Spin versus framing: the tragedy of PR

For my sins, I was once a public relations guy, for an educational institution, and I held positions roughly in that domain (e.g., as public communications manager for a medical research institute, although I managed the means not the message) for the bulk of my professional life until I finally took up a position as an academic philosopher four years ago. It was not my vocation, I hasten to add, but the way I supported my book habit and fondness for eating and feeding my family.

I have been asked to address a science communication class on the failure of science to communicate to the public, and that led me to reflect upon my former life in the dark side. I have come to this conclusion: the greatest tragedy of public polity, in science and without, in the democratic nations, one that looks very likely to me to be the major proximal cause of the ultimate failure of democracy, is the invention of public relations.

It’s worth noting that before the second world war, what we now call public relations was called propaganda: that which is propagated (to the audience). Goebbels‘ Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda was, in effect, a public relations campaign designed to ensure not that the audience was enlightened, but the contrary. Propaganda, and modern public relations, is fundamentally about changing attitudes, not informing.

And moreover, it is about changing attitudes not informing people, despite what the erstwhile founder of modern PR, Edward Bernays, said. From the very beginning, including the work done by Bernays himself, public relations has deliberately worked to promote products that were known to be unsafe or unhealthy, such as tobacco. For that reason the public relations “official” body, the Public Relations Society of America, was formed in 1948 and immediately failed to take action on unethical behaviours.

The history of propaganda is often separated from that of public relations, due in no small part to the efforts of public relations professionals writing their “history”, but an unbiassed view sees the identity immediately. And from the start, PR worked against science, especially medical science. Here is a list of the use of PR to defend the indefensible, which I quote in the indented parts:

(1) Ketchum and Pesticides

(2) Morgan and Myers and dairy products

(3) Dupont

(4) Beef Council and National Dairy Board (this one, against Jeremy Rifkin, no friend to science himself, is more an example of squashing public criticism)

(5) Other dirty techniques:

Video news releases, indistinguishable from genuine news, distributed to broadcast stations around the world, without attribution or disclaimer. Organizing of supposedly ‘grassroots’ citizen campaigns and lobbyists controlled by the corporate interests that pay the bills. One example was Philip Morris’ “National Smokers Alliance”; another was Playboy and Penthouse’s formation of “Americans for Constitutional Freedom” to undermine the work of former Attorney General Ed Meese’s Pornography Commission.

(6) Tobacco Industry (from Bernays in the 1930s onwards):

Dirty PR has long been refined in the tobacco industry. The American Tobacco Company used PR to develop a new market – American women – for its Lucky Strike brand. PR agents were hired to used spurious data to show that doctors preferred Luckies as the ‘less irritating brand’, featuring Metropolitan opera stars (their voices seemingly unaffected by smoking), and that smoking helped women to be beautiful (playing on women’s fears about their weight), and, using Freudian analysis, promoting the idea that cigarettes were a symbol of female liberation and sexuality. An industry sponsored ‘National Smokers Alliance’ was formed, reaching 3 million members by 1995. Essentially it is a way of mobilizing tobacco’s victims to protect tobacco’s profits. Smokers are urged to stand up for their rights; anti-smokers are called anti-Americans.

Revelations of the connection between smoking and cancer appeared from 1952 onwards. The industry responded by campaigns that indirectly undermined the health arguments, creating a false sense of security by seeming to favor independent research and cooperation with public officials, by confusing the public as to what was true, what was dangerous, and what was not, and advocating the public’s right to smoke. They worked to refine, undermine and neutralize information coming from the scientific and medical community. The industry’s association Tobacco Institute Research Committee (later renamed the Council for Tobacco Research), managed to attract a respected scientist to be its director. From its research library, the TIRC selected any studies with ambiguous findings, put these into a single book, and called it the ‘Scientific Perspective’ on the smoking controversy. Only 10% of TIRC’s budget was spent on research projects.

In California, Philip Morris gave half a million dollars to a PR firm, Dolphin, to set up a front group called “Californians for Statewide Smoking Restrictions.” Using this deceptive title, the NSA gathered signatures to put a referendum on the California ballot in 1994, which presented itself as in favor of smoking restrictions, in order to dupe voters, since in reality it would have undermined 270 existing restrictions. But the source of funding was discovered in time, and the attempt failed.

