Using the media (techniques)

Techniques used by, on news media

  • PR and the 3rd party technique
  • Astroturfing
  • Imagery and propaganda
  • Mighty Wurlitzer
  • Spin

Public relations firms–what do they do?

They work in the background–not like advertisers. They’re there to keep a person’s, or an organization’s, public image clean. Private corporations have more PR capacity, but we’ve seen them in government, in Hollywood, in the professional sports world, etc. Here are some of the more distressing examples of what PR firms are capable (from Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber, who run PR Watch):

  • The Nigerian Government was involved in an ethnic massacre, which involved the execution of a playwright, Sole Woyinka (a Nobel Laureate in fact). The playwright had accused Shell Oil of waging ‘ecological war’ (Nigeria is a large oil producing country). International condemnation of the Nigerian Government and Shell was swift. The government responded with full-page glossy ads in minority-owned newspapers in the U.S., and invitations to the editors to tour Nigeria on a ‘fact-finding mission.’ It must have worked; criticism died down, and some of the editorial pages actually accused those condemning the Nigerian Government of racism.
  • Microsoft was involved in a large anti-trust suit a few years ago (because they had bundled their internet and software services, loaded on most personal computers sold). They hired a PR firm to create a perception of a ‘public groundswell’ of opposition to the government’s lawsuit. A couple of economics researchers working at the Independent Institute wrote a book, which was endorsed by the Wall Street Journal, etc. Turns out Netscape (one of Microsoft’s Corporate rivals, now merged with AOL Time-Warner) was going through dumpsters, and gained evidence that Microsoft was trying to deceive the public into thinking that there was popular opposition against the suit. They gave the evidence to a journalist at the Los Angeles Times. Another tech company, Oracle, helped orchestrate the release of the evidence to the media . . . It made Microsoft look pretty bad, and the PR campaign went away. As for the book, it turns out that the ‘Independent Institute’ wasn’t very independent–20% of its funding was coming from Microsoft.
  • ‘Consumer Alert’ vs ‘Consumer Union’–the former was funded entirely by large corporations-alcohol, tobacco, insurance, pharmaceuticals, agribusiness, petrochemicals; they’re often used in news stories about consumer product liability, but the source of their financing or their obvious conflict of interest is rarely divulged to readers/viewers (check out the ‘Center for Consumer Freedom‘). The Consumer Union on the other hand is funded through member subscription, and actually is designed to provide information helpful to consumers (but often damaging to large corporations fearing product liability suits).
  • MOP-‘mothers opposing pollution’–This was supposedly a popular movement of mothers in Australia, opposed to plastic milk cartons because of their nondegradability in landfills. A journalist traced the organization’s spokesperson to 3 P.O. boxes, and eventually to a large PR firm working for a liquidpaperboard company (making–you guessed it! Paper milk cartons).
  • PR experts in the 1920s were paid by tobacco companies to manufacture a scheme to market cigarettes to women. Women were at the time fighting for equal rights, had long fought for and recently won the right to vote, etc. A planned parade was to include women smoking, being seen as rebellious, and the idea that women could smoke as a symbol of rebellion took off. Virginia Slims did thisin the late 1960s:’you’ve come a long way, babeeee,
    to get where you got to todaaaay,
    You’ve got your own cigarette now, babeee,
    You’ve come a long, long way!’Yes, women could not only smoke, but had their own cigarette! How utterly cool! Philip Morris (now ‘Altria’–here, have a press release–really!). They’re still doing it–targeting minority women.
  • A fairly recent example involves Oregon–Measure 36, the referendum to cap malpractice liability awards handed down in jury trials. Here’s the dilemma:
    • Liability suits–malpractice or otherwise–cost medical practitioners, product manufacturers and insurance companies huge sumes of money.
      • who benefits, who is harmed? Who would like to reduce or eliminate citizens’ rights to a jury trial in malpractice or product liability cases? If you’re opposed to them, how do you frame the debate?
      • Tort ‘reform’ was the initial movement in the U.S. This refers to reform of civil law. The word ‘reform’ here is loaded–what’s wrong with torts, and why do they need reforming? Reform is one of those ‘bad words’ we talked about in class.
      • What is a tort anyway?? Most people didn’t know, and tort reform didn’t resonate with focus groups. So PR firms changed the nature of the debate, to villify a professional class that has been in some respects reviled since Shakespeare’s day: lawyers. PR firms created ‘front groups,’ phony grassroots organizations, often called ‘astroturfing’ (because it’s ‘artificial grassroots’). Some of the names are Citizens against lawsuit abuse; Lawsuit Abuse Watch, Institute for legal reform, Sick of Lawsuit Abuse (a subsidiary of Citizens against lawsuit abuse …). The original backers were the American Tort Reform Association
      • The PR firm: APCO & Associates. Large corporate donors, including tobacco, insurance, oil and gas, chemical and pharmaceutical companies, medical associations and auto manufacturers. They are also funded by ATRA, as well as professional associations, local businesses and industries that also wish to be shielded from consumer lawsuits.

