The Big Spinout: Politics by PR

The corporate world has moved on. They recognise that PR is not a professional working title for an employee and that ‘spin’ does not work in a world of high information search power and acutely tuned radar for any lack of authenticity. Politics, however, seems to be lagging behind.

The infamous ‘They’re throwing their children overboard’ campaign made two things clear. Firstly, the Australian public, by and large, are unable to critically engage with the media they consume. Secondly, commercial media will fuel an interest, no matter how erroneous the facts may be, in order to sell their cheap journalistic product.  To the extent that it doesn’t even hurt to be untruthful. It’ll all get forgotten in the morning.

Lee & Solomon, in their book Unreliable Sources, put it nicely, ‘you don’t need to suppress news, you can just delay it until it’s no longer important.’ Rather than children, this is one example of PR going overboard. Just for fun, let’s dissect a few examples.

There isn’t anything new about strategic opinion-forming devices. Unfortunately, examples abound in which spin isn’t used to enhance the message, spin is the message. Capitalising on an emotional response to an issue is one thing. Fabricating evidence in order to elicit the emotional response is quite another.

Although the destruction of the twin towers mobilised public support for military involvement, it is PR which will determine the success of the war and the extent to which divisions between the first and third world can be redrawn.

One example of the PR machine in action was the declaring of the offensive as being a humanitarian effort, that this was, ‘not a war against the people of Afghanistan.’ As such, American school kids were encouraged to send in $1 bills to help feed the children of Afghanistan. Then the US began air drops of food.

The reality, however, was that this was a spectacle for the benefit of the American people, not for the Afghans. With over five million people starving in the mountains, only 35,000 meals were regularly being dropped, a significant proportion of which landed on minefields, became damaged or ended up in the hands of warlords where they generally stayed. Even medicins sans frontiers, the Nobel winning organisation, described the drops as, ‘virtually useless and may even be dangerous.’ The US Committee for Refugees called the drops, ‘cosmetic – ineffective and risky.’

By using these kinds of public relations initiatives, the US has been able to equate their military action against the Taliban as an act of liberation for the civilian Afghans. You can’t dispute the grain of truth in this.

However, these initiatives have been effective enough to detract from the reality of standard US military habits – the fact that it has chosen to lay thousands of mines in Afghanistan rather than send in mine clearance teams.

With over seven million anti-personnel and anti-tank mines in Afghanistan before the war, Afghan civilians have been suffering a landmine crisis so major that one in every ten adult males has had a mine incident, typically resulting in the loss of their legs, penis and testicles. With so many mines already, it is an attitude of careless indifference that says a few more won’t matter.

It is difficult to assess the extent to which the public relations message is distorting the reality of the conflict in Afghanistan. We will probably not know until the conflict is over or until it reaches a stage in which public opinion is no longer important.

Which raises many questions. Does a government have a right to use a private firm to harness support from its citizenry? Would they authorise a firm to get that support at any cost, including manufacturing evidence? If you are in any doubt, here are some gentle reminders from America’s last war.

Shortly after Iraq invaded Kuwait, opinion polls showed that the majority of Americans wanted to wait before proceeding with military action. But George didn’t want to. US policy was firmly entrenched. It would go to war for the oil in that region.

One hundred and nineteen executives from Hill & Knowlton began work on the ‘Kuwait Account’. Rather than a place of wealth and privilege, Kuwait became a ‘struggling young democracy’. Press conferences were held, media kits were disseminated to writers and editors, and television networks were sent a video of a little girl called Nayirah’s testimony. The girl, a hospital volunteer, said she had witnessed soldiers coming in and removing babies from the incubators and that the babies were ‘left to die cold on the floor.’

After 3 months of coverage, it was revealed that Nayirah was not a hospital worker. She was in fact the daughter of the Kuwaiti Ambassador to the US and a member of the Kuwait Royal Family whose testimony had been coached by Lauri Fitz-Pegada, Hill & Knowlton’s vice-president.

Robot smart bomb videotapes were made, unveiling the technological superiority of America and the pin point accuracy of their bombs. It was later found that these bombs were only around 70% accurate. The other 30% went way off target and slaughtered 100, 000 civilians. After the war, America did not seek to suppress the fact that the tapes were not actual footage from the Gulf, but were filmed in California.

With so many basic facts being fabricated and distorted, the communications department of the University of Massachussets thought it would be interesting to run a study correlating public opinion and knowledge of basic facts about US foreign policy. Its rather sobering conclusion was that, ‘the more television people watched, the less people knew in terms of basic facts and the less basic facts they knew, the more likely they were to back the Bush administration.’

Call me cynical but it would be interesting to know where the Tora Bora caves footage originated.  After all, I have no reason to believe it is Tora Bora. It is also interesting that when you hear the Osama Bin Laden tapes for more than three seconds and without the voice-over of a newsreader, the effect is quite different than that given by CNN or Network Seven. His acts of terrorism may be diabolical, but he is an articulate man and one cannot find fault with his logic or his indignation.

In the same way, the children overboard video is entirely different when it stands alone compared to the video encumbered with sound-bites from unreliable sources. Unfortunately, it may have changed an election result.