(7) Nuclear Power

(8) Spies for Hire

Examples include the use of private detective agencies by businesses, to infiltrate trade unions in the early days of the labor movement. … In 1980 Nestle established the Nestle Coordination Center for Nutrition. Its tactic was ‘divide and rule’. For example, the campaign against Nestle included man teachers, represented by the National Education Association. So the Nestle Center supported the NEA’s smaller, conservative rival, the American Federation of Teachers. Nestle also worked on the United Methodists to win over a part of the broadly-based Church movement against Nestle. …

(9) Divide and Conquer

Many corporations have had reason to fear the growth of grassroots movements that aim to curb environmental and health risks. We can learn from the strategies of corporate response, which is usually to hire large PR companies to fight on their behalf.

(9) Poisoning the Grassroots

Astroturfing, and so on.

In every case and many more, it is worth noting that PR is fundamentally a corporatist activity. It enables the use of the greater funding of corporations, governments and, as the Swiftboating campaign against Kerry, itself run by a PR firm, political parties with deep pockets. PR makes people comfortable when corporate entities do whatever they want to, that is all.

Another aspect of PR that is fundamentally opposed to the spread of information is “spin”. This is a technique of saying only those aspects of an issue that are favourable to the campaign goals, ignoring and deprecating that which is unfavourable. This means that the PR campaigns have manufactured doubt about such science consensus as anthropic global warming, tobacco’s role in disease, the effects of oil spills on wildlife and the effects of drilling and mining, on the value of universal healthcare (to serve the interests of the medical insurance industry), and so on.

Truth is irrelevant to PR. It is in its own way a very postmodern or relativistic enterprise, often appealing to claims that truth is constructed, or that opposing views are merely perspectives (a tactic best developed by creationists). What is good for Exxon is good for the world, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding. So spin it for all it’s worth.

PR professionals are often fond of claiming that they understand communication well. I attended a world congress of public relations in Melbourne back in the 1980s. The keynote speaker, a PR executive, gave his “theory” of communication, and it was childish and naive and, basically, stupid. PR is not about communication at all. It’s about manipulating feelings. It’s closer to advertising than to journalism. Which makes it all the more worrying that modern journalism is being replaced, rather rapidly, with press release media. Journalism no longer does anything much like investigation, for business reasons, forcing them to simply reprint the press releases or use the PR video. Democracy, which relies on a free and independent press, is now run by what I call a”lobbocracy”, by special interests lobby groups via PR.

All this is a prelude to the following question: how can we communicate science to the public debate, so that informed decisions can be made? One such answer is that of the science communication community, who often take up the notion of framing one’s communication to be comprehensible and receiveable by the audience. The basic idea is that by framing your message suitably, by keeping on message and putting the issues in terms that journalists and the lay public are capable of processing, you can communicate enough to get a foundational discussion going.

But if I am right about the state of public communication channels – the media, publishing, the public polity debate and so on, all one can hope to achieve is to change attitudes, because the channels don’t permit the transmission of information. In other words, the persistence of PR has made everything PR. So while I do not think, with the critics of framing here on Science Blogs, that framing is just another word for “spin”, since it simply isn’t (all communication has to be framed to some degree, as any teacher can tell you), the state in which we try to frame our messages reduces everything to spin anyway.

I don’t have a solution to this. Media ownership has become corporate, and independent means of communication, including the Web 2.0, are basically drinking from the PR hose anyway. I suspect there is no single set of solutions to it, but just to do what got science across in the beginning anyway: education, and repetition of the facts from credible sources. It is my view that enough people actually want to know more than the gee-whiz gimcrackery of popular science magazines, and that if you make the information available in a proper manner, some will pick it up. All we can hope is that there is a threshold, a tipping point, within our reach that will enable us to once again try to have an informed and critical society. Maybe then, we can try being democratic once more.

35 thoughts on “Spin versus framing: the tragedy of PR

  1. Yes, chaps, but what is to be done?

    Don’t know, Henry. I think that changing the way we educate is the only solution, but that takes political will, and that is lacking for the simple reason that no political party actually wants a critical population.
    We presently (at lest so far as I can tell in Australia and other nations I can find out about) teach too much “data” and too little critical thinking. The best way to engage in science is continuous actual hands on stuff, rather than making passing a matter of memorising data. The first five years of education are crucial, in my view. Letting kids set off the occasional explosion, or do things that are interesting and make the math and data hang off that, rather than taking it data first, is crucial. Also, teaching kids how to think critically (and not merely how to learn to pass critical thinking classes) so that teachers can be challenged. However, my experience is that this is in fact inhibited in schools most of the time.
    The media are not the solution, they are the problem. They won’t improve until a population of critical and motivated individuals insists upon it. Huxley’s Working Man’s Lectures is an instance of the popularity of knowledge – perhaps we can do something like that now, outside the media.

