenced by semi-organ­ised online slacktivists.

But what hap­pens if we allow extremes to dom­in­ate the news agenda? To con­sider woke journ­al­ism to be bad news might be a gross underestimation.

Here we go:

When News Narratives Become Online Activism

Mass Media - Woke Journalism - Do Not Swallow
Do not swal­low mass media. (Image cred­it: Allriot.)

The cur­rent land­scape of journ­al­ism, often labelled as ‘woke’ by its detract­ors, presents a com­plex media ecosystem.

The per­vas­ive cul­ture war, a term that has become a main­stay in con­tem­por­ary dis­course, is an omni­present nar­rat­ive impossible to overlook.

There exists a notion, per­haps in line with the ideals of what is pop­ularly known as ‘can­cel cul­ture,’ pos­it­ing that those who diverge from vir­tue sig­nal­ing find them­selves at risk of being ostra­cised by a vocal cadre of online activists.

However, one must pon­der the implic­a­tions of allow­ing such online act­iv­ism to steer the dir­ec­tion of our news nar­rat­ive. Describing the poten­tial out­come as merely ‘bad news’ might be a gross under­state­ment, hint­ing at a more pro­found, nuanced dilemma.

Left-Leaning Journalism? Fine By Me!

In journ­al­ism, the pre­dis­pos­i­tion towards left-lean­ing per­spect­ives emerges more as a stat­ist­ic­al tend­ency than a stead­fast principle.

Contrary to the stance often adop­ted by many in pub­lic rela­tions, I har­bour no qualms about this left­ward inclin­a­tion among journalists.

There’s a cer­tain com­fort in know­ing that journ­al­ists tire­lessly endeav­our to bring to light the actions of vari­ous elites.

While pos­sess­ing power and influ­ence doesn’t inher­ently cor­rupt, it undeni­ably mag­ni­fies the reper­cus­sions of det­ri­ment­al actions. Given the con­straints on journ­al­ist­ic resources, it’s prag­mat­ic to focus where the impact is most significant.

It’s not neces­sar­ily that the left excels in nar­rat­ive craft; stat­ist­ic­ally, their stor­ies often hold more weight.

For me, the pre­val­ence of journ­al­ists with a left-lean­ing bias is a cir­cum­stance I find quite acceptable.

Political Correctness in Journalism

But there are also extrem­ist vari­et­ies. From a news media per­spect­ive, one par­tic­u­larly haz­ard­ous per­sua­sion is where journ­al­ism aban­dons stor­ies about indi­vidu­als on behalf of sweep­ing gen­er­al­isa­tions based on demo­graph­ic affinity.

I’m talk­ing about woke journalism:

With an increase in social con­scious­ness and a rise in the mil­len­ni­al cul­ture of being ‘woke’, there has come an increase demand of polit­ic­al cor­rect­ness espe­cially in journ­al­ism. On one hand lies the decency of a report that gives journ­al­ists an author­ity to phrase their stor­ies in an eth­ic­al way using polit­ic­al cor­rect­ness. On the oth­er hand, it does hinder hon­esty or true free­dom of speech.”
Source: Political cor­rect­ness: An obstacle for media?

When we fil­ter news stor­ies through eth­ni­city, group beliefs, sexu­al ori­ent­a­tion, and ancient injustices, we get journ­al­ists pro­mot­ing a man­dat­ory dis­reg­ard of objectiv­ity on behalf of sub­ject­ive interests.

Read also: How To Fight Populism

This blatant dis­reg­ard for the truth unites the alt-left­ist woke move­ment with their ideo­lo­gic­al coun­ter­parts — the fas­cists and the populists.

Should journ­al­ism take sides here?

Woke Journalism in the Post-Triage Era

Imagine being a med­ic arriv­ing at the scene of a massive acci­dent with lots of wounded people all around you. 

Triage, the prac­tice of med­ic­al pri­or­ity, means that you won’t tend to those scream­ing the loudest first; they have enough energy and life spark to shout and make noise.

If sav­ing lives is the medic’s pri­or­ity, they should pri­or­it­ise those who can’t even make noise to pro­tect themselves.

