In this series regarding public relations (PR) tactics of ‘Managing the Message’ I’ve talked about how some organizations focus is centered on Reaction Avoidance (SEE: Why ‘Managing the Message’ Doesn’t) rather than public interaction. In a Social Media dominated world, this results in the organization always looking manipulative and weak.
In Part II (SEE: Public Relations Techniques That Kill Organizations) I discussed the use of Anti-listening techniques to avoid and limit public discussion of issues that an organization may not want to address. In this article we will discuss more sinister techniques used to by organizations to ‘manage the message.’
Managing the message inherently requires the belief that PR people have God-like powers over the public. Add an organizational executive team that already believes they are Gods and we have the perfect storm of ego and a lack of ethics that lead to the worst PR tactics in business. Under these circumstances we move from passive techniques to manage the message into an aggressive intent to distract and deceive.
There are many examples of aggressive attempts to manage the message and in almost every case there are people in key positions who see themselves as the maker of information and disinformation. These people believed that they have justification to take any step necessary to protect the public image of the organization and/or promote organizational goals, ethical or not. Distraction, withholding information, and deception are the rungs of the ladder that sink an organization into deeper and deeper into the dark side of PR.
Withholding Information and/or blocking information is a tactic of an organization using aggressive and unethical PR tactics. One of the best examples of this is the National Rifle Association (NRA.) The NRA seems to only care about public opinion when the polls tend to support its position, but that doesn’t stop them from trying to manipulating public opinion.
In 1996, the NRA worked with Arkansas Representative Jay Dickey (R) to cut $2.6 million from the budget of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and added the wording the appropriations bill that restricted the CDC from any research that would “advocate or promote gun control.” $2.6 million is what the CDC had spent in the prior year on gun-related research. The 104th Republican-controlled Congress passed it into law and it has restricted the CDC from gun-related research since 1996. (¹)
The NRA worked with Kansas Representative Todd Tiahrt (R) in 2003, to forbid the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) from collecting statistics on gun injuries and deaths. In 2011, the NRA worked with Representative Denny Rehberg (R) of Montana to prevent the National Institutes of Health (NIH) from funding any research that contradicted or challenged pro-NRA positions. (²)(³)
BP: What Leak?
Another example of withholding information occurred in the summer of 2010 when the BP leased oil rig, Deepwater Horizon caught fire and exploded in the Gulf of Mexico.
In the days after the complete loss of the rig, BP PR tactics included denial of an oil leak at the wellhead, acknowledging a small amount of oil leakage, and finally admitting larger and larger amounts of leaking oil that still underestimated the amount of actual oil spilled. At one point BP withhold live video of the oil spill at the wellhead.
BP’s public position was that until anyone could prove otherwise, they could deny any significant oil spill. BP’s ‘prove it’ stance forced public media to accept BP’s estimates until overwhelming evidence piled up against the company. Once it did, BP’s public image was in tatters. No one believed anything CEO Tony Hayward or BP said.
‘Armstronging’ the Public
Technically the act of withholding information falls into the category of deception and distraction, although an organization that is consciously attempting to deceive or distract the public is flirting with possible criminal and/or civil charges. While some organizations (or even some people) might be under the belief that their unethical acts will never be discovered, some organizations may simply be trying to delay or soften a negative issue by forcing the public to learn the details over a period of days, weeks, months, or years. Yet, many times the PR tactics used by an organization is simply a lack of executive ethics rather than a conscious choice.
The most recent high-profile example this is the Lance Armstrong fiasco. The world now knows that Lance Armstrong used illegal performance enhancing drugs and techniques during his reign as Bicycling King, but through denial and aggressive legal means he managed to make most people believe he was innocent. Now he admits he lied, but it is far enough past his glory days that it may not have the impact it would have at the time he was active in the sport. Still, who wants to be Lance Armstrong now? No one.
The problem with managing the message is that Social Media has stolen power away from the PR people. An organization’s public image consists of the support and enthusiasm of an elusive mass of connected people, who can smell manipulation and love to expose unethical acts of people with more money than sense. On the other hand, Social Media readily responds to respect and honesty, which is not familiar territory to some older business men. As we move deeper into the Social Media Age, the business world will see a new PR model that listens more, talks less, is more humble and less arrogant, loves interaction and rejects domination.