Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Copyright © 2008, Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Which of the following have you read: The Tipping Point, The Long Tail, The Wisdom of Crowds, Wikinomics?
Perhaps not many, but you will most likely be aware of the arguments put forward in these popular books. They may not be directly about public relations or organisational communication, but they are all good examples of the word of mouth phenomenon, and they all have much to say about the context in which public relations operates.
Add Microtrends to this list. Billed as a book about “the small forces behind today's big changes”, this is an encyclopaedic pollster's‐eye‐view of trends affecting the United States of America.
We have long known that trends apparent in America tend to be exported to Europe and elsewhere – the rise of feminism and the decline of socialism are two good examples of this continental drift. Yet the principle is not infallible: there is a religious revival in America not matched in secular Europe. There are several other areas where America follows Europe and not the reverse, as this review points out later.
This book's central thesis is that in a land that favours the large, it is the small forces that are shaping the future. The book is about the counterintuitive surprises that come from intelligent trendspotting. Its 81 short chapters have something to offer the inner geek in all of us.
Take the chapter called Wordy Women. Do not leap to conclusions: there is no misogynistic agenda. It is about the increasingly dominant role of women in the professions demanding the greatest verbal dexterity – law, journalism and public relations.
Mark Penn cites his own business (he is CEO of Public Relations consultancy Burson‐Marsteller) where 70 per cent of his colleagues are female before unleashing a barrage of supporting data: there has been a 2900 per cent increase in the number of female lawyers since 1970 in America; and one of the best‐selling authors of all time is female – Britain's JK Rowling. He does not shy from the difficult questions arising from this (is this feminisation a potential weakness and why are CEO positions still so often held by men), but he is more interested in the likely future outcomes. For example, what might this mean for women in politics? Penn discloses his own advisory role in the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign. Again, many Europeans have good reason to feel ahead, not behind the US, in electing women to the highest office.
There may be politics involved when he turns to race too. The prospect of a first female president of the United States appears at the time of writing this review likely to be trumped by the prospect of the first black president. Penn comments tartly: “Illinois senator Barack Obama has a white mother, who raised him exclusively, but does anyone (including the senator) tell his story without reflecting on his blackness? Halle Berry has a white Mom, too … ” The problem is that sameness is a given, leaving people to be defined by their differences, however marginal. “President [Bill] Clinton liked to say that humans are bound together by being 99.9 percent genetically alike – and only one‐tenth of 1 percent different.”
Having covered gender, race and politics, Microtrends also addresses two more contentious topics, money and religion.
“Second homes are a middle class craze”, he asserts, having found that the typical vacation‐home buyer earns just $71,000. Again, this trend has long been apparent in the UK, where private investors have traditionally preferred property to shares. “The American Dream used to be two cars in every garage. Now it's two garages for every car.”
Millionaires can be surprising:
The average millionaire in America went to public [i.e. state‐funded] school, drives an American‐made car (and not this year's model), and received zero inheritance … The largest group, by far, is the Satisfied Savers, who are those millionaires who have worked hard, saved much, and live below their means.
This sounds like a tribute to the puritan tradition of thrift, hard work and lack of ostentation that still forms part of the American myth.Winners mean losers:
More people went bankrupt in America in 2005 than graduated from college … The typical bankruptcy‐filer is a white, middle‐class head of household with children and a full‐time job.
I think we are all aware of the problems of socially‐acceptable debt (student loans and mortgages) in a world of increasing job insecurity.
Penn's counterintuitive examples drawn from race and religion are “Protestant Hispanics” and “Moderate Muslims”. Apparently Mexico supplies the largest number of Catholic immigrants to the US – and its largest number of Protestant immigrants too. He goes on to say:
If I were to describe for you a cohort of Americans who got married at a rate of 70 percent, registered to vote at a rate of 82 percent, were college‐educated at a rate of 59 percent and were on average making more than $50,000 a year – what group would you guess they were?
It is, of course, the average (moderate) Muslim in America.
This will give you a sense that this is a book full of marvellous things (which is not necessarily the same thing as this being a marvellous book); it is easy to see how the author's delight in poll results could be useful to academics, practitioners and researchers in the public relations field. There are surprises on most of its 425 pages.
I should also apologise to an overlooked “wordy woman”, E. Kinney Zalesne, who contributed to this book though she is not credited as a co‐author.