The bad influence of public relations

With all due respect to public relation (PR) professionals who have to perfume some of the smelliest of pigs, many do their job too well. Yet, we the public make their job too easy. They count on an uninformed public and use their talents to spin-doctor a story that is compelling, even if it could not be confused with the truth. Stephen Colbert famously called this “truthiness” as every group has its version of the truth. The dilemma is we must ferret through this PR spin to ascertain what the real problems are and what we should do about it.

The sad part is very few people do this and are left forming judgments based on a source of information that they judged long ago to be aligned with their thinking. Even when confronted with evidence that disproves thinking, they tend to gravitate back to their advisor’s opinions. This is often termed cognitive dissonance. Per Wikipedia, “cognitive dissonance can be defined as  the distressing mental state that people feel when they find themselves doing things that don’t fit with what they know, or having opinions that do not fit with other opinions they hold.” This can be very disconcerting and is a key reason PR people can have a field day fueling pre-conceived notions. This is a key reason the Limbaughs, Becks, O’Reillys and Maddows of the world can paint a picture that is so terrible by spinning the story toward their bent.

To be frank, I am not a fan of purposeful disinformation or misinformation. It is one thing to truly not be aware of a topic or have been misled, but when someone intentionally tells you something they know not to be true, it bothers me. The term I use for this is Machiavellian. It is intentional deceit and is the worst aspect of PR and politicians. Here are a few disinformation campaigns that I find distasteful as they harm real people.

Global warming is a hoax: Back in the 1990s, the fossil fuel industry hired a PR firm and paid for biased scientific studies to paint a picture that global warming was a hoax. They did their job so well, that several congressmen and senators held meetings on Capital Hill to address this hoax. This stalling tactic put the US ten years behind on planning an eco-energy future strategy.

Weapons of Mass Destruction: This one led to American and our allied troops dying along with thousands of civilians. This was employed by President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and Karl Rove. The manufactured evidence was done so to support going to war to do something after the President let Osama Bin Laden escape Afghanistan after being cornered. Scooter Libby, one of Rove’s lackeys went to jail for outing a CIA operative whose ambassador husband was critical of the misuse of data from his reconnaissance mission on WMDs. Yet, if you questioned this WMD public relations campaign, you were labeled as un-American. This is why the named folks have no credence in offering an opinion on bombing Syria.

Fracking is perfectly safe: It should give you pause that the fracking industry is using the same PR firm to promote the safety of fracking that was used to portray global warming as a hoax. I heard a commercial the other day where some minor celebrity is allowing fracking on her property as it is perfectly safe. I understand the need to find ways to glean natural gas from the ground, but to portray it as perfectly safe is a bald-faced lie. Nothing in life is perfectly safe. Vice President Cheney, the former CEO of Halliburton, placed some strategic language in the 2005 Energy Policy Act to give a hall pass to frackers from the Clean Air and Safe Drinking Water Acts. Why would he do that if fracking were perfectly safe? Per a fracking engineer, 1 out of 20 cement casings around the fracking housing fail immediately. And, over time more of them fail. But, even if they did not, you are only as good as your worst operator.

Failed Stimulus Bill: This was a very successful PR campaign strategy that carries over to today. The GOP was told to use the world “failed” in front of Stimulus Bill. The truth is the Stimulus Bill actually worked and made a difference in aiding our economy, so says five econometric firms as reported in Time Magazine. It was traditional Keynesian economics, which is needed today, but was not significant enough back then. Yet, when I say this to people, they look at me strangely, both Republicans and Democrats (they seem to have an esteem problem)That is how well this PR campaign worked.

Obamacare is not a Republican idea: This one is very timely given the 41st vote to repeal Obamacare. I have written in numerous posts dating back to last spring that Obamacare is largely a Republican idea, especially the exchanges. Its predecessor, Romneycare was supported by then Senator and Tea Party leader Jim DeMint as late as 2009. Once Obamacare was patterned after Romneycare and passed, DeMint declared both as unconstitutional. I find this hypocritical since DeMint is leading the anti-Obamacare push from the Heritage Foundation.

Americans don’t like Obamacare: Taking a page from the failed Stimulus Bill PR campaign, the GOP was asked to always describe Obamacare as “job-killing Obamacare.” And, like failed Stimulus Bill, if you say it over and over again, it paints an impression. People began to accept this as gospel, yet when CFOs said four years ago that their number one concern was runaway healthcare costs, this was an idea that the GOP embraced as an option against national healthcare insurance. Yet, the key goal is to get people insured and the mandate (which DeMint liked in 2009) is a key part of spreading risk. So, when asked if you like Obamacare, the numbers are stacked against it due to this PR campaign. Yet, if you ask people about Obamacare’s individual features – continuing adult children to age 26 on a parent’s plan, the elimination of pre-existing conditions to deny coverage, the elimination of lifetime limits on medical reimbursements, the limitation on the profits an insurance company makes on your premiums, the subsidies to buy coverage through exchanges and Medicaid where it is expanded, etc. – they tend to like these features in the majority.

