Evolving Thoughts

For my sins, I was once a public relations guy, for an educational institution, and I held positions roughly in that domain (e.g., as public communications manager for a medical research institute, although I managed the means not the message) for the bulk of my professional life until I finally took up a position as an academic philosopher four years ago. It was not my vocation, I hasten to add, but the way I supported my book habit and fondness for eating and feeding my family.

I have been asked to address a science communication class on the failure of science to communicate to the public, and that led me to reflect upon my former life in the dark side. I have come to this conclusion: the greatest tragedy of public polity, in science and without, in the democratic nations, one that looks very likely to me to be the major proximal cause of the ultimate failure of democracy, is the invention of public relations.

It’s worth noting that before the second world war, what we now call public relations was called propaganda: that which is propagated (to the audience). Goebbels‘ Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda was, in effect, a public relations campaign designed to ensure not that the audience was enlightened, but the contrary. Propaganda, and modern public relations, is fundamentally about changing attitudes, not informing.

And moreover, it is about changing attitudes not informing people, despite what the erstwhile founder of modern PR, Edward Bernays, said. From the very beginning, including the work done by Bernays himself, public relations has deliberately worked to promote products that were known to be unsafe or unhealthy, such as tobacco. For that reason the public relations “official” body, the Public Relations Society of America, was formed in 1948 and immediately failed to take action on unethical behaviours.

The history of propaganda is often separated from that of public relations, due in no small part to the efforts of public relations professionals writing their “history”, but an unbiassed view sees the identity immediately. And from the start, PR worked against science, especially medical science. Here is a list of the use of PR to defend the indefensible, which I quote in the indented parts:

(1) Ketchum and Pesticides

(2) Morgan and Myers and dairy products

(3) Dupont

(4) Beef Council and National Dairy Board (this one, against Jeremy Rifkin, no friend to science himself, is more an example of squashing public criticism)

(5) Other dirty techniques:

Video news releases, indistinguishable from genuine news, distributed to broadcast stations around the world, without attribution or disclaimer. Organizing of supposedly ?grassroots? citizen campaigns and lobbyists controlled by the corporate interests that pay the bills. One example was Philip Morris? ?National Smokers Alliance?; another was Playboy and Penthouse?s formation of ?Americans for Constitutional Freedom? to undermine the work of former Attorney General Ed Meese?s Pornography Commission.

(6) Tobacco Industry (from Bernays in the 1930s onwards):

Dirty PR has long been refined in the tobacco industry. The American Tobacco Company used PR to develop a new market ? American women ? for its Lucky Strike brand. PR agents were hired to used spurious data to show that doctors preferred Luckies as the ?less irritating brand?, featuring Metropolitan opera stars (their voices seemingly unaffected by smoking), and that smoking helped women to be beautiful (playing on women?s fears about their weight), and, using Freudian analysis, promoting the idea that cigarettes were a symbol of female liberation and sexuality. An industry sponsored ?National Smokers Alliance? was formed, reaching 3 million members by 1995. Essentially it is a way of mobilizing tobacco?s victims to protect tobacco?s profits. Smokers are urged to stand up for their rights; anti-smokers are called anti-Americans.

Revelations of the connection between smoking and cancer appeared from 1952 onwards. The industry responded by campaigns that indirectly undermined the health arguments, creating a false sense of security by seeming to favor independent research and cooperation with public officials, by confusing the public as to what was true, what was dangerous, and what was not, and advocating the public’s right to smoke. They worked to refine, undermine and neutralize information coming from the scientific and medical community. The industry?s association Tobacco Institute Research Committee (later renamed the Council for Tobacco Research), managed to attract a respected scientist to be its director. From its research library, the TIRC selected any studies with ambiguous findings, put these into a single book, and called it the ?Scientific Perspective? on the smoking controversy. Only 10% of TIRC?s budget was spent on research projects.

In California, Philip Morris gave half a million dollars to a PR firm, Dolphin, to set up a front group called ?Californians for Statewide Smoking Restrictions.? Using this deceptive title, the NSA gathered signatures to put a referendum on the California ballot in 1994, which presented itself as in favor of smoking restrictions, in order to dupe voters, since in reality it would have undermined 270 existing restrictions. But the source of funding was discovered in time, and the attempt failed.