    From an APCO employee: In 1994, APCO’s Cohen explained the CALA “grassroots” strategy in a speech before a gathering of corporate public affairs executives sponsored by the Public Affairs Council, an organization of some 500 corporations and trade associations. “Rule No. 1 for me is stay away from substance,” Cohen said. “Don’t talk about the details of legislation. Talk about frivolous lawsuits, lawsuit abuse, trial lawyer greed.” He explained the need for front groups. “In a tort reform battle,” he said, “if State Farm — I think they’re here, [they're] Nationwide — is the leader of the coalition, you’re not going to pass the bill. It’s not credible, O.K., because it’s so self-serving.”

So, get someone who seems impartial, independent, and put the words in their mouth. Or direct journalists to your site for news (only the news consists of press releases paid for by private companies), and watch them report it without disclosing that it’s from a public relations site. This is what does. Sourcewatch has some excellent resources on figuring out how to research front groups and astroturfers and see through the deception.

The third party technique

Essentially, as Rampton and Stauber write, the third party technique involves ‘putting your words in someone else’s mouth’. For instance, if the Ford Motor Company wants to question global climate change research (for obvious reasons … ), would anyone take them seriously if they used some of their own experts? Not likely. So they would find a third party, some expert, preferably with credibility–a scientist, celebrity, someone who seems to be independent, etc., to question the research for them. Maybe with a name like ‘Research Institute for American Competitiveness in a Global Society.’ Who could argue with that??

Another revealing PR quote from the reading:

‘you’ll never know when a PR firm is being effective; you’ll just find your views slowly shifting.’

The whole idea of PR, as opposed to advertising, is to work in the background. PR firms are paid vast sums of money not to become celebrities, but to put words and ideas into other people’s mouths. Even the Pentagon’s spokesperson from the 2003 Iraq Invasion, Charlotte Beers, was hired from the PR industry–hired not for her mastery of diplomatic skills, but for her knowledge and understanding of the art of persuasion, applied to Arab and Islamic countries (here’s an interview with her from PBS. She has since resigned, by the way, replaced by another PR professional, Victoria Clarke). In the mid 2000s, Karen Hughes, former TV news reporter and George W. Bush’s publicist–with no diplomatic experience–was named point person for American diplomacy in the Moslem world (it didn’t go well ….).

Media and Deception

Deception is possible in all forms of communication-language allows lying, for instance. With the Internet, we could have a 14 yr-old posing as a supermodel in a chat room, or a 30 yr-old pedophile posing as a 14 yr old. TV relies on deception, unreality . . . reality TV may be the worst of this–they are as slickly produced as any TV show, and usually the age range of the actors is what, 22-25? What about radio–what are we getting? Do we know much about the voices at the other end? And newspapers? In some cases, stories that appear are actually press releases sent out by a company (promoting a new product, for instance), but they are presented as news.

Phony grassroots activism–‘astroturfing’

Here’s another way that the third party technique can be used. Some corporations fund groups with names that make them sound like grassroots organizations, or popular social movements. Here are some examples:

  • American Center for Voting Rights Legislation. Sounds very democratic. This one didn’t last too long. You can read about it here. It’s related to the firings in late 2006 of eight US attorneys. The idea was to manufacture a ‘voter fraud’ crisis, restrict people’s ability to vote by requiring photo IDs at the time of voting. The research shows quite clearly that this leads to lower rates of voting among non-white groups. Non-white groups are much more likely to vote for the democratic party. And who was behind the American Center for Voting Rights? You can read the epitaph at sourcewatch, which suggests this was the handiwork of leaders within the conservative ranks of the republican party. There’s even a connection to the smear campaign, Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, waged against democratic presidential candidate John Kerry in the 2004 campaign.
  • Americans for Technology Leadership-These particular Americans, whoever they are, get their money from Microsoft. Other organizations such as the Citizens against Government Waste are included in the ‘about us’ link, but their minimal funding support is provided by the Olin and Bradley foundations (see below).
  • American Civil Rights Institute-the ‘new’ civil rights movement, which is against affirmative action, ‘racial preferences’. Not the one associated with the 1964 Civil Rights Law or anything else. There are also the American Civil Rights Coalition, Center for Equal Opportunity, Independent Women’s Forum (an anti-feminist group), institute for justice. They’re all related, too. Funded by the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation of Milwaukee.
  • National Right to work (anti-union group funded by the Olin Foundation, whose family made its fortunes in chemicals and munitions)
  • Food for all (check out the corporate ads on the home page)
  • Women in Government (used to help the pharmaceutical company Merck get its vaccine Gardasil mandated in public schools for 12 year-old girls).
  • Citizens for a sound economy (tobacco, Koch industries-opposing cig taxes, Scaife Foundations, Claude Lambe Foundation, etc.)
  • Americans for Balanced Energy Choices (brought to you by the coal and utilities industries!)
  • No, you don’t have to go through all these websites, but if you check out a couple, you should get a flavor for what they can do.

