Tuesday, March 17, 2009

You don't need to be ethical, pricipled, or just. You just need better PR.

A few years ago I read the book Toxic Sludge is Good For You, and did some other research on the PR industry in the U.S. The activities that the PR industry performs on behalf of corporations every day, and the pervasive methods they use to influence public opinion is fascinating, and something every citizen in a democracy and every consumer should understand. And the uses of the PR industry are troubling in what they reveal about the corporate (and government) mindset.

The most troubling feature of the corporate and government mindset regarding PR, is that PR is frequently used as an alternative to true change and reform. The formula goes like this: some incident occurs which reveals to the public that the company or agency has been dishonest/ unethical/ careless/ corrupt, etc. The company or agency brainstorms on how to "manage" the current crisis. PR consultants are called in and an immediate PR campaign is set in place to minimize the damage and reassure the consumer/citizen base that everything is great. The textbook example that's held up in the business world as how not to react to a crisis is the way Exxon responded to the Valdez incident. When the Valdez hit a reef and spilled millions of gallons of oil into the pristine Prince William Sound, Exxon responded slowly and did not immediately secure the help of external PR consultants. Thus, in the business world, the anger and resentment of the general public is generally not blamed on the fact that Exxon and the coast guard were careless and responded slowly to the crisis even as thousands and thousands of animals died, but on the fact that Exxon did not respond with adequate PR quickly enough. Did you get that? This case study is used in many business textbooks, and the consensus is that Exxon acted inappropriately by not adequately utilizing PR resources. The carelessness and resulting environmental devastation are not the problem - it's the PR.

And this is not unusual. It fits perfectly with the dominant approach to business ethics, for example. As business ethics is currently taught and practiced, there's a strong emphasis on two things: how not to get arrested, and how not to cause a major PR disaster. Because why would we talk about ethical decision making when we could just talk about how not to get caught? Why would we talk about being conscientious members of our communities when we can continue to do as we please while maintaining our image through PR? True change is unnecessary. All you need is a good PR firm. In fact, recent reports suggest that corporate giants such as AIG are currently meeting with their PR firms to formulate plans for spinning the recent events (such as the use of bailout funds for executive bonuses and lavish spending) which have caused such public outrage. Because changing their behavior and acting responsibly would never occur to them. All they need is a good PR campaign.

Beyond corporate uses of PR, the government's use of PR can be even more disturbing.
  1. Prior to the Gulf War, Kuwait hired Hill and Knowlton to sell the war to the reluctant American citizens. They held a press conference (cleverly disguised as a congressional hearing) in which a girl from Kuwait (who had been carefully coached by PR professionals) sobbed while relating a complete lie about Iraqi soldiers taking babies out of incubators and leaving them to die in a hospital that she not only didn't volunteer in, but had never set foot in. This story riveted the nation and was repeated over and over again to sway public opinion in favor of going to war in the Middle East. Whether it was the truth or not was irrelevant. PR is not about telling the truth, but about controlling public opinion.
  2. Whenever an incident of police brutality is revealed, the police department in question scrambles to engage in the right PR activities to mitigate the damage. Rather than question the police culture that leads to this behavior or the social systems which devalue certain members of society and make them acceptable targets for police violence, they work to present a pretty face while upholding the objectionable practices and attitudes.

While PR in itself may not be inherently corrupt or harmful, the way PR is used to cover up corruption and convince citizens and consumers that everything is wonderful is deeply problematic. In a culture that's obsessed with appearances, the truth that lies beneath the fake veneer is unimportant. As long as we're dazzled by the bells and whistles they've affixed to the facade, the rotten, festering interior will seem irrelevant to us, and business will continue as usual.


  1. That's depressing. Along these lines, I've been thinking a lot lately about advertising. I even tried to find any initiatives or groups that seek to limit advertising, but a preliminary search turned up nothing. It seems that we've resigned ourselves to being inundated with whatever lies corporate America has enough money to broadcast.
    Also along these lines, whenever I finish this #!*@ dissertation, I would like to develop a critical thinking class aimed at elementary (and maybe junior high) aged children, in which a significant amount of time would be spent on developing defenses against advertising.

  2. Meg'n3/19/2009

    Ooh, I took an Advertising Ethics class and we learned about how the PR industry uses video news releases (vnr) to disguise advertising as news reporting, and local new outlets use them all the time because they're cheap and fill up airtime. And hardly any consumers even know about them. You should totally do a post about that! (I'm way too lazy to start my own blog, but there are things I think need to be talked about, so I go around exhorting bloggers to talk about them. Pretty tricky, huh? Oh, and I totally got the word "exhort" from you. I love that it sounds quasi-religious and yet secular at the same time.)

    Nice post!

  3. Michael3/20/2009

    From what I've heard, AIG has hired Burson-Marsteller, which is a huge and expensive PR firm. Their image certainly does need a lot of help. Interesting use of tax dollars.