Wednesday, June 16, 2004

Leader's Debate: Spin Time for Journalists

The English-Language Canadian Federal Election Leader’s Debate took place yesterday. For the leaders, it’s an opportunity to reinforce their branding and swing some undecided voters their way. For voters, a chance to decide who to vote for, cheer for the guy you already chose, or convince yourself none of those four white middle-aged men is worth your time.

For others, it’s a chance to show you’ve got ideas, that you’re tough and that you’re a big shot who know how people think. For the reporters asking the question, debate night is the Oscars of journalism, a recognition that you’re a big name in the business. You only get to say a few words though, so you choose them carefully.

It seems to me the journalistic ego-trip went a little too far this time. Scolding the top four politicians of the land as if they were schoolchildren caught with unmade homework is fair game (and so popular with people back home), but when the reporters take the stage to do the spin, things have gotten out of hand.

Predictably, Global’s David Vienneau kept spewing right-wing rhetoric, but CTV infostar Craig Oliver wins the award for Best PR Flack Wannabe. His rant on the public healthcare system fits nicely with the focus of this blog on creative lying and misleading truths. “The current healthcare system goes much further than Tommy Douglas ever intended”, he spit at NDP leader Jack Layton. Mr. Oliver’s microphone was off when Layton replied that he was dead wrong (Medicare pioneer Douglas wanted medications and dentistry work fully covered), but we could clearly hear the elder reporter yelling something back at the NDP leader.

I’m sure Mr. Oliver would run for office himself if he could live without the journalistic perks he currently enjoys, namely the high pay check, short work hours and not being accountable to anyone. Until he musters the courage to do so, he should leave debating to politicians and spinning to public relations professionals.

Tuesday, June 08, 2004

Massaging the message

McGill’s University’s Observatory on Media and Public Policy is doing a continuing survey of how different newspapers portray the different parties and leaders in the federal election. Some of the results indicate that some media have let their ideological bias trample their ethics.

Not surprisingly, the Liberals get clobbered everywhere, although with varying degrees of intensity. All of the seven major newspapers studied run more negative elements than positives ones about Paul Martin and his campaign.

What’s troubling are some major differences between publications. Analysis of the National Post’s coverage (reports, columns and editorials) reveals a score of –38% toward the Liberals, 0 being neutral. On the other hand, the Vancouver Sun seems to go much easier on the ruling party, with a score of –10%.

The image of opposition parties varies just as widely. The Calgary Herald’s portrayal of the Conservatives is at +12%, while the Toronto Star ends up at –13%. The NDP gets the same kind of widely varying treatment. You think the Bloc Québécois gets a break from the Quebec media? Not so. The only media to portray them in a positive light is the Globe and Mail, while Le Devoir’s coverage is at –10%.

Portraits of leaders are even more diverse. Jack Layton’s score varies from +9% (Vancouver Sun) to –32% (National Post).

Liberal insiders are already using the study to support their claim that the media is out to get them. That’s besides the point. After all, if the Liberals are having a bad campaign – and they are – it has to show in the media. However, the study highlights the fact that some media shamelessly favour one party and leader over the others in their news stories.

When reporters and news editors try to directly influence the way people vote, it changes the way PR flacks work considerably, including how and to whom they make information available and access to the leader. When the media outlets stop pretending to be objective, those responsible for media relations may start seeing them as opponents or allies, instead of part of the democratic process.

The job of communication officer on the media bus (mediasitter) getting any easier.

The best spin blogs

Canuckflack (winner) and PRMachine (honourable mention) won the honours for best PR-topic blogs in MarketingSherpa's blog contest.

Congratulations to the winners! Both blogs are a good source of insight, advice and news for public relations.

Personally, my vote goes to PRWatch though.

Monday, June 07, 2004

Delusional optimists

James Horton, a PR pro who maintains the very good online-pr blog, writes about how successful optimists like Ronald Reagan can be in public relations:

“I have watched great PR salespersons spin stories I knew not to be true, but they made them happen and the end result was reasonably OK. I wonder how one does that, and the answer appears to be that optimists believe what they say to be true, whether it is or not. They are people whose dispositions see good even where there isn't much possibility of it.”

There’s another term than optimist for that kind of behaviour: delusional.

I cheerfully admit to believing the PR goulash I was serving the media from time to time, when I was working in partisan politics. As Horton points out, you get better results when you actually believe what you say is true. I often think about that when I watch various pundits and columnists (many of them are little more than PR flacks with a thin veneer of journalism) say things that are patently false. Do they really believe what they say? At that moment, they probably are. If they repeat it often enough, they’ll believe it all the time.

Sunday, June 06, 2004

Summer reading

I just purchased Smoke & Mirrors - The Canadian Tobacco War, by activist Rob Cunningham. Okay, so I'm eight years out of date on my reading... Those years have been busy ones!

