Pat Rocchi Honors a Communication Genius

McLuhan at Work

When I was earning my Ph.D. at Ohio University, communication guru Marshall McLuhan spoke to a campus auditorium jammed with students. McLuhan had garnered a reputation as a true communication guru. So I was delighted to see one of my fellow communication colleagues–Pat Rocchi–feature McLuhan in his blog. With Pat’s permission, I am sharing his tribute to McLuhan with you.

December 31, 2011 marks 30 years since media guru Marshall McLuhan died, a victim of a final stroke after suffering from a series of them. How kind thei ntervening years have been to him. At the time of his death, he was viewed in his native Canada as somewhat of an embarrassment, but today he is an oracle, having essentially foreseen Facebook Amazon, Twitter, the iPhone and other modern media. In the words of a New York Times article published this past summer to mark McLuhan’s centenary, “Instead of being viewed as an academic fraud, McLuhan is now widely celebrated as the man who prophesied both the Internet and its impact on society.” Indeed, Professor B. W. Powe of Toronto’s York University, and one of the organizers of a week-long series of memorial events in that city, said this: “We read the 21st-century media through his eyes.”

Quite a turnaround for one man, though not unusual. As with most social visionaries, McLuhan challenged tightly held beliefs, and most people are afraid to let go of such ideas. His vocabulary was also new and alien. He introduced us to his definitions of “hot” and “cold” media: Hot media, such as print and the cinema, are sharp in definition, filled with data, exclusively visual and verbal. He also asserted that these media were psychologically damaging and low in audience participation. Other hot media, according to McLuhan, were photography, competitive spectator sports and radio. Moreover, he said that hot media make people think logically and independently rather than naturally and communally. McLuhan preferred “cool” media, noting that while they are low in information, they also challenge their users by forcing them to fill in the “missing” information. He saw the telephone, modern painting and, most significantly, television as cool media because they are oral-auditory, tactile and visceral. McLuhan believed that these media would be a unifying force, putting modern “back into the tribal or oral pattern with its seamless web of kinship and interdependence.” These behaviors would, in turn, create his “global village,” a term that he coined

As with many prophets, McLuhan’s revolutionary ideas were not regarded kindly in his own time. A Time magazine review of his book Understanding Media — regarded today as the seminal work on the effect of media in the modern world and which contained many of the concepts described above — called the book “pseudo science.” Yet years later, when Time published their obituary of McLuhan, the magazine stated that “his writing was clumsy, his thoughts badly organized, and even he complained that he had trouble understanding his ideas. But…when he died last week in Toronto at the age of 69, Marshall McLuhan was recognized as one of the most influential thinkers of the ’60s. Some of his insights into the nature of television and the electronic age became conventional wisdom.”

One of McLuhan’s prime principles was that “we shape our tools, and thereafter our tools shape us.” Can we doubt that statement today, given how we interact through Web 2.0? We make “friends” through Facebook, we reveal our innermost thoughts through our blogs, we make spectacles of ourselves through YouTube, and we have learned to communicate succinctly in just 140 characters through our Twitter accounts.

Once again, we are currently reminded of the power of the media in our politics. And I do not mean our primary Presidential politics. No, the “global village” that McLuhan foresaw also has global politics. Time scoffed yet again when McLuhan stated in Understanding Media that “Had TV occurred on a large scale during Hitler’s reign, he would have vanished quickly.” No, the Old Professor was on target, as we have seen Twitter and Facebook cut through censorship and propaganda to produce an Arab Spring or rally for the rights of the disenfranchised. And here in this country, presidential front runners fall back almost immediately as they wilt under the glare of the media spotlight. That durability under scrutiny seems to determine winners more than any other obstacle. Some partisans may complain that Barrack Obama did not face any real scrutiny during his primary campaign, but come on; I was viewing fresh footage of his pastor, the incendiary Rev. Jeremiah Wright, every morning, whether through the network news or the Internet. And will Mitt Romney, seemingly made of asbestos and impervious to the heat of battle, win his party’s nomination because no medium will be able to lay a finger on him long enough to count him out as they have so many others? We’ll see.

When McLuhan made his pronouncements more than 40 years ago, some listened while many others dismissed them as nonsense. He stated that media are “not neutral; instead they have an effect on people.” Today, as we study the effects of television on what we buy, who we elect and how we learn, and as we study how video games and the Internet are affecting the linearity of our thinking, his theories are easily echoed. Yet because they are so commonsense and commonplace, we forget their origins. However, we learned similar lessons from Einstein, whose ideas were so advanced that they were also ineffable because no suitable language existed to express them. (How does one explain E=MC squared?)

The global village did not exist when Marshall McLuhan coined the phrase. But somehow he emerged from his intellectual rabbit hole to glimpse it, and then he wrote many books and essays to prepare us for it. Let’s stay aware of the power we possess through our media, which have indeed become our extensions and have united us (and conformed us) in ways that only he seemed to imagine.

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Pat Rocchi is an acclaimed speaker, business consultant, speech writer, and author. Check his Web site, and contact him for information about his services:
http://www.patrocchi.com

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Top 10 Communication Blunders of 2011

We all make mistakes while speaking. I do, for sure.

What’s the biggest communication blunder you ever made before a large audience?

