Public Relations: The Dark Art

19/07/2014 00:21

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How is it possible for corporations to withstand the public outcry resulting from bad business practices? How is it that celebrities and elected officials can use the media to assuage any bad situation to protect themselves and even spin it in their favor? It is through the use of the art of public relations and one of its specialties crisis management that this is possible. Millions of dollars a year are spent on public relations to refine a message and enhance an image. One only needs to look at Wal-Mart who is rightfully facing major criticism for its corporate behavior; who hired a PR firm named Edelman to help them. Edelman helped Wal-Mart to look like saviors and saints during the Hurricane Katrina debacle (which shows you that all the PR and spin in the world couldn’t help the Bush administration and FEMA then). Edelman has also tapped the power of the blogosphere to create “flogs” which are basically fake blogs that support Wal-Mart. Edelman has even gone so far as to create an advocacy group named Working Families for Wal-Mart to fight back against the anti-Wal-Mart forces (I’m anti-Wal-Mart by the way). On a side note, when they were creating the group, Edelman forgot to secure the domain name and the group Wal-Mart Watch took it over and then set up a spoof site. Edelman had to then go with another URL for their “group”. Some other PR tactics that Edelman has employed for another client Microsoft, was to have them send out free laptops loaded with Windows Vista to A-list tech bloggers. The hope was for these bloggers to give the operating system great reviews. Thankfully, this tactic backfired on them.

From a definition featured on Wikipedia on public relations. It is said to be “a management function which tabulates public attitudes, defines the policies, procedures and interest of an organization followed by executing a program of action to earn public understanding and acceptance. ” Somehow, I feel this definition has been perverted. What public understanding and acceptance are you trying to gain when you cover up for, and shill for, corporations who outsource jobs, bust-up union drives, damage the environment, offer high-cost healthcare, and pay workers wages they cannot live on? “PR is a planned effort to influence opinion through good character and responsible performance based upon mutual satisfactory two-way communication” says PR professionals Scott Cutlip and Allen H. Center. Can we just view that statement as PR on the public relations sector itself?

How can you call the practice of VNR’s (video news releases) “good character and responsible?” A video news release is essentially fake news being passed off as real news on television and elsewhere. What is shown appears to be real news stories talking about an issue. But it is actually done for promotional purposes sometimes even using a PR professional posing as a reporter. The next thing you know your local anchor is throwing it over to the PR flack on the nightly news! Another example of fake news is the situation that involved conservative pundit Armstrong Williams who was paid to talk up the Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind initiatives. Williams is visible on radio, television, and in print so it makes what he did all the more alarming.

Is the use of so called grassroots groups and coalitions by PR firms ethical? Astroturf by definition is the creation of these groups by corporate interests to lobby, organize, and espouse a certain point of view. These groups can even have Orwellian type names like Freedom Works. An astroturf group by that name actually exists and is tied to the tobacco industry. They have organized to defeat increases to the cigarette tax in Washington state. Besides astroturf, PR firms often deploy front groups. “A front group is an organization that purports to represent one agenda while in reality it serves some other party or interest whose sponsorship is hidden or rarely mentioned” says a Source Watch entry. Examples of front groups are Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse, The Center for Union Facts, Citizens for a Sound Economy, and there are many more.

If public relations is supposed to be such a noble and honest profession. Why does it seem that most of what I come across involves deception? Of course it does not have to be this way at all. Public relations is needed and can be used for the right reasons. Right now I think of unethical public relations as the hand maiden of unethical corporate, political, and governmental behavior. The real problem lies with those that do the awful things in the first place then use public relations firms who deploy tactics to deceive. Lastly, a public relations sector that does not use propaganda and spin (both terms seem to now be synonymous with PR unfortunately) will be better of for it.

Is there such a thing as ethical and responsible public relations? Is PR really just propaganda in a different dressing? Maybe. Or maybe these guys and gals in PR land think the public are a bunch of sociopaths and therefore accept what they do with indifference. Actually, I do know of one good PR firm and that is Fenton Communications. They are focused on social responsibility. To quote them “public relations. Monty Python called it a modern useless profession. Too bad they were wrong. PR has become the way crafty corporations and even the leader of the free world convince people that pollution is harmless, war is peace and greed is good. No wonder we at Fenton Communications don’t like to be asked at parties what we do for a living.”

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