False Proxy Power

In January 1980, a week before the New Hampshire primary, The Wall Street Journal ran a front-page article about a focus group it had assembled to assess the prospects of Ronald Reagan. Not one of the 14 participants, including six who had voted for Reagan four years earlier in the primary, said they planned to vote for him. A week later, Reagan won that primary convincingly.

Today, 35 years later, the polls show Donald Trump and Ben Carson leading the crowded GOP presidential pack in Iowa and other early-primary states. But don't bet the house that either will do as well as expected.

Why? Credit the phenomenon of false proxy power - and it has far more serious consequences today for corporations and other organizations than it does in the political arena. Especially in the crisis-communications arena, false proxy power can trigger companies to follow a course far more disruptive and dangerous than one they would have taken if only they had looked at a situation with far more scrutiny and hard data. Too frequenlty, organizations aren't examining situations close enough before taking action. And this is only complicated by the fact that there are no voting booths set up to provide immediate findings on winners and losers.

So what exactly is it? Let's look at another recent example - again, a political one. In Houston, voters earlier this month handily defeated a controversial equal rights ordinance that offered broad nondiscrimination protections. Backed by the White House and the state's top officials, the ordinance was expected to be supported or lose by a slim margin. Why did it fail by a wide margin? Because supporters didn't gauge or examine closely enough the extent of the opposition to it from conservative voters.

Not acting as expected

When push comes to shove, people don't always do what they say they intend to do. They don't vote for the candidate or issue that they indicated they would. As for critical issues, for instance, they might voice support for climate control initiatives and then do the opposite. Consider the auto industry. Car makers make costly bets that electric cars will gain much more popularity. They assume buyers today prefer a greener car. But then sales disappoint - just look at sagging sales of the hybrid Toyota Prius. Indeed, as gasoline prices sink to $2 a gallon, sales again surge for gas-guzzling vehicles.

In brief, what you see isn't always what you get - so don't accept things at face value. Too often today, CEOs and their leadership teams aren't heeding that advice. Far too frequently, they accept the radical transparency of social media conversations and crowdsourcing and simply assume that consumers will base decisions on that explosion of conversation.

Call it the digital chattering class. So when 56 percent of Americans surveyed rank climate change as one of the two most critical issues, along with income inequality, these organizations make decisions based on assumptions gleaned from that high percentage.

Those assumptions can prove disastrous for companies. What's missing - and it's vital - is the extra step of conducting research on the ground. Companies must, and pardon the cliché, peel back the onion with hard and consistent spade work and research to really grasp what the consumer outcome is really likely to be.

Needed: Much deeper research, exploration

They must explore much more deeply if the proxy of expression gleaned from, say, social media will match the behavior of their customers or others at the cash register - or the voting booth. They must take the extra steps to determine if their customers or prospective customers will vote their heart or their pocketbook.

Many companies are taking this extra time and research. Some airlines, for instance, are looking at weather patterns, not just diesel emissions, to determine their greenhouse gas footprint and strategies. Increasingly, corporations must go well beneath the surface winds to grasp what's truly going on with issues most important to them and society. Corporations must do a much better job. If it is food scarcity, they must do the extra research beyond the headlines to determine where it's an issue and how it's manifesting itself. They must employ calibrators to determine the scale and proportion of an issue.

Otherwise, they're creating a false sense of scale and paradigm - indeed, a false proxy power. Get used to that term. You're bound to hear much more about it.