Can a leopard change its spots?

Buencamino is a fellow of Action for Economic Reforms. This was published in the June 29, 2011 edition of the Business Mirror, page A6.

 

A public relations man and a lawyer are alike in that determining right or wrong is not their concern.  A lawyer deals with questions of law and a PR man with image. That’s why there will always be a lawyer to defend the most despicable monsters imaginable and a PR man to apply make-up. Because everyone has a right to due process and a corollary right to look good.

A problem, however, arises when a lawyer becomes the judge in a case he is arguing. Due process becomes a farce. Similarly, the integrity of information is endangered when a PR man becomes a journalist. Because his reports could very well be just a commissioned tapestry of carefully selected facts and dressed-up lies. Who can say for sure?

News consumers do not have the resources to verify news reports. That is the edge that PR practitioners exploit to manipulate public perception. The trick however is not to leave any fingerprints. Credibility disappears once the consumer suspects that the news is the handiwork of a PR man.

Journalism is about getting the truth out, PR is about spinning the truth that gets out. You can’t work in both professions and expect the public not to wonder if it’s the PR man or the journalist speaking. And so I was surprised when one PR man turned newspaper owner/publisher/opinion columnist took offense, whined, and then lectured those who concluded that his articles on former DOTC secretary Jose De Jesus was nothing more than a demolition job done at the behest of someone who wants to look good at the expense of De Jesus.

Here’s his whining and lecture:

“I thought I’d lay the issue to rest. I was wrong. I must have stirred a hornet’s nest, so to speak, when I wrote about the sacking of de Jesus by the President contrary to what his PR handlers wanted to project. De Jesus’ ‘media consultants’ perhaps out of spite or ignorance of what PR is all about, went as far as to discredit the messenger.

“Attacking the messenger is resorted to only in extreme cases where the client couldn’t defend himself meritoriously against the issues raised against him so that he has to resort to squid tactics or confuse the issue. It won’t work; never did.

“Public Relations, in the words of Edward Barnays ‘is a positive rendition of the truth.’ Absent truth, a communications campaign is vacuous, and at best wobbly. That is why I always tell my clients that at the end of the day, it is the product that determines the success or failure of a PR campaign.

“In preparing a communications program, practitioners ought to remember the adage, ‘You can fool some of the people some of the time, some of the people all the time, but not all the people all the time.’ If you couldn’t support your claim, better to shut up and create a new ballpark altogether rather than engage in a web of half truths or even outright lies.”

My reaction:

First, only a stupid reporter will call himself a messenger because a messenger writes at someone’s behest.

Second, I disagree that discrediting the messenger never works. The quickest way to kill a negative story is to damage the messenger. “Kill” the messenger and the message also dies while a “meritorious defense” only lends credibility to an allegation and keeps it alive. Defense must be the last resort because you want attention on the messenger and not on his allegation.

As to Edward Barnays, his definition of PR can be reduced to one word: spin. That’s why a PR practitioner gathers all the facts, cherry picks, throws in a few misrepresentations, and lies, if they can pass muster, and claims he has “the truth”. That’s what “a positive rendition of truth” means to some in the PR business.

As to that tired adage about fooling people, PR practitioners hardly ever forget that Joseph Goebbels, the god of PR practitioners, proved repetition trumps the adage. PR men know they do not have to support claims, they just have to keep repeating them, more often and louder than anyone else, and they own the ballpark until someone comes along who can shout them down.

And so far-sighted PR practitioners buy news outlets. Because they are megaphones that a practitioner can use to keep repeating that a leopard can change its spots, that he who earns his living through spin can be trusted to report truthfully.

That makes owning a news outlet good for PR practitioners but bad for journalism. There’s a conflict of interest there that media watchdogs may want to consider.

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