How will PR be tamed in the digital age?

What is PR? It is a question the industry itself has struggled to answer, not that that has stopped it from conquering the world. And when was that ever enough?

They may have started out as representatives and rebutters but ambition turned the exponents of PR into mass manipulators and, critics say, shameless reputation launderers. They might describe themselves as defence lawyers in the court of public opinion.

What it should be has become a moot point. How it is treated and controlled is another thing. Arguably, the media is no longer the primary conduit between information (forget facts) and the public. The inexorable growth of social media, the Economist reports, is changing the “antagonistic, symbiotic relationship” between PR and journalists that started back in 1906, when American mining bosses turned to the pioneering Ivy Lee to counter the sympathetic press acquired by trade unions.

“The rise of national newspaper chains and syndicated journalism in America since the 1880s, combined with the extension of the franchise, had profoundly changed society,” the Economist explains. “Now, for the first time, there was something that could accurately be called ‘public opinion’, a shared consciousness and conversation across the country – and it was to be feared.

“[Lee’s] idea, blindingly obvious now but a novelty then, was to send newsdesks a stream of statements putting forward the mining bosses’ case and rebutting allegations against them. These, as well as the statements he put out the same year on behalf of a railway following a train crash, are now sometimes described (with a bit of spin) as the first press releases. The immediate result was perhaps the earliest recorded whinges from journalists about being bombarded with tendentious bumf.”

Lee, not wishing to be lumped in with advertisers, promised that his agency would operate “frankly and openly on behalf of business concerns and public institutions, to supply the press and public prompt and accurate information concerning subjects of value and interest”.

Lee wanted PR to be a “two-way street”. The Economist explains: “He put forward sincere, factually based explanations on behalf of his clients, listened attentively to the public’s response, then conveyed it back to his masters, helping them to understand better how to meet people’s expectations.

“This principled version of PR did not long withstand pressure from clients to take a more forceful stance.”

After a massacre of striking miners Lee ended up making a Faustian pact with the unpopular Rockafellers and “spreading egregious lies”, earning him the nickname “Poison Ivy”.

Testifying to a congressional inquiry afterwards, Lee asked: “What is a fact?”, explaining: “The effort to state an absolute fact is simply an attempt to give you my interpretation of the facts.” Principle had been replaced by a methodical approach to “bamboozle the public with plausible-sounding factoids,” as the Economist puts it.

Lee was a proponent of the idea that rational argument was the best way to gradually budge public opinion.

But Edward Bernays, a nephew of Sigmund Freud and charged by Woodrow Wilson with selling America’s inclusion in the first world war, established that “the public’s first impulse is usually to follow a trusted leader rather than consider the facts”.

Bernays went so far as to proclaim that, since the public was so irrational, “the conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organised habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society”. It was manipulation or chaos, he argued.

If the corporate world was the first to manipulate “facts” on a grand scale, all sorts of organisations have discovered the equally dubious powers of persuasion since.

The Economist explains: “A masterful recent example is a Greenpeace video in which an office worker opens a KitKat and finds an orangutan’s finger inside – the intention being to press Nestlé, the chocolate bar’s maker, to stop buying palm oil from places where the ape’s native forests are being cut down. Such anti-corporate PR often goes curiously unnoticed by historians of the industry, but it is at least as manipulative as what companies get up to.”

Some of the most unpalatable political regimes have also employed the services of PR agencies in their bids to sanitise global perceptions.

British PR’s Tim Bell takes the view that it is not PR’s role to judge and that opinion is free. Responding to his work for Sri Lanka and others with poor human rights records, he said: “I am not an international ethics body. We do communications work. If people want to communicate their argument we take the view that they are allowed to do so.”

The industry cannot agree where the limits of advocacy lie. “Its professional bodies have codes of practice that ban outright lying on clients’ behalf. But there are so many agencies fighting for business that such rules are often honoured in the breach,” says the Economist.

“What people in the industry are certain about is their burning desire to be more than just press-release peddlers and excuse-makers. PR folk want to be at the strategic heart of organisations, helping to make big decisions.”

Many PR men and woman dine at the top executive table and the most ambitious “now spy a rare opportunity to steal a march on the Mad Men of advertising and the flipchart-wielders of marketing. In the chaotic online world of social networking, they argue, their talents are much more relevant than their rivals’”.

So while many take the view that the mainstream media needs to do more to decipher, separate and deliver fact from PR fiction – its ability to do so may be diminishing as social networks become more influential (not to mention dwindling investment in more inquisitive reporters).

Bypassing journalists doesn’t necessarily make things easier for PR people. With a torrent of contradictory messages from bloggers, tweeters etc to wade through, “Bernays’s maxim about the public needing trusted ‘influencers’ to tell them what to buy and think is therefore becoming truer than ever”.

It’s also proving difficult to mould social-media-only campaigns with marketing equally prominent, while talk of PR men rising to the top of big firms has been circulating “for years”.

PR is “in danger of believing its own spin about the opportunities online will bring,” says the Economist, but it is showing signs of adapting to new technology and “furthering its business”.

It concludes: “They may not achieve the power and glory they have ached for since the industry’s early days. But it is clear that another century of spin, perhaps greater than the one gone by, is in prospect.”

(Source: The Economist)

Follow the source link to read the Economist article in full.

Photo taken by Flickr user DoktorSpinn, licensed under Creative Commons.

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