Saturday, July 23, 2011

‘If you can’t move a mountain, go around it’ - On Public Relations, Media & Truth

‘If you can’t move a mountain, go around it’

This felicitous phrase contained in the mottos of an American PR firm tells us all we need to know about the state of affairs of the world today and the ‘arsenal of follies’ that far from being dormant, have for long taken to the main stage of the world and politics. Public relations is a rather old concept whose story goes back Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire, and her private efforts on behalf of English politician Charles James Fox in 18th century Britain; however it was officially inaugurated as a profession by Edward Bernays – a nephew and student of Freud – and Basil Clarke in the course of the 20th century. What had been once only a by-product of the salon society in Imperial Europe entered the world of politics during World War I with the creation of the Committee on Public Information in 1917 created with the sole intent to influence US public opinion regarding American participation in World War I. The CPI, though an innovation at the time, had little to do with modern tactics in ‘crisis communication’ and while divorced from commercial strategies of publicity and advertising, its main emphasis was to positively influence public opinion about the war from ‘independent agencies’ based in different cities and countries and working independently of the government as well. A number of incidents however made manifest the danger of embroidered truths and ultimately led to the disestablishment of the organization by the Congress.

One must distinguish here between public relations and propaganda – the use of mass media to repetitively enforce the information selected by the propaganda organism, shunning off all other sources information, as it was the case in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union; the use of public relations as strategic policy became established thereafter and has been instrumental in the modern history of the United States and then later spread all over the globe in both authoritarian and open democratic states. It wasn’t however until the Vietnam War that it became not only instrumental in policy-making but an absolutely central and key aspect of politics when public relations does not only serve the interests of ‘crisis communication’ but of ‘communication’ in general between governments, corporations and peoples. Public relations from that time on included indeed an ‘arsenal’ of tools beyond press relations, lobbying and campaigning, to include mass persuasion through manifold channels in order not to promote but to fabricate truth instead of merely enforcing lies – advertising took the place of communication. In the words of Hannah Arendt (‘Home to Roost’, in ‘Responsibility & Judgment’, Schocken, 2005 pp. 257-277) ‘Image-making as global policy is indeed something new in the huge arsenal of human follies recorded in history […] These lies hid no secrets from friend or enemy; nor were they intended to. They were meant to manipulate Congress and to persuade the people of the United States’. Lying in politics is not new or unprecedented and it has been justified ever since Plato; the novelty here is the use of public relations not to fence truth off from enemies but to articulate truth to one’s own people.

In more recent times, image-making and fabrication of truth has no longer been – as in the case of Vietnam – a reparative effort to manipulate facts already evident but rather to present them from the start as in the case of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the most recent intervention in Libya. These manipulations masterfully carried through do not benefit only governments but also corporations and institutions whose shaping of public opinion is imperative in the success of their political and economic enterprises. Public relations involve not only communications between governments and peoples and cover a vast array of endeavors such as the information provided by financial corporations to reporters, gaining publicity for a product or service, handling communication crises and establishing alternative means of communication between industries, public bodies and the general public. They do not only act in the form of PR firms but also lobbying groups and fronts; these fronts can include anything from human rights organizations, institutions of higher education, magazines and newspapers, propaganda spins, breaches of IT security, industrial espionage, social engineering, smear campaigns, information gathering, talk shows and active intelligence. The great potential of the Internet to drive information en masse has always been featured and used extensively as a preferred locus for the fabrication of truths through social media, blogs, newsletters and sponsored-content. There has not been one single niche of human activity that has been left untouched by public relations; the case of social media is particularly alarming when they use what is apparently user-generated content (either paid or done voluntarily) in order to shape public opinion not from institutional powerhouses but in the names and faces of web users, real and otherwise.

Their ultimate aim is not only to promote interests but to create them as well, that is, to drive people to express alleged support for specific policies, products, services, corporations and to actively engage in certain causes. A recent case in point is that of the Kingdom of Bahrain as reported by Thor Halvorssen, president of the Human Rights Foundation, ‘reputation management’ has been extensively provided by Western PR firms to the government of Bahrain to rehabilitate its reputation in spite of the widely publicized crackdown on protesters. These efforts, carefully engineered from within offices in Britain and the United States include discrediting of human rights activists, infecting reliable sources such as Wikipedia and white-washing the tarnished reputation of tyrannical governments by means of repetition of state-fueled propaganda by supposedly private concerned citizens and replacing the ugly language of human rights with the production and re-production of endless reports about economic development, stability and struggles against poverty. This has not been only the case with Bahrain, but also with other authoritarian governments such as Tunisia, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Equatorial Guinea and Yemen. Their intent, sheltered upon neutrality of business, has been to divert attention from the real issues by either exposing their achievements en masse or exposing and demonizing opposition groups publicly. Their neutrality of course is paid dearly in the form of multimillion dollar contracts that allows them to negotiate privately with many different local and international interests, stealing from the peoples the opportunity to be engaged in legitimate political processes. It seems that they have achieved to go around the mountains instead of moving them, for those mountains, that include unprecedented crimes, lies, devious tactics and infringement of people’s rights to transparency of information, those mountains are just too humongous to remain unseen and yet in spite of everything, their efforts are often successful because of the awareness even among education people of the great reach of their tools that is by no means limited to the news.

The consequence of manipulating the truth in such a way is not necessarily a lie but the final disappearance of the line that divides truth from lie in people’s minds and the eventual apathy of the confused public that surrenders to this overbearing domination. When there’s no truth and no lie, the self-effacement before the nature and demands of freedom is identical with the abandonment of political freedom. Truth is the most political of all forces, even above the law and the capital. In the sense that communication has been hijacked by private interests, the nature of communication has been destroyed and therefore, free speech is no longer of any use, for it has become nothing but a private matter. Hannah Arendt finished an interview with French writer Roger Errera in 1974 with the following remarks: The moment we no longer have a free press, anything can happen. What makes it possible for a totalitarian or any other dictatorship to rule is that people are not informed; how can you have an opinion if you are not informed? If everybody always lies to you, the consequence is not that you believe the lies, but rather that nobody believes anything any longer. This is because lies, by their very nature, have to be changed, and a lying government has constantly to rewrite its own history. On the receiving end you get not only one lie—a lie which you could go on for the rest of your days—but you get a great number of lies, depending on how the political wind blows. And a people that no longer can believe anything cannot make up its mind. It is deprived not only of its capacity to act but also of its capacity to think and to judge. And with such a people you can then do what you please.’ Whoever thinks that what Arendt alludes to in positing the disappearance of both lie and truth is not what has taken hold of the political stage of the world in recent decades, perhaps he is not completely mistaken, for the destruction effected by public relations on the texture of the public space has run so deep, that we are no longer able to judge even our own condition.

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