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Post No.: 0538pr


Furrywisepuppy says:


‘Public relations’ (PR) is said to be controlled internally by a company or its agents, whilst ‘publicity’ is said to be not directly controlled by the party that a news story concerns. The goal of PR is to generate earned media or media that’s created by external parties, including journalists or customers i.e. publicity, such as through reviews or word-of-mouth conversations. Publicity is thus an aspect of PR.


For the sake of completion, paid media is media that’s created internally but depends on external channels, such as traditional TV or radio advertising, sponsorships, online search advertising or social network advertising. And owned media is media that’s created internally and presented on channels that a company or its agents control, such as press releases, the company’s own website or in-store displays.


What’s said through free (or ‘free’) publicity may seem generally more trustworthy than what’s said through transparently paid-for advertising – but this assumption is liable to errors. Some publicity is actually indirectly paid for by virtue of hiring a PR firm to stoke up some publicity for an individual, an organisation or its products or interests. Regardless of whether some PR or publicity has been contrived, opportunistic or spontaneous – most PR and publicity drives nowadays are as carefully managed and manipulated as other marketing methods.


Furthermore, whereas advertising is regulated by advertising standards authorities (they can at least refer their findings to trading standards or communications regulation bodies, who have the legal fangs that can bite) – there are currently no such regulations covering claims made by journalists, reviewers or the views made by guest experts, ‘experts’ or celebrities. So beware of any claims perpetuated by PR that aren’t explicitly and exactly stated as worded on the packaging or advertising materials of products. The exact wordings and images on adverts must conform to advertising standards but the claims made through PR do not.


For instance, a firm’s PR may perpetuate the claim that ‘fish oils improve intelligence’ yet advertising standards won’t allow such unproven claims to be stated on the packaging of fish oil capsules. Or a firm’s PR may claim that glucosamine is good for the joints yet the only claims allowed on the packaging, which is regulated, of glucosamine tablets is ‘glucosamine is found in cartilage’ which isn’t saying the exact same thing (otherwise eating hair will definitely make one grow more fuzzy hair(!) It doesn’t always work like that).


The words of columnists in newspapers fall into this area of unregulated PR. Editorials and columns don’t even have to follow journalistic standards because they are about expressing personal opinions, unlike reporters producing reportage, who must try their utmost to report the facts. (It’s crucial to note though that journalistic ethics and standards are self-regulated, and aren’t externally and independently regulated like advertising standards are; in the UK at least.)


So – prohibited from labelling products with specific medicinal claims unless those products are submitted to a critical licensing process and proven – manufacturers and marketing/PR agencies resort to things like celebrity/influencer endorsements, free pseudo-medical literature and press campaigns that can result in the spread of uncritically promoted features in wide-circulation newspapers, magazines, TV, radio, blogs, podcasts and social media coverage. So anyone who’s giving their testimonials or endorsements may not be as independent as we may presume they are. PR pieces may appear spontaneous, unscripted, natural and therefore honest – but PR can be far less trustworthy than advertising and what something says on the packaging, due to under-regulation.


Social media influencers must nowadays explicitly declare on their posts and videos that an advert is an advert if they’re getting paid to promote something (whether in cash or in-kind), and will therefore have to comply with advertising standards. But many still fail to declare this so you’ve got to be cautious when trusting the claims, presented data, testimonials, etc. of those who are ultimately trying to sell you something and/or make you believe in something – they could be lies, fabrications, bunkum, inconclusive claims presented as conclusive, or hoaxes, for instance. (Those who are being paid to promote something might not even themselves know that what they’re promoting is a deliberate hoax sometimes, but they evidently don’t care about their masses of followers to check (despite the ‘love’ they apparently express to them) because all they care about are the $$$ signs.)


Hullabaloo and hyped-up publicity about an upcoming scientific study can set up expectations, primes, and in turn the placebo and Hawthorne effects (or observer effects) in the minds of the test subjects, which will potentially affect the results of such a study – particularly any data that is self-reported.


‘Demand characteristics’ are similar to the Hawthorne effect but instead of modifying one’s behaviour for being watched, one modifies one’s behaviour for knowing what the experiment is about. This is why scientists try to never directly tell participants what they’re actually testing for in psychology experiments so that the participants’ guards are lowered for the things that are really being tested for hence they’ll hopefully behave more naturally in these areas (e.g. what looks like an experiment about exercise levels is actually an experiment about how much food the participants will consume during the lunch break afterwards). Experiments often need to be quite clever and sneaky in their design; within ethical constraints.