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  2. Yes, chaps, but what is to be done?

    Don’t know, Henry. I think that changing the way we educate is the only solution, but that takes political will, and that is lacking for the simple reason that no political party actually wants a critical population.
    We presently (at lest so far as I can tell in Australia and other nations I can find out about) teach too much “data” and too little critical thinking. The best way to engage in science is continuous actual hands on stuff, rather than making passing a matter of memorising data. The first five years of education are crucial, in my view. Letting kids set off the occasional explosion, or do things that are interesting and make the math and data hang off that, rather than taking it data first, is crucial. Also, teaching kids how to think critically (and not merely how to learn to pass critical thinking classes) so that teachers can be challenged. However, my experience is that this is in fact inhibited in schools most of the time.
    The media are not the solution, they are the problem. They won’t improve until a population of critical and motivated individuals insists upon it. Huxley’s Working Man’s Lectures is an instance of the popularity of knowledge – perhaps we can do something like that now, outside the media.

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  3. We presently (at lest so far as I can tell in Australia and other nations I can find out about) teach too much “data” and too little critical thinking.
    I couldn’t agree more. In recent years I have often come across school kids being punished for “disruptive behaviour” basically because they indulged in critical thinking instead of just swallowing the pre-digested pap that the teacher served up. Don’t question the “facts”, don’t contradict the teacher, don’t think for yourself, just learn the “facts” and regurgitate them on demand and you will be awarded with an entry ticket to life.
    Am I a grouchy, old, cynical bastard with a lousy opinion of our education system? Yep! But that still don’t make what I say wrong!

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  4. We presently (at lest so far as I can tell in Australia and other nations I can find out about) teach too much “data” and too little critical thinking.
    I couldn’t agree more. In recent years I have often come across school kids being punished for “disruptive behaviour” basically because they indulged in critical thinking instead of just swallowing the pre-digested pap that the teacher served up. Don’t question the “facts”, don’t contradict the teacher, don’t think for yourself, just learn the “facts” and regurgitate them on demand and you will be awarded with an entry ticket to life.
    Am I a grouchy, old, cynical bastard with a lousy opinion of our education system? Yep! But that still don’t make what I say wrong!

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  5. We presently (at lest so far as I can tell in Australia and other nations I can find out about) teach too much “data” and too little critical thinking.
    I couldn’t agree more. In recent years I have often come across school kids being punished for “disruptive behaviour” basically because they indulged in critical thinking instead of just swallowing the pre-digested pap that the teacher served up. Don’t question the “facts”, don’t contradict the teacher, don’t think for yourself, just learn the “facts” and regurgitate them on demand and you will be awarded with an entry ticket to life.
    Am I a grouchy, old, cynical bastard with a lousy opinion of our education system? Yep! But that still don’t make what I say wrong!

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  6. Our children are failing not despite what teachers do, but because of what teachers do. Our children are failing because our educators use an educational philosophy based on ideas regarding human beings that are flat out wrong and based on bigotry and bias. Our educational system is designed and implemented to discourage critical thought and individual initiative. Most teachers do indeed work hard, at teaching the wrong thing.
    I’ve got ideas regarding educational reform, but this isn’t the place to expound on them. I’ll get something up at my place later.

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  7. Isn’t the decline in the popularity of smoking evidence that, regardless of massive PR campaigns, scientific evidence can carry the day given sufficient time?

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  8. Isn’t the decline in the popularity of smoking evidence that, regardless of massive PR campaigns, scientific evidence can carry the day given sufficient time?

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  9. How about this as a general rule of thumb:
    1. If it needs propaganda/PR, it’s probably a bad thing.
    2. If it needs propaganda/PR merely to be noticed amongst the cacophony of well funded propaganda/PR for essentially bad things, then it might be actually be a good thing.

