TV News in a Postmodern World

The New Public Relations

by Terry L. Heaton
As the concept of professional journalism grew in the 20th century, it did so alongside its twin sister, public relations. Historians like Christopher Lasch have noted that the rise in the professionalization of the media tracks perfectly with the decline in citizen participation in the political process. This is no accident, as we'll see in a minute.

There would be no professional news without professional public relations, and there would be no professional public relations without professional news. They are two sides of the same coin. In fact, when most television news people consider careers beyond TV, the most common first choice is PR. Why does that make so much sense? Because the industries are so intertwined as to be one and the same. PR serves a valuable function in the news gathering and disseminating process, providing important insight in the quest for truth.

The discomfort expressed by professional journalists recently in the wake of the discovery that a politically-driven Bush administration video news release (VNR) was carried by over 70 TV stations unawares is simply evidence of the self-deceit perpetuated by the myth of objectivity. The irony of their reaction to this gaffe (CNN's news feed failed to identify it as having been prepared by the Bush administration) is that it supposes their "objective" news was tainted by a point-of-view — as though there's no POV the rest of the time.

In many ways, all conventional news is public relations. What's really at issue here is who gets to decide what's news and what isn't. Power is the central issue. The myth of objectivity gives journalists a (non-existent) duty to maintain an arm's length from positions within issues. A VNR is designed to provide one of those positions. Since a journalist believes that the point-of-view expressed therein is only a part of "the news," they must maintain a wall between themselves and such things as press releases and VNRs. But this is illusionary, because there is no such thing as objectivity. Hence, the wall is artificial; the distance is self-serving; and the issue of power is laid bare. Contemporary journalists view themselves as "above" the various positions within issues. This is at the heart of everything that's wrong with contemporary journalism.

Most that qualifies as news these days begins with an event. Events are just that, but reaction is always the second lead, and therein begins the process of identifying cause and effect, the twin gods of Modernist thinking. The professional journalist steps to the plate armed with sources and an unwritten mandate to investigate. The public relations industry isn't far behind, spinning and whirling events to sell their message, be it social, political, business, academic or otherwise. It may be the PR person's message that makes it to center stage, or it may be somebody else's. In many cases today it's often the journalist's own message, though he or she usually doesn't think so.

The cultural shift to Postmodernism is eating away at the foundation of all institutions, including the media. Pomos reject the hierarchy inherent in Modernism, and technology is enabling them to do something about it. The very definition of news is changing, as everyday people discover that with an Internet connection and some simple software, they, too, can be journalists. The concept of news as a conversation flows from a bottomless pit of frustration created by decades of being ignored in the public square and elsewhere.

Much has been written in this space about the father of modern journalism, Walter Lippmann, and his social engineering views of the early 20th century. In Lippmann's mind, people were incapable of governing themselves, a job he felt was better suited to an educated elite class, among which he included journalists. Lippmann was a high-profile member of the Committee for Public Information (CPI), also known as the Creel Committee. Every serious student of journalism should study this era and especially the people on the committee, for it was a major turning point in the world of public information.

Here's the context. Woodrow Wilson was re-elected in 1916 on a platform of "He kept us out of the war" but subsequently found himself in the position of having to do just the opposite. Since public opinion was dramatically against entering the war, Wilson created the Creel Committee to turn that opinion. They did, and in so doing birthed not only the professional journalist, but also the professional PR person.

One of Lippmann's Creel Committee brothers was Edward Bernays, a nephew of Sigmund Freud. Another was Ivy Lee. Some historians regard Lee as the first real practitioner of public relations (he invented the press release), but Bernays is generally regarded today as the profession's founder. He was the first PR theorist, drawing his ideas from his uncle's theories about the irrational, unconscious motives that shape human behavior.

He saw public relations as an "applied social science" that uses insights from psychology, sociology, and other disciplines to scientifically manage and manipulate the thinking and behavior of an irrational and "herdlike" public. In his book, The Engineering of Consent, he wrote, "If we understand the mechanism and motives of the group mind, it is now possible to control and regiment the masses according to our will without their knowing it." In another book, Propaganda, Bernays wrote an even more chilling message, "The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country."

Josef Goebbels used Bernays' books, among others, as a basis for his destructive campaign against the Jews of Germany. Until that happened, "propaganda" wasn't considered a pejorative term.

Lippmann and Bernays were similar thinkers, each believing that to get anything done, the masses would have to be somehow herded. This was social engineering in its purest form, and around it have sprung the insitutions of the professional press and public relations. No wonder there's an epidemic of voter apathy in this country. No wonder the public is revolting in the new century. Who wants to be herded and controlled?