(7) Nuclear Power

(8) Spies for Hire

Examples include the use of private detective agencies by businesses, to infiltrate trade unions in the early days of the labor movement. … In 1980 Nestle established the Nestle Coordination Center for Nutrition. Its tactic was ?divide and rule?. For example, the campaign against Nestle included man teachers, represented by the National Education Association. So the Nestle Center supported the NEA?s smaller, conservative rival, the American Federation of Teachers. Nestle also worked on the United Methodists to win over a part of the broadly-based Church movement against Nestle. …

(9) Divide and Conquer

Many corporations have had reason to fear the growth of grassroots movements that aim to curb environmental and health risks. We can learn from the strategies of corporate response, which is usually to hire large PR companies to fight on their behalf.

(9) Poisoning the Grassroots

Astroturfing, and so on.

In every case and many more, it is worth noting that PR is fundamentally a corporatist activity. It enables the use of the greater funding of corporations, governments and, as the Swiftboating campaign against Kerry, itself run by a PR firm, political parties with deep pockets. PR makes people comfortable when corporate entities do whatever they want to, that is all.

Another aspect of PR that is fundamentally opposed to the spread of information is “spin”. This is a technique of saying only those aspects of an issue that are favourable to the campaign goals, ignoring and deprecating that which is unfavourable. This means that the PR campaigns have manufactured doubt about such science consensus as anthropic global warming, tobacco’s role in disease, the effects of oil spills on wildlife and the effects of drilling and mining, on the value of universal healthcare (to serve the interests of the medical insurance industry), and so on.

Truth is irrelevant to PR. It is in its own way a very postmodern or relativistic enterprise, often appealing to claims that truth is constructed, or that opposing views are merely perspectives (a tactic best developed by creationists). What is good for Exxon is good for the world, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding. So spin it for all it’s worth.

PR professionals are often fond of claiming that they understand communication well. I attended a world congress of public relations in Melbourne back in the 1980s. The keynote speaker, a PR executive, gave his “theory” of communication, and it was childish and naive and, basically, stupid. PR is not about communication at all. It’s about manipulating feelings. It’s closer to advertising than to journalism. Which makes it all the more worrying that modern journalism is being replaced, rather rapidly, with press release media. Journalism no longer does anything much like investigation, for business reasons, forcing them to simply reprint the press releases or use the PR video. Democracy, which relies on a free and independent press, is now run by what I call a”lobbocracy”, by special interests lobby groups via PR.

All this is a prelude to the following question: how can we communicate science to the public debate, so that informed decisions can be made? One such answer is that of the science communication community, who often take up the notion of framing one’s communication to be comprehensible and receiveable by the audience. The basic idea is that by framing your message suitably, by keeping on message and putting the issues in terms that journalists and the lay public are capable of processing, you can communicate enough to get a foundational discussion going.

But if I am right about the state of public communication channels – the media, publishing, the public polity debate and so on, all one can hope to achieve is to change attitudes, because the channels don’t permit the transmission of information. In other words, the persistence of PR has made everything PR. So while I do not think, with the critics of framing here on Science Blogs, that framing is just another word for “spin”, since it simply isn’t (all communication has to be framed to some degree, as any teacher can tell you), the state in which we try to frame our messages reduces everything to spin anyway.

I don’t have a solution to this. Media ownership has become corporate, and independent means of communication, including the Web 2.0, are basically drinking from the PR hose anyway. I suspect there is no single set of solutions to it, but just to do what got science across in the beginning anyway: education, and repetition of the facts from credible sources. It is my view that enough people actually want to know more than the gee-whiz gimcrackery of popular science magazines, and that if you make the information available in a proper manner, some will pick it up. All we can hope is that there is a threshold, a tipping point, within our reach that will enable us to once again try to have an informed and critical society. Maybe then, we can try being democratic once more.


  1. #1 bigTom
    August 31, 2008

    I think this is a very important topic. Particularly so as increasingly effective means are being discovered, and exploited by those with commercial or political agendas. The approach of trying to instill some professional ethics into the profession is likely to meet up with only limited success. I think we need to bolster the defenses, by teaching the techniques to the general public, so that they can recognize when they are being subtly manipulated and counter the effects. Unless we make the owners manual for the IRRATIONAL human brain available to the majority of the population, the future of democracy looks pretty dim.

