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“Grassroots Movements Can Learn from the PR industry.”
An interview with Sheldon Rampton

During the World-InfoCon conference in Amsterdam Sheldon Rampton, editor of PR Watch, spoke to World-Information.Org about improving grassroots techniques of advocacy.

Q: Sheldon Rampton, as editor of the PR Watch and somebody who has studied the PR industry in depth, which would you see as the main challenges that the activities of the PR industry hold for the prospects of an enlightened information society?

A: One of the interesting things about the PR industry is that from is very inception its purpose was to control and manipulate the thinking of other people. But from the very beginning they did that because the corporations that they represented were under challenge from the public. In the US, muckraking journalists were exposing the misdeeds of the railroads and the oil companies. The public relations industry really arose as a defensive response to that. In attempting to communicate to the public they found that they had to try to use the language of their own critics, and to this day they are still doing that. They try to engage in greenwashing for example, where they disguise the anti-environmentalist activities that companies like Shell are doing by talking about how much they care about the environment. So there is an interesting seepage that’s always going on as they try to control the thinking of others but they are forced to adopt a lot of the language and the symbolism of the people they are opposing. That has always been a very interesting aspect of PR. In a real way, at the very moment that they are trying to control others they themselves are losing control, and I think that is an important thing to always bear in mind about them.

Q: So even if PR strategies are somehow modeled around the ideal of perfection, there is an implicit weakness that they cannot overcome?

A: Yes, and there is also a great deal that we can learn from their strategies. The PR industry has appropriated many of the techniques of democracy and of activism, namely the techniques of persuasion and advocacy. It has used those instruments of democracy, often with the objective of subverting democratic movements. But in some ways they have also improved the techniques of advocacy. They have studied the techniques of grassroots organizing that were developed by activists in the 1960s, and developed what is known today in the PR industry as “astroturf-organising” – astroturf means fake grass roots. They've taken techniques of grassroots organizing and added some expensive corporate technologies, data bases and phone banks and things like that, with which to complement these traditional techniques developed by activists. And so PR firms use some of the same techniques as activists, and they have perfected and improved those techniques. In turn, I think activists who wish to challenge corporate domination can learn from the PR industry and use some of its technical innovations, data bases etc. and improve their grassroots organizing in turn. So we can learn a lot from the PR industry at the same time that we need to challenge some of its objectives.

Q: Apart from these grassroots activities, do you see any possibility at all of governmental regulation of the PR industry – is the PR industry something that could be controlled by regulatory bodies or the like, in an institutional fashion?

A: I think it would be very, very difficult to regulate the public relations industry, because everything you to regulate PR would also have a damaging impact on citizens’ rights of freedom of speech and expression. The main techniques that the PR industry uses are intertwined with those democratic rights. In fact, the PR industry has been very ineffective even at trying to regulate itself. In the US, the main trade association of the PR industry is the Public Relations Society of America, and it tried to establish a code of conduct for its members, and found after a few years that the more it tried to enforce that code of conduct, the more people in the industry decided they did not want to be part of that association. As a result, they took out all of the enforcement clauses in their code of conduct, because they were losing too many members, and so they cannot regulate themselves even. And I don’t think we want the government to control PR, because if those sorts of laws are passed they would be used with repressive intents against other sectors of society. So the best way to respond to PR is simply to expose its activities so that the public is aware of what is being done and also develop alternative responses, in which the techniques of PR are used by genuinely grassroots citizen groups.

Q: Do you thing it is easier for PR and the corporations they represent to operate in the old media such as television, radio, newspapers etc. than in the internet? The internet is often considered an environment more difficult to control. Do you agree with that?

A: Every form of communication technology contains both the possibility of enlightening and the possibility of propaganda and deception, and the internet is no exception. There are in fact PR firms that specialize in going on to the internet both to spy on other peoples’ conversations and sometimes there are firms that go on the internet and impersonate others. They pretend that they are people who they are not so that they can influence discussions. Someone will go into an Internet chat room and pretend to be a consumer and here is what I think, when in actuality they work for a PR firm to deflect criticism of a specific client. Propaganda finds its way into the internet as well as everyplace else. But at the same time, the internet is more difficult to control than the old broadcast technologies, where you had a single news studio that would send its message out to thousands and millions of people. On the internet, anyone can add their voice to a discussion, so these discussions are harder to control. But there have always been technologies of communication that are difficult to control that way, for example simple conversation. That has always existed and it is impossible to have a central authority controlling every individual’s conversations. So the challenges to propagandists have always been there, and yet there is always been propaganda and sometimes it is quite effective. I don’t think we should exaggerate the power of the internet either, it is a very useful tool for communication but is it not the magic wand that will miraculously abolish propaganda and make it ineffective at controlling people.

Q: The purpose of PR watch is mainly an educational one, your goal is to educate the public by providing information about the activities of PR companies. What kind of audience to you address?

A: Our audience consists of journalists, activists, environmentalists, everyday citizens. Anyone who is interested in the way information is manipulated on behalf of special interest groups and industries would be interested in what we write about.

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