Fake News: PR's Little Monster

February 21, 2017

Call me mad, but fake news and post-truth shouldn’t be a surprise, not to practitioners of public relations and communications. Donald Trump is, of course, the most celebrated example of today’s bad PR practices. His proxies, counselor KellyAnne Conway and press secretary Sean Spicer among other lieutenants, are equally embarrassing. But the experts and academics of PR and communications — many who disavow their gas lighting – have helped pave the way. Consider these recent rebukes:Frankenstein

  • Apple CEO Tim Cook claims that fake news is “killing people’s minds.” But is there a more practiced entity than Apple at creating alternative realities? Mac v. PC? Cool vs. Uncool? His motives might have popular appeal, but the jury is out on the social benefits of so much technology crammed into so few years.
  • The British business school lecturer Robert Minton-Taylor beseeches his communicator colleagues to “stick to the facts, not the alternative facts.” But it’s a Pollyanna perspective. Most information that communicators confront is interpretable so it must be molded for the advantage of paying clients and employers. Stick with the facts and you’ll be fired or never hired, is the reality.
  • The Public Relations Society of America, which touts 22,000 members and promotes accreditation, binds PR’s purpose to a mutual social benefit. To that end, it has disavowed fake news. “PRSA strongly objects to any effort to deliberately misrepresent information,” says Jane Dvorak, PRSA’s chair, in Politico. “Honest, ethical professionals never spin, mislead or alter facts.” That doesn’t leave a lot of wiggle room because, again, PR pros are implicitly encouraged to bend the information at their disposal. Irrespective of PRSA’s code of ethics and altruistic definition, practitioners would be derelict in their duties to do otherwise. PR is spin.
  • Further proof of PR’s appetite for idols and gospel comes often through The Institute for Public Relations. In an IPR post, Dr. Denise Bortree, director of The Arthur W. Page Center for Integrity in Public Communications, distances her discipline from fake news misdirection. But she cites trust studies and principles of practice that, as described below, are doctrinaire if not dubious.

This is mock shock set against brave talk. Consider, for example, Richard Edelman, CEO of Edelman, the world’s largest PR agency, who muses annually over the falling measures in his firm’s so-called Trust Barometer study. But who is Edelman to worry over trust when very possibly it is the failed attempts – by PR people – to prop it up? Stories and symbols, the currency of communicators, are too often fed to the public ahead of deeds, and sometimes they are the only cure to correct a trust deficit. Read more of my argument here.

Likewise, The Arthur W. Page Society, an association of chief communications officer (CCOs), holds itself above the fray. It takes the name of a pioneering CCO, Arthur Page, and conflates his legacy with seven principles, the first and most celebrated of which is “Tell the truth.” But it ignores Mr. Page’s role as an architect of the suffocating monopoly, AT&T, and slow-walks the fact that none of the principles were ever uttered or written by Mr. Page, not a word. No bibliography. No citations. No peer review. That Gary Sheffer, a respected Page leader and former CCO of GE, warned last year of the vagaries of truthiness is more than a little Orwellian.

Of course this begs the question of ethics in PR, which scholar Shannon Bowen gamely champions. In PRWeek, she writes, “To be ethical communicators and leaders, the power of public relations should be used to empower others – to facilitate wise decisions through providing information, by making a range of options possible and actionable, and by serving the interests of society – as well as those of clients.”

Intel-TrumpDr. Bowen is a disciple of James Grunig, whose research on PR excellence falls ultimately in favor of what he calls two-way symmetric communication. This is to say that Dr. Grunig, Bowen and most educators of PR and communications adhere to the panacea of fair, equal and ethical exchanges. Thus, in most classrooms this ideal eclipses the practical. To the nods of employers, deans and conscience, PR academics give preference to strategies that mitigate negativity and accentuate positivity but rarely invite debate or prosecute an unpopular point of view. Their good intentions aside, this is like putting creationism before evolution and scripture before sex education.

It’s no wonder that rank and file PR people believe their work is more noble than even that of the new White House. But they thrive on the same spectrum. It’s true, that when KellyAnne Conway swaps falsehoods for facts that her conduct is beyond the pale. But contrast her fundamentals to corporations and the differences blur. Take Unilever, for instance, and its brilliant Real Beauty and tongue-in-cheek #AlternativeFacts campaigns. By degrees, these are fabrications too. The only true difference is that one player is selling policies, another is selling commodities.

Ford, Starbucks and Intel are capable of both. Implementing what Slate calls “The hot new corporate PR strategy,” each has announced U.S. jobs programs against the backdrop of Donald Trump’s America-first agenda. Are they being honest? Are they being truthful? You decide. One thing’s for sure: They know which side their bread is buttered on.

Storytelling is another PR invention that exploits social media’s capacity for content and inveigles commercial commentary into non-commercial discussions. Note the made-for-social spots from United Airlines. They are expertly filtered tales that, while not untrue, are as detectable on the manipulation meter as a Sean Spicer Q&A. Problem is, they are too easily hip-checked by unfiltered customer stories.

United-KelloggOther initiatives reinforce PR’s sunny self-regard and culpability for fakery. Consider the work of Ogilvy PR’s behavioral guru, Christopher Graves. “Marketing and communications has been getting better and better at targeting its prey,” he says to The Holmes Report. “Instead, we need to move into a more empathy-based approach of understanding. We know from Trump and Brexit that the traditional measures fail time and time again.” Translation: Hunting is too crude. Let’s try empathy to draw our prey. Behavioral science gives us the tools.

PR is necessary, but not noble. Like truth-in-advertising and corporate speech statutes, it should perhaps be regulated. Its methods are just that good, analytics companies are now proving, and few understand its enormous power. Perhaps, too, it should be licensed, a view once championed by Edward Bernays, who wrote willingly of his interest in and uses for propaganda.

But I am not so sure. Free speech is a precious right despite obvious abuses by professional persuaders.

What I am sure of is that the industries of influence – PR and communications in particular – have for more than a half-century, sought to sell their function and to beautify its intent and strategies, what I have exhaustively described as influence plays. They have disguised what is a fundamentally competitive purpose with more palatable terms, like trust, credibility, reputation and authenticity. But this has all been to advance the points of view, products and services of governments and corporations, mostly, not the social good, not really.

Now, as these seeds are fully rooted, few like what they see. Politicos, CEOs, activists and, yes, terrorists, are hijacking the discipline. They are ashamed that the Fourth Estate is stripped of its objectivity and check-and-balance ability. But few will admit their incurable reliance upon and exploitation of the press to advance their programs.

Fake news and post-truth should not be a surprise. Nor should Donald Trump. He and his surrogates are specialized creatures that have found the conditions that promote their survival. The practitioners, professors and users of PR share responsibility for their incubation and the modern monster they’ve birthed.

This article also appears in The Huffington Post, LinkedIn and Medium.

Full disclosure: Alan Kelly is a former member of The Arthur W. Page Society and former board director of IPR.

Frankenstein photo credit: Wikipedia. Other images are based on public domain content.