Spin Alert

Is an increasingly powerful public relations industry controlling the news?

It is not every day that some of the leading lights in Canadian advertising and public relations take a couple of hours off in the middle of the day to talk about a book. But so intense was the interest in The Fall of Advertising and the Rise of PR that the Toronto chapter of the American Marketing Association scheduled two separate sessions last year just to discuss it – and almost universally condemn it. Doug Checkeris, Managing Partner of The Media Company, a Toronto ad agency, called the book’s analysis “simplistic.” Jay Bertram, president of tbwaToronto, flatly declared, “Don’t buy this book.” Meanwhile, the head of one of the biggest ad agencies in the U.S. has dismissed the book as “a lot of bunk.” The president of the American Association of Advertising Agencies has declared its claims “sensational, bordering on ludicrous.” Another advertising executive summed up the prevailing industry wisdom about the author by simply stating, “He’s an idiot.”

The “idiot” in question is seventy-seven-year-old Al Ries, a marketing strategist for more than twenty years and co-author, with his daughter and business partner Laura, of the inflammatory best-seller.

Al Ries was not present for the AMA sessions in Toronto. It takes a considerable amount of cash, more than $25,000 (U.S.) plus first-class travel expenses, to get him out of the Atlanta office where he and Laura run Ries and Ries Focusing Consultants. A bona fide business guru, Ries is preaching to companies throughout North America a message as simple as it is controversial – stop wasting billions of dollars trying to build your brand through advertising. It doesn’t work. “You can fan the flames with advertising,” Ries argues, “you just can’t start the fire.” What does work, says Ries, what is a whole lot cheaper and more effective in making people pay attention if you’re launching a new product or service, is public relations.

Why? Because the root problem of advertising is that no one believes it. “No matter how creative the advertising,” Al and Laura write, “no matter how appropriate the medium, there is just no way around the issue of credibility.” A survey of Americans and Europeans undertaken in January 2003 revealed that only 12 percent said they believed that advertising was trustworthy. In a recent interview, Al Reis declared that “anything you say about yourself is now automatically suspect.”

The secret to public relations is the “third party effect,” and the best way for it to happen is to hire skilled public-relations practitioners with a nose for “news” and the ability to get your message to your audience through the “filter” of the media.

“To get something going from nothing,” the Reises write in The Fall of Advertising and the Rise of PR, “you need the validity that only third party endorsements can bring.” Judy Lewis, co-founder of the Toronto-based PR firm Strategic Objectives, echoed that sentiment when she told the AMA crowd last year that public relations possessed the one thing that advertising lacked – credibility. And while people might not believe what advertising tells them, they still believe most of what they read in the paper.

The Fall of Advertising and the Rise of PR is filled with examples of how public relations has helped launch some of today’s best-known brands – The Body Shop, or Botox, or Linux are all house-hold names that were built with little or no advertising. Or Starbucks, which spent only $10 million in advertising over its first decade. Or Krispy Kreme donuts, which manages to attract scads of free media attention whenever it decides to enter a new market. (Not cited in the Ries book, but another excellent example, is Vanilla Coke, which spent no money on paid advertising until three months after its launch in the spring of 2002. But with a PR campaign that cost only half a million dollars, Coke managed to secure more than 1,500 “individual broadcast placements” in the U.S. alone, reaching an audience of 92 million consumers.)

Judy Lewis of Strategic Objectives told the Toronto crowd about her strategy in launching Whole Foods Market, an upscale American grocery chain that opened its first Canadian store in the city’s trendy Yorkville district. The local media treated the store’s arrival as if it were a major news story, significantly decreasing the need for costly advertising.

You can’t blame Al Ries or Judy Lewis or others in the PR industry for taking what the media offer them. If they can convince enough editors, hosts, producers, or reporters that the launch of a new flavoured soft drink or the arrival of a new donut or grocery chain is “news,” why should they fork out the money to buy advertising? So what if various media outlets choose to deprive themselves of precious ad revenue by surrendering some of their valuable editorial space to free publicity?