Why is this phony activism? Because corporate-backed movements aren’t activist movements at all–they’re just made to look that way, to gain public support. It’s in fact a perversion of the idea of social activism, but you wouldn’t know that by just reading the paper, hearing the news (‘the American Civil Rights Coalition says that racial discrimination is no longer a problem, and affirmative action serves no useful purpose’). The idea is to deceive–put your words into someone else’s mouth, in this case a group that pretends to be for civil rights, but is actually trying to protect the rights of whites and property owners (predominantly white). That’s why it’s called ‘astroturfing’–it isn’t real grassroots, populist organizing, it’s corporate-backed and funded, and designed to protect corporate interests. It creates an illusion of broad consensus, which can lead to shifts in public opinion.

Want to put together your own phony grassroots campaign? Arianna Huffington, author of Pigs at the Trough (a look at corporate welfare and public corruption), has provided a handy table for you (I’ve added a few things). Just mix and match, and make your own!

in favor of
The Society

Images and propaganda

Images are often more powerful than policy analyses. This shouldn’t surprise us. Commercial advertising works this way, appealing to emotion, various emotions, including fear. There’s the classical conditioning. Pavlov’s examples was the dog–he associated the ringing of a bell with the presentation of food, and pretty soon the dog was salivating at the ringing of the bell, having associated it with the food. Commercial advertising shows us skin, sex, beauty, glamour, and tells us to buy. And this is what drives commercial media.
Check out these images from the White House (and here are more, and here are some that were not put out by the White House)–what are they selling? What is media’s role in this? Even the images have become news. Even news is reporting on the news of the images.

Selling war

Don’t think this is a carefully orchestrated effort to bring the techniques of PR to the White House? When the Bush Administration was unable to show Iraq had ‘weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), which was the primary reason the U.S. was pushing for a war in Iraq, here was what one pollster for the Republican Party had to say:

“Whether or not they find weapons of mass destruction doesn’t matter, because the rationale for the war changed,” GOP pollster Frank Luntz told the AP. “Americans like a good picture. And one photograph of an Iraqi child kissing a U.S. soldier is more powerful than two months of debate on the floor of Congress.” (from Washington Post, June 11, 2003, Terry Neal)

Got that? The rationale for the war was changed. It no longer mattered, according to Luntz, what argument was made to convince the American public we should invade Iraq. When was the last time a reporter asked the president why he didn’t sell the war as a way to remove Saddam from power, rather than as a pre-emptive strike to keep Saddam from detonating a nuclear bomb on American soil? Is it possible that American public opinion wouldn’t have supported a war to remove him from power if he wasn’t an imminent threat to Americans? And Frank Luntz knows his business–he’s one of the most sought-after campaign consultants.

Of course, the term ‘weapons of mass destruction’ is a serious spin, coming from a country that spends .50 of every dollar spent in the world on military capacity and weaponry. Someone in the marketing wing of the U.S. military understands the power of naming things. Instead of having ‘weapons of mass destruction,’ the US used ‘smart bombs,’ JDAMs, cluster bombs‘, ‘daisy cutters,’ and nuclear ‘bunker busters‘ –all with curiously festive sounding names that might make you think they’re merely ‘recreational weapons.’ The terms are sanitized–no implication that their intent is to kill thousands of people, at least not in the name. This sanitizing makes war easier to sell to the American Public. But WMDs . . . well they belong to our enemies. This is effective public relations and propaganda, and wars have always been fought side by side with propaganda machines. Here’s a quote:

Naturally the common people don’t want war… but after all it is the leaders of a country who determine policy, and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along… All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger.

Sound familiar? Where did this quote come from (it’s at the end, if you want to peek)?

