Going Off Message: The Growing Movement to Reject PR

Thanks to Joe Scott for pointing to this essay by Walter Pincus, a veteran Washington Post national security correspondent. The parts in bold are my emphasis:

The truth of the matter is that with help from the news media, being able to “stay on message” is now considered a presidential asset, perhaps even a requirement. Of course, the “message” is the public relations spin that the White House wants to present and not what the President actually did that day or what was really going on inside the White House. This system reached its apex this year when the White House started to give “exclusives” — stories that found their way to Page One, in which readers learn that during the next week President Bush will do a series of four speeches supporting his Iraq policy because his polls are down. Such stories are often attributed to unnamed “senior administration officials.” Lo and behold, the next week those same news outlets, and almost everyone else, carries each of the four speeches in which Bush essentially repeats what he’s been saying for two years.

A new element of courage in journalism would be for editors and reporters to decide not to cover the President’s statements when he — or any public figure — repeats essentially what he or she has said before. The Bush team also has brought forward another totally PR gimmick: The President stands before a background that highlights the key words of his daily message. This tactic serves only to reinforce that what’s going on is public relations — not governing. Journalistic courage should include the refusal to publish in a newspaper or carry on a TV or radio news show any statements made by the President or any other government official that are designed solely as a public relations tool, offering no new or valuable information to the public.

Contrary to what the above excerpt might suggest, Pincus’ is not a “Bush-bashing” piece. It is an elegant expression of cold fury at the way in which PR techniques, and news media compliance with them, have infected public discourse, “primarily in the White House and other agencies of government, but also in Congress or interest groups and even think tanks on the left, right or in the center,” which has left the public with a handful of dust — “instant news, instant analysis, and therefore instant opinions” — instead of sound public policy.

Needless to say, the infection is raging high in California politics, state and local. Gov. Schwarzenegger and Los Angeles’ Civic Alliance hope that loosening term limits will make councilmembers and state legislators take their jobs more seriously, but I’m afraid they will be disappointed. It’s not just the chore of having to plot their next campaign for their next job from the moment they take office that has created this decade’s cadre of plastic, timid political leaders. They are behaving the way they are advised to behave — by their staffs, campaign advisors, their professors and their political role models.

The PR techniques Pincus describes in his piece are S.O.P., conventional wisdom, and are in fact taught in school. “Staying on message” — I’ve heard many a 22-year-old recent graduate of a political science, public policy or PR program at a major university converse fluently on the topic.

There is a backlash coming, however. The ornery Amanda Chapel of Strumpette owns the franchise of pointing out the latest tirades against PR; such as this one from a New Zealand editorialist attacking that nation’s public broadcasting organization for doubling its public relations budget.

Here is how Frank Haden of Fairfax Media in NZ describes PR:

(Journalists) should not go sneaking off along the corridor to a specialist in the art of making sure the public never gets to hear the full story.

Because that’s what most public relations people do. It’s what they’ve always done, ever since the days when they were called hucksters, spielers and smokescreen merchants, names that kept them firmly in their place on the outskirts of polite society.

Now they have proliferated like rabbits, rebranding themselves as a growth industry with a variety of high-sounding titles such as media relations consultants, but their focus is essentially unchanged.

With some exceptions, their job is to give the inquiring public as few facts as they can get away with, artfully arranging them to make a favourable impression without actually telling any lies that can catch them out.

From this and other examples that frequently pop up on her website, Chapel concludes:

Note: public relations is not just characterized as an indulgence… it’s now become a “disgrace.”

In light of PR’s huge rise in revenues globally, regrettably the powers that be are NOT even going to acknowledge the problem here.BUT, the day is coming when this perception WILL result in a huge and dramatic backlash. Imagine a world where PR is just rejected out of hand. It sure looks like that day could be here sooner than you think.

“A world where PR is just rejected out of hand” is the world Walter Pincus now advocates for the press corps in our nation’s capital.

Really, why not? Why not expect our leaders, corporate or political, to give us truthful statements about the policies they are pursuing or opposing? Why do reporters, including the most elite and respected reporters, roll over for the kind of claptrap they get when a prominent leader deigns to permit an interview or appear on their program?

These reporters have been around long enough to know when they’re getting nada y pues nada y pues nada but message points and canned answers.  Hell, much of their audience recognizes plastic answers immediately and turns off the program. But aren’t the practitioners of this pseudo-speak the ultimate nihilists? Is there principle underneath all the spin? Oh, probably, but it’s really not apparent. Leaders, why waste our time if you aren’t going to lead?

As I write, a war is underway between Israel and one of its terrorist tormenters Hezbollah, in which Syria and Iran are implicated, and innocent civilians on both sides of Israel’s border with Lebanon are being slaughtered.

It’s a matter of great concern, but it didn’t occur to me once to turn on “Meet the Press” or its Sunday morning competitors. I wouldn’t learn anything but what the Democrats and Republicans thought would help their ongoing “positioning” needs for future elections. Foreign policy expert Gregory Djerejian of The Belgravia Dispatch did listen, however, and:

…I have to say it is manifestly clear we are facing a real leadership crisis in this country. How the level of debate has become this dumbed-down, or hyperbolic, or clueless, well I’m not quite sure, but we very clearly have a real problem on our hands. This is a country whose political class is rudderless just now–pretty much on both sides of the aisle–as events are overtaking people’s belief systems, modes of analysis, and general understanding of regional dynamics in the Middle East–and their impact on vital US interests. It’s a rather alarming spectacle, to be sure.

That’s when the backlash against PR becomes emotional. The misuse of PR techniques — the takeover of public policy by the PR mentality — has enabled “rudderless” leaders to seize power they don’t know what to do with…and who don’t even know anymore when they’re lying and when they’re telling the truth.

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