NSA is not really reading what they are obtaining: I did not believe this when I first heard it. If that is the case, they are going to an awful lot of trouble to become Big Brother and building a mountain of data storage sites. Whether you like Snowden or not, we would not be having this conversation of it were not for him. We must have an active discussion around freedoms versus security. I have said before, in many respects, the terrorists have already won, as we are no longer the land of the free, as we once were. We must have better oversight over this kind of surveillance.

I understand the need for public relations. Yet, I would prefer people to shoot straighter with us and not try to purposefully misinform us. I personally do not like to be lied to, especially when I know you are lying. That serves no one in the long run.


23 thoughts on “The bad influence of public relations

  1. Once again, you hit the proverbial nail right on the head! We are living and dying under the auspices of PR, and leave no room for actual truth. A writer earlier this year had a piece stating that if we are going to ever consider ourselves as serious thinkers, than we must read not only those who we are comfortable with, but those who make us uncomfortable. The truth, in my opinion, lies somewhere between the myriad of pieces one can read on a topic, and is certainly nowhere near any of the talking heads in the visual media.

    Great post, and if we all become somewhat skeptable of everything we see and hear, in the end, we will be a better informed, more critical thinker and citizen.

    • Agreed on your point about reading comfortable and uncomfortable points of view. I force myself to read Charles Krauthammer, Cal Thomas and George Will even though I disagree with more of their points than I agree. My favorite conservative writers are the more even-handed ones like Michael Gerson and David Brooks. For the same reason, I like the more even handed progressive writers.

  2. Good post. With the floods in Colorado my concern is the chemicals used in Fracking in the state. No one knows what they are and how far in the flood waters they spread.

    People like the pieces and parts to ObamaCare, but when asked if they like ObamaCare they say no. The bill is so large it is easy to scare people about what is in it because who has time to read the entire thing?

    Festingers 1957 Cognitive Dissonance Theory says that we all work to keep our behavior in line with our cognitive beliefs and attitudes. If we get into disharmony we will experience discomfort until balance is restored. For example: A person at their core believes they do not steal. (Cognitive) To avoid dissonance they won’t engage in the behavior of stealing. However, if they do steal something they will be in Cognitive Dissonance. They now have to correct the situation to restore balance. Either they change their core belief about themselves, make a justification/rationalization that satisfies the problem and restores balance, or they change the behavior that put them into dissonance.

    Whereas Confirmation Bias and a theory called BackFire hold that people have a tendency to favor information that confirms their hypothesis or original position on a matter. This might not actually go against the persons core belief or attitude about who they are and never actually put them into a position of cognitive dissonance.

    Psychology is like an Onion with a lot of layers. Each layer builds upon another layer. And terms, theories, and concepts can sound similar to each other and have similar parts to them, yet at the core of the theory they are different.

    • Roseylinn, I love your thoughtful response and especially the onion analogy. One of the most uncomfortable positions you can put someone in is to share information that confirms that the person they get advice from has used misinformation. There was a blatant example in my hometown where a minister and his wife were sent to prison for underreporting their income which was gleaned from their flock. They had 13 cars, e.g. Yet, some members of their flock could not come to terms that their spiritual advisor was a crook. Great comments. Thanks, BTG

  3. Very interesting post. I agree that PR is dangerous, that it plays on people’s ignorance and manipulates the truth. But I think you will agree that I’m no uninformed guy, and on at least three of these I don’t agree with you, not because I’ve been brainwashed but because I don’t see the facts to back the other position up. For instance, I would not say that Global Warming is a hoax, but I will say that I cannot trust scientists who push the idea because it’s now not even “global warming” anymore, it’s “climate change”–when the data didn’t support the original position, they simply changed the terminology. That, to me, is the pinnacle of dishonesty. Or the Weapons of Mass Destruction–Hussein was playing bluff with us, and I’m still not convinced that he didn’t have any. We didn’t find any, but those are two different things. He never denied it and refused to cooperate with UN Security inspectors. So it did not take much for an ordinary citizen to believe that he had them–it certainly did not take a lie from Bush or Cheney, as Hussein fostered that belief himself. With the instability in the Middle East it looked like the right decision to go in at the time. At my high school we had a rally where Democrats and Republicans both came to talk to us about how important it was to go into Iraq–businessmen and community leaders, not dumb people. The rest is revisionist history. As for the stimulus bill, I don’t think it failed, but I also never thought it necessary. We were never on the verge of a Depression–there was a huge panic and it was fostered/exacerbated by certain intellectuals and media members who sought to make a profit off of claiming they had all the answers and could have predicted it before it happened. I definitely do not think highly of Keynesian economics, and I’ve read his work along with all the other major economists. What we needed then, and still need, is market fundamentals.