Propaganda has been around for a long time. Technology and a sophisticated media have turned it into not only a giant industry for the media (think advertising), but an effective means of influencing public opinion. Remember the quote above: ‘you’ll never know when a PR firm is being effective; you’ll just find your views slowly shifting.’

The Mighty Wurlitzer

This is a CIA technique. If you’ve been to an old baseball park, you may have heard an organ playing those obnoxious, repetitive jingles to get the crowd worked up while the players are spitting tobacco, adjusting their uniforms, or taking their 35th practice swing. The Wurlitzer Organ has a huge sound–it’s overwhelming. That’s the idea of the Mighty Wurlitzer–big booming noise, coming from all around, repeated as needed to get the point across. Have something you want to leak to the press? Start with the Wall Street Journal, call up your favorite talk radio host with the talking points, schedule someone to be on the Sunday news shows, produce a TV commercial, call up your friends at a few influential daily newspapers, or syndicated columnists. Get on the news blogs, twitter, possibly facebook. How ’bout a youtube video? And keep in mind–corporations will have more money to launch this sort of campaign, and it can be expensive and require coordination and, dare I say–a certain lack of journalistic integrity.

Robert Borosage’s article has a good description of the Clarence Thomas Supreme Court nomination hearings, and the smear campaign that was targeted at Anita Hill, who reported some rather unseemly encounters with Thomas in a work setting. Republicans essentially used every friend and outlet they had to try to paint Anita Hill as a liar and a nut, to protect the nomination of Thomas, who has turned out to be one of the most reliably conservative Supreme Court justices in quite some time.

Repetition is the key to the Mighty Wurlitzer–repeat your message, preferably the same message (talking points), over and over, in as many different types of media outlets as possible. It doesn’t have to be true or verifiable–just get it out there. Here’s how the Pentagon used propaganda in the Iraq press, to attempt to influence Iraqi media, hire PR consultants to write articles, and generally make sure, using lots of money, that media coverage was favorable. Stateside, the propaganda was voluminous, and effective. For example, there are three spectacular misconceptions of the Iraq War and surrounding events that were perpetuated in the media and by powerful supporters of the war:

  1. There was a Saddam/Al Qaeda connection, so War in Iraq was justified as part of the war on terror;
  2. Saddam and Iraq were involved in 9/11;
  3. The Weapons of mass destruction (WMD)–the reason the U.S. invaded Iraq–because of the imminent threat–have been found.

A Pentagon insider has described how the effort to ‘cook’ the intelligence worked to support invasion. Even after one year after the start of the war, according to a respected polling center at the University of Maryland:

  • 57% of public believed there was a pre-war Iraq al Qaeda connection. This makes little sense–bin Laden hated Saddam, because his government was secular, not Islamic. It’s unlikely Saddam, a tinpot dictator (but a genocidal maniac as well), would want to share power with bin Laden.
  • 45% believed evidence of Iraq/al Qaeda connection was found. Again, not true.
  • 20% believed Iraq was responsible for 9/11. Patently untrue. None of the highjackers were from Iraq–most were from Saudi Arabia, a country whose leaders share close ties with the Bush family (read House of Bush, House of Saud in your spare time if you’re interested).
  • 15% believed ‘experts’ disagree with Iraq/Al Qaeda connection (82% believe experts agree). Most experts actually believe that there is no Iraq/Al Qaeda connection.

After the 2004 election, a majority of Americans (according to the same PIPA polling) still believed at least one of those misconceptions–that’s effective propaganda.

So what, you say? The public is misinformed on lots of things. Why were these three so important? Because they were the basis for public support for the war. Here’s an interesting figure: of all the corporate news outlets, those who watch Fox News were by far more likely to believe at least one of the three misconceptions. There audience was expecting and receiving a steady diet of pro-Administration reporting. Of those who don’t believe any of the three misconceptions, only 23% said they would have voted to re-elect Bush in the Fall.

The Mighty Wurlitzer. Remember it. It’ll be on the test. Mighty Wurlitzer. Test.

