Edward Bernays, one of the most influential pioneers of PR in America and double nephew of Sigmund Freud, said that PR deals with reality, not images. In his definition, “Public Relations was about fashioning and projecting credible rendition of reality.”
PR stories advance and promote special interests both in positive and negative fashion. In the positive, the subject is projected in the best light possible. Every conceivable virtue, no matter how insignificant, is highlighted, oftentimes to the extent of portraying the client or subject individual as God’s gift to mankind.
In much the same way, negative PR highlights the sins of the target individual—real or imagined. The author also resorts to a black propagand a campaign. He launches demolition jobs against his target employing half-truths or half-lies. Oftentimes too, the author of the black propaganda stories resorts to outright lies; big lies. The black prop operator obviously subscribes to what Joseph Goebel, Hitler’s chief propagandist during the Second World War once said and I quote, “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.” End of quote.
It was Goebel who fine-tuned the art of black propaganda. During the period 1939 until the end of the Second World War, he launched a public relations campaign to rally the Germans behind Hitler and his neurotic campaign to banish the Jews from Germany, project a myth of superiority of the Germans as the Arian race and to invade Europe.
Gustave Le Bon, author of the book, “The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind,” wrote, “That groups have never thirsted after truth, that they demand illusions.”
Sigmund Freud, on the other hand wrote: “We have pointed that this predominance of life of phantasy and of the illusion born of an unfulfilled wish is the ruling factor in the psychology of neurosis…Neuroses are guided not by ordinary objective reality but by psychological reality.”
What then is PR? Surely, there is a wide variety of what PR is all about. Edward Bernays writes, “PR deals with reality, not images.” “Public Relations,” he said, “was about fashioning and projecting credible renditions of reality.”
In his book, “PR, A Social History of Spin,” Stuart Ewen said, “Public Relations is a positive rendition of the truth.” Unfortunately, in the context of contemporary events, PR has been bastardized and is used commonly by the Philippine government and business leaders to conceal the ugly truth by passing off the complete narrative only those aspects of an event that will make them look good in the eyes of their publics. They resort to half-truths or half-lies or even outright lies.
Failure to distinguish between legitimate news and PR could be fatal for politicians, public figures or business leaders or even for those in the academe.
Now, what about politics? How does politics affect the press? And how does the press affect politics?
Politics or government and the press have a causal relationship. One dines on the other. Government reacts to the press and the press reacts as well to government. Such is the relationship between the two institutions.
In his book, “None of the Above; Why Presidents Fail and What Can Be Done About It,” Robert Shogan described politics as, and I quote, “The purpose of politics is often to express conflicting concerns of the voters. The role of the government is to resolve these concerns equitably. To put it in simplest terms, politics defines what people want; government decides what they get. For democracy to work, government must respond to politics.”
Unfortunately, our government does not respond to the ills that plague our country. So, in the absence of positive actions to address the challenges that confront our country, what does our government do? It resorts to Public Relations in the guise of news. It conceals the truth and releases instead official statements or comments highlighting its achievements without providing the answers to the questions: “How did the so-called achievements benefit the people or how did the so-called achievements change people’s lives?
The media, on the other hand, dutifully “reports” and quotes what the government’s mouthpiece says in press briefings and formal press conferences.
Instead of challenging the claims of the Spokesperson, media publish or air the statements en toto, thus giving it an air of accuracy and authority. By failing to be critical, the press, in effect fails in its duty to check the facts and therefore could be guilty of disseminating false information.
In the world of politics, as we know it, and perhaps to some of us, truth is relative.
The eminent American philosopher and foremost advocate of pragmatism, William James, held to the conviction that “There are no absolute truths; there is no consummate gospel by which people – regardless of their circumstances — may live.” He also said that, “The truth of an idea is not a stagnant property inherent in it. Truth happens to an idea. It becomes true, is made true by events.”
In his book, “Pragmatism: A New Name for Old Ways of Thinking,” James wrote, “Truth lives…for the most part on a credit system. Our thoughts and beliefs “pass,” so long as nothing challenges them. Just as bank notes pass so long as nobody refuses them.”
