Public Relations Gets Bad Public Relations
Stoff, Rick, St. Louis Journalism Review
What a dilemma public relations faces. On one hand, many potential clients go unserved and unbilled because they see no value in something as nebulous as communications. On the other hand, the profession can be criticized - harshly - for the power that professional communications can exert.
"Few outside the public relations industry know how well PR really works, and fewer realize how often we are persuaded by it . . . Academicians who study media now estimate that about 40 percent of all news flows virtually unedited from the public relations offices . . . PR executives are today mediating public communications as never before," writes Mark Dowie in the introduction to the vividly-titled book, "Toxic Sludge is Good for You: Lies, Damn Lies and the Public Relations Industry" (Common Courage Press, Monroe, Maine), written by John C. Stauber and Sheldon Rampton, editors of the quarterly newsletter "PR Watch: Public Interest Reporting on the PR/Public Affairs Industry."
Quite an endorsement for the profession from Dowie, former publisher and editor of Mother Jones magazine!
Dowie continues, "PR has become . . . an industry designed to alter perception, reshape reality and manufacture consent." Among its many weapons, he alleges, are "industrial espionage, organized censorship and infiltration of civic and political groups."
In a sense, the book also is a text on and testament to the sophistication that professional communications can achieve in terms of analyzing highly biased and deep-rooted public perceptions and accordingly shaping an organization's messages and conduct. Unfortunately, the book is based upon the worst-case applications of modern communications psychology and methodology.
"Today's PR industry is related to democracy in the same way that prostitution is related to sex. When practiced voluntarily for love, both can exemplify human communications at its best. When they are bought and sold, however, they are transformed into something hidden and sordid," the book explains.
"There is nothing wrong with many of the techniques used by the PR industry - lobbying, grassroots organizing, using the news media to put ideas before the public. As individuals, we not only have the right to engage in these activities, we have a responsibility to participate in the decisions that help shape our society and our lives . . . But ordinary citizens cannot afford the multimillion dollar campaigns that PR firms undertake on behalf of their special interest clients, usually large corporations, business associations and governments. Raw money enables the PR industry to mobilize private detectives, attorneys, broadcast faxes, satellite feeds, sophisticated information systems and other expensive, high-tech resources to outmaneuver, overpower and outlast true citizen reformers."
Many of the tactics outlined by Stauber and Rampton actually are utilized far too often in the free world:
* Attempting to silence or minimize people and organizations who have views that conflict with ours, often through demonization and belittlement. When your views are unpopular or adverse to broader interests, respectful debate just won't do.
* In what the authors term the "astroturf" tactic, misusing the "grassroots" movement to create shell organizations and the perception of public support where none exists, or even misleading citizens to support causes that actually are not in their interests.
* Infiltrating citizen groups to obtain information or induce them to pursue activities that are counterproductive to their causes.
The authors contend that moneyed interests alone are capable of such behavior, but sadly it is practiced by many special interest groups today. Often the practitioners come from outside the boundaries of the true public relations profession, largely the political profession. …