It looks like an excellent account of the public relations war between activists and the tobacco industry, which the good guys mostly won after a long and hard fight. I did enjoy similar books tremendously (see below), so I look forward to sitting down with that one. I'll do a complete report when I'm done.

Suggested reading

Where on Earth are we going, Maurice Strong
2030 - Confronting Thermageddon in Our Lifetime, Robert Hunter
Montfort: La lutte d'un peuple, Michel Gratton
Carbon Wars - Global Warming and the End of the Oil Era, Jeremy Leggett

A good spin improves with age

Spin, like good wine, can improve with age.

So it is with the Normandy landings, of which the West celebrates the 60th anniversary today. The heroism of the brave soldiers who landed that day is being celebrated and much is being said about the importance of the battle.

The battle "turned the tide of WW II", said George Bush yesterday. "One of the most decisive battles in history", according to the Associated Press. Not to be outdone, the Ottawa Citizen calls it "the greatest invasion in history".

That spin is so entrenched in North American culture such statements are rarely challenged.

In June 1944, Hitler's murderous empire was besieged from all sides. German armies had been pushed out of Africa. They've been soundly defeated before Moscow, Kiev and Stalingrad the year before. All they could hope for in Italy was to make the Allies pay dearly for each mile they gained. The question was not if Germany would be defeated, but when.

As the Allied bravely confronted 58 German divisions in the West, the Russians were plowing through the 228 divisions before them, thanks in part to American vehicules and supplies. For the Germans too, the Normandy landings were merely "the second front": they transferred no assets from the East to the West to meet this new threat.

The allies readily acknoledged this reality back then. Allied Forces Supreme Commander and President-to-be Dwight Eisenhower talked about hastening the end of the war, not single-handedly fighting the Nazi juggernaut. It's only after the end of that war and the beginning of another - the Cold War - that the myth of the Battle of Normandy as a world-changing event took form. The Cold War is over, but the myth stays with us.

A wildly successful spin. Still, it seems to me the memory of those who fought on the beaches and the bocage country of Normandy could be properly honoured without hyping the battle as the most important event in Human history.

Wednesday, June 02, 2004

The Fat Empire strikes back

The fatty fast-food industry is up in arms following the release of the documentary Supersize me! in major theatre chains.

Of course, people are not forced to eat the greasy, tasteless manufactured food loaded with sugar and salt most fast-food outlets still offer the public. If they insist on ingesting Big Macs, the willing victims of the industrial chefs have only themselves to blame. Still, it’s hard not to poke fun at the likes of McDonald’s and Burger King.

McDonald’s walks a fine PR line about their flagship, the 600-calory burger. They’re basically trying to say eating a Big Mac is part of a balanced diet, while pointing out moderation is an important nutrition principle. They actually manage to hold their message together pretty well, a tribute to the writing abilities of their PR professionals.

By the way, a Big Mac and a large order of French/Freedom fries will get you 90% of your recommended daily quota of fat, 68% of your carbohydrates (with a large Coke) and 60% of your calories, reducing you to suck on carrots until the next breakfast. Don’t even think about that apple pie.

Anyway, back to the retaliatory strike.

Over the last 10 years, the fatty food industrialists and the PR agencies they pay have been busy putting together front groups such as the American Council on Science and Health. Those false grassroots groups (the technique’s cleverly called astroturf from the fake grass used in football stadiums) and the “experts” on their payroll reacted with commendable vigour, attacking the movie in every media interview their PR people can get for them.

The credibility of an organization has a major impact on how its message will be received by the public. People might not believe a McDonald’s spokesperson saying eating a Big Mac every other day has no impact on your health, but they will be more attentive if it’s said by Dr. Elizabeth Whelan, President of the American Council on Science and Health. Most people have no way of knowing the ACSH is founded by McDonald’s and other corporations or that Dr. Whelan is a mouthpiece for the fast food industry.

The media’s public affairs rolodexes are filled with experts and spokespersons of such front groups, who are called upon to comment on issues critical to the choices people make, from nutrition to medication, education to taxation.

The success of astroturf campaigns depend on deception. How’s a citizen supposed to know oil and coal companies in fact owned the Global Climate Coalition?

He can’t. Reporters can but more often than not, they don’t care to find out.

Tuesday, June 01, 2004

Candid translation

Translation error or candid admission? shows a picture of a public “Propaganda Board” in China displaying what looks like either a large-print version of a newspaper or government announcements.

I sincerely hope governments, lobbyists and other sources of “information” around the world will follow this fine example of Chinese candidness and transparency.

What a good panel topic for the upcoming Canadian Public relations Conference! Is anyone at the CPRS reading this?