Villains Wear Black Hats

Last week’s class had a lively discussion on the PR surrounding the Macondo (Deepwater Horizon) oil spill.  While by now comfortable in my role as class contrarian, I was none-the-less startled at the intensity and near unanimity of the class’s feelings towards BP, the designated villain in this Hadean drama.

In a 1982 article in Foreign Affairs magazine, William McNeill observes that myth “is mankind’s substitute for instinct.”  Myths allow societies to form a coherent view of the world that is believed to be true and then acted upon when necessary.  Myths create an emotional connection between people and a situation.  Seth Godin, blogging on the power of myth in branding, lays out the recipe:

I’d want to be sure that there was a story, not just a product or a pile of facts. That story would promise (and deliver) an heroic outcome. And there needs to be growth and mystery as well, so the user can fill in her own blanks. Endorsement by a respected ruler or priest helps as well.

Successful PR efforts often leverage the power of myth.  The press, of course, loves a story with villains and heroes, and will amplify (or derail!) the PR effort by conforming it to their favorite narrative.  PR professionals would do well to understand this deep insight into human nature.  It is a powerful tool that can be used for good and for evil.

Kevin Kearney

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One Response to Villains Wear Black Hats

  1. Jay says:

    Long before McNeill, myth helped man explain phenomena they could not understand or experience. In PR, we, provide experience and feed knowledge to build loyalty, trust, and clarity of brand. We create a truth that can become mythical if not handled correctly. Ethical and strategic marketing must realize that in modern times myth is still as powerful. If we are not careful, Scooby Doobie Doo could become the before dinner prayer.