But what about the effect on readers, viewers, and listeners? When news values have become so debased that the media stop being a filter against spin, and instead become a sieve that allows it to pass through virtually unobstructed, then we have a serious problem. The media are putting their credibility at risk when they happily dress up marketing material as news, and they allow themselves to simply be a conduit for other people’s spin.

It’s not an entirely new phenomenon. You can find newspaper editors and reporters railing against “free puffs” as far back as the nineteenth century. The great American editor Horace Greeley told an overly-persistent press agent back in 1854 that “if you want to use the columns of any journal to promote your own or some other person’s private interest, offer to pay for it, there is no other honest way.” But two recent books published in England make a persuasive argument that in the modern struggle between public relations and the press, it is PR that is gaining the upper hand.

The first book is called Rethinking Public Relations: The Spin and the Substance, by Kevin Moloney, a university lecturer with twenty years’ experience in PR. Moloney surveys the British media landscape and concludes that journalists are being “colonized” by public relations. “There is a PR-isation of the media happening in the U.K.,” he writes. “There is a growing identity in the attitudes, behaviours and personnel of journalism and PR. It implies a growing dependency of journalists on PR, leading to the disablement of their critical faculties.”

Moloney notes that an ever-increasing number of stories in the British press are simply prefabricated pieces supplied by the public-relations industry. These are precisely the kinds of story that Al and Laura Reis celebrate as something for marketers to aspire to in The Fall of Advertising and the Rise of PR. But Kevin Moloney, in spite of his shared background in public relations, reaches a different conclusion. He argues “these relationships of journalistic dependency need to be reversed into independence. The more distance between journalists and PR people, the better for an open, liberal democracy.”

The second book dealing with British journalistic dependency on PR is Public Relations Democracy: Politics, Public Relations and the Mass Media in Britain, by Aeron Davis, a lecturer at City University in London. Davis sees the problem as essentially one of supply and demand. Over the past twenty years, the demand for news content has dramatically increased. In television, there has been a proliferation of twenty-four-hour news stations and new specialty cable and digital channels. Mainstream news-papers, in their increasingly desperate efforts to be all things to all readers, have swollen in size, adding new sections and supplements. The “alternative” and ethnic press has grown dramatically, to say nothing of the nearly insatiable appetite for content online.

But the rise in demand for content has not been accompanied by a corresponding increase in money spent on the supply side. Indeed, doing more with less has become an almost universal newsroom mantra. Davis cites the example of The Times of London, which between 1984 and 1994 saw a 125-percent increase in the number of pages but, over roughly the same time period, only a 22-percent increase in the number of staff. Davis could easily have supported his argument with statistics from this side of the Atlantic: in Canada, despite the proliferation of news outlets over the past fifteen years, Statistics Canada reports that the number of people working as journalists actually declined between 1991 and 2001. And a recent report on the state of the American media by the Columbia University School of Journalism revealed similar results. Network TV news in the U.S. now employs one-third fewer correspondents than it did in the 1980s, and not surprisingly, the workload for those correspondents has increased by 30 percent. The American media, the report concluded, is a “seller’s market for information.”

Both Aeron Davis and Kevin Moloney see serious implications for the practice of journalism in this seller’s market. “As British journalism is repeatedly cut and squeezed, its fallibilities increase, its standards and objectivity decrease, and its need to cut corners becomes crucial,” Davis writes in Public Relations Democracy. Journalists become more reactive and less discerning, and “easy prey for an increasingly powerful and predatory PR sector” that both out-numbers and out-resources them.

Moloney is even harsher in his assessment. He thinks it may be time to abandon the idealized notion of the free press as the “fourth estate,” and acknowledge the unhappy reality of journalism as the “passive reworking of PR material.” He sees them as complicit in their own colonization. Only when journalists treat PR “with skepticism, bordering on hostility,” he believes, can they regain their credibility and play a legitimate role in strengthening adversarial democracy.

