Grosvenor Square

Grosvenor Square

North Americans thinking back to the turmoil of the 1960s can easily forget that there was other turmoil elsewhere. One spot that has gone down in in the history of protest is Grosvenor Square, London. The year was 1968. This was the local manifestation of Russia invading Czechoslovakia, student protests in Paris, political protests in Chicago, assassinations in the US, the Vietnam war, and more.
Adding to the confrontational atmosphere of the time was Enoch Powell’s April speech to a conservative meeting in Birmingham. It criticized immigration and anti-discrimination legislation. Powell, a sitting MP lost his position in the shadow cabinet because of the intolerance of the speech. He did not use the term “Rivers of Blood” but alluded to Virgil’s Aeneid—“I seem to see the River Tiber foaming with much blood.”
So, history cannot record what percentage of people who go to a protest are protesting which particular issue. It seems that 1968 featured many protests with multiple motivations.
Trafalgar Square was the staging ground for the protesters. The estimate of their numbers ranges from 10-50,000. On their way to Hyde Park, they wanted to drop off a petition at 10 Downing Street, where the Prime Minister lives. The petition asked the government to stop supporting the US in Vietnam. A few thousand Britain-Vietnam Solidarity Front members, said to be Maoists, broke away from the main group to attack the US Embassy in Grosvenor Square. There were 9,000 police officers deployed, with another 1,000 trying to prevent access to the Embassy—perhaps more officers than protesters.
The crowd pelted the cops with what they could find lying around. What they brought was firecrackers to frighten police horses, and marbles and ball-bearings to hurt the soft spot under the horses’ hooves. It’s a shame animal rights groups hadn’t been in on the meeting that choose this tactic. About 86 people were hurt and 200 arrested. It’s often hard to tell for sure, but it may be that more police officers required hospital treatment than did protesters.
The last minute change of route caused confusion and a bottleneck—dangerous in cities. Like a pressure-cooker, you don’t want to pack or isolate crowds—even ones which aren’t angry. They’ll get angry or scared.
This was early days for such protests, and requires the benefit of hindsight to understand. Peter Joyce ad Neil Wain—British academics—have done just that in their Palgrave Dictionary of Public Order Policing, Protest and Political Violence. They note that protesting UK support for the Vietnam War provided a nebulous enemy or target for the crowd. What was the subject of that protest—the ineffectual International Control Commission (ICC) doing studies and reports on Vietnam, of which the UK was a member? The ICC was either lifeless or dead by 1968, and little known before that. Was it phone calls among diplomats, speeches by politicians, trade in military supplies? You might get a dozen answers from the crowd. But when the US Embassy became a hard target, there was focus. Protesters would use ‘focus’ at many later events.
Meanwhile the police learned as well. Despite searching busses loaded with protesters coming into London, they didn’t find many weapons. Perhaps they should have also seen and removed debris from the square, which had become a weapon for protesters. The violence took police by surprise. It is said they responded with gratuitous violence of their own, including toward non-violent protestors.
With the current turmoil over unemployment, trade, terrorism, and other matters, it’s worth taking some lessons from 1968. How are our cities prepared to cope with protest?

Rodney King

Everything is related to everything else, they say (quoting ecologist Barry Commoner). This is proven to be true in cities every day. If a driver slows on on an expressway, there’s a chain reaction back a few miles which slows everybody down. When this causes 1,000 people to be late for work, there’s a loss of economic activity.
There are also positive chain reactions. More public transit results in less pollution. More walking is both healthy and reduces traffic.
There are also tragic chain reactions. Miscommunication in crowds and at protests lead to tragedy. Rumours spread that a protester has died and this leads to violence. This is why the current state of thinking in police circles is to be in and with the crowd, not in riot gear or bunched up, in order to report to other cops what’s going on without relying on rumours.
Over in America, where everything is mechanized, the tragedy is amplified. It’s astounding how many full-scale riots result from a routine traffic stop, or other un-noteworthy police action. Detroit, Watts in Los Angeles in 1965 and the 1992 Rodney King riot in Los Angeles all began with minor police actions. In Detroit it was a raid on an unlicensed pub. Watts began as an arrest for drunk driving. Motorist Rodney King was stopped by the California Highway Patrol in March 1991. There had been a high-speed chase and King was tasered, hit with batons and beaten while lying on the ground. This was all video-taped.
A year later three Los Angeles police officers were acquitted of assault with a deadly weapon. Race came into play since Mr. King was Black, the officers were White and nine of the twelve jurors were White. African Americans protested and were soon joined by Hispanics. There was tension between these groups and Korean businesses. This got worse when a Korean shopkeeper shot and killed a 15 year old Black girl in an argument over a bottle of juice. He was not jailed.
There were random attacks on motorists. There was looting, arson, 2,383 injuries, 8,000 arrests, 51 killed, 700 businesses burned, and billion dollars in damages. Half the arrests and more than one-third of those killed were Hispanic.
Armed Koreans protected their businesses, resulting in gun battles on the streets. Curfews, the National Guard, regular soldiers and some US Marines finally stopped the riot.
The US Justice Department said it was going to investigate, and when the riot ended the officers were charged with violating Rodney King’s civil rights. In April 1993, two officers were convicted and imprisoned. Rodney King was awarded $3.8 million in damages from the city and died in June 2012.
Various reports placed blame and suggested solutions. Unlike the riots of the 1960s, this one was said to have been fueled partly by a backlash by African Americans against those moving into their communities. But some reports also blamed economic isolation of the inner city. Poor police-community relations was cited. One solution suggested was more emphasis on foot patrol, and making patrols criteria for promotion. One report called for more police to report assaults by other police officers.
There was also a call for better emergency response planning and training in the police force and in the city as a whole.
Training, experience on the street, and a better economy are worthy goals. There’s also the philosophical question of how important routine traffic stops or pub raids are in our society. Police can use discretion, knowing how these things get out of control. But then there’s the danger of the drunk driver in the back of the cop’s mind. The one you let go might kill a pedestrian. Tough calls.

