We can all be guilty of groupthink

Written by Jim Walsh - July 2017

Whether by accident or design we are all guilty of groupthink from time to time.

But communication professionals should be more aware than most that groupthink thrives in the absence of critical analysis and should make every effort to avoid contributing to it.

Social media has advanced groupthink by removing the barriers that exist in direct human interaction. Just one click on ‘like’ or ‘share’ now makes it so easy to contribute to groupthink. It is almost an unconscious act and without any personal responsibility.

Our interaction in particular with friends usually involves sharing opinions and views with likeminded people or socially compatible people. The views we share are not what we would consider groupthink. But when there is a desire for harmony over “critical discussion”, you have groupthink.

If a person’s reputation or perceived actions are the subject of groupthink, the consequences can be extremely damaging. Replace groupthink with bullying and the result for young people has led to some fatal consequences. In the workplace also the impact on individuals at the butt of a groupthink mentality can ruin their careers.

Groupthink is everywhere in politics. A recent special report in the Economist on Trump’s America focused on groupthink among the President’s supporters. The author John Prideaux writes: “Palm Beach is about as different as rural Kansas as it is as possible to be, yet the way the President supporters talk about him in both places is much the same: he is a businessman, he is trying to do his best, Congress is getting in his way, the media are painting him as a bad man which he is not, and anyway the country was a disaster under Obama.”

While not specifically writing about groupthink, in the world of journalism, Colette Sexton asks in a recent article in the Sunday Business Post if Irish journalists are just a reflection of each other and if Irish journalism is in danger of becoming increasingly homogenised.

She quotes Paul O’Neill, editor of the Irish Times: “For many reasons, including larger numbers pursuing third level education and tighter budgets of regional media organisations, very few people now get their break in journalism through local media in Ireland. Instead, a degree in journalism, either a Bachelors or a Masters, followed by a stint of working for free (or for very little money) as an intern in a media organisation is how the majority of the new generation of journalists got their break into the industry.

While there are advantages to people with academic backgrounds in journalism, O’Neill said this was causing a homogenisation of the industry. “You have to come from a certain demographic to be able to do it [third-level education]. The result of that is that people are coming from the same schools, they have the same view in life, the same worldview. I’m not sure that is entirely healthy.”

This situation in journalism is not unique to Ireland and could equally apply to PR but not for the same reasons. Rather than contracting, PR is expanding. But there are very few people coming into PR agencies from other business disciplines. Instead of coming from advertising, marketing, or other business backgrounds as they would have in the past, most entrants to PR, as with journalism, are coming through the education route with Masters and Diplomas in PR and serving time as interns. That is apart from Public Affairs, where a career in Government or with a political party can still lead to an immediate senior PR role.

Groupthink in PR can manifest itself most obviously in the relationship between agency and client or in-house PR professional and senior company executives.

Difficult as it may be, it is the role of the PR professional to avoid groupthink and to critically analyse each client/employer’s communications strategy. It is one of the fundamental roles of PR and ultimately one of the best services we can offer our clients or employer.

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