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PR.ocess or PR.opaganda: a battle for the truth

The multi-billion dollar industry of Public Relations (PR) is divided between those who use it for genuine democratic exchange, and those who use it for commercial propaganda. There are precious few promoters of the former and far too many pushing the latter.

The relationship between truth and lies is one we must negotiate every day. Generally, it comes down to who tells us what. The profession of Public Relations deals in truth and lies as commodities, less a set of objective parameters, more like the tradeable functions of a multi-billion dollar industry. Circling truth and lies is PR and there is good PR and there is bad PR. Knowing the difference and undermining the negatives may well define the coming period in global affairs.

The good stuff we might call PR.ocess because it helps inform and enlighten by ensuring varied points in a debate are communicated. It helps develop the democratic process. Then there is the PR we might call PR.opaganda. This is the PR purveyed by those who chase dollars not values, who will communicate whatever lies their paymasters require. There are precious few of those promoting the former and far too many pushing the latter.

What is to be done about the enduring power of PR.opaganda? On one level, of course, it is important to defend the truth and of those who promote it. This needs to be driven by vigilant and informed stakeholders and, as such, a free and high quality media is vital as an infrastructure to encourage those highly engaged stakeholders.

But, such an approach risks being reactive and essentially passive. It smacks of waiting to be fed by those who have an interest in keeping us hungry. The battle to stamp out PR.opaganda needs an alternative, a pro-active counter-force. What's needed is a certain type of PR, one that comes from the voices of those who have not the most to lose, or the most to pay, but the most to gain and the most to say. This is PR that comes from the bottom layers, from those suffering the poverty, the violence, the violations.

This is, almost by definition, not easy. Voices may need to be heard, but they have no resources with which to compete with the pushers of PR.opaganda. For example, the majority of hapless populations held under the thumb of Gaddafi's or Assad's manic regimes are now known to have much to say and do about their predicament, yet could not be literally heard or recognised until they took to the streets and took up the fight. While the Libyan dictator, for instance, could easily afford to consider paying the US-based Monitor Group some $US3.5 million to raise his image stakes in the west, his victims were left to consider their options and had none other than to get physical.

Indeed in Libya and elsewhere across the Arab world, a PR war is on. The struggle to engender good PR is visibly under way in the Arab Spring. While Tunisia and Egypt found some initial success by shocking those in power with their alacrity and precocity, the much vaunted spring seems to have inevitably settled into a winter weather pattern in Egypt, Libya and Syria, Bahrain and Iran, much to the horror of those who have risked and perhaps given their lives for change, PR.opaganda appears to be holding on.

Social media has played its part. But, for all the wide-eyed wonder at how internet-based platforms have been enlisted to help organise and publicise the various freedom movements, international media of the traditional kind has struggled to comprehend and interpret the movements' directions and ideas. While the now standard triple act of using Facebook to announce protest events, Twitter to manage real-time logistics and YouTube to display the results has not been without some success, traditional or news media has been largely ignored and the mainstream news consumer has floundered in his or her attempts to understand the Arab Spring and its implications.

Moreover, socmed has been too easily short-circuited by dictators shutting down phone networks and internet servers, often with the collusion or tacit agreement of the major corporations that own these facilities or by using the very accessibility and openness of social media to intimidate the movement's members, again with corporate interests playing a part.

There are ways, of course, of overcoming internet shut-downs and security breaches by rapidly morphing new servers. Yet, there is a problem in communication terms. The very immediacy, volume and variety characteristic of internet news output actually undermines a clear understanding of a given movement, frustrating understanding and providing few shapes around which those not in day-to-day contact with a movement as such, can gain some sense of a narrative.

When news becomes chopped up into seemingly unrelated events, surges of power and counter power against a backdrop of chaos, the reaction of the general public, invariably, is to suffer an attention-fade. By now the on-going freedom struggles across the Middle East have become, some six months later, news sideshows and have been shuffled away from the centre public sphere where they began and deserve to be, to the edges of diplomatic chin-wagging, commentary and analysis – that is, into a much more rarefied and less public space in global consciousness.

Standard media is trained to spot smoke and find the fires. Social media has made this easier to do, but the depth of analysis that we should expect has become diminished without a pro-active media output to guide media in its story-telling (which is always what even news media does when it works best). It's all stark headlines and dramatic grainy mobile-phone images, without much actual direction. Without the substance to grab not just the attention but the brain cells of a globalised public - more intelligent and willing to engage than is often portrayed -any movement will falter. There's no victory in generating news media for those looking for an extension of an adolescent action flic rather than that which will inform, inspire and mobilise globally.

The negative effect is doubled by the role played by the PR.opaganda of the incumbent powers, who are able to use the vacuums in communication and their generally more sophisticated relationships with mainstream media to spin out various lies and diversions. The common casting of Arab democracy protests as 'violent uprisings' in even liberal and leftist media is just one example of the presence of a void into which rubbish can be fed, giving media the copy it needs – any copy will do – at a time of great demand, confusion and fast-moving news.

For freedom movements across the Middle East, indeed for human rights and social justice issues everywhere, a concerted traditional media strategy should therefore be de rigueur. This is the coal-face of PR.ocess, acting as a pro-active narrative force to counteract the PR.opaganda of despotic power. It is clear that the power of communicating a compelling news narrative is not sufficiently prioritised among these freedom movements, who perhaps relied too much on the apparent power of social media and have, as a result, debilitated their own ability to generate international attention. They have a lot on their minds, no doubt, but PR.ocess should surely be added to the freedom fighter's strategic quiver.

About the author

James Rose is a media advisor who has worked with various freedom movements, such as the Movement for Democratic Change in Zimbabwe and the Burmese pro-democracy government-in-exile. He blogs here.


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