Transcript – Heuristic Podcast with Jess Kozma Proctor

Alicia Parr: Hi, this is Alicia with another Heuristic Podcast. And today we’re talking to Jessica Kozma Proctor. She’s the founder and managing director of North State Public Affairs and she operates at the intersection of government. And what would you say? Public relations, PR. You’re kind of a PR person. So you’re working with nonprofits, businesses, and individuals. 

You do a lot of grassroots work, lobbying, and communication strategy work. So that’s actually really related to what we want to talk about. But is there anything else you’d like to add about your organization and what you do?

Jessica Kozma: Well, first, it is such a pleasure being with you. You’re one of my favorites, and it’s always a joy working with you in any capacity. I would only touch on that North State. 

The impetus of North State came from working in a statewide campaign to provide bricks and mortar funding for all higher education to build an agricultural life center at NC State is another thing. So a couple of billion dollars in money, and it rose… I traveled about two-thirds of the state for eight months pushing the campaign. 

I’ve worked very deeply in the grassroots in North Carolina, and it was one of the most joyous, and we’ve won. So that’s the important thing. For me, it was one of the most joyous experiences of my career to be on the ground, at the rotaries, at the community college trustee meetings at these places with people that actually make the state work. 

So from that North State was born, and we have tried to remain to be North Carolina-centric, always focused on values, respect, honesty, and hard work. And keep it very simple. We understand data, we understand metrics, we understand all these things. But at the end of the day, the virtuous overrides all that. And I think we’re going to talk about that and how the virtuous may or may not always fuel heuristics, but we’ll get to that. But thank you, thank you so much for having me today.

Alicia Parr: You bet. You bet. So yeah, the heuristic that we are going to talk about today is prompt grassroots decision-making often. The reason why I bring this up is that very often, heads of business, entrepreneurs are not your most patient folks. And then they’re like, this is what I want to see happen, and there’s this impetus to try and just encourage and push the team to do the thing that they can envision. That ends up turning into very top down. And sometimes they miss what’s happening on the front lines or in the middle of the front lines and senior leadership, that is going to impact exactly how this thing needs to work. 

So that’s why I’m always encouraging them to think, well, let’s do some grassroots work, let’s talk to people on the frontlines. Because they’re the ones, like you said, in the public and private sector, the people that make stuff happen. The ones that have really skin in the game in terms of any changes that are made. They are the ones that you really, really need to talk to. So that’s the heuristic. And I guess, maybe we could continue to discuss how that works and plays in your practice.

Jessica Kozma: Well, I think we have right now a cultural affliction with misapplied heuristics where it can be, you may use a heuristic to be helpful in a mental shortcut. However, today, where you want to see structural changes in businesses and organizations, without trying to understand how to navigate the culture, and what created that culture, good or bad. 

Then you end up cracking the culture. And business suffers, policy suffers, and employees suffer. Whereas if you take, like you said, if you listen to the ears on the ground, you’re going to be able to come to your conclusion and have success much easier because they are still going to be the ones that are fueling whatever outcome or output you’re having in whatever situation it may be.

Alicia Parr: Yeah. The culture issue is a really good one. Every once in a while I’ll hear through the grapevine we don’t have a culture. I’m like, yeah, you do.

Jessica Kozma: Yeah, you do. You always have a culture and I think even having spent a large part of my career in North Carolina politics, I tell clients and other people that the political stances may change, it is the culture that you have to look at if you want to win, something that you are lobbying for. If you want to make that policy change or get that appropriation. 

Before you play the political deck, consider the culture of those whom you’re dealing with, understand them, and don’t take objection to it. The people elected them. So learn to work with it. Right? But that doesn’t mean that you have to agree with them on the budget, or abortion, or this or that. It just means that you respect that they’re an elected official, and you ask them to get done what they’re charged to do. We muddy the waters way too much. 

And in North Carolina, I don’t know, I follow other states because I work on pension issues. We culturally, our political culture has gotten so unbelievably toxic. And to the point of heuristics you’ve got people on the far right, say, if Donald J. Trump isn’t reelected, democracy will crumble. And then you’ve got people on the far left, say, Donald J. Trump is reelected, democracy will crumble, right? So you take the spectrum, tie it together, they’re the same people. It just looked through a different lens, right? 