Spin and Twisting truth

Some good ones from Bill Press’ book on spin:

  • George Stephanopolous, former Clinton spokesperson: ‘A good spinner like a good lawyer: you highlight the facts the help your client’s case and downplay the ones that don’t. When the facts are unfavorable, you argue relevance’
  • He took a public perception that ‘Clinton is boring’, because he could drone on incessantly about policy nuances, to ‘specificity is a character issue this year.’ In other words, droning on incessantly is specificity, and if you can’t do it, you’re uninformed on the issues.
  • Bush: He avoided questions about alcohol and cocaine addition by ‘running a campaign on ‘ideas and philosophy’.Some more examples:
  • Democrats say ‘Bush is stubborn’, republicans say ‘he’s showing leadership in the war on terror to make unpopular decisions’.
  • Clinton, when confronted with smoking pot, said ‘I didn’t inhale (technically he never broke the law, in other words). He also said “I’ve never had sex with that woman” (Monica Lewinsky, and he was defining sex as intercourse, which reportedly he avoided though they clearly had a sexual relationship)
  • Bush is a leader (the governor of Texas is a largely ceremonial position), a businessman (whose companies have all lost money, while he has made millions); He also characterized 20 years of alcohol and drug addiction, until age 40, as ‘youthful indiscretion.’

Use of loaded language

Here’s an example, from (fairness and accuracy in reporting), from Newt Gingrich, who was a prominent conservative and critic of Bill Clinton in the 1990s. He’s writing about the use of language to persuade and influence public opinion, essentially this was a memo to Republican candidates, an instruction book for politicians and political candidates about how to attack democrats and their policies in the press, or fend off attacks:

“As you know, one of the key points in the GOPAC (a Republican Party committee to support and raise money for GOP, or Republican candidates [GOP stands for ‘Grand Old Party’) tapes is that “language matters.” In the video “We Are a Majority,” Langauage is listed as akey mechanism of control used by a majority party, along with Agenda, Rules, Attitude and Learning. As the tapes have been used in training sessions across the country and mailed to candidates, we have heard a plaintive plea: “I wish I could speak like Newt.”

That takes years of practice. But we believe that you could have a significant impact on your campaign and the way you communicate if we help a little. That is why we have created this list of words and phrases.

This list is prepared so that you might have a directory of words to use in writing literature and mail, in preparing speeches, and in producing electronic media. The words and phrases are powerful. Read them. Memorize as many as possible. And remember that, like any tool, these words will not help if they are not used….

Contrasting Words
Often we search hard for words to help us define our opponents. Sometimes we are hesitant to use contrast. Remember that creating a difference helps you. These are powerful words that can create a clear and easily understood contrast. Apply these to the opponent, their record, proposals and their party.

decay… failure (fail)… collapse(ing)… deeper… crisis… urgent(cy)… destructive… destroy… sick… pathetic… lie… liberal… they/them… unionized bureaucracy… “compassion” is not enough… betray… consequences… limit(s)… shallow… traitors… sensationalists… endanger… coercion… hypocrisy… radical… threaten… devour… waste… corruption… incompetent… permissive attitudes… destructive… impose… self-serving… greed… ideological… insecure… anti-(issue): flag, family, child, jobs… pessimistic… excuses… intolerant…
stagnation… welfare… corrupt… selfish… insensitive… status quo… mandate(s)… taxes… spend(ing)… shame… disgrace… punish (poor…)… bizarre… cynicism… cheat… steal… abuse of power… machine… bosses… obsolete… criminal rights… red tape… patronage

(Okay, here are the ‘good’ words):
Use the list below to help define your campaign and your vision of public service. These words can help give extra power to your message. In addition, these words help develop the positive side of the contrast you should create with your opponent, giving your community something to vote for!

share… change… opportunity… legacy… challenge… control… truth… moral… courage… reform… prosperity… crusade… movement… children… family… debate… compete… active(ly)… we/us/our… candid(ly)… humane… pristine… provide… liberty… commitment… principle(d)… unique… duty… precious… premise… care(ing)… tough… listen… learn… help… lead… vision… success… empower(ment)… citizen… activist… mobilize… conflict… light… dream… freedom… peace… rights… pioneer… proud/pride… building… preserve… pro-(issue): flag, children, environment… reform… workfare… eliminate good-time in prison… strength… choice/choose… fair… protect… confident… incentive… hard work… initiative… common sense… passionate

So, next time you listen to a politician’s speech, listen and see how many of these words pop up. It doesn’t matter whether they’re true characterizations or not, or whether they unfairly smear the opponent–what matters is the ability to influence the public and win elections. Remember the third propaganda statagem–appeal to emotion. Scare ‘em to death, and then offer them warm fuzzies in the form of your own solution to a problem!

The quote above was from Hermann Goering, said during the Nuremburg trials after World War II. Goering was Adolph Hitler’s Reichsmarschall in Nazi Germany. Actually, there was some controversy over whether Goering ever said this. There is an excellent website,, that discusses this quote–it is an excellent site for debunking many of those bad emails you get that sound fishy.