If the med­ic, how­ever well-inten­tioned or right­eous, takes it upon them­self to save people based on group iden­tity, the whole med­ic­al sys­tem will quickly start to break down from within.

We’ve been here before — on col­lege cam­puses in the late 1960s, when stu­dent pro­test­ers occu­pied build­ings, mak­ing demands for cur­ricular and oth­er changes, and admin­is­trat­ors and prom­in­ent fac­ulty mem­bers gave in across the board. The stu­dents at Columbia and Cornell were lead­ing a revolu­tion from the left, and the author­it­ies who sur­rendered to them were lib­er­als. The lib­er­als fol­ded because they were ter­ri­fied of bad pub­li­city, but also because they felt shamed by the mor­al pur­ity, clar­ity, pas­sion, and cer­tainty of the young rebels. In all those respects, our news­room revolu­tions are fol­low­ing the same script.”
Source: The woke revolu­tion in American journ­al­ism has begun

Team Woke vs Team Resentful

On social media, the coun­try seems to divide into two neat camps: Call them the woke and the resent­ful. Team Resentment is manned — pun very much inten­ded — by people who are pre­dom­in­antly old and almost exclus­ively white. Team Woke is young, likely to be female, and pre­dom­in­antly black, brown, or Asian (though white “allies” do their duti­ful part). These teams are roughly equal in num­ber, and they dis­agree most vehe­mently, as well as most routinely about the catchall known as polit­ic­al cor­rect­ness. Reality is noth­ing like this. As schol­ars Stephen Hawkins, Daniel Yudkin, Miriam Juan-Torres, and Tim Dixon argue in a report pub­lished Wednesday, “Hidden Tribes: A Study of America’s Polarised Landscape,” most Americans don’t fit into either of these camps.”
Source: Americans Strongly Dislike PC Culture

Where have all bal­anced voices gone if most people don’t fit into these loud, self-pro­claimed, self-right­eous coalitions?

Where are all those people who don’t have a pub­lic voice?

Platform Amplifiers Instead of Platform Providers

Suppose we allow the news media to become plat­form amp­li­fi­ers instead of plat­form pro­viders. In doing so, we pave the way for cen­sor­ship, can­cel cul­ture, pro­pa­ganda, and dam­aging iden­tity polit­ics on both the far left and the far right of the polit­ic­al spectrum.

It’s not a journalist’s job to pro­tect and pro­mote those who already have a voice and a plat­form. But woke journ­al­ism will empower already strong voices over uncom­fort­able ones.

How does this work?

There are three psy­cho­lo­gic­al explan­a­tion mod­els worth considering:

  • Model 1: The Spiral of Silence
  • Model 2: The Conversion Theory
  • Model 3: The Amplification Hypothesis

Model 1: 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). 1Opinion 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. 2Silfwer, 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. 3Silfwer, 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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Model 2: The Conversion Theory

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The Conversion Theory: The Powerful Minority

The dis­pro­por­tion­al power of minor­it­ies is known as the con­ver­sion the­ory. 4Conversion the­ory of minor­ity influ­ence. (2021, February 12). In Wikipedia. https://​en​.wiki​pe​dia​.org/​w​i​k​i​/​C​o​n​v​e​r​s​i​o​n​_​t​h​e​o​r​y​_​o​f​_​m​i​n​o​r​i​t​y​_​i​n​f​l​u​e​nce

How does it work?

