A month or so ago Alan Kelly penned an interesting piece for PRWeek on the right to propaganda. It’s something I agree with.
We do have a right to promote everything from positions and products. The recent exposure of the airing of VNRs as news stories – without any credit to their origins – suggests a new standard is needed if this right is not to be confused with that of engaging in duplicitous activity. Ethics are at the core of the issue. What might seem like smart PR to one person is in fact the propagation of mistruths and lies to another. And to them, those that engage in it should be censured and punished.
This is the paradox of propoganda – whether for bands, people, or positions… Those with one position rarely agree with the manner in which the other is being propogated. What are lies and wrong-doing by one group is more than often percieved as fair by another. I was chatting with a friend – an avid Bush supporter – on the VNR issue. His view was that the onus was on the media to report the source of content and that if the media had been reporting fairly anyway they would have reported precisely what was in the VNR. He has a point, although one I don’t agree with.
What we have – occuring in nearly every corner of communications – is a massive failing of ethics. Today, The New York Times draws (a pretty extreme) parallel between Enron and the current Bush administration:
The enduring legacy of Enron can be summed up in one word: propaganda. Here was a corporate house of cards whose business few could explain and whose source of profits was an utter mystery – and yet it thrived, unquestioned, for years. How? As the narrator says in "The Smartest Guys in the Room," Enron "was fixated on its public relations campaigns." It churned out slick PR videos as if it were a Hollywood studio. It browbeat the press (until a young Fortune reporter, Bethany McLean, asked one question too many). In a typical ruse in 1998, a gaggle of employees was rushed onto an empty trading floor at the company’s Houston headquarters to put on a fictional show of busy trading for visiting Wall Street analysts being escorted by Mr. Lay. "We brought some of our personal stuff, like pictures, to make it look like the area was lived in," a laid-off Enron employee told The Wall Street Journal in 2002. "We had to make believe we were on the phone buying and selling" even though "some of the computers didn’t even work."
If this Potemkin village sounds familiar, take a look at the ongoing 60-stop "presidential roadshow" in which Mr. Bush has "conversations on Social Security" with "ordinary citizens" for the consumption of local and national newscasts. As in the president’s "town meeting" campaign appearances last year, the audiences are stacked with prescreened fans; any dissenters who somehow get in are quickly hustled away by security goons. But as The Washington Post reported last weekend, the preparations are even more elaborate than the finished product suggests; the seeming reality of the event is tweaked as elaborately as that of a television reality show. Not only are the panelists for these conversations recruited from administration supporters, but they are rehearsed the night before, with a White House official playing Mr. Bush. One participant told The Post, "We ran through it five times before the president got there." Finalists who vary just slightly from the administration’s pitch are banished from the cast at the last minute, "American Idol"-style. — Frank Rich, New York Times, March 20, 2005
Simple acts fix this – acts of truth and transparency. If nothing, this points to the vital role media has to play as a watchdog and commentator. I wonder if we’ll look back on the opening of this new century as the period in which we faced and dealt with the ethics crisis in business, communications and government? Or will we just shrug this all off as fair game in the course of making a buck? I hope not. Sadly, Bush seems willing to do so…
At last weekend’s Gridiron dinner, Mr. Bush made a joke about how "most" of his good press on Social Security came from Armstrong Williams, and the Washington press corps yukked it up. The joke, however, is on them – and us.
I come back to Alan’s original op-ed. There isn’t anything wrong with propaganda. The right to inform the public should be protected at all costs. And if you want to skip the intermediaries – media, analysts, opion formers – there are plenty of ways of doing so (blogs being a great example). But what is wrong are attempts to knowingly avoid transperancy and dupe the public. These must be stopped.
While I’m not making excuses for those engaging in these acts, the media are also failing us. Their lack of diligence in reporting has allowed many of these spurious acts of propaganda to take place unchecked. While higher standards are needed in public and corporate communications, they are also needed in the media.