It is no coincidence that these two damning indictments of the relationship between public relations and the media have come out of Britain. With the possible exception of the United States, no country has seen its political, commercial, and cultural realm so dominated and so degraded by “spin” as the U.K. So pervasive has PR become in Britain today that it has been labelled by some as the “fifth estate.” The Spectator magazine hailed it as the “profession of the decade.” Although the British public-relations industry, like the Canadian, really only emerged in the years following World War Two, it underwent a period of explosive growth following the conservative counter-revolution unleashed by the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979.

Thatcher, by attacking the country’s powerful trade unions, opening a debate over the value of public education and publicly funded health care, and dramatically reducing the state’s role in the economy through an aggressive program of deregulation and privatization (her oft-quoted assertion was that “there is no such thing as society”), helped establish the idea of the supremacy of the marketplace over the public sphere. And where conflicting ideas and interests are forced to compete against each other, communicating effectively with your audience is usually the key to victory. As Thatcher well knew, communications was an art best not left to amateurs.

Aeron Davis chronicles the dramatic increase in the use of public relations under the Thatcher government. When Thatcher came into power in 1979, the British government was spending £44 million on advertising, while the budget of the Central Office of Information, the government’s PR office, spent £27 million. By 1988, the amount spent on advertising had nearly doubled to £85 million, while the COI budget, at £150 million, was more than five times its 1979 total.

Throughout the 1980s, the government simply outspent and outspun its opponents to win the fight for public opinion. During the epic battle between the National Coal Board and the National Union of Miners in 1984–85, the Coal Board increased its roster of communications officers from six to twenty-five. Meanwhile, NUM president Arthur Scargill was convinced that he could never get a fair shake in the main-stream media, so there was no point in trying. Reporers trying to get the union’s side of the story had to go through Scargill’s assistant, who, in his spare time, served as the union’s one and only press officer.

The miners ultimately lost their battle with the Thatcher government, and their defeat contributed significantly to the erosion of trade-union power and influence within Britain. But the unions, like other sectors of British society that had been weakened under Thatcher, did eventually learn that PR was most effectively fought with PR. And so by the 1990s, environmental groups, charitable organizations, educational lobbyists, and unions had all begun to invest heavily in public relations.

Often, as in the case of Greenpeace, for example, they met with great success. By the time the government of John Major tried to privatize the British Post Office in 1994, the Union of Communications Workers was ready with a sophisticated public-relations strategy to fight the move. They even hired one of Margaret Thatcher’s favourite PR consulting firms to help them. After losing all of the previous battles with the Conservative government over privatization, the unions managed to win the fight for the Post Office. Aeron Davis reports that today, unlike twenty years ago, nearly every large British union employs a staff of trained public-relations practitioners.

The good news is that the playing field has evened up as all quarters of society exploit the power of PR. Unfortunately, that’s the bad news as well. There is undeniably a whole lot of communicating going on today, but most of it is strategic communication, not real. And that, according to one British public-relations practitioner, can lead to serious distortions, not just in politics, and not just in Britain, but throughout all institutions in all western democracies. By the 1990s, George Pitcher argues in his book The Death of Spin, “it no longer mattered . . . what something was, it was how it appeared. You no longer argued about an issue, you argued a position. Presentation had become all. . . . Across society there was a new vacuity; style was not just more important than substance, it overcame it. We no longer seemed to discuss what something was, but what we thought of it.”

Pitcher comes at the subject of spin from an interesting perspective. He spent ten years as an award-winning Fleet Street business reporter, but in 1991, he left journalism to become a communications consultant, working with several of Britain’s biggest companies and institutions. He calls the new Zeitgeist, which celebrates interpretation over fact, and image creation over tangible evidence, “spin-culture,” and in The Death of Spin, he comes to the optimistic conclusion that it could be on its last legs.