Whereas without putting into context, the constructs of our Republic, without putting into context, the history of this country, without looking at the inspiration of how this country was found, right, in rejection of an order of a monarchy and over-taxation and without trying even to grasp, but it’s only that fear that if AB outcome happens, that somehow this republic that has been the most successful in the world history is going to crack apart. And I think politically, you see that more and more and more, and how COVID and the things that transpired in 2020 have affected fear among people. And I’m sure you know people. One of my dearest friends who I loved dearly, locked herself in her house for a year and a half, because of that fear. That she reacted much like the heuristic of, oh, someone in Atlantic Beach was bitten by a shark, because that would stick in my mind because I have a child and a home in Atlantic Beach. So I’m thinking, oh, my kid’s going to get bitten by a shark. But really, the likelihood of my kid getting bitten by a shark is pretty small. But the event stays in my mind. 

Back to the cultural thing, how that has changed us as a culture of being afraid, being afraid of germs, being afraid of other people, being afraid of interactions, being afraid of showing your face. I am sorry, I’m digressing.

Alicia Parr: Well, there are so many different things that I thought of, when listening to you, and one of them is the fear question. Before we get there, it’s the team-first mentality. It’s almost like the political arena has become a team sport. And I think probably it’s always been that way. I wouldn’t know. You’ve been more involved. I don’t get into that. But I think it’s gotten more so, but by maybe a large factor, and maybe it’s just the information I’m exposed to is changing. 

It turns into whatever my team says, is what I believe in. And I can’t even engage in a discussion without going back to the team, in terms of… that my team has to always be right, your team has to always be wrong. The whole point of well, our political apparatus is that no one side of anything’s going to have the truth. And that’s going to be true within organizations as well.

Jessica Kozma: And the pendulum continues to broaden, you are exactly right. And going back to the culture that we are more siloed up and have been for quite a few years. But to the point of the heuristics that what we allow to help us come to the decisions that we do is also very polarized and highly charged. 

I’m a conservative, and I prefer conservative media, right? Whereas my liberal friend may prefer liberal media, and we both come to very different opinions about things, because those are the sources that we seek out. I do think that if we could take a breath and I will say this having been around the legislature for 25 years, we still get along in there. Right? And people still overall get along. 

Still, you will see the stunts come out. You will occasionally see some political finesse overriding a bill suddenly. These are things that leadership is skilled to do. 

Alicia Parr: Theater. That’s what I call it. Theater.

Jessica Kozma: That’s right, it is theater. 

But on a day-to-day basis, I will say that I know a couple of bad eggs, but I feel like 95% of those who are elected, those who are lobbyists, those who are on the campaign side, are really excellent human beings who are there for the right reasons. Every basket is going to have a bad apple, but it is not House of Cards. It is not there… 

And I think, again, I digress. But I think one great danger we have is that civics is now taught through Netflix, which also fuels the assumptions that we have heuristically. If you’re an elected official, you must be inherently corrupt. If you’re a lobbyist, you must inherently be a prostitute. I mean, things that just aren’t necessarily the truth, but had been exacerbated through popular media.

 Alicia Parr: Yeah, well, TV is about the drama. But real life is usually not that dramatic. 

You look on social media, and everything looks very polarized. And I think it is very polarized, certainly in many ways. 

Within any organization, you have a number of people, and they’re there together to do something that’s the shared purpose of that organization, whatever it might be. And the other stuff that doesn’t contribute to that, it can be helpful in terms of like, different people, because those are other heuristics. More minds more better, right? Because of different perspectives, a variety of views on something is when you collect them together and you coordinate those perspectives and give you something maybe a little bit closer to the truth. Fingers crossed, right? 

That’s true no matter what, whether it’s an organization or it’s in the broader sphere. But if we look at the grassroots issue if you get out to the point where people are doing the stuff and are making things happen, then you have a lot less room for a lot of conflict on theory. And then but what if you’re talking to if you’re working with those who are like in the trenches, the practitioners, there’s a lot less room for unfounded theory.

Jessica Kozma: I think you’re hitting on something that I think is also a very dangerous cultural norm right now, which is where people ignore the grassroots for what they feel like is an enlightened social agenda, right? It’s a one-size-fits-all, whereas organizations need to stick to their mission. If you serve retirees, if you serve mechanics or whomever you serve, and you can’t fulfill that service, unless you are looking at the grassroots.

Alicia Parr: Yeah, yeah.

Jessica Kozma: What drives the members? What do they need at the end of the day? How do we serve them best? Applying these agendas to an organization is very cancerous. And ultimately, you know, I always tell clients that we have to look at the end user first. Right? 

Who are we serving? Who are we helping? And from there figure it out. We can’t tell them. We have to understand them first.

Alicia Parr: Yeah, like my policy didn’t work. And the reason my policy didn’t work is because those dumb people out there did it wrong.

Jessica Kozma: That’s right.

Alicia Parr: No, no, I was talking about this. I had another conversation with an Austrian economist.

Jessica Kozma: Ooh.