The interference can be even more direct – not all but a substantial amount of survey data reported in the media is totally made up! 82.1% of it in fact! (Not really – that figure was just made up and it was as easy as that to make something up!) Large PR and media companies run our cultures by spinning or distorting the world of information and facts that are fed to us – most of the BS that people believe in this world probably comes from the PR industry, and then from social media when people spread these sown messages wider. What’s on social media, TV, magazines, radio, etc. has a huge influence on our culture and therefore on us, even to the point of some people taking ‘structured-reality TV’ shows seriously, for instance. (Scenes are often deliberately staged to generate artificial drama because people like watching conflicts and seeing others fail. It’s contrived and exaggerated, yet some people take it as a literal guide on how to live, and then it becomes a downward cultural vicious cycle as life imitates entertainment.) Even doctors with no conflicts of interest regarding what treatments they’ll recommend to their patients will be influenced by the media, because they’re human too.


PR firms frequently partake in political lobbying as well. The media and government go hand-in-hand because of a media company owners’ political leanings and the need for politicians to secure favourable publicity in order to assist their election campaigns. The mass media, advertising and PR firms, cranks and corporate lobby groups – they hold a lot of power over the general public’s purchasing decisions, beliefs and culture. The bottom line is that uncritically relying on these sources for one’s education or for what one believes or trusts in can be risky.


It’s often the side who funds and coordinates their media campaign the best, with emotive fears, aspirational hopes and/or stirring rallying calls, who’ll win regardless of the truth. (Well humans didn’t evolve to tell or seek the truth as much as evolve to try to survive and reproduce, and deception is a commonly successful strategy in terms of both natural and sexual selection; and this is true not just for humans but for other animals, plants and perhaps even microorganisms too.) Enough of us are susceptible to the manipulation techniques that are increasingly being perfected by media, marketing and PR firms or in-house PR departments. So the side that exploits our instincts and biases the best will tend to win, regardless of what the truth is.


Media-trained and charismatic leaders or faces of a campaign (purportedly) ‘fighting for the people’ or ‘fighting against the system’ help too. A well-funded and coordinated PR team can even beat a disparate group of independents all saying the same thing – even though independents, if they all concur with each other, should collectively create a more credible voice than a large, coordinated and self-interested group; all else being equal. And due to confirmation bias, the side that first poses the questions or comes up with the hypotheses already has a head start in the popular discourse or propaganda.


It can be the case that a lot of independent scientists within a field have not been taught and trained in public and media relations – plain, cold statistics and empirical data is (more likely to be) truth unalloyed by bias, propaganda or agenda (i.e. here presented are the numbers only – you make what you will of them). But opposing these scientists could be, for instance, deniers of the health risks of smoking (especially between the 1950s and 1990s) or deniers of human-caused climate change (still presently), who are often charming, smooth-talking, PR-trained corporate-types because they represent their own highly-profitable corporations, and who use their wealth, reach and PR training to cast doubt on the honest science in their media appearances. And unfortunately, to enough laypeople, the latter will seem more persuasive than the boring and plain-speaking, statistics/data/numbers-speaking independent scientists. Many people also think ‘they’re a big, well-established company so I can trust them, at least over someone I’ve never heard of’.


The desire to tell the complete truth doesn’t always align with a party’s commercial interests, as was echoed in Post No.: 0530. And we regard it as ‘clever’ to be able to convincingly spin the truth when it suits us, but regard it as ‘deceitful’ when such spin is used to exploit us!


Whether PR is good or bad ultimately depends on the cause that’s being promoted. But when it’s a commercial cause, the first casualty of profit-maximisation is often the full and impartial truth – so much deception is conducted for the sake of purely serving financial self-interests. We are frequently too trusting of people or sources that we shouldn’t quickly trust, such as those who have a lucrative stake in a certain outcome or claim, those who can afford big and fancy marketing and PR campaigns, or those who have the connections and knowhow to manipulate the media, their own public images and the public’s hopes, desires and fears, to make lots of money for themselves. (For example, someone who champions a cryptocurrency whilst holding millions of dollars worth of that cryptocurrency might show credibility for having skin in the game, yet might lack credibility for only trying to boost demand for it and thus the price of it in order to serve their own financial self-interests.)


And we frequently don’t listen enough to people or sources we can better trust, such as independent academics who don’t have the advertising budgets or egos to brag, bark about or give massive attention to their messages. (Universities do have their own press and PR teams though.) Conspiracy theories or hoaxes are believed whilst truths are denied depending on what suits our own political, religious or other worldviews too.


Woof. Regulating the PR industry would be tricky – for one thing, the PR industry knows how to give itself good PR(!) So once more we’ll need to personally conduct in more effortful critical thinking ourselves rather than rely on what those with commercial and/or political interests in a certain outcome say in particular, and rather than rely on relatively effortless cognitive shortcuts for thinking. But if you can think of the pros and cons of regulating or attempting to regulate the PR industry then just reply to the tweet linked to the Twitter comment button below to share your views.


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