Understanding messengers and their messages

Messengers: Who We Listen To, Who We Don’t, and Why

Book title: Messengers: Who We Listen To, Who We Don’t, and Why
Author: Stephen Martin and Joseph Marks
Publisher: Random House Books
Publication Year: 2019
ISBN: 9781847942364
Price: RM 79.90

co-authored by Stephen Martin and Joseph Marks, “Messengers: Who We Listen To, Who We Don’t, and Why”, gives insights on messengers and their messages, and our tendency to believe the messenger rather than the message. The authors define “messenger” as an agent — it could be an individual, a group, a media platform or an organisation — who delivers information and defining it as data or a point-of-view, sales campaign and conveyance of policy ideas.

As we navigate life’s complexities in the 21st century, messengers impacted our lives. This group of key communicators compete for attention with exaggerated messages or by getting lost in the “crowd” of competing information. We find ourselves an easy target to the messages conveyed by individuals who have the expertise, prominent, dynamic and competent.

The messengers would normally associate with their messages but at times, they overshadow the message itself. Martin and Marks were of the opinion that we pay more attention to the characteristic of the messenger than we do to the characteristic of the message.

Marks said that there are two types of messengers — hard messengers and soft messengers.

The hard messengers are listened to because of their high social status or importance while soft messengers are listened to because of the connection they have with the audience.

Hard messengers possess power and they may have qualities that are valuable to people around them. They are perceived as high-ranking individuals who make important decisions and get paid the most. They are given respect and admiration.

Think of Donald John Trump, the former president of the United States.

On May 18, Trump shocked the world when he promoted and admitted that he was taking hydroxychloroquine, an anti-malarial drug, as a treatment to stop the coronavirus infection.

He took to Twitter to share a ‘cure for Covid’ video that went viral across social media platforms.
Trump said of his tweets that he was not making claims, with CNBC stating that he was passing along recommendations from other people, including doctors.

The message on what is seemingly a remedy for Covid-19, conveyed by him, would somehow put his supporters at risk.

As far as they are concerned, it is acceptable for them to take hydroxychloroquine, even if it could kill them, because their leader, the individual that they think highly of, said so.

The authors, in explaining the appeal of Trump, said he is a classic alpha male — bombastic, dominant and pugilistic. According to them, it is innate.

The authors believed that some of his innate characters — the way he stands, the amount of gestures with his arms — may have been learned over time. It turns out that the messenger is much more important than the message.

On the contrary, soft messengers are more likable as they possess warmth and kindness. They steer clear of traits that could be portrayed as pompous or unpleasant. Soft messengers usually earn the people’s trust and achieve good leadership by being interested in others’ opinions and suggestions.

This book also talks about who gets listened to and who gets ignored regardless of status and intelligence.

Take for example, Texaco Oil, one of the major oil companies in the United States, which was dragged to the edge of bankruptcy by regional player Pennzoil Corporation in 1985.

Pennzoil, at the time, was looking to expand into a larger industry player. It then found out that one of its competitors, Getty Oil, was struggling with its growth as a result of its persistent low-stock price. By the next few months, a deal that would have seen Pennzoil purchasing Getty Oil was made.

As the news on the planned merger spread, Texaco decided to give an even better offer to Getty Oil. Flattered by the interest of one of the industry’s dominant players, the latter agreed with the bid. The affair had aggrieved Pennzoil and it filed a lawsuit against Texaco for illegally trespassing its previous deal with Getty Oil.

The verdict had somehow come down so strongly against Texaco, even though the legal status of the agreement between Pennzoil and Getty Oil was doubted, and that it took efforts for legal scholars to determine whether it was valid.

The question was: What had convinced the group of jury that Texaco was in the wrong? By right, Texaco, more experienced in terms of socio-economic, could strike Pennzoil without effort.

A jury member in the case explained that the reason why they were in favour of Pennzoil was because its legal team was very likable and warm compared to the appalling manners of Texaco’s principal attorney. He mentioned that there were times where Texaco’s witnesses did not bother to pay attention to the jury and that its vice-president was an arrogant individual.

What seems to have happened here is that at times, even the most powerful could fail.

This book is a result of the authors’ over sixty years’ worth of research on traits of communicators. The investigation spanned all walks of life, from white-collars to politicians, from everyday conversations to media and online communications.

The book is recommended — but definitely not for light or bedroom reading — to those who are fascinated by current affairs, who will have a field day enjoying this well-researched paperback.