OK, that’s it. Portraying PR people as evil spin doctors full of cruel intentions is getting really old. Last week, I attended the latest in a series of debates about PR, this one titled “Modern wars are spun and not won. What warring parties say is more important than what they do”. Don’t get me wrong, it was a great debate (there was even some pen-throwing involved!), but the fact that the profession is still seen by many as being twisted and murky is infuriating. It would be great if PR practitioners were all-powerful influencers, but in most cases that’s just not so.
Taking the case in point, the team defending the argument made some interesting points about how PR is used to garner political support for warring nations and manipulate information so as to gain public support. Recent examples of this are, of course how in 2003 the governments in the US and the UK told the public that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq which justified its invasion… weapons which still have not been found. However, while it is obvious that PR contributes to war efforts in significant ways, I’m still not convinced that it can win wars on its own.
Things have changed a lot since the days when a PR man decided what information reached the media and the public and how. For one thing, thanks to the Internet the public has access to news sources from around the world, each with its own political views and interests. For another, most people have access to social media and, as was the case during the Arab Spring, are now relating the news themselves in real time through Twitter and Facebook, among others.
Yes, PR attempts to persuade people to act in certain ways and yes, we can still see examples of propaganda today, such as when local governments relay information to their citizens about new recycling or littering policies. But studies such as the Edelman Trust Barometer (2013) show that the public trusts governments and media least of all types of institutions and has become extremely critical of both, making public affairs’ efforts to influence increasingly difficult. PR may speak louder than do members of the public, but is certainly not the only voice which can be heard in the public forum.
While PR is one of the tools used by governments to build support for many causes, including wars, it is certainly not all powerful. In the case of armed conflict this becomes especially true, as it is unquestionable that military strength and economic and political power also have something to do with how wars are fought and won. In this respect, the question that comes to my mind is whether Diplomacy is linked to PR or whether they are becoming melded (there are academics, such as Toth, who speak of public diplomacy) and if so how one, the other and both are benefitting.
For now however, PR is just PR. It really isn’t as sinister as you might think. If it were, it might have already achieved the professional recognition it so desires and practitioners would be highly regarded and highly respected. We would have made it so.