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  10. Ian H Spedding FCD: “Isn’t the decline in the popularity of smoking evidence that, regardless of massive PR campaigns, scientific evidence can carry the day given sufficient time?”
    But it wasn’t the evidence alone that did it. There has been–and still is–a campaign of PSAs to discourage smoking, some using celebrities, like the guy who played Hamilton Berger on Perry Mason who was dying of lung cancer, some using a gross-out approach, like the woman smoking through her throat, and so on. There was quite a bit of, um, framing involved.

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  11. This post was a serious waste of your time and anyone that was subjected to reading it.
    It is a shame that your failed career in public relations has forced you to write so poorly against the field.
    Best of luck in future endeavors…

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  12. Very insightful post. I have developed the concept for an alternative, albeit somewhat absurd, solution. The model for this solution is the catholic church: it has been able to send a consistent message, with little to no ambiguity and unquestioned following, over a long period of time. Nobody could say, “well that’s just one perspective.” No. The church is right, and you are wrong.
    I therefore have suggested the appointment of a “science pope,” along with an institution devoted to (a) confirming scientific findings, and (b) communicating said findings. This institution would have to, of course, only accept things as true after rigorous review, likely decades after they are accepted in the community. This will keep trust in the institution, and enable a consistent message. While it may not foster the sense of free thinking we scientists love, it may be more important for people to understand the ideas of the community than the context for those ideas.
    As for the first science pope, I like Kip Thorne, but I should not be the one to choose.

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  13. We are taught to sacrifice individuality for the “greater good” of some “higher purpose” which ends up as an encouragement to jump on the latest bandwagon not really in our best interest either for self or environment. We have lost the drive and selfishness that are catalysts for defending ourselves against subtle manipulations. We are conditioned to conformity and silence but this is not like the past was. People are crawling out of caves at an alarming rate, as Plato had a story about that or something. It would be difficult to launch a PR war against PR companies so constructively informing just one goes further than the latest “Freedom Campaign- Impeach Bush” society you could join. Encouraging individuality and voicing an unpopular view goes further to spur debate than agreement. I like to stir people up and take things in unpopular directions (maturely, of course) to get others to think rather than trying to find out who they agree with more. This is the major flaw of online communication- when “repeaters” lurk amongst us regurgitating O’reilly’s topics or views.

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  14. We are taught to sacrifice individuality for the “greater good” of some “higher purpose” which ends up as an encouragement to jump on the latest bandwagon not really in our best interest either for self or environment. We have lost the drive and selfishness that are catalysts for defending ourselves against subtle manipulations. We are conditioned to conformity and silence but this is not like the past was. People are crawling out of caves at an alarming rate, as Plato had a story about that or something. It would be difficult to launch a PR war against PR companies so constructively informing just one goes further than the latest “Freedom Campaign- Impeach Bush” society you could join. Encouraging individuality and voicing an unpopular view goes further to spur debate than agreement. I like to stir people up and take things in unpopular directions (maturely, of course) to get others to think rather than trying to find out who they agree with more. This is the major flaw of online communication- when “repeaters” lurk amongst us regurgitating O’reilly’s topics or views.

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  15. PR is the modern form of persuasion, just with compartmentalized business titles. We have always had PR, just now they petition journalists and pitch spun versions of facts that the client companies pay them to solicit. We may evolve, but our machinations do as well. Regressive learning allows the observance of patterns or aspects of community constantly churning out “new” or “evolved” things which are the same conceptually just with new definitions. Then you have to go to college to learn glossary terms and sound smart while learning the latest interface necessities serving as the channel for profit-driven technology which we conformed like we do those following our steps. This allows preying upon our youthful college or high-school kids to create the illusion of deficiency in intellect or character. Many of the poorer or naive students give up quickly out of boredom to fill the service jobs and spend all their money on fads and never learning independence, confidence in self, or esteem as the barrage of degrading ads have them playing catch up just as the next model for cool is endorsed by a hyped-up version of what they aren’t. Informing the masses is useless unless enough people care about their neighbors and neighborhoods for what matters -not competing for most expensive car/ house – but for the people in them. We must band together not based on issues or weekly topics to divide, but under the notion that screwing with our heads is not to be dismissed as conspiracist or pseudo-science any longer and rather than complaining about what bothers us, bolster the defenses of yourself and others regardless of what TV tells us. A start would be to refuse to buy any marketed product on any station or ad and go truly green and independent by supporting less fortunate businesses looking for this edge over the manipulation brands.

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