The social cost of hold­ing a dif­fer­ent view than the major­ity is high. This increased cost explains why minor­it­ies often hold their opin­ions more firmly. It takes determ­in­a­tion to go against the norm. 5Moscovici, S. (1980). Toward a the­ory of con­ver­sion beha­viour. In L. Berkowitz (Ed.), Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 13, 209 – 239. New York: Academic Press

In con­trast, many major­ity mem­bers don’t hold their opin­ions so firmly. They might belong to the major­ity for no oth­er reas­on than that every­one else seems to be. 6Chryssochoou, X. and Volpato, C. (2004). Social Influence and the Power of Minorities: An Analysis of the Communist Manifesto, Social Justice Research, 17, 4, 357 – 388

In groups, the minor­ity can have a dis­pro­por­tion­ate effect, con­vert­ing many ‘major­ity’ mem­bers to their own cause. This is because many major­ity group mem­bers are not strong believ­ers in its cause. They may be simply going along because it seems easi­er or that there is no real altern­at­ive. They may also have become dis­il­lu­sioned with the group pur­pose, pro­cess, or lead­er­ship and are seek­ing a viable altern­at­ive.”
Source: Changingminds​.org 7Conversion Theory. (2023). Changingminds​.org. https://​chan​ging​minds​.org/​e​x​p​l​a​n​a​t​i​o​n​s​/​t​h​e​o​r​i​e​s​/​c​o​n​v​e​r​s​i​o​n​_​t​h​e​o​r​y​.​htm

According to con­ver­sion the­ory, while major­it­ies often claim norm­at­ive social influ­ence, minor­it­ies strive for eth­ic­al high ground. 

Given the power of norm­at­ive social influ­ence, minor­it­ies must stick togeth­er in tight-knit in-groups that can verb­al­ise the same mes­sage repeatedly.

Learn more: Conversion Theory: The Disproportionate Influence of Minorities

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Model 3: The Amplification Hypothesis

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The Amplification Hypothesis

It’s com­mon to find that coun­ter­ar­gu­ments strengthen exist­ing beliefs instead of weak­en­ing them. 

  • The harder you attack someone verbally, the more you con­vince them of their belief, not yours.

The phe­nomen­on is known as the amp­li­fic­a­tion hypo­thes­is, where dis­play­ing cer­tainty about an atti­tude when talk­ing with anoth­er per­son increases and hardens that attitude.

Across exper­i­ments, it is demon­strated that increas­ing atti­tude cer­tainty strengthens atti­tudes (e.g., increases their res­ist­ance to per­sua­sion) when atti­tudes are uni­valent but weak­ens atti­tudes (e.g., decreases their res­ist­ance to per­sua­sion) when atti­tudes are ambi­val­ent. These res­ults are con­sist­ent with the amp­li­fic­a­tion hypo­thes­is.“
Source: Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 8Clarkson, J. J., Tormala, Z. L., & Rucker, D. D. (2008). A new look at the con­sequences of atti­tude cer­tainty: The amp­li­fic­a­tion hypo­thes­is. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, … Continue read­ing

How does the amp­li­fic­a­tion hypo­thes­is work? 

In a threat­en­ing situ­ation or emer­gency, we resort to the prim­al (fast­est) part of the brain and sur­viv­al instincts (fight, flight and freeze). 9Surviving the Storm: Understanding the Nature of Attacks held at Animal Care Expo, 2011 in Orlando, FL.

  • Dichotomous think­ing. This think­ing style is at the heart of rad­ic­al move­ments and fun­da­ment­al­ism. Even people who exer­cise abstract think­ing, logic, reas­on, and the abil­ity to recog­nize com­plex issues can resort to this think­ing style when threatened. 10Silfwer, J. (2017, June 13). Conversion Theory — Disproportionate Minority Influence. Doctor Spin | The PR Blog. https://​doc​tor​spin​.net/​c​o​n​v​e​r​s​i​o​n​-​t​h​e​o​ry/
  • Egocentric think­ing. People who demon­strate non-ego­centric think­ing in many areas can also use this think­ing style under stress. When a tar­get is labelled an enemy, cog­nit­ive steps jus­ti­fy viol­ent beha­viour and pre­vent altru­ism and empathy. 11Beck (1999): Homogenization, Dehumanization and Demonization.
  • Distorted think­ing. We tend to ignore details in our envir­on­ments that do not sup­port our think­ing and beliefs. 12Cognitive dis­son­ance. (2023, November 20). In Wikipedia. https://​en​.wiki​pe​dia​.org/​w​i​k​i​/​C​o​g​n​i​t​i​v​e​_​d​i​s​s​o​n​a​nce

Establishing com­mon ground and exhib­it­ing empathy demon­strates a genu­ine under­stand­ing of their per­spect­ive, fos­ter­ing trust and open­ness to your ideas. Conversely, a stra­tegic mis­match of atti­tudes can serve as a power­ful coun­ter­meas­ure if your object­ive is to deflect per­suas­ive attempts.

