Sorting the wheat from the PR chaff.

Position:Cover Story: Media
 
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There is nothing new about public relations. Although communications management can be identified in the politics of the ancient world, it is possible to trace the history of PR itself back to the nineteenth century, when some academics argue that it was used by anti-slavery campaigners. The first "publicity bureaus" were set up in the UK in the early 1900s and PR techniques were used by all sides in the first world war.

However, it was not until the early 1910s that private sector companies began to use publicity bureaus, first in the US ana then in Western Europe. PR was often known as propaganda prior to the Second World War but its use by the Nazis saw the term "propaganda" quickly disappear from the industry and turn into a form of abuse.

Since then, propaganda and PR have been regarded as distinct entities. The Chief Creative Officer of US firm Daly-Swartz Public Relations, Alan Graner, says: "Propaganda uses lies, half-truths, innuendo, smears, misinformation, one-sided arguments and inflammatory rhetoric to influence the public's attitude ... Propaganda's underlying philosophy is us against them. 'They' are often denigrated as undesirables or simply 'the enemy'. Public relations uses truth if, for no other reason, their claims can be checked. PR relies on logic, facts and sometimes emotions to spread information."

By these definitions, it can surely be argued that US President Donald Trump employs political propaganda.

The downside

Negative views of the PR industry as a whole are fuelled by the tendency of some big corporations to use agencies to deflect attention away from damaging commercial activities.

It has been widely reported that many of the US PR agencies that were involved in blocking anti-tobacco legislation are now working to block or overturn legislation designed to deter carbon consumption. In the main, they do so by creating doubt over an issue: by promoting the view that the evidence over a particular issue--whether that's tobacco's role in causing lung cancer, or the fact that current global warming is mainly caused by human activity--is not conclusive.

Agencies have supported their clients by seeking to sustain debates over issues for many years after the scientific evidence pointing in a particular direction has become overwhelming, thereby allowing clients such as cigarette producers and coal mining firms to continue their existing operations.

Media outlets are often easy targets for these strategies because debate makes for better discourse--whether on TV, radio or in written media--than consensus. While 99 out of ioo scientists in fields related to climate science may agree that global warming is in large part man-made, pitching one scientist against another makes for a "better" TV debate and by "better" they mean more combative and confrontational.

Negative public views of the industry are also fuelled by the activities of high-profile spin doctors, including the UK's Alastair Campbell, with his involvement in providing "evidence" to the British public of the presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq in order to drum up support for that country's invasion.

Yet PR can also be used positively. It is a tool used to promote communication between governments, companies and NGOs on the one hand and their citizens, customers, supporters and beneficiaries on the other. When it promotes communication then it can be a force for good.

The African PR industry is growing. The University of Nairobi has set up a PR degree programme and the numbers entering the profession are growing, although the lack of regulation makes it difficult to obtain accurate figures.

As elsewhere in the world, brand promotion is becoming ever more important, with most large companies having a presence on Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter. As internet access improves through rising mobile and cable access, the market for local PR companies to promote brand awareness is likely to grow rapidly.

The new generation

On page 21, we look at the role of the new generation of PR agencies, such as Cambridge Analytica, in the Kenyan presidential elections. By harvesting vast amounts of online data, they are able to target "persuadable" voters, including through social media, which increasing numbers of people rely on as their primary news source.

The news directed at each person, via Facebook for example, is specifically targeted at them and often serves to confirm their own existing view of the world, perhaps only tweaking it in a particular direction. The automated nature of what they see on screen makes it easier to guide them towards a particular viewpoint.

It could be argued that the diverse nature of news sources is more liberal, more pluralistic and perhaps even more democratic than when people rely on a single or a handful of news outlets.

It could also be argued that voters have long chosen newspapers that confirm their own view of the world. Yet the use of a much greater number of news providers and the automated nature of much of that news distribution has drastically lowered the bar of journalistic and reporting integrity. Put simply, there is little regulation of standards.

In much the same way, Google has a great deal of control over which news sources you access when you use its search engine. It's almost as if your newspaper--or this magazine!--knew which articles you had read and then changed what was on the next page accordingly.

The ways in which the huge and rapidly increasing amounts of data being generated have become a strand of globalisation was not entirely predicted. It is difficult to predict how the situation will evolve over even the next few years, let alone the longer term, but it seems that the distinction between PR and news is fading. The big danger will be if PR, news and politics eventually melt into one amalgamated whole. The big question is how effective PR campaigns are. Sometimes PR agencies are merely used to calm the fears of their clients; others will be more challenging, putting forward arguments that their clients may not wish to hear.

The impact of...

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