The New York Times recently devoted a lengthy article to the rise and fall of a London-based public relations agency that for all intents sold its soul.
Wait a minute! Isn’t that what PR does every day, sell its soul? Certainly, that’s been the reputation of public relations — it will serve any client or cause as long as there is money to be made.
But the Times article uncovers what will strike many as the epitome (or nadir) of public relations gone completely off the rails.
You can read the article for yourself. My purpose is to extend its meaning to the broader issue of what, exactly constitutes professional public relations these days.
Start here. The advent of the Internet and, specifically, social media, has had a dramatic and not altogether healthy impact on public relations. The anonymity of the Web has led to an increasing number of cyber information campaigns for which there is no clear source.
The critical word to parse is “information,” also known as “content.” We used to believe what we read or heard, albeit often with a grain of salt. These days, however, what we see or hear is often the tip of an iceberg of something much darker and nefarious: entire content that is totally made up of propaganda intended to mislead unsuspecting readers or listeners.
The current master of this black art is the Russian government, notably its military units. The Russians, of course, inserted themselves into America’s 2016 election to an extent that has not yet been fully revealed. Their primary communications tactic, perfected on social media platforms, was to post content designed to exacerbate disputes of domestic issues (race, immigration, the Presidential election) in the hope of fomenting hyper-partisanship and disrespect for the basic principles of democratic government.
Government agitprop has been around for generations. The U.S. is engaged in it, as are just about every nation. Like everyone who engages in propaganda, those who spread false information prefer to hide their tracks. The Russians are an exception. They seem to take pride in the success of their black ops in the U.S. and elsewhere (all the while denying they are engaged in it).
What is new, or at least more noticeable, is propaganda for profit. Its tools also include disinformation, misdirection, promotion of hidden agendas and, in some instances, out and out lies and deception. To a surprising extent, a great deal of this information pollution is crafted by public relations agencies working on behalf of clients who would prefer never to be identified.
This covert form of content dissemination is especially rampant in politics and the management of highly partisan, controversial issues. Two well-known practitioners of this kind of public relation are Paul Manafort and Tony Podesta. PR firms represent governments and nations, much if it perfectly innocent and above board, but at least some of which is undertaken on behalf of corrupt regimes or questionable organizations.
Nowhere is malignant propaganda more present than online, the Wild, Wild West of unsourced and unreliable content. The Citizens United decision in 2010 had the unintended consequence of adding fuel to a raging fire. Websites and social media platforms have become infected with a kind of cyber flu, in which verified, factual information competes with rumor, intentional falsehoods, fake news and outright lies.
The CU decision, recall, gave free speech rights to corporations and unions, while also spawning a raft of new 501(c)4 “general welfare” organizations that companies and other entities could use to hide their political contributions. These general welfare nonprofits do not have to reveal their sources of funding, for one thing. For another, these organizations exploit a loophole in IRS regulations that are intended to require that the organizations are supposed to devote a majority of their activities to non-political activities. Hundreds of new 501(c)4s were incorporated for the purpose of directing anonymous political donations to favored candidates or causes. The result is a veritable explosion of agitprop campaigns, anchored online, on behalf of all sorts of special interests. The sources of the information are shrouded in secrecy, and the information being disseminated is either marginally truthful — or wholly false.
Great Britain has no such Citizens United ruling, but the work of Bell Pottinger — the PR firm whose demise is profiled in the Times — offers a splendid example of why true information — facts — is so vulnerable right now in the U.S. and elsewhere.
Bell Pottinger signed on to create a public manipulation campaign in South Africa on behalf of three brothers from India who had huge investments in the country and close relationships with the government. The brothers wanted a PR campaign to distract attention from their spreading tentacles in business and government and so retained Bell Pottinger to gin up a fake campaign that was supposed to be a grassroots effort to broaden the base of African involvement in that nation’s economy.
Here’s what happened, and how, according to the Times:
In TV reports, editorials and public rallies, it (Bell Pottinger) stood accused of setting off racial tensions through a furtive campaign built on Twitter bots, hate-filled websites and speeches. All were pushing a highly toxic narrative, namely that whites in South Africa had seized resources and wealth while they deprived blacks of education and jobs. The message was popularized with an incendiary phrase, “white monopoly capital.”
It would be difficult to imagine a more ham-handed strategy, and one wonders whether there were any adults working for the agency. Once unmasked, the campaign fell apart and so did Bell Pottinger’s business. It’s now closed.
The point of this sad tale is to emphasize that the tactics of Bell Pottinger in South Africa don’t stand out as especially egregious. Increasingly around the globe, the free and open exchange of information is contaminated with content that is manufactured to persuade, manipulate, and deceive, using the anonymity of social media as the platform of choice. It has also spawned a kind of alternative narrative in which commonly accepted facts or norms are now fungible.
To the extent that public relations firms become engaged on in such activities, they are entering a slippery slope that may prove to be their undoing. Absent government regulation, which no one wants, the public relations industry simply must regulate itself. The business in the U.S. has a trade association Code of Ethics, but it is entirely voluntary. If its long-hoped-for goal of being recognized as a “profession” alongside the law, accountancy or medicine, PR people must step up their dedication to avoid engaging in outright deception, lies and cynical manipulation of facts and reality on behalf of ethically or morally challenged clients..
Those of us who work in public relations and believe in its value to clients and causes in need must insist on respect for openness, transparency and a factual basis for the work we perform for clients we trust.That’s the only real way the flu spreading through global communications can be stopped in its track.