Walking Tours

Walking tours are a great way to see a city. Wear good shoes, dress for the weather, pack a snack, and meet at pre-determined landmark or transit stop. This is how I saw a lot of Berlin, New York, and countless themed tours of London—Bloomsbury, Shakespeare, the World Wars, and so on.
The companion Beatles tours of Liverpool and London are nice bookends to the Fab Four’s career, and help in understanding the rivalry between the two cities. While American music might come from Lubbock, Muscle Shoals, Memphis or even smaller towns, Liverpool was the far north and a backwater not to be taken seriously in the 1950s and early 1960s. Going back farther, Benjamin Disraeli described Northern and Southern England as “Two nations between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy.” This quote from 1845 appears in a good book that touches on the rivalry, John McMillian’s Beatles vs Stones.
My tour of Liverpool took me to actual places named Penny Lane and Strawberry Fields, now immortalized in song titles. Long before The Cavern, the Beatles hung around and played in the Jacaranda Club—apparently their first ever venue. It still has John Lennon’s murals and graffiti. I saw the modest homes of the four musicians, only one I think with indoor plumbing. I didn’t hear much about original drummer Pete Best, but did hear a bit about Ringo Starr’s original group—Rory Storm and the Hurricanes.
Because it was Liverpool, and I’d heard that the ‘Liverpool sound’ was in part inspired by the records brought to town from America by cruise ship employees, I wanted to see the port. I asked around near the waterway.

“Right there” was the response. Ocean going ships of the day were so small. Where they tied up looked so inconsequential that I missed it.
Down in London, there’s a man who has been conducting a Beatles walking tour for decades. I’ve taken it twice – twenty years apart. I walked the zebra crossing at Abby Road, saw where the roof-top concert was played, and all the other landmarks. I heard the trivia, fascinating facts, and interconnections.
There’s also a lesson in the city rivalry in this musical education. The Beatles were up against a group called the Tremeloes on their first audition. The Beatles lost. To be somewhat fair, the Tremeloes did great harmony (Google Silence is Golden, Yellow River, etc.) and wrote some of their own tunes. The Tremeloes covered some of the same American tunes as did the Beatles (Twist and Shout) and even covered some Beatles tunes with good results. And yet turning down the Beatles seems like the mistake of the century. It may have been, but was partly decided upon by the fact that the Tremeloes were from London and the Beatles from the wilds of the North. That apparently tipped the scales.
After the recording company EMI picked up the Beatles, rival Decca, kicking its own rear, signed the Rolling Stones and promoted them, determined to make up for the error. The Stones were actually the more urban and urbane group, and for some, stole the Beatles early ‘greaser’ image.
Back on the street, there’s a general Rock and Roll tour of London during which I saw where all the groups of the time played, including Americans who came over (Jimmy Hendrix, Paul Simon). Beatles manager Brian Epstein ran concerts at a theatre and the Stones regularly played at the Crawdaddy.
When you think of it, many cities are defined by their music. Broadway musicals and New York are inseparable. ‘Summer of Love’ music helped define San Francisco. Walking tours are a great way to see cities—especially if there’s a soundtrack in the back of your mind.

Reflection Chapter from Tough Love

There are excellent reasons to use a practitioner’s experience in actual cases. But, a cautionary tale involves the excellent athlete who does not make a great coach, the business leader who becomes a mediocre university lecturer, and the gifted practitioner of dispute resolution who cannot impart skills well. Yet, it is tantalizing to consider the wealth of experience one might access, if one could employ gifted professionals in the correct manner. Ignoring experience is not appropriate.

Unlocking excellence in gifted practitioners is no small feat. Their very skills may cause snap judgments, entrenched attitudes and other errors. However, the gifted practitioner surely has access to different, multiple and unique kinds of knowledge—skill, confidence and articulated knowledge, for example. The first is “based on genuine personal experiences of problem solving”, the second on “examples, demonstrations, histories (on successes and failures) from colleagues”, and the third on “general principles, formal theory, methods and prescriptions”. The expert may just behave differently than the novice, and that difference can benefit others, if codified. There is a possibility that some gifted practitioners may be object lessons in how not to behave as well. Their methods may be impossible or inappropriate to emulate.

Gifted practitioners may succumb to aloofness, or have difficulty imparting their special skills. They may be better practitioners in the moment, than communicators after the fact. They may be intuitive rather than analytical. They may need the exhilaration of a client in need, or billable time to perform well. Nonetheless, the literature indicates that “learning insights about oneself, insights about the Other, insights about (improving) the relationship between Self and Other” are all possible and valid goals.

There are benefits for the practitioner, the client and students of practitioners in improving access to lessons from past cases. Schon points to how “we show ourselves to be knowledgeable in a special way” when elite practitioners “go about . . . spontaneous, intuitive performance.” He uses the term reflection to express the methodology necessary to grow as a practitioner and to impart additional data to clients and other practitioners. Reflection “can serve as a corrective [to] make new sense of the situations” that arise in a practice.

The benefit to the practitioner occurs when “. . . he becomes a researcher in the practice context. He is not dependent on the on the categories of established theory and technique, but constructs a new theory of the unique case.” The practitioner thus improves and the benefit to others increases in the future as well. The others are future clients and students who are served better and more respectfully by a more skilled practitioner.

