Strategic Communications secured an interview with the elusive Alan Davis, CEO of the Kudos Academy at the Ivy, London. We are in a “golden age” of communication thanks to the normalisation of the breaking of the truth barrier since the 90s, he argues.
What was it that started you off?
It was the 90s, you are probably too young to remember clearly, but it was an exciting time. The Cold War was over and there was a buzz, a relief, an ebbing away of the fear that had gripped us all since the end of World War Two. I was a young advertising executive, just cutting my teeth. But this also left a vacuum, a need for new challenges, fresh anxieties, fresh opportunities. What would we do with all the energy we had used fretting about nuclear armageddon? And in this new carefree world stepped a new kind of US president, Bill Clinton. For the first time ever there was this cool president. After the stiff conservatism of those Cold War guys, Reagan and George HW Bush, he was a breath of fresh air. This was going to be how it was from now on in this new no worries world.
What in particular impressed you about him?
It was the whole package. He was so charming he could sell ice to the eskimos, if he needed to. He was effective in what he did and that impressed me. But the moment which really stayed with me, and a lot of people, was in 1998, during his impeachment hearing, when he flipped that question about whether he had sex with Monica Lewinski saying “that depends what the definition of ‘is’ is”. It was a moment of sheer brilliance for someone like me, as good as any sidestep from Pelé or Maradonna, or a Michael Jordan slam dunk. But it was so brilliant, audacious and perfectly executed. What was more important for me, though, was that I knew it was unachievable for most people. Few of us could have seized on the distinction between “is” and “was”, as he did, and have the sheer nerve to use it to defend themselves in front of hundreds of millions. He broke what I called “the truth barrier”, there and then, like a daring test pilot breaking the sound barrier or a rocket going into space. It got me thinking, stuck as I was selling baked beans: How could I help more ordinary people achieve something close to what he did?. What I wanted was to invent the equivalent of a kind of Concorde for liars, so anyone could do it, from any walk of life, so long as they could afford the cost of the ticket.
So you wanted to democratise subverting the truth?
I would put it exactly like that, it makes it sound underhand. I would say I wanted to provide a way to allow ordinary people to achieve their personal goals while largely sticking to the facts. There had to be simpler ways to do it. People need to achieve their goals without being the equivalent of Maradona or Pelé. Equally we should all be able to “break the truth barrier” without superhuman skills. Clinton had a huge natural talent for it, rather like those legendary football players, and he also had a huge amount of experience too. Before taking the presidency in 1993 he had been the governor of Arkansas for all but a couple of years since 1979. His innate skill had been honed for over a decade.
And what was that way?
There were two things to look at. The first was to ignore what Clinton said, but instead look at the response, its structure and evolution. Of course many were outraged by his warping of their simplistic definition of the truth, including many of his loyal Democrats. But then, more importantly, there was also a huge number who didn’t care too much either, for many it was simply a confirmation politicians “lie” [Davis adds the inverted commas with his fingers], not just Clinton. And there was another section who rather admired or envied him for it, they saw it as chutzpah. They might even think it was positive. If he could do this he was surely able to outwit his opponents or America’s enemies? And a whole lot of people were publicly outraged while privately wondering if they might do similar, or much worse, if they were the most powerful man in the world.
You said there were two things?
Right, yes, the second one was that Clinton showed that ur moral outrage can be extremely intense, but also that it always has a very short half life. We cannot sustain it indefinitely, even if we think we should. It tails off within days, or weeks at the most. Those who cause such an outrage simply need to recognise this hunker down, shielding themselves from the blast, reassuring their supporters it will die down. It may feel like the whole world is crashing down, but it is not. That is an illusion we have got past. People in this situation would give in, or their bosses would sack them, but now thanks to these insights they look to weather the initial storm.
Have the changes in media helped?
Yes, absolutely. During Clinton’s impeachment in 1998 the media as we know it was in its infancy, there was no internet to speak of. Rolling news like CNN had only just started. But the effect it had was tremendous, massively speeding up the half-life of outrage. The internet has only intensified the phenomenon. There is not only the phenomenon of the outrage half-like but also “outrage paralysis”, where we can put our opponents into an endless outrage cycle, unable to act for themselves. This is what people like Donald Trump and Boris Johnson have been able to achieve. People like Blair and Clinton broke the truth barrier perhaps 10% of the time, but for the new generation it is their base camp.
And what do they do beyond the truth barrier? Lie?
What we talk about at the [Kudos] Academy is not lying, which is a very crude concept. What we do is help clients focus on the impression they wish to give to reach their goal, regardless of the facts. We then offer creative strategies to help them achieve this impression, while remaining as much as possible within the parameters of the facts. What we are really talking about is “goal-oriented communication”. Truth is not absent, but it is secondary.
Can you give an example?
Let us look at Tony Blair, a different person, but also a long-time Clinton admirer. You can see the same kind of goal-oriented communication at work. Did Blair say there were weapons of mass destruction ready to strike the UK in 45 minutes? No, not exactly. Was he quick to correct stories based on what he said which gave this impression? No. It was not his job to correct mistakes. His goal was to convince the public that invading Iraq was a good idea. And, in that, he succeeded. This was successful goal-oriented communication in action. Politicians, companies, all of us to some extent, are doers, not truth-seekers.
Does this connect with what you have called our Golden Age of communication, rather against what many see?
George Orwell got a lot right in 1984 about the way we can manipulate the truth. But one thing he missed was that the future was not just about a totalitarian authority with a monopoly on the media. It is more everyone manipulating one another. Take any number of people and communication is always imperfect. Communication, miscommunication and their exploitation are all part of the same thing. The media technology does not sort it out. So having more media technology does not help, it creates at least as much confusion as communication, perhaps more than ever. We have far fewer filters, with, fact-checked media and trusted outlets facing long-term terminal decline. So, while it may be a disaster for truth seekers, it is a golden age for doers. Kudos is on the side of the doers.
At this point Mr Davis took a mobile phone call and motioned with his finger as left, leaving the bill unpaid. ■