By letterhead | July 26, 2007
I was thinking the other day, while munching a tuna sandwich, about public relations and its corruptive influence on language.
To be sure, language itself carries intrinsic properties of obfuscation. Mayonnaise is really just a euphemism for “congealed vegetable fat with raw egg.” And if you had to walk into a McDonald’s and order “ground cow parts on a bun”… would you?
But check out this anecdote and see if you see any difference: This is going back a ways (to the early 1990s). A friend of mine worked at an agency that had a waste hauler for a client. For obvious reasons, the client hated the words “toxic waste,” and even “hazardous waste.” So being the energetic and creative people they were, the account team came up with a plan.
The goal was to relieve people, especially reporters, of having to use these (literally) filthy words. But it was not enough to come up with an alternate word or phrasing. Some bright, ambitious, and altogether evil genius had the idea of petitioning dictionary publishers to include the word “bio-solid,” together with a definition ever-so-helpfully provided by the client.
Now, in this age of neutraceuticals, marketers come up with silly name-of-the-day stuff all the time. Think: “flavor crystals.” Lots of stuff is “new and improved” that isn’t. There are all kinds of ways to seduce people into thinking things that might not necessarily be so.
But this one, to me, is different. What the PR people were trying to line up was what we in the business call a “third party endorser”: an objective third-party source that vouches for the truth of the story being peddled as part of the PR plan, adding an invaluable patina of credibility. (A good friend of mine says that right wing conservatives have the best PR program going because they have “co-opted God as their third-party endorser.”)
What could be more third-party and more objective than a dictionary? “Look it says right there in the dictionary. We’re hauling bio!”
The problem is that the goal was to obfuscate. The bio-solid, while technically “bio” in its bulk content, was laden with industrial compounds, heavy metals, carcinogens, etc. The goal of the word play was to hide the truth, squelch debate, misdirect the public.
Selling “thermagenic beauty agents” to people with, um, “aesthetic aspirations,” is child’s play by comparison.
Here is my issue with it: The damage PR is doing to our world is that it has gone beyond spinning mere words, or even stories. It has entered the realm of spinning reality itself.
It makes me think of a claim I saw recently on a website that “all communication is propaganda.” I would say that’s true only inasmuch as it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you take a propagandist approach to all communications then the statement is tautologically true: all communication is propaganda. (I will write about this more another time.)
The next-generation PR pros are experimenting with ways of simply… I’m not quite sure how to say this, because it sounds so conspiracy laden… but they are simply manufacturing reality. “Perception management” is no longer the only goal; first they have to engineer what is to be perceived, then they do the work of explaining why this “reality” fits the viewpoint they have already provided. It’s stunningly creative, the way they do it, but extremely dangerous and ultimately pretty damn corrosive to our ability to communicate at all. (Over at The DC Shuffle, they are beginning to compile a list of obfuscatory political buzzwords that are used to corrupt public discourse on important issues.)
And to those of you outside the industry who think… “PR people couldn’t possibly be that craven. They couldn’t possibly be that blatant. They couldn’t possibly be that devious.”
Yes, they could. They do. They get paid millions of dollars for it. (That’s why they do it.)
So the next time you hear bon-mots like “surge” or “free trade” or “reform,” or hear some newfangled term that puts old wine into new casks, take a long pause.
Ask yourself what people want you to believe by using this word; who benefits from you believing it; are they encouraging you to ask more questions or fewer; aiming to get you to inquire and engage with the debate or disengage and shut up? Consider whether the demonstrable, objective facts actually support their claims.
Then, finally, take a good deep breath through your nose and check if it has the whiff of “bio-solid” about it.