On the ethical front, there is the issue of one’s legitimate self-interest that motivates us all. The past case, and methods which worked on that occasion, may be tainted by these interests. Was the case picket for study because the teacher is the hero of the story, or the client is prestigious? Even “subterfuge” may have been “part of ‘the game’” of negotiation and conflict resolution.
Reflection may be an antidote to the ethical and other stumbling blocks in picking the right case and recounting it effectively. Reflection-in-action is “on-the-spot surfacing, criticizing, restructuring, and testing of intuitive understandings of experienced phenomena.” Reflection can be achieved through questioning, or through “a competition among hypotheses, rather like a horse race.” It is partly through this competition that the practitioner becomes a researcher. Reflection-in-action allows for experimenting which “is at once exploratory, move testing, and hypothesis testing.” These are the three major laboratory techniques in that “…the action by which he tests his hypothesis is also a move by which he tries to effect (sic) a desired change in the situation, and a probe by which he explores it.” In the courtroom, this may take seconds. Regardless of the venue, the technique or the time devoted, it is clear that reflection during the delivery of services to clients can enrich the experience for both parties and optimize the service provided.

For the most part, Schon seems to examine reflection during practice–“…know-how is in the action…” He discusses the conversion of “knowing-in-action to knowledge-in-action.” It is a consciousness of one’s actions that is the focus. This action is progressive, with the practitioner becoming more skilled through reflection. Schon notes that some practitioners (“protagonists”), “do not reflect on their frames by act from them, seeking to defend their own positions and attack the positions of their opponents”. In this instance, the frame appears to be a rigid container occupied by the practitioner, rather than a picture or scene that the practitioner can analyze from without. The difficulty of “reflection on action” also occurs because artistry is indescribable, and “reflection-in-action paralyzes action.”

Schon says practitioners do “reflect-in-action, but they seldom reflect on their reflection-in-action.” This surely means that the reflection consists of a regular check up on how the case is going, while the case is going on. It is less likely to be after the fact reflection. There seems to be a post-facto element to breaking open one’s actions “to make a new sense of [the] . . . transaction”. The dilemma is then that the practitioner may be too occupied in the case to reflect fully, other than for immediate purposes. Then, after the fact, “[s]ince he cannot describe his reflection-in-action, he cannot teach others to do it. If they [others] acquire the capacity for it, they do so by contagion.”

I use the expression reflection-after-action to capture several notions. Reflection takes time. Most practitioners can access material in a more sophisticated fashion after a longer period in practice. While it is possible to reflect while practicing, there are no doubt both benefits and detriments to doing so. Reflection after the fact allows for a different psychological and physiological stance. If nothing else, it would be unusual to gain nothing with the passage of time—experience, maturity, humility, perspective and so on. These surely add to one’s ability to reflect and analyze.

Another reason for using the term involves military tradition. The notion of the fog of war is well-known in military circles. This refers to the difficulty of fully appreciating a situation that one is in. It is hard to fight a battle and analyze it at the same time. Another common expression is that no battle plan outlives the first shot. This speaks to the fluidity of military situations and how tactics must change and adapt. Finally, there is the military after-action report, which serves to analyze a situation post-facto. This analysis is designed to enhance learning and produce new tactics for future use. One plans, executes in a dynamic and potentially unique situation (and evaluates and learns while executing) and then analyses post-facto for present and future reference.

So, what’s the best way to reflect on a past case? One good way is to write out a full text. The spoken word (even from notes) is sufficiently different from the written word, that the thoughtful practitioner will have a different experience with the case material and her thoughts, if s/he undertakes a formal written account of the material. Similarly, constructing a PowerPoint presentation affords the opportunity to import supportive video clips, audio material, still pictures and diagrams, which may enhance learning and appeal to diverse learning styles. One can consult the academic and quality popular literature for similar cases, or even dissimilar cases that offer a counter-point. Popular culture can be used for relevance and accessibility.

So, with these observations and context, it is time to launch into my ethnographic accounts. All the cases which follow are true. Identifying names, genders, locations an dates have been altered to protect the identity of the subjects. I enjoyed my journey through these cases, both the first time, and in the subsequent writing and recounting I undertook. I hope you enjoy the journey too.

check out the full book at


There are very few researchers who document the positive effects of disasters. But a very few do note that a disaster also injects a lot of new money into a region. Tough way to get a little economic activity going, but the imperative is to repair.
Per L. Bylund is one of the rare birds who explores this in his book The Seen, the Unseen, and the Unrealized. The subtitle is How Regulations Affect Our Everyday Lives. I think the book is about much more than regulation, but subtitles are sometimes the product of the publisher, not the author.
The book is a readable account of the economic decisions entrepreneurs make when deciding to go into a business, sell their product, or consume a product. We “produce in order to consume.” If I eat an apple, I am forgoing the eating of a pear and also forgo trading that apple for something else. That’s opportunity cost. Bylund sustains this “Dick and Jane” analogy for 173 pages without getting pedantic. He shows how nothing is free. We see the apple, we don’t see the hypothetical pear, and we can’t see what would have happened if we’d done something else all together—the unrealized. This is his case against government subsidy, because the government took the money out of the economic system to put it somewhere and that creates a whole bunch of unintended consequences.
But back to disasters, which are a dramatic case of scarcity and supply and demand theory. If your city is wiped out, you need food, clothing, and shelter far more than shopping for a winter vacation. The clothing is anything you can get, rather than the latest Brooks Brothers’ jacket. A disaster creates a “different consumption pattern.” A disaster is different than “other radical change” because it may not be anticipated and it affects “most or all goods across the board.”
Who cares about opportunity cost, comparative shopping or anything else in a disaster? You need what you need. Even if you (collectively) have no money, you obtain necessities with charity, volunteerism, debt, or any way you can.
Bylund is right, as a professor of entrepreneurship and free enterprise might be. Since he’s at Oklahoma State, he must also have seen a few severe weather events.
But my interest is in prevention, not just analysis. I’d like to build on the author’s sound analysis, to get to a solution.
If a disaster wipes out a lot of inventory, that scarce or non-existent inventory has a higher value with more dollars chasing fewer goods. If the inventory is the necessities of life, the chase takes on an urgency unparalleled in normal times.
What shall be done? It seems axiomatic to me that we maintain inventory levels, remove scarcity, and slow down the chase. Walmart did this. Bylund documents that it closed “2 of its distribution centers and 126 of its stores” after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005. Half had no power, some flooded and 89 had damage. Within ten days “121 of those stores were open again” after Herculean work by the retail chain. I bet their prices didn’t change much, if at all.
Does Walmart have some secret way of reacting to a disaster? Can municipal employees not learn this or ask? Cities can require businesses, buildings, and sports facilities to maintain inventories of food, medical supplies, and other necessities, including even cheap, disposable paper jump suits. There can be cheap foam to sleep on, and co-management agreements with other cities to get supplies and responders on site quickly.
It seems to me that this would reduce the scarcity, lower prices, decrease the time getting back to normal.
How about trying to get this going in your city?