I ran the Assignment Desk for a large market station during the 1973 energy crisis. Years later, in reflecting on my career, I came back to this event as my first experience with being used. Smart environmentalists exploited the long lines at gas stations to tell the world that we were running out of oil and that this was a contributing factor. We did stories with these people, because we were trying to understand what was happening and pass that understanding along to our viewers. All we did was cloud an economic, business and political issue.

In 1990, I read an article in The Animals' Agenda, a mouthpiece for the animal rights movement, that was enlightening, so I kept it. The article, called "Dealing With The Media," was a guidebook for manipulating the press.

You are the one who can control the way the story will be covered. Begin with the local angle on your issue. To insure a serious and sympathetic article, describe one or two specific acts of cruelty that everyone can recognize as abusive. Then talk about your personal experience -- what moved you to become involved in animal protection. Show the reporter you are motivated on a personal level by compassion. Finally, you must combine the personal with the philosophical. Few reporters have read Singer or Regan, and they rarely do background research. By explaining the underlying philosophy of the humane movement, you eliminate the possibility you'll be portrayed as a bored cat lover looking to keep busy.

Be vulnerable. Reporters love people who open up emotionally. If you have a poignant story about seeing a dog die, tell it, even if it makes you cry. Especially if it makes you cry.

This is the "control" of which Bernays and his contemporaries spoke. Thankfully, there is a new form and format growing rapidly today, one with roots from a much more people-friendly perspective. In The Cluetrain Manifesto, Doc Searls and David Weinberger wrote of PR people:
Ironically, public relations has a huge PR problem: people use it as a synonym for BS. "PR types." We all know what that means: they're the used car salesmen of the corporate world.

But, of course, the best of the people in PR are not PR Types at all. They understand that they aren't censors, they’re the company’s best conversationalists. Their job — their craft — is to discern stories the market actually wants to hear, to help journalists write stories that tell the truth, to bring people into conversation rather than protect them from it.

In the age of the Web where hype blows up in your face and spin gets taken as an insult, the real work of PR will be more important than ever.

If markets really are conversations, as Cluetrain asserts, then the work of Robert Scoble is writing the rules of a whole new form of PR. From his office at Microsoft in Redmond, Washington, Scoble talks with consumers, writers, critics, suppliers, customers and competitors in a way that is decidedly Postmodern. His blog, Scobleizer, is a unique blend of the person and the company. Scoble works for Microsoft and writes about Microsoft, but he does so as part of a conversation, not as from the mountaintop. He doesn't work for the PR department, although he's quoted more than anybody with a PR badge.

"People don't trust corporations," he says. "They trust individuals." And they trust Scoble, because he has a three year history as a blogger, even as one who used to attack Microsoft. That gives him what he calls "street creds" that traditional PR people would never have. That he is still free to take his employer to task (and he has) is a central factor in maintaining that trust.

"I don't speak for microsoft officially," he says. "I try to give the insiders opinion of what's going on, which is often useful, but I let the executives do the product announcements, etc. I'll watch what's being said and comment about them later on."

Affable and friendly, Scoble is more like a neighbor than a corporate flack, and that's why he's been so effective at inserting Microsoft into a host of technical community conversations. "Have you noticed that the shrillness is gone from the community?" he asks concerning the views of former Microsoft critics. "They were like this, because they didn't think they were being listened to." Scoble listens and writes and links, and he has opened a welcomed doorway to a formerly impenetrable fortress.

His "Corporate Weblog Manifesto" is must reading for anybody in the public relations industry. Tell the truth. Post fast on good news or bad. Use a human voice. Talk to the grassroots first. If you screw up, acknowledge it. Never lie. Never hide information. Be the authority on your product/company. These, and more, are the lifeblood of the new public relations.

Scoble says posting fast is one of the most critical things in today's environment. By the time most corporate PR departments have prepared the "official response" to an event, most news organizations have long since made up their minds and are only looking for a quote. News moves at Internet speed these days, even (and often especially) overnight. If he can post comments early in this process, the chances are much better that they will be considered as the story develops, rather than the story taking off based on the reporter's own knowledge or bias.

One of the refreshing things about Scoble and his manifesto is the lack of rules, guidelines or orders under which he must work. "There are no official restrictions," he says, but he is quick to point out that he knows what he can and can't do, much of which is basic common sense. His gut is his governor, not some codified set of instructions from on high. This, of course, terrifies traditional PR types, who live and work in a tightly controlled environment.

But control is exactly what's under assault in today's Postmodern world. The Lippmann/Bernays issue of who gets to decide what is and isn't news was never supposed to include the readers and listeners and viewers. That's the paradigm shift. People have increasing control over their own lives, including the information that influences their beliefs and opinions.

We have to adapt to them, for a change, and that's great.