By John Suttle
Once upon a time there was a frog sitting on a riverbank. A scorpion crawls up to the frog and says, "Would you mind giving me a lift to the other side of the river, seeing as I can't swim. I will be eternally grateful." The frog answers incredulously, "Absolutely not. We'd get-half way across and then you'd sting me and I would die." To this the scorpion says, "Think about this logically. If I were to sting you, we'd both drown as I can't swim. Therefore, it would not be in my best interest to sting you." The frog thinks about it for a moment and says, "That makes sense. Hop on." The scorpion crawls on the frog's back and the frog begins to swim across the river. When they are about half-way across, the scorpion stings the frog. Beginning to feel the venom's effect take hold, the frog starts to sink and has just enough time to gasp, "Why?" Relies the scorpion, "I can't help it. It's my nature."
We are watching a version of this play out in real time with the allegations of Russian meddling in the recent U.S. presidential election. While there is little doubt there was meddling, it is highly unlikely the Russians were trying to affect the election's outcome. Their objective was to create doubt about the integrity and viability of our electoral process and our form of government, which they see as a threat. The Russians know us very well and have used our own nature against us, very much as in Judo where one uses an opponent's inertia against him. In this case, the Russians used the U.S. politicians and media to do their work for them. When the Russian meddling came to light, politicians from both parties were outraged and demanded investigations. The media have been almost giddy over the affair which has provided (and continues to provide) a treasure trove of content. The questions and debates are endless. How did this happen? Did it affect the election's outcome? Who is responsible? What are we going to do about it? Was the election rigged, and if so, is the election invalid?
FBI Director Richard Comey summed it up best during his Congressional testimony on the issue this week. When asked by U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., how this Russian intrusion was different from previous attempts, Comey replied, "The only thing I'd add is they were unusually loud in their intervention. It's almost as if they didn't care that we knew what they were doing or that they wanted us to see what they were doing. It was very noisy, their intrusions in different institutions." When asked to explain why the Russians were so "noisy" Comey said, "I don't know the answer for sure. I think part -- their number one mission is to undermine the credibility of our entire democratic process and so it might be that they wanted us to help them by telling people what they were doing. Their loudness, in a way, would be counting on us to amplify it by telling the American people what we saw and freaking people out about how the Russians might be undermining our elections successfully. And so that might have been part of their plan, I don't know for sure."
We should take two things away from this. First, understanding the nature of your audience is fundamental to getting your message across. Audiences are different and don't always respond logically and there are considerations for phrasing and timing of communications based upon this. Second, from a reputation management perspective, we should be mindful of attempts by those familiar with our nature to elicit a response from us that may not be in our or our organization's best interest. We all can learn from the scorpion and the frog.