SOCK it to them in the Media

It’s been twenty or so years since I began using the term SOCKO.  I often worry that it may seem a bit silly or flippant, but I’ve not found a better term to express the impact, newsworthiness and succinctness that audiences of all types need. 

 Speaking and Writing in Sockos

Aces, press lines, Qs & As, key messages, mission, vision and value statements don’t do the trick for me.  If they lack impact or are not newsworthy, reporters won’t use them and audiences won’t remember them. Qs & As can go on forever with inflammatory, confidential or hypothetical questions.  Even articles in The Harvard Business Review question whether shop-floor workers in industry have any idea what to do differently after hearing mission, vision and value statements.


So, I’m still stuck with SOCKOs, which imply impact and allow me to discuss the communications theories that the five-letter acronym evokes.  This article made the front page of Winning Campaigns and has been reprinted and archived on the magazine’s web site.     


In a recent media training session with a senior member of cabinet, the time came to simulate interviews with one of my trainers.  I played good cop, asking the politician to consider what he wanted to say in the 5 to 8 minutes he’d have.


The client and staffers talked a bit about policy and goals.  It was an unfocused discussion.  I took a few notes on what the politician and his staff thought they should say.


At the end of the interview, I asked the politician to review his own performance:


“Good relationship with the journalist.”


“I felt positive about it.”


“I’m comfortable with what I said.”


“Strong performance” (from staff).


I pulled out my notes and observed that in the eight or so minutes he had had to speak, he hadn’t got out one single message that he’d planned to.  Jaws dropped.  I then parsed this observation more finely—either your strategy was wrong and those messages should not have been delivered, or your strategy was right but you missed executing it.


I’ve developed an acronym to show how to develop a good media clip.  It’s SOCKO.




I know this acronym evokes a crash or blow in a comic strip, but it doesn’t at all stand for punching reporters who ask you tough questions.  SOCKO does imply impact, but of the emotional or intellectual kind.  A SOCKO is a true, memorable, clear, short statement that encapsulates your position and makes the recipient say “Ah!” or “Oh!” or “Hum!”


SOCKO also stands for Single Overriding Communications and Knowledge Objective.  Each word is worth a few sentences in turn.




A message is strategic because you’ve thought about it, practiced it and rehearsed it.  It is your considered opinion on what to say about a topic.  You’ve pondered what others will say in response and your rebuttal—a semantic chess game.  Rehearsal is done out loud with staff and with audio and video recording equipment.  Does anyone really think Richard Nixon thought about the implications of saying “I am not a crook”?  How about George Romney’s “When I came back from Viet Nam, I had just had the greatest brainwashing that anybody can get when you go over to Viet Nam” (often paraphrased as “I was brainwashed on Viet Nam”).  Or how about John Kerry’s “I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it”?




Media operate twenty-four hours a day and thus work at three times the speed of normal life.  Reporters need your clip right now.  They do not want to waste much time on context, background, disclaimers and parenthetical statements.  Get on with it.


I ask clients to imagine all they know about a topic.  It’s lots.  Reporters and the public can’t absorb it all.  Now I ask clients to imagine all they know about the topic in the shape of an iceberg.  What’s the fifteen percent that’s floating above the surface?  That’s probably the best clip.  You can then move on to the next most important fifteen percent, the next and the next again.  Just like real icebergs with portions chopped off, they right themselves, and another important fifteen per cent pokes above the surface.  Proficient communicators figure out how to combine chunks to sound like new clips when they’re really reiterating previous sound bites put together in slightly different ways.


So, a good clip is the overriding message you want to get out and the overriding aspect of what you want to talk about.




There’s about a fifty-percent difference between oral and written communication.  In this article, I don’t have intonation, volume, pausing, pacing or any other tools that I have when speaking.  But when I’m speaking, I don’t have fonts, italics, headings, bold, drop initials or any of the graphic tools that a writer uses to hold your attention.


Most candidates spend a lot of time with the written word—bills, reports, letters and so on.  They have to be reminded to shift gears when they speak.


Good oral communication features stories, imagery and metaphors.  Sentences are shorter.  For TV, a big part of the clip is your positive body language, eye contact, engagement and open gestures.  For radio it’s pausing and variety in volume, pitch and tone.  In print it’s what makes a good headline or picture.  In all cases it’s a polished, condensed version of normal speech.


Many lawmakers think that speaking as if they were a paragraph in a complex contract sounds precise and thorough.  It doesn’t.  Even in legal journals, the advice is to avoid being “hyper-correct.”  Studies of judges and juries show that they tend to discount witnesses’ testimony if it is loaded with jargon and unnecessary big words.


