20 March 2010

Political PR, did it ruin the trust in politicians and is threatening democratic system?

The answer to this question isn’t easy (as to any of the questions people in my PR course had to face in debate battles). There are people who blame PR for government propaganda, for manipulating information and spinning it, for trying to control the media. People I’ve met who think PR is responsible for lack of trust in politicians are, however, a minority. Most individuals rarely think about PR as a cause of mistrust towards the government or politicians, because PR is rarely visible to them (unless they investigate on articles or study on PR issues for example).

While researching the reasons behind public distrust towards politicians and government, I came across a few statistics that showed that nearly 70% of UK population doesn’t believe public institutions. In his blog post "Trouble With Trust", Mark Thompson (director of BBC) explained that the media are responsible for the lack of this trust in public officials. Media always portray politicians in a negative way and even if they say the truth there always will be suspicion that he/she might be not telling things as they are. “Hardly ever a politician who does a good job hits headlines in the press or TV“, wrote one of the commentators of Thompson’s blogs.
I remember also that during our first classes of PR Pam Williams (one of our leading tutors) said that journalism in UK balances on edge between reporting and commentary. I can only assume that this affects public opinion in Britain and because media here often base on so called ‘media panics’, they make people suspicious about many different matters.

Negative image that politicians often create for themselves by behaving in shameful and unethical way is another reason why public might not trust them. Public relations, on the other hand, is there to repair damages, give second changes if someone makes a mistake; it is there to build relationships which are built on trust and not ruin them by spreading doubts and suspicion.

One of my fellow students, while arguing against the notion of PR being a threat to democracy said that public relations builds bridges between governments and their people; that it actually allows communication between the politicians and their voters. And I think she was right. To some degree it allows the two way communication. PR allows different sides to campaign on the same issue, which is a part of the democratic system.
All these reminds me of Rampton’s and Stauber’ (authors of “Trust Us We’re Experts” and “Toxic Sludge is Good for You”) quote: “There is nothing wrong with many of the techniques used by the PR industry – lobbying, grassroots organising, using the new media to put ideas before the public. As individuals, we not only have the right to engage in these activities, we have a responsibility to participate in the decisions that shape our society and our lives”. On the other hand however, they claim that PR campaigns are not equal, because there are those who have more money to spend on them and to organise people than the public (like corporations for instance). This takes away the fairness from campaigning if there are two opposing sides to the same issue.

A few arguments against the Debating statement: “Political PR has undermined public trust in politicians and is the single biggest threat to our democratic health”

  1. PR is there to build trusts (on which relationships are based) and not destroying them. It’s there for giving second chances and to give opportunity to repair/compensate damages.

  1. I’m not going to deny that people trust their government, because every research will show you that they don’t. But it is not PR responsible for it. Probably most of you have already noticed that British people (and perhaps many nations in the world) tend to be sceptical about their government. It’s in their culture

  1. It is not PR that is responsible for public mistrust towards the governments – traditional media are (they focus on negative/sensational news hoping to attract audiences with them; they also create so called media panics which base on negative stories being dragged for months at a time making people feel and think that these bad things are happening everywhere and right outside their door). Rarely politicians who do good jobs hit front page headlines. On the contrary. As Mark Thompson, BBC director admitted in his blog, media exaggerate crisis, errors, look for controversy in anything politicians say.

  1. PR is not responsible for politicians’ immoral behaviour, which (as research shows) often is being translated by public into government’s values. Neither is responsible for politicians’ broken promises.

  1. A few examples of positive PR campaigning for politicians and government:
-         The biggest one here is Barack Obama and his political campaign with use of social media which made him the president of USA
-         Government’s campaigning and rising awareness of obesity problems
-         Think! Social campaign against irresponsible driving


lifeisworthy said...

Aneta, thanks for a very insightful analysis of political PR and some useful 'food for my mind' about political spin and the issue of trust. I agree with many points, especially with the one that states that it is not PR responsible for political spin, but certain people staying behind it. And I also hold on to the opinion that PR in politics performs a public service by bringing important issues to the public's attention.

Post a Comment