New Internationalist

Pr World

Issue 314

new internationalist
issue 314 - July 1999

PR World

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The public-relations specialist lives in a world of convenient half-truths that are useful to whatever well-heeled client is paying the bills. But, if you look long enough, a rather disturbing pattern - in fact a world-view - emerges out of all this expensive spin. It is often clothed in the rhetoric of humane concern and environmental responsibility. But profitability and unimpeded market outcomes are its ultimate measuring stick. Sometimes you hear it, sometimes you don't. But always the volume of the corporate-speak machine is cranked up high enough to drown out resistance and any talk of alternatives. This is what it sounds like.

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Utopia Inc
We have worked wonders.'Progress' has delivered untold bounty and marvelous scientific discovery, bringing humankind from cave-dwelling to technological Nirvana. We are reaching out into the universe, rearranging our genes and developing new medical technologies to extend our lives. It is only the faint-hearted and nay-sayers who can't fall in line with our march into the future. Tragically these malcontents have caused corporate initiative to be hedged in by stultifying regulation. It is only the corporate risk-takers producing a new generation of eco-friendly agro-chemicals or fuel-efficient cars that can save the day. The 'fundamentals' of techno-growth must never be questioned or we'll be back rubbing sticks together to make fire.

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The nosy media
Our growing army of PR professionals now outnumbers the harried band of journalists - and a damn good thing too! For far too long, muckraking leftist and liberal journalists have been out to 'get' corporations. To put an end to this once and for all, appropriate pressures can be applied: journalists can be courted, special briefings arranged, pre-packaged news provided, editors pressured by advertisers to discourage unfavourable coverage, libel-chill spread by the strategic use of law suits. Keep the journos busy and they won't have time for all that expensive investigative stuff. Better to spin angles from the viewpoint of the CEO - the burden of dealing with government regulation, labour, foreign competition, special-interest groups and so on. Other helpful stories may introduce a new product, or profile the company and its plucky leadership. After all, media are good business.

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The exaggerated fears of irrational ecologists have cost us all billions of dollars. Some - like global warming and ozone depletion - are just not true. Others - such as the dangers involved with exposure to dioxin or asbestos - are exaggerated. Sure there are risks. Life itself is risky. The tobacco industry and its decades-long defense of smoking provides the template for fighting back. So we must insist that the onus of proof lies with the would-be regulator or carping critic. And why not out-green the greens? Even the oil or pulp and paper industries can paint themselves in the brightest of green hues as ever-vigilant guardians of nature. Earth Day itself, thanks to a bit of largesse from us, has become a celebration of Eco-Responsibility Inc. After all, the environment is everybody's business, so make sure you are ecologically pure in all your personal habits before you go pointing fingers at nuclear power stations or super-tankers.

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Those opposing corporate policies on labour-shedding or product safety are mostly self-seeking malcontents. Women's organizations, trade unions, consumer groups, human-rights advocates or environmentalists are just 'special interests' involved in partisan pleading. Opponents of corporate activity are either ill-informed (and must be educated), opportunists (and can be bought off and manipulated) or ideologically-inspired radicals (and must be isolated and vilified). The purposes of dialogue with opponents is to buy them off, tie them up in endless consultation, divert their attention to other issues or divide them against themselves. Sometimes it may be useful to change what is inconsequential or purely symbolic.

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The price of progress
Resistance to almost any type of corporate or state activity is an immature failure to draw the connections between our 'way of life' and what is needed to ensure it. This is a very helpful PR strategy in times of undeniable crisis, when an exposé of child-labour conditions has to be explained, a military intervention justified or a damaging report on pesticide poisoning neutralized. If all other forms of obfuscation fail, a good finger-wagging about the 'choices' we all have to make - in favour of car-mad culture, brand-name clothes, cheap food or a stable world order - serve to pull people up short. If we are going to keep the goodies, we shouldn't be shocked over a little spillage of oil here or a bit of exploitation there. Wake up and smell the coffee!

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A useful old chestnut is TINA: 'There is no alternative.' It's a tough job, but somebody has to do it. Let them go on about soft energy, organic agriculture, mass transit, preventive healthcare, consuming less and living more, democracy at work and in the community, fairer taxes, preserving wild places and endangered species, a guaranteed annual income and sustainable development. That's all beside the point when you've got to meet a pay roll and keep your stock price buoyant at the same time. These long-term thinkers are all very well, but let's get practical. TINA helps to discourage critics and leads to a mood of shoulder-shrugging compliance amongst the general populace.

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Mea Culpa
The last resort is to admit guilt. Sure, once upon a time we used to foul rivers, hire child labour in Bangladesh, introduce inadequately tested miracle drugs, use tons of wasteful packaging for our fast-food franchises. But those bad old days are gone. We have seen the light! We are now an environmentally friendly, happy-face company that puts nature and people first. We are generous with the Opera and even give donations to a few responsible environmental organizations. We support a voluntary code of corporate conduct in our industry. We only hope that you feel as good about us as we feel about ourselves!

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This article was originally published in issue 314

New Internationalist Magazine issue 314
Issue 314

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New Internationalist Magazine Issue 436

If you would like to know something about what's actually going on, rather than what people would like you to think was going on, then read the New Internationalist.

– Emma Thompson –

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