So pursuant to the above, I exhort you to peruse your verbosity and expunge polysyllabic utterances.  Keep it simple and conversational.




Knowledgeable people have facts, figures, data and trends at their disposal.  How often does a political speech or clip in the media say something new?  Not often enough.  This takes research and work.  So does deciding how to cite figures.  A number can be expressed as a percentage, a fraction, or a whole number, or one can show the change over time.  Numbers can be expressed graphically with bar charts, graphs, dispersions, scatter diagrams or box plots.  Choose wisely.


Whatever the choice with numbers, research shows that anecdotes and images trump them every time.  Numbers are hard to remember and understand, but a story is memorable.




So what’s all this work in aid of?  What’s the objective?  In print the objective is a headline, picture, cutline (underneath the picture) or call-out (a quote culled out of the copy and made larger or bold to create a nice graphic look in a magazine or newspaper).  For radio it’s a sentence or two on the news or talk show that people remember.  On TV it’s the same, but it also could be something you’re doing that looks newsworthy.  That’s often called a photo opportunity, but try to avoid clichés, such as cutting a ribbon or “grip and grin” shows of you shaking hands with someone while you’re not looking at her but grinning like a mad fool at the camera.


In all cases you want to be remembered by the audience.  You also want to be interesting and helpful enough to keep the reporters coming back for more.


Focus Groups


I’ve written often about the concerns I have with research techniques.  This column was inspired by my attendance at a focus group.


I was just asked to attend some focus groups and I was reminded of the dozen or so reasons I don’t like them.


First, rich and busy people usually won’t attend, skewing data to a narrow demographic.  This would taint research in a decent undergraduate social science class.  Worse, focus group companies know where they can get repeat attendees on short notice.  These are often students, the unemployed or at least people who live near the focus group facilities.  All of this taints the data, too.


In this particular focus group I feel a twinge as soon as the leader walks in the room.  She is too talkative, as if trying to entertain a client, not conduct research.  Conducting professional scientific research is a learned skill.  Notice I use the term scientific and do not make a distinction with social science.


About fifty years ago Heisenberg said the instrument used in a laboratory experiment affects the results of the experiment—the Heisenberg uncertainty principle.  A thermometer used to measure temperature changes the temperature of the thing it’s measuring.  In 1962, Kuhn pointed out that scientists have a tendency to collect data that supports their views and ignore that which conflicts.  He used the term paradigms to describe this phenomenon.  Merton and Feyerabend discussed how science is a value laden pursuit, driven by those performing the science.


So the focus group leader is in a difficult position.  Waltzing in like the star of the show, trying to impress, performing for the client behind the two-way mirror or any other false behaviour can make that position untenable and skew the data.


A focus group leader should dress and talk one step up from the subjects in the room.  S/he is there for scientific purposes to gather data, not make friends or entertain.


Most focus groups begin way too quickly.  The leader should allow discussion to evolve slowly with open ended questions to see what the respondents want to discuss.  Closed, specific questions, especially ones that can be answered with “yes” or “no” or a short sentence won’t reveal as much as an open ended questions encouraging discussion.


Closed questions yield what researchers call an aided response.  The questions tell respondents what to talk about.  Open questions yield an unaided response where the respondents can tell researchers what to think about—the way it should be!


In the focus group I was in recently, we were testing confidential matters.  But let’s say it was reactions to Candidate X.  One of the first questions was, “What kind of car do you think Candidate X drives?”


This sparks a discussion of myriad types of cars.  I’m reminded that some people follow car models more than others.  Some may name one car thinking it’s the sportiest on the market, while another person may name the same model because it represents fuel efficiency, economy or some other attribute.


In the end, without knowing what respondents mean by the car models they name, you end up with a mish-mash of information that could mean anything.  “Cadillac” means luxury, high-price, high fuel consumption and perhaps the ability of American industry to compete with anyone on the planet.  Who knows?


But if there really were value in the car question, it should have begun in an open ended fashion such as, ”How does Candidate X get around the district or campaign trail?”


Respondents might name trains, boats, planes and cars.  If we find out people think the candidate flies around in a private jet, that could be a problem.  If cars are really relevant, after an open discussion of other types of travel, the closed ended question could be asked about what kind of car the candidate uses.


In the focus group I watched, one respondent got up on his hind legs and said he didn’t think the candidate used a car.  It takes guts to challenge an authority figure and say the question is wrong.  If a respondent does that, it’s a very powerful message that you could be on the wrong track.


Next the leader held up pages from the candidate’s web page, passed them around and asked for a review.  That’s not how people use web pages, so it’s hard to tell what was being tested.


Next, the leader passed around literature that the candidate regularly sends out.  The question was, “What do you like about the brochures, householders and other communication?”


I have two problems with this line of questioning.  First, it misses the opportunity to find out if anybody remembers getting anything in the mail from the candidate.  People may feel boxed into saying they received and remembered the material, when the most valuable information might be that they didn’t.  Next, what if people hate the literature?  Asking what they like about it, cuts off the discussion about what they don’t like.


People like to be cooperative when being paid, so you have to be careful they aren’t so cooperative that you don’t find out what they’re really thinking.


Next came the Barbara Walters question.  She was famous for asking an interviewee, “If you were a tree, what kind of tree would you be?”


In this session, respondents were shown pictures of all kinds of people—young, old, various races, both genders and so on.  As they are looking at the pictures, the leader asks, “If the candidate’s campaign were a person, what person would it be?”


