Thursday, November 3, 2011

On Public Relations

In the wake of the nuclear disaster in Japan, a Japanese government official has declared the water around the plant 'safe' and 'proved' this by drinking some. In front of flashing cameras, the 'nervous' looking cabinet spokesman, Yasuhiro Sonoda, downed a glass of water said to be from the 'decontaminated' stock of water that has been biulding up around the reactors in the plant. All of course, to try and reassure the Japanese public that all is well and there is nothing to see here.

The cameras didn't record what they weren't meant to. They won't have recorded the medical team that no doubt flushed Yasuhiro Sonoda with before and after he drank the water. Nor were they on had to see the water being taken from the plant. All that mattered was the spokesman being seen to drink the water and look nervous as well.

This ladies and gentleman, is the wonderful world of Public Relations, where the truth is exactly what you want it to be! Sonoda-San*, the Japanese spokesman, is what we call a spin doctor, a master of spin. Spin is the art of manipulating the facts for the public so that the public sees what you want them to see. And most of the time it's not really telling lies, just shining the truth in a different way. It's probably been happening ever since humans learned to speak to each other, but we are seeing it on a massive scale in the present day.

The art of 'spin' has greatly evolved in the past decades. Before, rulers could simply rely on people's in ability to gain 'information' simply becuase there wasn't the medium for someone to get the information. However new mediums have been growing with the invention of the movable type printing press, which allowed books and newspapers to be created cheaply since someone didn't have to sit and write out every copy. These mediums have been growing with gathering momentum, expanding from the printed word to radio, then television and now the giant beast that is the internet. With these new mediums of information rapidly spreading, and the ability to access them also growing rapidly, various groups feel the need to manipulate what people are reading to present the message they want.

So enters the spin doctor, or as they prefer to be called, 'Public Relations Officers' or 'Spokespersons'. If your government is pushing forward an unpopular tax, let them . You're factory smog seems to be making people ill? Don't worry, we'll get a guy in a lab coat to tell everyone it's all OK. I remember recently here in Malaysia when there was a front page spread about how the transport minister, in response to complaints about how bad the trains are getting, took the train to work once to show how good the system was. It was in the newspaper after all!

No, he didn't take the train to work. His train didn't break down while he was crammed like a sardine in a leaky carriage with the air conditioning broken. Nor was his train delayed becuase 'a goods train is passing through' (lots of these invisible goods trains about!) meaning he had to kick about on the platform for an indeterminate amount of time. He didn't have the joy of using a station toilet either, or the fun of having to wait for a crowded bus to take you to and from the station. That's riding the train!

What he did was get out of his convoy, step into a specially prepared train with all his aids and hangers on, ride a few stops and then get back in his convoy so he could go roaring down the road, sirens blaring, for another day of moving paper around a big desk. There is a sizable difference.**

But what do the public see of this? Nothing, just a smiling guy (they are taught to smile) in a train, looking happy and definitely riding it. All is well in the world.

This happens a lot, more than we could possibly believe. Everyone it seems has a Public Relations firm on hand these days. So what are we to do? Simple really, just pay attention. A lot of 'stuff' is slipped past us these days under the gaze of spin. Look at how long we let the bankers run amok before the whole thing exploded

Yes, it's hard to be informed today, but it's not impossible. It's a simple matter of asking questions.

Remember BP? Their dodgy, unsafe oil platform exploded in the Gulf of Mexico not long ago, causing the biggest oil spill in history. They said we're very sorry and spent $90 million on Public Relations in the first three months alone to show off how they were all cleaning up the mess and then blame a contractor for the actual explosion. They also showed lots of pictures of their shiny equipment that was meant to clean up the mess, said they were spending $13 billion cleaning up their mess.

Lots of people bought it, but lots of people asked questions. And guess what? The Public Relations picture fell apart. People noticed the faked photographs that BP was releasing. Others questioned how shiny and effective BP's equipment actually was (not very it turned out). They uncovered evidence that the spill was far worse and bigger than anyone was letting out.

Granted, a lot of this happened because President Obama's administration, which is heavily reliant on oil companies to stay in office via campaign donations, weighed in. But it happened non the less. Public questioning forced both the US President and other oil companies pulling the strings to act. Obama had to bee seen to do something, other oil companies, in their usual corporate solidarity, quickly asked him to help stab BP in the back.

See? It does work. Of course, everyone quickly forgot about this all and BP went on to make billions in profits months after the spill, but that's life.

Keep your eyes open


* My knowledge of Japanese naming conventions is not that great, but to my best knowledge -San is more polite than 'Mr'. Correct me if I'm wrong.

** OK, rail transport in Malaysia is actually pretty good when compared to other countries. It's cheap, it works a lot of the time and it get's you where you need to go. I'm just making a point!

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