And that’s exactly what happens when statements and stories from the authorities
are published and aired without being challenged by the press for accuracy. People accept bogus statements or outright lies as gospel truths when in fact, the truth lies somewhere in between, or worse, at the other end of the spectrum.
In less-mature democracies like the Philippines, the government and for that matter, elections, are characterized by politics of personality. Candidates are voted into office not for their platform of government or their proven competence and probity but rather, for being popular.
And once into office, officials occupy themselves with attaining high popularity ratings and indulging in endless propaganda campaigns. The worse part of it is that our leaders engage in double speak. To quote Geronimo, the Indian Chief whose name is the title of a movie, “White Chief speaks with forked tongue.”
Hardly any moment passes without the public being bombarded by gobbledygooks. Almost every story that emanates from our government, for instance, does not inform, much less enlighten the public on relevant issues.
On the contrary, what passes off as news is actually Propaganda or PR. Instead of informing the public, what it does is to condition the minds of the unsuspecting audience to support what could be illegal acts.
In 1881 Henry Demarest Lloyd, an editor at the Chicago Tribune, wrote an article in the Atlantic Monthly entitled, “The Story of the Great Monopoly” and I quote, “In a corrupt world, publicity is the great moral disinfectant.”
The press has been largely remiss in its job of being critical. Reporters fail or do not dare challenge the statements by the authorities and their spokespersons and allies. Very little effort if at all, goes into checking the facts and squeezing more information from government sources. In effect, the reporters simply echo the narrative offered by the spokespersons. This is not news gathering. This is journalistic mediocrity at its best. In this instance, the press cannot escape responsibility for writing or airing official press releases aimed at sanitizing or worse, covering up what could be a commission of a crime by the powers-that-be.
In his doctoral dissertation in 1904, “The Crowd and the Public,” Robert Ezra Park wrote: “That so-called public opinion is generally nothing more than a naïve collective impulse which can be manipulated by catchwords.”
Our political leaders often confuse performance with press briefings, issuing press releases and public relations initiatives. They are so preoccupied with maintaining their popularity and high acceptance ratings rather than providing the people what they really need – jobs, food, shelter, quality education, affordable health care, among other basic needs of the family.
They issue daily news releases and appear on TV talk shows on issues that don’t really matter to the ordinary people. Instead of informing the public, they dish out convoluted propaganda. They confuse effective governance with high ratings and public relations.
I call that “Management by Press Release” or “Management by Symbolism.”
“To win attention,” Robert Shogan wrote, “they have made style a matter of state.”
On US President John F. Kennedy, Shogan said, “His emphasis on symbolism and personality distracted attention from the difficult choices that faced the nation.”
Again, in the Philippines, what prevails is the so-called “Politics of Personality” where candidates are elected into office not for their platforms or programs of government but on emotions, popularity, family name and campaign gimmicks.
During election campaign period, the candidates sing, dance and go to the extent of making themselves as ridiculous and laughable as professional comedians on stage.
The Press when it does its job should really be critical. The press exists not to trumpet the good deeds of government or to lie in bed with our public officials.
The role of the press is to check government abuses. As such, the press should be suspicious of the acts and pronouncements of elective and appointive officials. It should guard against disinformation or outright lies by public officials. Otherwise, the stories published or aired do nothing but serve and promote the propaganda goals of the powers-that-be and the Press, in effect, would have abandoned its sworn duty as the vanguard of truth and keeper of the faith.
And when the Press abandons its public duty, shenanigans and corruption in government would worsen, poverty would deepen, injustice and human rights violations would sharpen and our hopes and dreams for our children and our country would be dashed.
Upton Sinclair wrote in 1908: “See, we are just like Rome. Our legislatures are corrupt; our politicians are unprincipled; our rich men are ambitious and unscrupulous. Our newspapers have been purchased and gagged; our colleges have been bribed; our churches have been cowed. Our masses are sinking into degradation and misery; our ruling classes are becoming wanton and cynical.”