Not only is the question a bit odd, it’s hard to tell what people mean when they pick a picture of a fit, muscular looking man.  Does mean the campaign is intimidating, full of thugs or has staying power for the long run?  Next, respondents start answering questions that weren’t asked.  One picks the construction worker because the candidate comes from a part of the district where there’s lots of construction.  Another picks the young Asian woman because the district is becoming more multi-cultural. Some seem to be picking people they find attractive or would like to be with, not who embody the campaign.  This ends in another mish-mash of unusable information.


I innocently asked the client where the pictures came from?  It turns out employees of the research company picked them.  They may use them every session, for all I know.  Regardless, it does not make a lot of sense to me to have respondents judging pictures picked either at random or purposefully by a research company to make their sessions go more smoothly.


Next, the leader asks what does the person in the picture do for a living, and what does the person do on weekends?  (I assume the construction worker works in construction).


Ironically, after going to all this trouble to stimulate fairly irrelevant discussion, the leader cuts off dialogue by asking if anyone has any final thoughts?  When the leader leaves the room to get more instructions from the client, I listen in to the continuing discussion in the focus group room.  It’s actually a better discussion, unaided by the leader.  One older woman began waxing nostalgic about the district, the party and the candidate.


So, what’s the right approach?  There are lots of them.  Credible scientists use several different methods and compare them to obtain more reliable data.  Polls, questionnaires, elite interviews with opinion leaders and lay-elite dialogues to see where there are gaps between those in the know and regular folks can all help.  So can old-fashioned research.  Online databases now make is really easy to search everything from newspapers to academic journals.  For all a campaign knows five distinguished academics and journalists have written 10,000 excellent words on the topic over the years.


Focus groups can be helpful, if run properly.  But they also need to be augmented with sound, old-fashioned research, preferably in libraries, surrounded by musty books.




Research Design Issues


I have many concerns about the quality of research conducted in political campaigns, by those governing and by industrialists.  I even see those in the not-for-profit sector spending precious money on unproductive research. 

“Original” research in universities is often only conducted at the doctoral level.  Research that is done often involves relatively unproductive statistical tables or questionnaires that purport to be” scientific”.  Many students find searching through microfilm, microfiche and original texts in libraries to be passé, if they are aware of the technique at all.  This constricted research in universities translates into marginally beneficial or even irrelevant techniques and results in industry and government.      


How is it that the best educated generation the world has ever seen is relying on research techniques that would not achieve a pass in a second year social science course in a reputable university?  In government, and in the political campaigns designed to lead to governing, senior managers are making decisions based on flawed methodology.


But we are in unstable times when we need excellent public policy and politics.  America is polarized domestically and the European Union is beginning to show signs of eventually having similar economic and political clout in some parts of the world.


For those who look to the private sector for leadership and use the refrain of “running the government like a business”—please don’t.  Fully 82% of all mergers and acquisitions in private industry fail to produce new value.  There is a crisis of competence in all sectors, in part because of poor research.


Here are the top ten issues and comments on research techniques and challenges faced both in campaigns and then in governing:



The population is much more sophisticated than they were when the random sample telephone survey was invented.  A telephone call is now an intrusion, especially during dinner time.  Pollsters are experiencing up to 70% refuse rates.  I tell my clients that often the biggest message they are getting is that their constituents refuse to speak to them at all.


Compounding the problem is caller ID which tips people off that it’s a pollster calling.  The moment of silence before the questioner begins speaking is a further tip off, as is the robotic reading of questions from a computer screen.


Perhaps the biggest challenge is that up to 10% of the population has just one hand-held device or phone—higher in the crucial 18-24 age group.  Many will not participant in phone surveys because they have to pay the air time.


People miss-remember dates, events and attitudes—what researchers call “backward and forward telescoping”.   They also tell researchers what they wish had happened, or use answers to researchers’ questions as surrogates for other messages.  The classic example is that far more Americans reported that they voted for President Kennedy after his assassination than could have done so in the closest election the US had had to that date.


Social science is too imprecise to determine that 22.3% of people think or do anything—often referred to as “spurious accuracy”.


Citizens reserve the right to lie to pollsters and reserve the right to park their votes in the undecided category or tell pollsters they will vote for a party or candidate when they have no intention of doing so, in order to temporarily reward or punish candidates.


One joke about polls goes like this:  “If an election were held today, everybody would be really surprised because it’s scheduled for November 4”.  That kind of captures some of the unreality of polls these days.


  • Focus Groups.


Robert K. Merton is the inventor of focus groups.  He also coined the terms “role model” and “self-fulfilling prophecy”.  He disassociated himself from the way practitioners implemented his ideas about focus groups.


The dirty little secret about focus groups is the number of times companies rely on semi-professional attendees whom they know will show up on short notice to fulfill a client’s needs.  Students, the disadvantaged and others who need an honorarium or have time on their hands are often overrepresented.


There are ways to make focus groups more reliable.  What the Harvard Business Review calls “empathic testing” involves using a product or discussing an issue in real life conditions.  Putting respondents around a board table and having a formal focus group leader ask questions is not a normal life experience or venue and the results will thus be forced and false.


Anamatics is similar and involves making the experience realistic and having participants focus on the element to be tested.  Realism in the venue can be addressed by driving respondents around in a van while they listen to radio ads a politician wants tested.  This is closer to how voters would listen to an ad than sitting at a board table.


For TV ads, we have stripped rough cut ads into tapes of the actual TV show in which they will appear.  Testing can occur in shopping malls where hundreds or even thousands of people can view the potential ads and react to them.


For print ads and even editorial content, we have mocked up the copy and inserted it into real newspapers to see how respondents react.  We don’t tell them what we want them to react to, we first want to know if they care to look at the ad or story at all.  That’s the so-called “unaided” response.  If they don’t look or read, we have some valuable information.  Then we asked them to review the ad and get more valuable information in their “aided” response.


