In recent talks I have found an anecdote that has worked well to explain the difference between formal and informal systems that most Americans can relate to. The book The Godfather opens with:
Amerigo Bonasera sat in New York Criminal Court Number 3 and waited for justice; vengeance on the men who had so cruelly hurt his daughter, who had tried to dishonor her. (pg 3)
The two young men who did this were set free by a corrupt judge. Amerigo Bonasera, the Sicilian Undertaker, concludes “For justice we must go on our knees to Don Corleone.” The formal American system in this fictional book has failed our Undertaker. So he reaches out to the informal system in his community; Don Corleone. When they meet on the day of Corleone’s daughter’s funeral, a day “that by tradition no Sicilian can refuse a request” (pg 17), Amerigo asks the Godfather to have the men killed. Corleone refuses and rebukes Amerigo for basically being a rainy-day-friend. Corleone says:
“…until this day you never came to me for counsel or help. I can’t remember the last time you invited me to your house for coffee though my wife is godmother to your only child. Let us be frank. You spurned my friendship. You feared to be in my debt. … Now you come to me and say, ‘Don Corleone give me justice.'” (pg 21)
“Why do you fear to give your allegiance to me? … if you had come to me, my purse would have been yours. If you had come to me for justice those scum who ruined your daughter would be weeping bitter tears this day. If by some misfortune an honest man like yourself made enemies they would become my enemies” – the Don raised his finger pointing at Bonasera – “and then, believe me, they would fear you.”
“you shall have your justice. Some day, and that day may never come, I will call upon you to do me a service in return. Until that day, consider this justice a gift from my wife, your daughter’s godmother.” (pg 23)
Justice is delivered on page 53 “… they seemed to be pulps of human beings. Miraculously, said the News, they were both still alive though they would both be in the hospital for months and would require plastic surgery.” – And the Undertaker owes the Godfather.
All of us can relate to this story, particularly if we have children. “I don’t need you! I’m (an adult/in high school/have my own job/etc/etc) now! I can do it on my own!” But really NONE of us can do it on our own, with any level of success at least. It takes support from both formal and informal systems. Success requires support from family, the rule of law, the employer and these days more and more success requires the full support of extended urban tribes.
For Public Relations folks, I like to bring up the shift from formal distribution (traditional mainstream media) to informal distribution (bloggers, youtube, twitter brand attacks). In my opinion, many people in PR and in media DO understand the shift from centralized to distributed (long tail, small pieces loosely joined) media. Yet what they potentially don’t fully understand is the shift in authority from the police to the Don Corleone’s of the world. And let us not forget the Godfather wasn’t exactly a saint, collecting protection money, bribing the police and “knocking off” the competition.
For public relations professionals, the bloggers are hidden (no Bacon’s directory! gasp!). And bloggers are completely biased and proud of it. And have authority far beyond what a small olive importer should have. From the bloggers perspective the world is finally acknowledging their informal system of authority. About time.
Just an observation about the shift from formal authority in the media to a more informal system. And we all need to get to know and be friends with the new kids in town. With respect.