People point the finger at politicians, platforms and the news media for the spread of fake news and misinformation, but an expert tells Mediawatch the PR industry’s role usually goes under the radar - and an ethics upgrade is urgent.
In her new book all about the problems threatening the news media these days - Broken Estate - Melanie Bunce named misinformation as one of them.
But she reckoned some of the malicious and misleading stuff - often called fake news - is less of a worry here than it is elsewhere in the world.
Fake news like the invented stories about Pope Francis endorsing Trump were designed to make money in the US but that wouldn't work here, the former ODT journalist who’s now a reader in journalism at City University in London, told Mediawatch.
Another London-based expat expert had a similar crumb of comfort for us in a recent talk at Auckland University with the title: “Why the Trump Era could last for 30 years”
“Many of the forces that are driving nationalistic populism in the world are also evident in New Zealand . . . but it’s not led to the country’s leaders trying to mobilise people’s grievances in the way it has in Europe and America,” said London School of Economics politics professor Robert Wade.
But last week, a colleague of his at the LSE warned it’s not just political leaders who seek to spin the truth.
Dr Lee Edwards’ talk at Waikato University was called “Organised lying and professional legitimacy: Public relations’ accountability in the disinformation debate.”
The associate professor in media and communications at LSE, who formerly worked in corporate communications here in New Zealand, argued the role of the professional PR industry has been largely overlooked.
That concept of “organised lying” isn't a new one.
Long before modern political spin and social media, German-American political philosopher Hannah Arendt coined the phrase in the 1970s to describe political parties co-opting advertising tactics to create what she called “the consistent substitution of truth.”
But Dr Edwards told Mediawatch it’s still relevant today.
"Disinformation is part of the DNA of PR," she says in a new research paper which analysed the responses to fake news and misinformation debates in UK-based PR industry publications.
"I don't think the PR industry likes that," she told Mediawatch.
"They didn't really engage in debates about the democratic impact of fake news. The dangers that it presented was often seen as a danger to clients and brands - but not society," she said.
"They are people with enormous power to shape the way we see the world," she told Mediawatch.
"Stories about the world and how it works are not always designed to enable us to engage with the world and understand it better. They are designed to get us to engage with that particular producer of news so (it) can make some money," she said.
"I'm not saying the average PR and comms company is involved in fake news. What I am saying is that the techniques they use are used by fake news practitioners," she told Mediawatch.
"The PR industry . . . has not acknowledged that the techniques they use on a day-to-day basis are being used in other contexts to distort the way we understand public life. Once they take responsibility . . . they can ring-fence the kind of work that's appropriate from the kind of work that should not be allowed or associated with the profession," she told Mediawatch.
Cambridge Analytica was not a PR company, she says in her paper, but it is an example of "how public relations practices migrate across sectors, into grey areas and black holes".
"Rather than issuing a blanket acceptance of ‘legitimate’ work, a public debate about which practices are acceptable, in which contexts, and which are not, is long overdue," she wrote.
How bad can the PR industry be when clients are calling the shots?
"There is a limit to agreeing to do whatever the client wants them to do," she told Mediawatch.
"In the political sphere, public relations advisors have worked for a wide range of questionable governments, fostering their relations with other countries and populations by remaining silent about, or actively obscuring, undesirable realities such as human rights abuses or anti-democratic practices," she wrote in her study.
"The biggest companies in public relations - such as Hill & Knowlton and Bell Pottinger - have been revealed to be duplicitous in what they have been doing. Some of that behaviour is accepted even among the most powerful operators," she said
Hill & Knowlton worked for the Tobacco Research Council, "a front group for the tobacco industry that actively distorted public knowledge about the effects of smoking in the latter half of the twentieth century", Dr Lee's research notes.
In 2017, the Bell Pottinger PR firm - co-founded by Margaret Thatcher's former chief strategist Sir Tim Bell - collapsed in the wake of an inflammatory campaign it created in South Africa,
It was run on behalf of Oakbay, a firm owned by a wealthy family, and it emphasised the power of white-owned businesses with the now notorious hashtag #WhiteMonopolyCapital.
But before Bell Pottinger folded for good, the UK's Public Relations and Communications Association (PRCA) expelled the firm in 2017 for "bringing the PR and communications industry into disrepute" and breaching its code of conduct.
Does this show the industry does hold rogue firms accountable?
Dr Edwards says industry codes of conduct make the client the priority, rather than the public interest.
Principles like freedom of speech, the public interest, professional standards and integrity often remain "vague and unenforceable", she said.
"The risk is borne by the agency or practitioner and chances are there will be others waiting in the wings to work for lucrative clients," she said.
"Where is the advice that tells them the public interest comes first and the client's interests second?" she said.
Where is the process for them to protect the good practices they use?," she asked.
The Public Relations Institute of New Zealand (PRINZ) has a code of ethics which states:
- "We serve the public interest by acting as responsible advocates for those we represent.
- "We are faithful to those we represent, while honouring our obligations to serve the public interest. We safeguard the confidences of former or present employers and clients."
“The public interest isn't spelled out - and it is linked to clients’ interests. Sometimes of course the interests of society goes against the interests of the clients,” she said.
“How can the industry pick apart techniques used inappropriately and unethically and protect the good practice that goes on?” she asked.