  2. #2 Scott Belyea
    August 31, 2008

    I make no pretense as being anything close to an expert in the area, but a couple of things strike me about this intriguing post.

    I find it a bit overheated and lacking in the recognition that PR/spin/propaganda are not new or recent – they’ve been with us forever. The labels may be recent; the goals and approaches are not. To take a quick example or three that come to mind …

    * Newspaper ads and posters produced by shipping/transport companies and equipment suppliers during the two North American 19C gold rushes are excellent examples of PR and spin about how easy they could make both your journey to the gold fields and your activities there which would probably result in a sizable fortune.

    * British navy recruitment posters during the Napoleonic wars are a combination of PR/spin about the delights of a life at sea combined with anti-French propaganda.

    * Muslim desecration of the Holy Places and the mass slaughter of pilgrims before and during the Crusades? Mostly propaganda. When combined with effective PR/spin from church and secular leaders, many were fired up and set out for the Holy Land. Thousands died.

    * Why is Greenland called that? Historians disagree, but there may well be a pretty good PR component to the name. Hard to say, though; after all, Eric the Red was a Norse of a different colour.

    There are some things that have changed recently and radically that perhaps are not given enough prominence in the post. The # of info channels available and easier/faster communication contribute to so-called “information overload” and over-valuing short clear statements which require little or no thought. Also, I believe that the Internet has contributed to the pernicious idea that anyone’s opinion is as valid as anyone else’s. Such things help to construct an environment in which the less savoury aspects of PR/spin can flourish.

    I don’t have an answer either. Certainly parents and schools have an important role to play in helping children not to become cynical (which is easy) but rather appropriately skeptical (which is considerably tougher).

    What won’t help are the occasional outbreaks of heaving and thrashing about “framing” vs. “spin” and similar bits of silliness. Anyone who gives thought about how to communicate effectively to a particular type of audience is engaged in framing whether they like the term or not.

    In fact, the terms framing, spin, and propaganda could be put on a scale. I use framing for effective communication; you spin the issues; he descends to propaganda.

  3. #3 Henry Gee
    August 31, 2008

    John, whereas I think you have a pint (I meant ‘point’, but it’s that time of day) one should not be tempted to go overboard. Sure, all news outlets have ‘spin’, but the people that one has to convince are the news editors, who see science as a specialty activity rather like fashion or gardening — that is, not something that’s central to the fabric of the nation, such as basketball or the sex lives of senators.

    The second point (and I know I’m going to get flamed for this) is that PR is often seen as a low-grade activity, especially about science. Sometimes it never enters the heads of PR people that science PR has an absolute requirement for people with experience of both science and writing.

  4. #4 Greg
    August 31, 2008

    Wanna see something interesting and on topic? Check out the video provided at the address below. It shows the potential of communication and the vulnerability of the human brain. When you think of the intelligence of the average US citizen it is obvious how effective communication can change attitudes. We are designed to be manipulated.


    Kind of spooky really. Very well done video

  5. #5 Hank Campbell
    August 31, 2008

    As unfortunate as spin is, framing is no different. To most scientists who do it and advocate it, it is just putting their agenda in the most positive possible light so that any thinking person would see the wisdom of their position. Advertising people who believe in what they do feel the exact same way about framing/spin/PR/propaganda.

    A few years ago when framing started to catch fire as a valid tool in the science community, I was aghast. It’s the worst possible idea and will put all scientists in the political/ideological shill category.

    Independent media will always be around. If people don’t have corporate honchos they need to report to, quotas to meet or contracts they had to sign to be able to write for a media company, they are more likely to stick to clean science and away from what sells to the marketplace.

  6. #6 gyokusai
    August 31, 2008

    Well that it’s been handled that way throughout history doesn’t make it any better today. I remember vaguely we’re somehow supposed to be proud of our achievements, in terms of democracy and the information age and such.