    • Jason, thanks for the thoughts. I appreciate them, yet we definitely need to agree to disagree on the points you raised. We used Hussein’s disinformation campaign to let others in the region believe he had WMDs to maintain fear. Much of our recon was based on that. Now our allies don’t trust our intelligence information. Scooter Libby went to jail for outing Valerie Plame, an active CIA operative to discredit her husband, an ambassador whose recon was purposefully misused on WMD supplies and he wrote an editorial called “What I Did Not Find.” Climate change is real and over 95% of scientists support it. The fossil fuel industry is very good at what they do. I will hang my hat with the scientists. Some more Keynesian is what is needed here. Please read “That Used to Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World it Invented and How it Can Come Back” by Thomas Friedman and Michael Mandlebaum. One of the keys to our success has been the partnering of public funds with private funds to invest in big things together. On big infrastructure invsetments, private money cannot go it alone. This public/ private partnership is echoed in “The World is Curved” written by David Smick who was an advisor to Jack Kemp, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. He notes that innovation is portable. So, public investment at the right time with venture capital, will keep innovation here. On the flip side, Trickle Down economics has been proven not to work. So, we will need to disagree on these points. Yet, truly thank you for your thoughts. They are appreciated.

      • I still disagree. 95% of theologians said the world would end in the year 1000 and cited the ominous weather as the reason. If enough experts repeat something, rest assured that it is wrong. I’m still not sure whether the problem is “global warming” or “climate change,” and neither are they, so the idea itself is ridiculously unclear. How then can anyone assume it to be a real trend–we don’t even know what trend we’re talking about!! Also what you’re referring to is not laissez-faire, it’s the opposite of laissez-faire. I agree that it did something–look at inflation. And as far as the WMDs go, I agree that it was handled very poorly; I read Joseph Wilson’s memoir, and he has his points. I simply don’t agree that we were wrong to go in and that he never had them. I still think he had them, and I think Mr. Assad in Syria had to have gotten his from somewhere which may well be quite nearby.

      • Jason, we will just have to disagree. I would not equate scientists with 11th century theologians. NASA, NOAA and other global agencies outside the US have been tracking global warming. Because we in the US believed the PR engine against it, we have not stepped up our game. Now, we need to as we are getting to a tipping point. I am glad the President had taken measures the mileage on cars a few years ago and laid down the gauntlet a few months ago. On the WMD side, the point of my post is the PR activity to convince others that the WMDs were there, when there is no evidence that can be found after much looking and one of the pieces was refuted by a source. What frustrates me is people died as a result and our credibility is lessened. To me, we better be damn sure before we send people in harm’s way. I think we have covered our points enough on this one and will just have to disagree. Thanks again for writing. BTG

      • Roseylinn, thanks for sharing this. It equates with a believe that I hold, which is while I favor capitalism, I do not favor unfettered capitalism, the definition of market fundalmentalism using the same term I employ here. It must mean I borrowed it from another reading source. With no governance, there is someone or some group to exploit somewhere in our global economy. Thanks, BTG

      • Just to clarify I like the term laissez faire when talking about a “free market” system. I am not in favor of a “free market” system. A “free market” system makes assumptions and does not take into account human greed. Also this country has had times of no-regulations and found that regulations served the public good. For example money. At one time each county/city created their own currency. It was decided for the good of the country that a single currency was better.

        The term market fundamentals I have seen before as well. However, my one post with the quote was a reply to greatbooksdude. He wrote, “….when the data didn’t support the original position, they simply changed the terminology. That, to me, is the pinnacle of dishonesty.” Then wrote at the bottom, “What we needed then, and still need, is market fundamentals.”

        My post pointed out that the term “market fundamentals” came about as a rename for laissez faire.

        Hope that makes sense now. 🙂

      • RoseyLinn, if you don’t favor a free-market system, what do you favor? I have to be honest with you, the idea that human greed is the driving force to economic improvement has substantial historical justification behind it. I do not see how you can argue otherwise. While I agree there must be some checks, there is no system that is not free-market-oriented that has ever proven to be anything other than destructive.

      • Jason, thanks for your comments. I am going to side with Roseylinn. We are arguing for fettered capitalism, free markets with some governance to keep things somewhat fair and not deny opportunity. Otherwise the “haves” will take advantage of the “have-nots.” That is always been human nature. America thrived when we made sure the middle class was flourishing providing opportunity. By the way, you may want to watch the film “I am” by Tom Shadyac, which Barney turned me onto. Pretty cool stuff. Please know, I am a capitalist, but I also believe in giving people a chance and right now, our society is one of two Americas – economic class mobility is restricted more and there is a greater disparity between the top few and the greater many. We are in a very unhealthy place right now with so many in poverty. Thanks again for your opinions. I appreciate your willingness to offer them. Take care, as always, BTG

      • Btg, I agree with you, we need fetters on capitalism, but within the free-market system. That’s not what Roseylinn is arguing for though, as she says quite clearly herself.

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