2016: When PR Turned to the Dark Side


2016 was the year when the currents that have slowly eroded the tenuous relationship between journalists and PR pros coalesced to create an existential crisis that may not be easily remedied. Yesterday’s Trump presser was the first salvo in what will surely be a contentious period for news organizations hoping to ferret out the truth.

What’s more, the exploitation of new communications tools and dynamics by less-than-scrupulous actors has dire implications for an already beleaguered public relations industry as a whole.

In 2005, I started a PR-focused “weblog” that sought to make transparent an industry whose machinations could clearly benefit from more sunlight. (Think astroturfing, stealth-funded/buoyant-sounding advocacy groups, and purveyors of fake news.) Yet, looking back at my 1000+ posts, I found myself repeatedly coming back to several themes:

  • How media fragmentation has diluted the influence of quality news organizations, and with it, the loss of their historic role as checks to power and exposers of wrongdoing for the public good.
  • How organizations, corporations, and individuals can now bypass the journalistic filter to take their “owned” messages directly to the public, which, in turn, amplifies them in social media without regard for factual veracity, or worse, with the knowledge that what they’re sharing is purposely misleading.
  • How the use of histrionics, e.g., outrageous statements and behavior, has successfully captured the attention of media organizations driven by a need to monetize clicks and eyeballs for their very existence — histrionics that usurp and often create the national news agenda.

By now you’re thinking I’m overly obsessed with the recent election and how the GOP and its candidate built a massive messaging mechanism that stymied the fourth estate. I mean did it even matter that nearly every newspaper in the country published full-throated condemnations of Mr. Trump?

What concerns me most is how Mr. Trump and his operatives rewrote the rules of discourse and disclosure and that this insidious new PR paradigm may apply to other government sectors, as well as to business, entertainment, academia, science, medicine, etc.. It provides communications strategists a roadmap for the manipulation of a pliable public that historically has placed its trust in quality journalism but no longer does.

This new communications paradigm has gone beyond identifying sympathetic reporters who’ll parrot their messages. It has transcended the training of spokespersons to bridge away from reporters’ prickly questions. It prefers live TV interviews (vs. taped then edited), which permit a skilled surrogate to deliver unfiltered (and mostly unchallenged) talking points directly to unwitting audiences.

These new communications operatives simply fabricate a narrative, plant it with a few influential, like-minded outlets and watch it propagate. Worse, these concocted narratives need only be tweeted from a bully pulpit to make their mark. What’s changed is that truth is an afterthought. Winning is all that matters. The rules no longer apply in this alt communications universe.

When I consider the overt lies and tactical deception that spewed from the mouths of Mr. Trump’s surrogates Miller, Spicer, Conway and Lewandowski (clockwise from top left), I’m reminded that the PR industry’s trade association (PRSA) publishes a code of conduct that governs such things—a set of guidelines to which these consiglieres clearly paid little heed. It reads:

From the Public Relations Society of America

Would Burson-Marsteller’s eponymous founder Harold Burson, Ketchum CEO Rob Flaherty or Weber-Shandwick CEO Andy Polansky condone the violation of these tenets to advance a client’s interests? I think not.

What lies ahead is anyone’s guess, but it’s pretty clear to me, as a long-time PR pro and observer of the industry: the incoming administration intends to normalize the art of obfuscation and opacity so that its aggressive, non-mandated political agenda goes unchallenged. It’ll start with Mr. Trump’s cabinet picks.

Here’s their likely game plan:

  • Continue to have Mr. Trump set his 18 million followers’ tongues-a-wagging by posting incendiary messages via his favorite real-time social media platform, Twitter, and also use his bully media pulpit to distract from unwanted setbacks or impending negative news.
  • Deploy rabid, media-trained surrogates, armed with unwavering narratives, to live TV and like-minded media outlets.
  • Facilitate the amplification of politically aligned “news” by social media influencers — without regard to the news source. When the story’s veracity is challenged, double down.
  • Keep the inarticulate and unprepared Mr. Trump away from bona fide journalists and instead use his silver-tongued surrogates wherever and whenever necessary to advance his policy positions. Use access as a carrot, and insist on off-the-record when possible.

Linked below are some of my previous posts that offered a glimpse into the perilous state in which the industry now finds itself. It’s not just about Mr. Trump, his advisors, or the GOP. It’s about the pernicious degradation of democratic discourse in a nation that is in real danger of becoming another Russia, Turkey or Iran.

I haven’t seen much from PRSA on Team Trump’s disregard for the ethical guidelines that have buoyed the PR profession’s reputation all these years. I’m hopeful that it will eventually step up to call out what clearly is a violation of its TOS…if only for the sake of those who earnestly eek out a living practicing PR in the private, public and not-for-profit sectors.

The Writings on The Wall:

Fake News & Its Threat to Democracy (November 2016)

The Unsinkable Kellyanne Conway (September 2016)

Trump: The Art of The Lie (June 2016)

When Journalism Fails to Deliver (May 2016)

Content Marketing Is So Last Year (January 2016)

Full Frontal Media: Kylie vs. Kim (December 2015)

The Shifting Tides of Media & Journalism (July 2015)

Trump, Cyrus & Swift: Contrasting Characters (June 2015)

JayZ’s Media Orchestration (May 2015)

Russia Hacking the News (March 2015)

State-Run Media…In Indiana (January 2015)

A Fourth Estate No More (August 2014)

Look What Mark Cuban Started (June 2014)

Russia’s Media Trolls (May 2014)

Miley Cyrus’s Twerky PR Ploy (August 2013)

Media Walls Crumble: Brands Benefit (November 2012)

Leaders Who Lie (August 2008)