    John’s article is spot-on. I’m a copy-writer, and I’ve always managed to keep it decent. I don’t lie. I might focus on certain things and downplay others. I’m not good at leaving out important things which are, like, more on the negative side, so some clashes ensued with customers. Which I, marvelously, always won, and the product sold just fine. Even better. But I also did some PR work, not much, and that’s where I couldn’t help but dirty myself.

    It’s not that the respective marketing divisions involved necessarily wanted to give it a spin, or even had to; the (technical, technical/dental) products were truly outstanding, and there were no reasons involved whatsoever conducive to playing foul. What made it automatically “dirty” was a) the rigid form these pieces are supposed to be delivered by newspaper and magazine editors to have a chance of being published at all, a form/format which twists your arm into giving it spin if you want it or not; b) the publication of such PR releases, and even full-fledged “interviews,” in such a form as to be undistinguishable from journalistic work; c) the win-win sitch involved since a marketing division needs only pay the copy or PR writer–which is decent money, sure, but compare that to running an ad in about a dozen newspapers or magazines–and the newspaper or magazine needs to pay, well, nobody, and for that it gets its space filled up and maybe later can even pocket some advertising money into the bargain.

    Now try to get a decent, balanced, and informative essay published about the same topic, about the same piece of innovative technology. No way. If newspapers and magazines had to pay for it, they’re not interested. Hey, they have their own underpaid work force to care for, haven’t they. If they don’t have to pay for it, they suddenly remember to become professionals and to distrust such pieces as “corporate spin,” moreover, heck, it doesn’t have a format that fits anywhere, and with who’s name should it be signed anyway, it can’t have none, and it can’t have an out-house one, and dang, that’s getting complicated. Say, lets just leave it until it gets smart and finds its way into the trash.

    What can I say.


  7. #7 John S. Wilkins
    August 31, 2008

    Scott and Henry, this is not, I believe, overheated. It is the outcome of over thirty years experience with the media, advertising, marketing and public relations. Long ago I realised that this was about feelings rather than information. In the context of framing, which I think is at least in principle a very good thing, it means that framing is not a deep solution to the problems of getting people to think scientifically.

    As to my not realising this is ancient; for gods’ sakes read the piece. I even say that it was propaganda before the war, and the mere fact that people have been trying to change attitudes since there was any kind of media doesn’t change the fact that post-WW2 we have institutionalised an industry that has as its sole justification making people happy with what corporate entities want to do anyway. None of the so-called “ethical” PR (where corporate entities engage with their “constituents” in a two way dialogue) have had the slightest effect on PR in general.

    Mark Twain, himself a newspaperman, once said that he wouldn’t hang a dog on a newspaper report. That was when journalists occasionally reported facts. These days we put people in prison for five years and spin it as protecting ourselves from terrorists. And of course it turns out the media dropped the ball until it was too late while the Bush Administration played talking points memos – in other words, PR.

  8. #8 Laelaps
    August 31, 2008

    This is in almost no way related, but after picking up Evolution for John Doe (1925) today I was surprised how many of the statements in it echo those that we’re still trying to get the public to understand. One of the most shocking bits is where the author says how the newspapers are always claiming that this or that scientific idea has been overturned, something that crops up all too frequently in recycled PR reports. How little things have changed…

  9. #9 Eamon Knight
    August 31, 2008

    In my darker moments, I sometimes feel that the prospect of a critically thinking, mostly-rational (at least where it counts), knowledgable populace is an impossible goal; that the best we can hope for is to make sure the propagandists are driven by rational and humane considerations, and that the rest can therefore be manipulated into courses of action that are at least benign.

    IOW: the Noble Lie strategy. Which is a fucking cynical prescription for running a society.

  10. #10 Jim Harrison
    August 31, 2008

    Science has always been a minority operation. Especially since the invention of movable type, it has been absolutely essential to isolate scientific discourse from the immense river of dreck that is the general conversation of mankind. Peer review and credentialism get a lot of grief from various quarters, and nobody–certainly not the relatively junior members of research teams!–thinks that scientific institutions are immune to abuse; but some sort of insulation is needed to protect the wiring of the machine. The trick is to get the public to pay for science even though they don’t know what they are buying. How do you do that without deception? After all, most folks aren’t turned off by science because they don’t know what it does. If they knew what was involved in research, they’d really be down on it because science really is deadly dull except to those for whom it is absolutely fascinating. Maybe what we need is something analogous to white magic and white lies–white PR.