Alicia Parr: I know. And that’s what we talked about. I think it’s that grassroots. 

It’s what Thomas Sowell’s book ‘A Conflict of Visions’, which is… I mean, there’s a handful of books where like, my brain was opened, and that was one of them. And that’s what he talked about. 

For those who haven’t read it, I’ll put a link in the notes. But he talks about the difference in this fundamental vision of how societies and human beings work. On the one hand, we have, does this work in the real world and on the ground. This is a grassroots idea. And that is the reality of what human nature is and how it works in the face of different policies, and trying to make certain changes happen. 

The other perspective or the other vision is one of… I forget how he frames it. That people are infinitely malleable. If we just design things the right way at the top-down level, no matter how big our scale, then we’ll get the right outcome. And this is even assuming that everyone can agree on what the right outcome is. Which we cannot. 

It is a very appealing perspective. Especially if you’re younger. When I was younger, I’m sure it would be nice if we could design things in such a manner where things went right or more right than they do now. Rather than, if we do this, then we’re going to have unintended consequences because human beings are not all like myself, and are going to engage with the system in a way to game it in ways that we cannot even imagine. It iis not going to turn out the way we like. So how else can we think about this?

Jessica Kozma: I want to use an example in public policy here in North Carolina. And that would be, family law. We’ll talk about divorce. We’ll talk about that for custody. In North Carolina, if you marry someone who refuses to work and sits around the house watching TV all day long, they have a right to half of everything you have, right? 

The law was set up in a painful way. It was set up, of course, to protect housewives who stayed home and raised the kids while the husband and then the husband has a midlife crisis in place for the secretary. And so the wife needs to get the house and a lump sum and so forth. However, in the application, the law has been… it is a law that is in several states, it’s the same as in Maryland, it’s the same as in Virginia, a little different in South Carolina. 

But it negates the goodwill of one spouse versus another. It is where public policy was crafted but was not thought through with the end user in mind. That needed to be changed. I think there is a trend in public policy where you see that a little more. It’s where the state gets into some regulatory issues from time to time. 

I think the application of the lockdowns, what businesses were deemed essential, proved that it is quite messy. I have a client that the whole association almost went out of business because they were locked down for six months. We’re not recognized in the unemployment system. So these are the kinds of things from the public policy perspective that we need to really get right. 

How does a spouse in an abusive marriage be able to keep his or her assets? How does a business that needs to be essential, be essential, compared to another or not. 

That’s where, and I really hope and believe in the years to come as we move out of this pandemic, that we will more thoughtfully address and I think to some degree we already are with regard to broadband, and some things that rose. But still, I think we’re pushed a little more than we have been in the past. 

We’re facing some real problems with our school children. The two demographics that really suffered were, of course, the old and the young. That really struggle and those are two demographics that require a great deal of public policy support, right? We have to run public schools. We have to provide Medicare. We have to provide services for the elderly and the young and including mental health. And I hope as we move forward, we can again go into the grassroots. Look at the people who we really need to serve. Anyway. Yes.

 Alicia Parr: I mean, there’s a degree of… so I guess there’s going grassroots and but not with an open mind. Right? And then there’s going grassroots and then have an open mind and assuming that you have something really important to learn from these people, you know out there.

Jessica Kozma: Again, I think there can be a tone deafness in those groups. And let’s talk about the elderly and COVID. And you and I both know how important human interaction is, you and I are both pretty extroverted social people, and humans eat each other. And so to perpetuate a narrative, where grandparents are scared of their grandchildren, because it is being said they are little super-spreaders of death. Very detrimental. 

And that is an availability heuristic, right? That sticks. Or at least it’s stuck. And the long-term damage on both the grandparent and the grandchild, I would dare say, is probably significant, however nuancical it may be. It may not be overt. But there’s a subtlety. 

And I mean, one thing that I found most disturbing now, my daughter was nine. So she still uses playgrounds behind my offices at Cameron village, which you’ve been to. There was a playground that she used for years. And they taped it up with police tape. What is the nuancical message and there is, again, an availability heuristic there, that the children that played there, it looked like someone had been murdered. And so that’s criminal to go use the playground. And I think those things stick. 

And again, it is being tone deaf, or at least myopic to the grassroots around you. Because they’re prevalent and they’re there, and they’re in every culture, and they’re in every situation, and they’re in every public policy issue, they are in every business. Is it you have those grassroots. And I think it is the most important of all.

 Alicia Parr: Yeah, just like the owner of the business I talked about has this great idea and like, works out the way that they want to work, and then it works out great for everyone. Right? It’s coming from a really good place. And I think that that’s true with a lot of people. It’s like, they want things to be safe, they want the most vulnerable in the population to be protected. 

