On Root Metaphors and Public Relations

By Robert Brumfield, Account Manager, Fusion DC

“A root metaphor is the underlying worldview that shapes an individual’s understanding of a situation. Examples would be understanding health as a mechanical process, or seeing life as the natural expression of an “ideal” form (e.g., the acorn that should grow into an oak tree.). A root metaphor is different from [other] types of metaphor in that it is not necessarily an explicit device in language, but a fundamental, often unconscious, assumption.”

From Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Metaphor

Again and again, I’ve found this concept that I learned about in an undergrad religious studies class to be one of the most useful things I took away from school. By figuring out the assumptions and narratives that shape any given point of view, we can understand all manner of things about a topic, and will be better equipped to speak about the topic, predict trends, intertwine other narratives into the narrative that we are speaking to, and make distinctions between topic A versus topic B. You see it all the time in the politics, wherein assumptions about the nature of life or spirituality or international commerce circumscribe debates around scientific research, medicine, environmental action, foreign policy—you name it.

An ability to identify root metaphors, of course, is useful in the world of public relations, even if most of the things we’re discussing are subject to the vagaries of Moore’s Law. Indeed, the 18 month cycle makes it even more necessary to be able to hone in on what assumptions are driving the industry so that we can gear our pitches in that direction. With this in mind, I thought it’d be interesting to identify some of these fundamental, narrative-shaping assumptions in some industries and invite you to classify your own. We do this all the time without necessarily noticing it, but sometimes it’s fun to take a step back and consider in just a couple of words what kinds of assumptions you’re speaking to when you’re chatting up a CEO or an intrepid young reporter from the Wall Street Journal. Join me for some, won’t you?

Financial Services Industry: Distressed, under fire. This sub-prime loan thing is a killer, the fall isn’t over yet and it’ll take years to dig out. Positing your product or service as one that helps you navigate through crisis and uncertainty or as one that is immune to the madness will help you when talking to reporters.

Scientific Publishing: The landscape is transforming with some degree of uncertainty. Much like content providers in the film, music and news businesses, scientific publishing is going through a period of radical change as they undergo the transformation from page to the internet. New publication models are being experimented with for the first time in hundreds of years to varying degrees of success.

Data Storage Solutions: Some of the root metaphors include: disks are cheap and have high capacity, tape is slower and cheaper, and solid state devices are expensive, light on capacity and fast. What’s the next disruption? Diskless storage is the latest thing, but the final format(s) industries as a whole will adopt to drive computing and content delivery to the next level remains uncertain.

Renewable Energy: Research/sustainability. The space is exploding, especially now that recent U.N. agreements and U.S. legislation have given it a good kick-start after Kyoto crashed and burned in 2001. Given that there is a huge migration toward it, there are also a lot of voices competing to be heard. The science behind the thing and the product’s practicality in regards to other concerns such as world hunger versus non-food crops, etc, will therefore be important.

Comment and let us know what your industry’s root metaphor is.

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