  11. #11 Henry
    September 1, 2008

    Yes, chaps, but what is to be done?

  12. #12 Joseph j7uy5
    September 1, 2008

    One of the great ironies in the world is that PR often is used to undermine science. As it becomes more firmly grounded in scientifically-based methods, it becomes even more effective. That is, the more scientific it is, the more it destroys science.

    Perhaps the first scientist to be involved in this dubious practice was none other than Sigmund Freud. This was documented by the BBC in The Engineering of Consent, which was part of their series, “The Century of the Self.” It is available on Google Video. I would recommend watching the whole series, for anyone who doubts the seriousness of this issue.

    I found it to be rather disturbing.

  13. #13 Alethea
    September 1, 2008

    I think you’re spot on, John.

    I have wondered about what I hated so viscerally about selling anything: myself, my research, collecting funds for the heart association as a kid. It’s a necessary skill, to defend your viewpoint and try to convert others to it, but it’s all about persuasion through technique and not about persuasion by the revelation of a dispassionate truth.

    Humans can be so disappointing!

    Sales, “framing”, grant-writing – are indeed fundamentally about communication. The effective versions thereof appeal to something irrational in us – an audience “likes” or “is interested” in your message – or it does not, in which case the communication was ineffective. It all gets down to how well you can seduce your targets (I wanted to write victims, but we’re usually quite willing).

    For me, a true democracy is one that makes sure its citizens are sufficiently well-educated to know that there are other ways to become informed outside of passively swallowing the production of a corporate media source, and it gives them access to any of those alternative sources they wish to consult. Including, of course, blogs.

  14. #14 John S. Wilkins
    September 1, 2008

    Yes, chaps, but what is to be done?

    Don’t know, Henry. I think that changing the way we educate is the only solution, but that takes political will, and that is lacking for the simple reason that no political party actually wants a critical population.

    We presently (at lest so far as I can tell in Australia and other nations I can find out about) teach too much “data” and too little critical thinking. The best way to engage in science is continuous actual hands on stuff, rather than making passing a matter of memorising data. The first five years of education are crucial, in my view. Letting kids set off the occasional explosion, or do things that are interesting and make the math and data hang off that, rather than taking it data first, is crucial. Also, teaching kids how to think critically (and not merely how to learn to pass critical thinking classes) so that teachers can be challenged. However, my experience is that this is in fact inhibited in schools most of the time.

    The media are not the solution, they are the problem. They won’t improve until a population of critical and motivated individuals insists upon it. Huxley’s Working Man’s Lectures is an instance of the popularity of knowledge – perhaps we can do something like that now, outside the media.

  15. #15 Thony C.
    September 1, 2008

    We presently (at lest so far as I can tell in Australia and other nations I can find out about) teach too much “data” and too little critical thinking.

    I couldn’t agree more. In recent years I have often come across school kids being punished for “disruptive behaviour” basically because they indulged in critical thinking instead of just swallowing the pre-digested pap that the teacher served up. Don’t question the “facts”, don’t contradict the teacher, don’t think for yourself, just learn the “facts” and regurgitate them on demand and you will be awarded with an entry ticket to life.

    Am I a grouchy, old, cynical bastard with a lousy opinion of our education system? Yep! But that still don’t make what I say wrong!

  16. #16 Alan Kellogg
    September 1, 2008

    Our children are failing not despite what teachers do, but because of what teachers do. Our children are failing because our educators use an educational philosophy based on ideas regarding human beings that are flat out wrong and based on bigotry and bias. Our educational system is designed and implemented to discourage critical thought and individual initiative. Most teachers do indeed work hard, at teaching the wrong thing.

    I’ve got ideas regarding educational reform, but this isn’t the place to expound on them. I’ll get something up at my place later.

  17. #17 Ian H Spedding FCD
    September 2, 2008

    Isn’t the decline in the popularity of smoking evidence that, regardless of massive PR campaigns, scientific evidence can carry the day given sufficient time?