“It may be that the entire socio-economic structure that spin-culture supports will implode on itself,” Pitcher writes. “From the black hole that spin-culture’s collapsing star will have created may emerge new forms of political, commercial, institutional and artistic life.” In a few short years in the late 1990s, Pitcher believes, communications went from being “the new rock and roll” to being “the new sleaze.” It has ceased to be effective because “people aren’t so stupid as to continue to take this. They are bored by spin-culture and want out of it.”

George Pitcher is not alone in sensing a change in the British air. In the general election of 2001, not only was voter turnout the lowest in eighty years, but audience numbers for the BBC’s political coverage plummeted as well. Anxious to discover what they were doing wrong, the BBC commissioned an extensive survey of their radio and TV audiences. They found, among other things, that viewers and listeners increasingly saw no difference between their politicians and the people who cover them. Even when a journalist was aggressively interviewing a politician, many of the people surveyed believed “he’s in there with him,” meaning they saw both the pol and the reporter as members of the same club, and it was not a club they were likely to be invited to join.

And if those people needed any confirmation that they were on the right track in believing that politicians and the press operated in similar ways, they got it, tragically, in the summer of 2003 with the suicide of the British arms expert Dr. David Kelly. Dr. Kelly was doubly victimized, first by a government that hyped and spun his intelligence to suit its political end, and then by a reporter who hyped and spun his interview to suit the reporter’s journalistic end. Same strategy, different ends, one innocent victim of spin.

But if spin-culture is really in its death throes in the U.K., what will take its place? Pitcher is not so naïve as to think that we are entering a new age where politicians and business leaders will entirely eschew spin and dishonesty. But he does believe that the post-spin-culture world will, at the very least, be characterized by a return to substance and genuine debate over issues. It will be a time when people will adopt positions because they actually believe in them.

“Good corporate or political communication is about dialectics,” he argues. “And to be dialectical you have to hold a position. That means the skills of advocacy. And you can’t advocate the absence of something. It follows that good communication requires (or demands) substance.” In the new forms of political, commercial, institutional, and artistic life that Pitcher hopes will emerge out of the collapse of spin-culture, honesty will become a proven vote-getter in politics, successful leaders will be those who actually stand for something and communicate their beliefs from the heart, there will be less cynicism and distrust of public institutions, and we will see a broadening and deepening of a “culture of deliberation.”

Even Aeron Davis and Kevin Moloney conclude that the future may not be as bleak as our spin-saturated present, though neither author believes that spin will ever go away. Davis points to the growing use of PR by groups that were previously marginalized, such as unions and other advocacy groups, and the success they have occasionally en-joyed in winning the battle for public opinion against better-financed and more powerful opponents. Moloney correctly concludes that spin “is a communicative consequence of liberal, democratic, market-orientated capitalist societies. It cannot be uninvented.” But it can be used to greater benefit. Moloney believes a more beneficial PR will be more about “emancipation rather than manipulation,” and will improve the context and content of public debate.

Interestingly, none of the authors put much faith in the media as an agent of reform. The colonials do not yet appear to be ready to rise up against their colonizers. The current system works a bit too well for media moguls to enthusiastically embrace change. If you can continue to open up new and profitable pipelines for content, and allow Al Reis and his ilk to stuff them with marketing material barely disguised as “news,” if reporters and politicians remain content to play their spin games together, and if readers, listeners, and viewers don’t appear to notice or care, where is the incentive for change? But perhaps those declining audience numbers at the BBC will send a message that others in the media will hear. And perhaps reporters and editors will stop putting their credibility at risk by allowing themselves to become passive conduits for political and commercial spin. Perhaps they will realize that the rise of PR, as least as it is envisaged by Al Reis and others in the PR industry, might not just mean the fall of advertising, but the fall of journalism as well.

Ira Basen