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
(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.