Categories: PR issues / Reviews

24 November 2010


“Deadly Spin” is mere spin

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.

11 responses to ““Deadly Spin” is mere spin”

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Richard Bailey, paulseaman. paulseaman said: On my PR blog now #PR: Wendell Potter's "Deadly Spin" is mere spin […]

  2. Gavino says:

    Excellent commentary, and right on the button Paul. In my twenty plus years as a PR, I have to say that the PRs who aggravate their fellow professionals the most are those who think they can manipulate journalists over a meal, fire off a quick soundbite or baffle with bullshit. They are the lazy, arrogant PRs who give their industry a bad name. So it’s fitting that one of these deluded individuals should so publicly boast about his shortcomings in this way, and even characterize himself as a “master”, with the overt intention of giving his industry a bad name. The fool has found himself, as the saying goes.

  3. Edward says:

    Managing trust, and give and take in any profession is essential for a successful working relationship. If you cry wolf and shed crocodile tears too many times then you are only responsible for the generation of cynics that you produce. I guess he is in a different line of work now.

  4. Randy says:

    I assume that your failure to address the most important element of the book, the Health Insurance Industry’s efforts to first torpedo and then manipulate public debate on healthcare reform, means that you concede this point. You can whiine all you want over Potter’s characterization of the PR profession and defend it until you are blue in the face. The fact still remains: your profession was complicit in the efforts to deny much needed reform to improve the health of Americans. This is an unpardonable sin.

  5. Paul Seaman says:

    Randy, I don’t think the insurance industry is capable of “torpedoing and manipulating public debate” even if it wanted to. Sure, it has sought, and it has a right, to influence debate and to fight its corner hard. The U.S. state led by the President is the main advocate of healthcare reform. Its PR resources far outweigh those of the insurance industry’s. The truth is that the opinions of the mass American public are their own. Certainly, the public is not composed of mindless morons, as Potter patronizingly suggests.This discussion about media manipulation is a diversion by the side that fears it faces a public that is increasingly determined to see off this reform. The debate is about more than insurance policies – it has a value and cultural and political dimension.

  6. Scrooge MacDuck says:

    The insurance industry isn’t capable of manipulating public opinion to buy the idea that the public interest benefits from their corrupt, immoral and unfair practices. That’s why they pay huge sums of money to the nice folks in Public Relations to manipulate public opinion for them. What could be more “grassroots” than PR front groups like Health Care America? Nice job! Hope you can sleep at night.

  7. Heather Yaxley says:

    Paul – like the post. I do love the way that critics of the way that PR is used by some people (industries, politicians, whatever) always end up blaming the PR folk. The main issue I have about the use of public relations in an “unfair” way, is when there is not equal access to the forum of public opinion. There are still some sections of society who are either unable or incapable of filtering through the morass of debate on some issues, and undoubtedly, PR is used (by practitioners and others) at times to obfuscate, and even to tell outright lies. This is compounded when some parties have undue influence and power – whether that means Big Government, Big Business or Big Media – or even activists and others who are adept at using blatantly emotional arguments to achieve their own goals where others cannot fight back.

    With regard to the exposure of PR – I often think that those “telling all” are guilty of over-dramatisation. Most public relations is pretty mundane, routine or engaged in nothing more insiduous than promoting one brand over another. But talking about writing press releases, holding employee briefings or chasing journalists to respond to invites, etc won’t sell books. No more than showing the reality of cops, spies, CSIs or other jobs which are vamped up for public consumption. That’s the real spin here – PR just ain’t that special! So of course we can sleep at night – we’re hardly corrupting the morals of the world with our stunts and media briefings.

  8. Dorothy Crenshaw says:

    Dear Paul,
    Very thoughtful post. I agree with you and with some commenters here that Potter sensationalized what we do. And, we can’t possibly be sure about his motives. As I blogged (http://bit­.ly/dPEAF6) my initial response to the book’s portrait of our profession was an eye roll. This may be partly because I’ve spent my career in “mundane” brand marketing and tech PR, not public affairs, lobbying, or advocacy. But, my time at three mega-firms certainly exposed me to the tactics Potter recounts. And, I think objectivity is difficult, and that ethics in communications can be something of a slippery slope.

    But where I disagree with you (and side with Potter) is about the health, objectivity, and influence of “old” media. The fact that journalists can be hard on corporations does not, in my view, assure either its objectivity or a “balance of influence” among media, corporate, and political interests. I think the debate over healthcare reform, and the rise of the Tea Party, are the proof of that. It seems very clear that corporate interests, and funding, have much to do with the rise of the Tea Party.

    And without that “iron core” of rigorous journalism, we are far more vulnerable as a culture to lies, obfuscation, and worse. Who in our profession doesn’t see the decline of mainstream media on a daily basis? Not just the business of journalism, but its very influence. Is it fair to blame PR because some would choose to take advantage? Of course not. But if recent history is any guide, there are many political and corporate entitites who have and will continue to use PR techniques in an unethical way. Scare tactics notwithstanding, that has me afraid. Very afraid.

  9. Paul Seaman says:

    Dorothy, thanks for your thoughtful comment. I agree absolutely with you about the continued importance of so-called old media. Their role in our societies is critical as we debate our issues and form our opinions and determine our choices. I certainly do not believe that user-generated social media will ever be an effective substitute for traditional media (though the two-overlap and interact considerably). And I accept your point that newspapers are under pressure in the USA. But I also feel that the likes of Clay Shirky and others exaggerate their decline considerably; print will survive and remain an agenda-setting force. I disagree with you about the Tea Party, however. I think that it is quite a diverse network, which is largely outside the mainstream establishment’s grip. That is why social media played such an important role in its development into a rather incoherent cultural rebellion.

    Sure, corporates and politicians are always trying to influence outcomes – but I don’t recognize the all-powerful malevolent PR Potter describes. I also don’t think the healthcare debate is as one-sided as he says it is, or that the public is anywhere near as gullible and dumb as he makes out.

  10. […] There are far murkier waters than these, though. What about the covert-rogue? That’s the one who has a good and undeserved reputation and employs PRs to keep it that way. Is that acceptable work for a PR? The answer depends in part on how nasty the rascal is and how much the PR knows. (See “Deadly Spin” is mere spin.) […]

  11. crs52 says:

    I was a healthcare professional for years. I spent several years at BCBS and I’m not the only one who watched in frustration and alarm as healthcare moved towards increasingly unsustainable levels while delivering an increasingly inferior product, and using substantial amounts of public money to do it. I’ve been following the healthcare issue closely for over sixteen years, and I’m here to to tell you that what Wendell Potter is saying is absolutely spot on. The insurance companies were using the same rhetoric-almost word for word-to stop reform that it was using sixteen years ago, and it’s no more true now than it was then. Either the author of this hit piece didn’t make any real effort to find out just who Wendell Potter is or look at the facts behind what he has been saying, or he simply doesn’t care whether it’s true or not. Mr. Potter is a hero for exposing what many of us have known for years.