Campaigns and sitting politicians use lots of mail.  Direct mail raises money and mobilizes troops.  Newsletters and political “householders” let constituents know what their representative is doing.  But nobody opens the mail or reads a householder while sitting around a boardroom table.  These items should be thrown on the floor in a pile of other mail and magazines to see if anybody bothers to stoop down and pick it up.  If someone does, the next question is whether the political piece is interesting enough to cull out of the pile and read.  If not, that’s a valuable answer in itself.

While on the campaign literature theme, there’s always somebody in political meetings showing a mock up of a brochure or householder who points out that the candidate’s picture or name or other important information is off on the right-hand side “where the eye naturally goes”.  By this time in the meeting, I’m too exhausted from trivia and nonsensical issues to point out that we read from left to right in English, Spanish, French and most other languages prevalent in North America, and only read right to left in Arabic, Persian, and some other languages.  (I wonder where these perceived and received pieces of communication wisdom come from?)


With regard to video and TV production, audiences are very sophisticated.  Most people own video cameras and watch TV dozens of hours per week.  Research has shown that focus group attendees will review the production qualities of ads, rather than the content.  To counter this, advertisements can be mocked-up by a graphic artist and one can then test the voice-over or content separately.


Candidates can test debate one-liners, still pictures for brochures, slogans and any other communication element, without layers of clutter or testing of extraneous elements.


  • Graduated Questionnaires.


Self-administered questionnaires are not used much anymore, but are a valid technique.  One of the best examples of these is the old Bureau of Broadcast Measurement diaries that were mailed to households to survey radio listening and TV viewing.  People often put down their favourite station, not the one they actually watched most.


With telephone or in person surveys, respondents become easily and quickly fatigued with having to choose among:  strongly agree, mildly agree, somewhat agree, agree, mildly disagree, strongly disagree.  What does mildly agree mean, other than the fact that it’s stronger than just agreeing and weaker than strongly agreeing?  How does one compare one person’s strong agreement with another person’s?


The best model to determine the weight to put on a respondent’s report is to see if that person actually changes behaviour as a result.  People often report that they will change voting habits, but actually do not.  This makes their threat to do so a surrogate for other matters that should be probed.


In industry, it’s the same.  I have a telecommunications client which conducts quarterly research to determine how much its customers like them.  The results show that up to 30% of respondents say they are “agree”, “strongly agree” or “somewhat agree” with the notion of switching service to a new company.  Yet for years the so-called “churn rate”—the rate at which customers actually change telecommunications providers (phones, hand-helds, internet, etc.) is under 3%.


It is vital to distinguish between what people actually do and what they say they might do.


  • Elite Interviews.


It may not sound egalitarian these days, but elites are good respondents because of how they became elites—they know their demographic well.  These one-on-one, in-depth interviews can augment focus groups, polling and other techniques.


Who’s an elite?  That’s easy.  Ratepayer groups, condominium boards, religious groups, union leaders and even book club busy bodies all rose to the top of their little heap, in part through knowing what their demographic is like.  They can be a great source of information.



The term, taken from navigation, stands for gathering data from several different sources, or with numerous methodologies.  Where data intersect, results are more reliable.   


Researchers have identified several types of triangulation including:  within-method, between-method, data, investigator, theory and methodological triangulation.  Within-method means two separate polls, perhaps by different companies that say the same thing.  Between method might be a poll and a focus group that produce similar results.  Data triangulation might involve qualitative or quantitative results that are much the same.  If several investigators find out the same thing, that’s triangulation.  Theory triangulation might involve a psychological and sociological explanation of behavior.  Finally, these days, using mixed methods—both qualitative and quantitative—is increasingly the norm to avoid the errors that each alone can produce.


  • Mixed methods.


The distinction between qualitative and quantitative data has been blurred for at least fifty years.  Few branches of any science have the predictability of Newtonian physics.  Current thinking is to engage in a mixture of methodologies, mentioned above.  So, a reproducible poll with a large sample that claims to be “scientifically” accurate might be cross referenced with qualitative focus groups, elite interviews and such that plumb small samples more deeply.          


  • Question formulation.


Average People don’t speak the way telephone researchers do, or the way those who write questions think they should.    It’s hard to imagine anyone constructing a questionnaire where a response could be “some good” which is a common expression in the Canadian Maritimes, or “awesome” as is currently popular.  The California “Valley Girl” response of “gag me with a spoon” was probably not used, even in its hay-day.


  • Telephone interviewers.


In addition to the long pause, script reading and intrusion, some companies balk at long distance charges, skewing data to urban respondents.  For decades, first year social scientists have been warned that telephone surveys obviously only gather information from those with telephones.  Triangulation is the antidote.



Social scientists are supposed to keep notes, tapes and a reflexive diary to examine themselves as a scientific instrument while they are examining other people or issues.  Commercial researchers would rarely do this.  


  • The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle.


The use of a particular research instrument has an effect on the outcome of the research.  Heisenberg stated, “[o]n the level of molecular research, the presence of the experimenter is certain to affect the results in a way which cannot be measured”.


The mere fact that a pollster calls up respondents has such affect.  Asking about certain topics that the respondent might not be concerned with, puts that matter on the public agenda.  Moreover, researchers cannot control for the myriad other variables in that respondent’s life.


In the end, perhaps my premise is flawed.  Perhaps we are not the best educated generation the world has ever seen.  We have more degrees and a multiplicity of choices in methods, but may lack the clarity and professionalism of previous generations.  Pity, we need that clarity.







On Line At New York

Outside the Helen Hayes Theatre, waiting for the doors to open, a very agitated male teenager passed on the sidewalk.  He was walking briskly and talking in a loud voice with himself.  He was also gesticulating, and in so-doing was using up all the free airspace in all directions.

“What’s the matter with him?” asked the woman on the line ahead of me.