Persuade

To per­suade, align your atti­tude with the tar­get. Otherwise, you will only act to cre­ate resistance.

Provoke

To put off a per­suader, mis­match their atti­tudes. When they are logic­al, be emo­tion­al, and vice versa. 

Learn more: The Amplification Hypothesis: How To Counter Extreme Positions

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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 13Velasco, 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 14Cancel 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 15Deplatforming. (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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The Political Left Should Beware of Woke Journalism, Too

I firmly believe we need journ­al­ism of the clas­sic­al left, where the indi­vidu­al without a voice is giv­en a plat­form to speak truth to power. 

We need object­ive and brave report­ing in the face of severe reper­cus­sions from organ­ised, estab­lished, and insti­tu­tion­al­ised elites. We need journ­al­ists who care more about the truth than polit­ic­al correctness.

It makes sense for journ­al­ism to lean mainly toward the left. 

But if that left goes woke, journ­al­ism ceases and becomes activism.

It is undeni­able, how­ever, that the propaga­tion of polit­ic­al cor­rect­ness exerts pres­sure on journ­al­ism and that polit­ic­al cor­rect­ness in its dif­fer­ent facets — inform­a­tion bans, top­ic bans, and gov­ern­ment­al lan­guage reg­u­la­tion as well as a trend towards intol­er­ance — poses a threat to inde­pend­ent and self-con­fid­ent journ­al­ism.”
Source: Journalism Research, Edition 1, 2021: Political cor­rect­ness – a threat to journalism?

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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.

ANNOTATIONS
ANNOTATIONS
1 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
2 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/
3 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/
4 Conversion the­ory of minor­ity influ­ence. (2021, February 12). In Wikipedia. https://​en​.wiki​pe​dia​.org/​w​i​k​i​/​C​o​n​v​e​r​s​i​o​n​_​t​h​e​o​r​y​_​o​f​_​m​i​n​o​r​i​t​y​_​i​n​f​l​u​e​nce
5 Moscovici, S. (1980). Toward a the­ory of con­ver­sion beha­viour. In L. Berkowitz (Ed.), Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 13, 209 – 239. New York: Academic Press
6 Chryssochoou, X. and Volpato, C. (2004). Social Influence and the Power of Minorities: An Analysis of the Communist Manifesto, Social Justice Research, 17, 4, 357 – 388
7 Conversion Theory. (2023). Changingminds​.org. https://​chan​ging​minds​.org/​e​x​p​l​a​n​a​t​i​o​n​s​/​t​h​e​o​r​i​e​s​/​c​o​n​v​e​r​s​i​o​n​_​t​h​e​o​r​y​.​htm
8 Clarkson, J. J., Tormala, Z. L., & Rucker, D. D. (2008). A new look at the con­sequences of atti­tude cer­tainty: The amp­li­fic­a­tion hypo­thes­is. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95(4), 810 – 825. https://​doi​.org/​1​0​.​1​0​3​7​/​a​0​0​1​3​192
9 Surviving the Storm: Understanding the Nature of Attacks held at Animal Care Expo, 2011 in Orlando, FL.
10 Silfwer, J. (2017, June 13). Conversion Theory — Disproportionate Minority Influence. Doctor Spin | The PR Blog. https://​doc​tor​spin​.net/​c​o​n​v​e​r​s​i​o​n​-​t​h​e​o​ry/
11 Beck (1999): Homogenization, Dehumanization and Demonization.
12 Cognitive dis­son­ance. (2023, November 20). In Wikipedia. https://​en​.wiki​pe​dia​.org/​w​i​k​i​/​C​o​g​n​i​t​i​v​e​_​d​i​s​s​o​n​a​nce
13 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
14 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
15 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
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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