These are all really wonderful impulses. And certainly an expression of our humanity, and our desire to be connected and to trust and to be safe with each other. There’s like, but if we get locked in, then we end up with a blind spot. And I think that that’s the most effective organizations and I think you’re noticing some things may be especially more when you go out in grassroots and you just have people in the field working with each other. There’s more possibility to hear beyond the blind spots.

Jessica Kozma: Well, having a history I don’t do, there are only a couple of electives that I do campaigns for anymore. But I’ve moved out of that more into public affairs bit. Having a campaign past, one of the things if I had a candidate come and want me to consult their campaign, the first thing I want to do is meet their spouse, because you can learn a lot from there. The second thing I asked them is if they’re willing to walk door to door. 

Because no matter how much digital I can buy, no matter how much radio I can buy, no matter how much you do that, if they’re not willing to walk door to door and know the grassroots, if they’re not willing to work in that realm, they don’t need to be elected. And one beauty about our system is that there are some times when it works, it will weed itself out. 

And candidates just want to buy digital and they want to do that and depend on the metrics and all that stuff. When really if you look at it through a little lens that has a little more finesse, you control the data, right? You can control the narrative. But reaching that voter, you will have a supporter for as long as you’re in office. But that is being in the grassroots.

All the other stuff when you see, if you look at the last cycle, the lieutenant governor’s race was very interesting. You had two African American candidates for the first time since Reconstruction. And you had a very charismatic Republican with an enormously conservative narrative, and an elected official with a community history and a grassroots history. But she ignored that. She didn’t talk about advocating for hunger in poor black neighborhoods. She didn’t talk about working in affordable housing. She bought the national narrative. 

Michael Bloomberg. Meanwhile, the Republican candidate worked the grassroots. He’s talking about a home in Pink Hill, and he’s going to garner and he’s going here and there. Michael Bloomberg came in at the end of this race, and put over $10 million into TV for the Democratic candidate. Republican candidate meanwhile, again, both are African American, sharing a very personal narrative, had no real money and he won. Because Robinson, the Republican candidate, stayed in the grassroots, stayed on message, and stayed focused on North Carolina, whereas Yvonne, I know both of them. I think the world of both of them. She thought that they could buy their way. Although she had the qualities and the personal richness to share that she had been a public servant and a servant leader. She made the mistake of thinking that the buyer would buy her the win, get her the win. And it didn’t. And I think that’s a fine example of where you see how important grassroots is, and however you want to apply it in the business world, because at the end of the day, we’re all campaigning for something.

Alicia Parr: Yeah. Always persuading. That’s what I say. We are always selling. That’s why I tell the consultants that work with me, I know you’re not in sales, but you’re always in sales. You’re selling at least an idea or way of thinking or tackling an issue.

Jessica Kozma: I’m so glad you said that, because when I was preparing for this, occasionally somebody would call wanting me to help them find a job. And half the time they go, “Well, I don’t sell.” We all sell. You do every day. 

We’re selling our business, we’re selling our talents, we’re selling our skills, we’re selling our wisdom, however we need to do it. And that’s a good thing. That allows us to be competitive and healthy. And I mean, that’s one thing I’ve always… like, when I was doing campaigns, you always want opposition.

Alicia Parr: Well, it could be challenging. I think people don’t like sales, because it sounds like trying to convince somebody else to do something they don’t want to do. I think that’s where things get all twisted up. But no, what is really sales? Sales is actually conveying the thing with authenticity that you know you can do for that other person.

Jessica Kozma: Absolutely.

Alicia Parr: Well, this has been fantastic. Maybe it’s just me, but I like talking, as I mentioned, I talked to an economist who runs an entrepreneurial group at the university, as well as senior leaders, as well as HR people, as well as running the gamut. I love hearing some of the stories that you shared. 

I think that would be really instructive for people who are in business or run nonprofit organizations, you know, really listening and being in touch with what’s going on in terms of where are you creating the value and for whom. And how can you say it in a way where, before whom, feels heard.

Jessica Kozma: Yes, absolutely, absolutely. I know we have got to close. If we could just simplify how we do many things and look at that end user, I think we can find things a lot more pleasant and easier to achieve. I don’t think it needs to be as complicated as society seems to think it is.

Alicia Parr: Yeah.

Jessica Kozma: Yeah. Well, I appreciate you very much.

Alicia Parr: I appreciate you. Thank you, Jessica.

Jessica Kozma: Anytime it’s been an honor and anytime I can help, let me know.

Alicia Parr: All right, you bet.

Jessica Kozma: Thank you.

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