“’T’s an angry young man.  What can I tell you?” replied her husband, as indulgent as he could sound.

This was my introduction to blasé New Yorkers.

Slowly the line shortened and I was up at the wicket at Lincoln Center.  I was mostly interested in seeing the spectacular setting and inside of the 16 acre site—home of the New York Philharmonic, the Metropolitan Opera and the New York City Ballet.  I was ready to listen or watch.  As it became my turn at the wicket, I asked:

“What’s playing?”  

Wicket keeper:  “Joo-lee-us Cee-ah.”

I guess I paused for a New York beat too long, so wicket man added:

“’Ts an Apra”

I bought a ticket and achieved all my goals.  

I would regularly walk on near the Ed Sullivan Theatre, home of the old David Letterman Show.  I watched the show on hundreds of occasions, and was in the studio audience several times.  I’d  occasionally stop in to chat with Rupert Gee, the deli-operator who was also a regular guest on Letterman.  Rupert is as he appears on TV—a little startled with the attention, but sincere.

On one occasion there was a big crowd extending down the block.  I thought perhaps Rupert was having a sale of special deli sandwiches.

No, it was a lineup to see someone coming in or leaving the stage door of the theatre.  This is where the guests came and went.  This time I was the talkative New York street performer:

“Who’s all this for?”

“Wa-keen Phoenix” said my fellow street performer.

This was early in Mr Phoenix’s career.  I guess after all my trips to New York I still paused a New York moment too long, because an older woman in the crowd showed some empathy:

“Ever since Frank Sinatra died, I don’t know any of them.

Way out in the Rockaways, I ran out of gas.  My GPS told me there was a gas station close by and so I locked my wife in the car and began walking.  The GPS was wrong and the gas station had closed.  I thought of lining up at a bus stop, but didn’t know how often busses came or where they went.  I lined up at a red light and thought I’d hitch hike.  Up came a convertible Thunderbird.  I could see inside and the driver could see me.  I explained my situation and asked for a ride.

“Sure” he said as he started moving a mountain of stuff off his passenger seat to the small spaces in the back of the car and between the seats.

“Oh, don’t worry, if you see my gun, I’m a cop.”

I pointed to a spot of blood on my shirt, and said:

“Great, and if you notice the blood on my shirt, I’m not an axe murderer, I just reached into my shaving kit this morning and cut my finger on my razor.”

“No problem.  Get in.”

Unlike so many New York stories, this man was a cop, seconded to the Triborough Bridge, and I wasn’t an axe murderer.  Many people go to the Big Apple to reinvent themselves.  Others remain who they actually are.      

Boston’s Wake Up Call

Where I live in Canada, Boston is well known for a few things. First, it’s “Maritimers’ Heaven.” Folks from the Canadian provinces bordering on the Atlantic Ocean, think Boston is pretty special and sophisticated. Boston is also known as a tough town.

Boston’s urban emergency plan and the Mayor’s recent Task Force on Climate Change are a couple of tough documents, befitting a tough town. Boston’s not fooling around or mincing words. Alone among the 100 city emergency plans I’ve studied, Boston notes that it only has food on hand for 3-5 days and many facilities are located in a flood zone. So a severe winter storm or torrential rain could cause widespread hunger.

Everybody talks about the weather, but no one does anything about it.

But it turns out that Boston is actually doing something about the weather, and that makes it a leader in urban emergency planning. The Mayor’s recent Task Force on Climate Change shows the way.   

A combination of sea level rising and soil erosion could spell big trouble for cities on water.

What’s the threat? Boston’s excellent emergency plan notes that the weather in Massachusetts may be more like the Carolinas by the end of this century. Since 1991 most of Boston’s emergencies have been caused by flooding.  There’s been a bad winter storm almost every year in Boston and winter precipitation could rise by 16% according to the Mayor’s climate change report.  One hundred year floods could occur every 2 or 3 years by 2050.  

There are already hundreds of deaths per year in the US because of extreme heat and that could get worse as Boston warms up. When the temperature goes up, crime in the streets goes down, but domestic violence goes up. Heat means more danger for the elderly and those with respiratory problems. Heat means more sedentary lifestyle, diabetes and other diseases.

There is an alarming inventory of vulnerable facilities in Boston, including those which will be needed to respond to emergencies — schools, 1500 units of public housing, 430 miles of roads, half the Centers for Youth & Families, one-third of all emergency shelters and more than 900 critical facilities are susceptible to flooding. Many ambulances are parked on streets and thus immobile in a snowstorm. Even the roof leaks in the Emergency Operations Center.     

Flooding is also a major health hazard since it circulates pollutants. Heat brings in new insects and diseases, such as West Nile.  

Somebody in Boston has done world class research, such as noting that the 1929 Newfoundland tsunami which killed 28 people—a fact many Canadians wouldn’t know.

Someone has actually noted the dangers of the weather in outer space. Solar storms could disable 300 large transformers in the US and cut power to 130 million people.  

Here’s where Boston is doing more than talking. A park on “Parcel 5” has been designed to help with drainage and surging tides. Boston’s plan calls for elevating and relocation boilers, electrical panels and computers. There’s also talk of modifying work schedules, spray mists and water stations at outdoor events. It’s not enough to use water pumps to keep roadways open during floods, Boston is talking about using absorbent paving materials.  New types of asphalt will absorb and even filter water so it can go back into the drinking water supply, not into people’s basements.

There’s always more work to be done. More trees and landscaping is a solution to both heat and flooding. About 35% of Bostonians don’t have a private vehicle, 10% are over 65, and 22% have disabilities. How will Boston evacuate neighbourhoods or move people around during an emergency? Where will the food come from?

Boston’s plan proves that simple, innovative solutions can save money and lives.