The author of Deadly Spin, former PR man Wendell Potter, is posing as a whistleblower with something useful to reveal. But a quick look at his book’s main theme suggests that he’s talking nonsense about his trade because he doesn’t like its paymasters.
Here in his words is his core message:
“Good PR is about control… PR people are good at manipulating the news media because they understand them… PR people cultivate reporters, ostensibly for friendship or mutual benefit, but more realistically for manipulation… With years of practice, I learned how to respond with a pithy remark if I wanted to be quoted and how to baffle them with bullshit if I didn’t… Be obscure clearly… I became a master at doing just that.”
If PR has corrupted journalism, Potter has to explain how comes the media’s agenda is mostly anti-corporate. The media mostly casts firms as villains rather than heroes. In a crisis the likes of BP, Big Pharma, Wall Street or Toyota are presumed guilty and often criminally so even before the facts are known. No reputation today is safe from the media’s raff; be that from the mainstream or social.
I suspect that the public suspects what most PRs know to be true. The journalists take their free lunches and then bite the hand that fed them. So I don’t think the general reader is very interested in corrupt and corrupting PR. The anti-corporates worry; the lefty journalists worry; the liberal PRs worry. Of course, that’s enough angst to get Potter a high-profile platform to bash our trade in the media he claims we control.
Talking of liberal PRs, what comes across from Wendell Potter’s book is his distaste for his former employers’ agenda. That exposes something that has long troubled me; too many PRs share the media’s and the protesters’ assumptions and criticisms of society. In Potter’s case he reveals his disgust for a campaign by “big for-profit insurers” to oppose President Barack Obama’s healthcare reform programme. Here he explains:
”What I saw happening over the past few years was a steady movement away from the concept of insurance and toward “individual responsibility,” a term used a lot by insurers and their ideological allies. This is playing out as a continuous shifting of the financial burden of health care costs away from insurers and employers and onto the backs of individuals.
“….Although I quit my job last year, I did not make a final decision to speak out as a former insider until recently when it became clear to me that the insurance industry and its allies (often including drug and medical device makers, business groups and even the American Medical Association) were succeeding in shaping the current debate on health care reform.”
It strikes me that having lost or fearing losing the argument over healthcare reform, Potter has decided to turn on the messenger.
Suppose it is indeed odd and even perverse of the American public to turn its back on certain arguments about health care. Suppose Big Insurance did win the debate, and suppose its PR was part of that. That must be because the arguments put are peculiarly telling to the American public. Weird but true, you may say. The argument may even have been espoused by some journalists who ate a lunch or took a trip. But do we really believe that PR was hugely important to the process? Would there not be right-wing journalists if there weren’t PR?
Even if there’s lots of right-wing journalism because there are lots of right-wing proprietors, and even if that is a disgrace (which it isn’t), are we really to say that these right-wing hacks could not have dished up the right dog-whistle messages that hit the right sub-conscious buttons, or the right Manifest Destiny narratives, without PRs?
In “Deadly Spin” Wendel Potter misses the main point. It is not just that corporates don’t govern the media. It is that the Tea Party and other anti-establishment opponents of Barack Obama’s healthcare reforms have mustered their forces and arguments where neither elite liberal opinion, nor elite right wing opinion, nor the PR industry exerts much influence. Social media has been their viral communication channel. This shift reflects the diminished influence of old media, much of which sees things Potter’s way, in America.
It is only to be expected that the public affairs operation of a corporate interest deploy PRs to influence messages in the media and in other influential arenas. It usually does so by finding arguments which do genuinely augment the case. That’s why they fly with or without the direct influence of PRs.
Wendell Potter’s book is part of a very sad modern trend that fuels the likes of WikiLeaks. We get ex-city people, ex-civil servants, ex-soldiers, ex-PRs: all looking for a living and finding that traducing their former employers makes a very plausible first book. The public gets a two-week joyride and laps it up with the same lust that it does any pornographic material which allows a peek at the unseen. But most of what the public gets from such books, and their media cheerleaders, is sour-grapes, over-egging and warped perspectives.
Nevertheless, it happens that I’m rather perversely in favour of PR whistleblowers: whereas they hope to expose PR as wicked, I think they mostly demystify it as interesting and amusing.
PR’s reputation is, of course, an easy target for cynical abuse from the likes of Potter. I think why PR is so suspect is that it has elements of:
A) Turncoat: educated people sell themselves to mammon.
B) Spy: we seemingly work under cover for the wrong side.
C) Corruptor: we PRs “turn” journalists over a seductive lunch.
D) Subversive: “we work within the material which ought to be independent.