I still wince and squirm today when I remember mine. I was a college official reading the citation honoring a prominent alumna–with 400 audience members listening. I was supposed to say that she wrote a play about the college in 1956. Accidentally, I said she wrote the play in 1856. By placing her in a previous century, I made her appear ten decades older than she was. Odd thing was, I wasn’t aware of my goof up until a fellow administrator kidded me about it afterward. “Oh,” I answered, “that explains why everybody was laughing when I said that.” As you can guess, I apologized to the honoree afterward, though I couldn’t retract the 100-year mistake.

Possibly that memory prompts me to select the top ten communication blunders made annually–the goofs, gaffes, and glitches that brought the most embarrassment. Here’s my list of the inglorious winners for 2011, along with the lessons their mistakes offer.

1. In Spartanburg, South Carolina, Michele Bachmann urged the crowd to join her in celebrating Elvis Presley’s birthday. Thinking that was a grand applause line, she was stunned by the tepid response. Turns out that August 16 wasn’t the Rock and Roll King’s birthday. Quite the reverse, as that was the date of his death thirty-four years ago.

LESSON: Check your facts or have somebody else do that before you speak.

2. Following a gaudy, much-ballyhooed wedding ceremony, Kim Kardashian announced the end of her marriage after 72 days, citing “irreconcilable differences.”

LESSON: Every married couple faces irreconcilable differences. Wise up, Kim. Your next boyfriend and you will have them, and you’ll encounter them with all of your future husbands. Those of us who stay married to each other recognize that the irreconcilable differences are going to stay there, aren’t as devastating as we first thought, and can be tolerated. Eventually, both the husband and wife can learn to laugh at their foibles and differences.

3. Mitt Romney bet Rick Perry $10,000 that Romney didn’t support a national health care program based on the one Romney had championed in Massachusetts.

LESSON: Never flaunt your affluence. When a tenth of the U.S. is out of work, and a large percentage of those employed are pinching pennies because they don’t know when they will be downsized, disengaged, or whatever else means they’ll no longer get a paycheck, announcing your ability to make a five figure wager doesn’t keep you in touch with the men and women who are deciding which candidate understands their plight.

4. Perry, though, had his own “Oops” moment when he insisted he would eliminate three government agencies soon after his inauguration: “Commerce, Education, and. . . .er.” For 47 agonizing seconds, he tried to think of the third agency he had targeted, but couldn’t. Shortly afterward, he spoofed himself on David Letterman’s show, hoping that self-deprecating humor could repair the damage.

LESSON: Don’t promise to do more than you can even remember yourself.

5. Alec Baldwin continued to play a “Words with Friends” game on his phone, after American Airlines flight attendants asked him to shut down the device as the crew prepared for takeoff. Baldwin went nuclear, and then deplaned involuntarily after confronting attendants with impolite language. Interviewed afterward, Baldwin lamented that he was “singled out by this woman in the most unpleasant of tones.” He equated commercial airline travel to riding a “Greyhound Bus,” monitored by attendants who resembled a 1950s gym teacher on duty.

LESSON: When you’ve broken the rules, and continued to do that after several warnings, admit your mistake. Assume the blame yourself, without chiding others who are just doing their job.

6. When New York Representative Anthony Weiner sent lewd pictures of a portion of his anatomy to a woman via Twitter, as the scandal broke he proclaimed repeatedly, “Somebody hacked my account.” Turns out the early reports were an underestimate, because Weiner ultimately confessed that he had used his anatomical photographic skill to woo at least six women.

LESSON: Blaming the Internet for something you caused yourself is like blaming your car for crashing after you left a bar at 4:00 a.m.

7. Discussing a golf match between President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner, Hank Williams Jr said the links pairing was comparable to having Adolf Hitler play 18 holes with Benjamin Netanyahu. Almost immediately, ESPN dropped Williams’ theme song from the Monday Night Football opening segment.

LESSON: Be careful about comparisons. Hitler was a bad guy,very evil. Murdered millions of people, devastated the face of Europe. Worst racist in history. Whatever your opinion of the President of the United States, you aren’t smart to mention the President in the same sentence that refers to Herr Hitler.

8. Of course, the President himself voiced a disconnect between his brain and his tongue more than once. Prime example: When meeting with a jobs council in Durham, NC, he responded to those who said that cumbersome government regulations were blocking work on America’s infrastructure–a program Obama had championed. The President answered, “Shovel-ready was not as. . uh. . .shovel-ready as we expected.”

LESSON: Humor at the wrong time will backfire horribly. Cute play on words, Mr. President. However, the council didn’t want a quip, they wanted your commitment to facilitate thousands of jobs for people eager to rejoin the employment arena.

9. Vice President Joe Biden took a 25-second nap during President Obama’s speech touting his deficit reduction plan. You Tube helped make Biden’s snoozing infamous to tens of thousands of viewers.

LESSON: You don’t even have to speak to make a major communication blunder. The experts are right–body language transmits unmistakably clear messages.

10. On the highly popular weekly TV football show College Game Day, Lee Corso became careless while talking about the game between the University of Houston and SMU. Defying the odds makers who assured a Houston win, Corso picked up an SMU microphone and shouted the “F” word (and he wasn’t referring to the cheerleader’s typical plea for the team to “Fight”).

LESSON: Be careful with your customary daily lingo. Ed McMahon, Johnny Carson’s sidekick on the Tonight Show for thirty years, claimed in his autobiography that he never used profanity off the air–because he was afraid that offensive words could become habitual, and he would use them during a broadcast. Rather wise advice, because our daily habits become quite transparent when the spotlight hits us and tension mounts.

Those are my Top 10 communication blunders for 2011, with the lessons they provide. Have some you want to add? Respond, please, through the comments section.

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