  18. #18 c.glen
    September 3, 2008

    How about this as a general rule of thumb:

    1. If it needs propaganda/PR, it’s probably a bad thing.

    2. If it needs propaganda/PR merely to be noticed amongst the cacophony of well funded propaganda/PR for essentially bad things, then it might be actually be a good thing.

  19. #19 J. J. Ramsey
    September 3, 2008

    Ian H Spedding FCD: “Isn’t the decline in the popularity of smoking evidence that, regardless of massive PR campaigns, scientific evidence can carry the day given sufficient time?”

    But it wasn’t the evidence alone that did it. There has been–and still is–a campaign of PSAs to discourage smoking, some using celebrities, like the guy who played Hamilton Berger on Perry Mason who was dying of lung cancer, some using a gross-out approach, like the woman smoking through her throat, and so on. There was quite a bit of, um, framing involved.

  20. #20 B
    September 5, 2008

    This post was a serious waste of your time and anyone that was subjected to reading it.

    It is a shame that your failed career in public relations has forced you to write so poorly against the field.

    Best of luck in future endeavors…

  21. #21 AF
    September 5, 2008

    Very insightful post. I have developed the concept for an alternative, albeit somewhat absurd, solution. The model for this solution is the catholic church: it has been able to send a consistent message, with little to no ambiguity and unquestioned following, over a long period of time. Nobody could say, “well that’s just one perspective.” No. The church is right, and you are wrong.

    I therefore have suggested the appointment of a “science pope,” along with an institution devoted to (a) confirming scientific findings, and (b) communicating said findings. This institution would have to, of course, only accept things as true after rigorous review, likely decades after they are accepted in the community. This will keep trust in the institution, and enable a consistent message. While it may not foster the sense of free thinking we scientists love, it may be more important for people to understand the ideas of the community than the context for those ideas.

    As for the first science pope, I like Kip Thorne, but I should not be the one to choose.

  22. #22 Dude
    September 9, 2008

    We are taught to sacrifice individuality for the “greater good” of some “higher purpose” which ends up as an encouragement to jump on the latest bandwagon not really in our best interest either for self or environment. We have lost the drive and selfishness that are catalysts for defending ourselves against subtle manipulations. We are conditioned to conformity and silence but this is not like the past was. People are crawling out of caves at an alarming rate, as Plato had a story about that or something. It would be difficult to launch a PR war against PR companies so constructively informing just one goes further than the latest “Freedom Campaign- Impeach Bush” society you could join. Encouraging individuality and voicing an unpopular view goes further to spur debate than agreement. I like to stir people up and take things in unpopular directions (maturely, of course) to get others to think rather than trying to find out who they agree with more. This is the major flaw of online communication- when “repeaters” lurk amongst us regurgitating O’reilly’s topics or views.

  23. #23 Dood
    September 9, 2008

    PR is the modern form of persuasion, just with compartmentalized business titles. We have always had PR, just now they petition journalists and pitch spun versions of facts that the client companies pay them to solicit. We may evolve, but our machinations do as well. Regressive learning allows the observance of patterns or aspects of community constantly churning out “new” or “evolved” things which are the same conceptually just with new definitions. Then you have to go to college to learn glossary terms and sound smart while learning the latest interface necessities serving as the channel for profit-driven technology which we conformed like we do those following our steps. This allows preying upon our youthful college or high-school kids to create the illusion of deficiency in intellect or character. Many of the poorer or naive students give up quickly out of boredom to fill the service jobs and spend all their money on fads and never learning independence, confidence in self, or esteem as the barrage of degrading ads have them playing catch up just as the next model for cool is endorsed by a hyped-up version of what they aren’t. Informing the masses is useless unless enough people care about their neighbors and neighborhoods for what matters -not competing for most expensive car/ house – but for the people in them. We must band together not based on issues or weekly topics to divide, but under the notion that screwing with our heads is not to be dismissed as conspiracist or pseudo-science any longer and rather than complaining about what bothers us, bolster the defenses of yourself and others regardless of what TV tells us. A start would be to refuse to buy any marketed product on any station or ad and go truly green and independent by supporting less fortunate businesses looking for this edge over the manipulation brands.

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