Saturday, February 10, 2007

PR battle looms over fighting words (August 2003)

The battle lines have been drawn between communicators and journalists over the use of military terms in the media.

Just kidding! The headline and opening paragraph are examples of terminology that gets the ire of public relations professors Judith Scrimger and Trudie Richards at Mount Saint Vincent University.

Scrimger delivered a fascinating presentation at the national conference of the Canadian Public Relations Society, earlier this summer in Charlottetown, PEI.

Scrimger and Richards pay careful attention to how the public relations field is portrayed in media, and are concerned that terms like “flack” and “spin doctor” are damaging to the profession. Even worse, they’re concerned that public relations is being portrayed in violent terms, as if it were a weapon and war was being waged.

In a single Internet search, to see how often the terms ‘PR battle’ and ‘PR war’ sprang up, Scrimger and Richards received many thousands of hits. It was clear they were onto something so they used the Canadian New Source database to scrutinize articles appearing in 95 Canadian regional newspapers, four major newswires and The National Post.

They came up with 77 articles that contained the phrases ‘public relations battle’ or ‘war’. Although the references appeared throughout the paper, in editorials, letters to the editor, columns and opinion pieces, more than 80 percent of them were found in news articles.

Not surprisingly, the references occurred most often in relation to politics, business and economics, followed by labour disputes, the environment, and social activism.


The terms PR war or battle occurred in the lead paragraph in 55 percent of the articles. “So it’s very much used as a cliché for the journalist to let the reader know that this is important, hot stuff,” Scrimger said during her presentation.

In fact, the use of the term is always at the fancy of the journalist or editor, Scrimger said. “They were never directly attributed to a source. In other words, the spokesperson for Organization A never once said ‘We’re in a PR battle’ or ‘This is a public relations war’. The journalists were the ones who conceived this...”

A good deal of the time, Scrimger said, there was “an honest attempt (by communicators) to actually inform the audience about some important issue. But no matter what you did, it was a PR war or offensive.”

The references usually appeared in one of three scenarios, Scrimger said. “They showed up when one or more parties were seeking public support. They showed up when an effort was made by an organization to state its view on a controversial issue… and on disagreements between parties holding differing views.”

As an example, Scrimger cited a piece in the Montreal Gazette about the biotech industry, in which the writer said there was a “public relations war being waged” to convince consumers that genetically modified foods were said. The quote, Scrimger said, read as follows: “ ‘There’s a war on,’ he concluded. ‘You see it every night on your television screens. Only this war isn’t hot. There are no bullets or bombs. It’s a virtual war for the hearts and minds of the consuming public.’”

“So not only are we conducting military campaigns, but we’re also conducting virtual public relations wars too!”

In the London Free Press, the journalist escalated the language and metaphors by writing: “Hildebrand lobbed the latest salvo in what has become a public relations war as the court hearing approaches.”

“Salvo,” Scrimger noted, “is defined as ‘a simultaneous firing of guns or bombs released.’ So now we’re shooting out the bombs!”


In the Toronto Sun, the Toronto police association was described as having “fired the first shot” in the public relations war over the leadership of then-Police Chief Julian Fantino. “I thought this was a very interesting metaphor (because) the first shot was actually a ballot that was going to every member of the union to vote on a union position.”

“So,” Scrimger said, “it seems that if anyone was having a disagreement, or were attempting to negotiate some kind of agreement, they were in a PR battle or war.”

Journalists use conflict clichés even when the public relations is centred on an information exchange, Scrimger said. “The use of the phrase often over-simplifies, or glosses over the complexity, and journalists do not acknowledge ever that there might be some area of consensus. Once they have conceptualized what is happening as a public relations war, there is no potential for consensus. It seems entirely that one or the other will bludgeon the other with public relations activities and… win the war.”

In one case, Scrimger said, the Kamloops Daily News said that the city council was involved in a public relations “battle” to convince their citizens to better manage water conservation. A public meeting, to offer information and gather feedback from the citizens, was described as a war.

Scrimger is fully aware that news reporting is driven by conflict; that a story is rarely a story without some form of tension between two or more parties. Nonetheless, she said this type of journalistic “shorthand” should be a concern to anyone in the communications industry. “If we subscribe to what our professional association says public relations does or should do, then it’s going to be very hard for us to practice this kind of public relations if those we are relating to pick up their newspaper and discover they’re in a war with us.

“Relationship management theory argues that effectively managing organizational public relationships around common interests and shared goals over time results in mutual understanding and benefits. In fact, a good deal of academic research is showing that organizations who practice this kind of public relations do indeed become more effective and… are more successful in their business.”

In other words, if you can keep a conciliatory tone to your communications, and avoid escalating into a “PR battle”, you have a better chance of succeeding.

Journalists, of course, will attempt to dismiss this as “spin control” and fair enough – that is part of the delicate balance between interest groups and a supposedly unbiased media.

There is no question, however, that Scrimger has a point; that reporters do roll out the term “PR battle” far too often to pump up the conflict element in a story.


Scrimger’s colleague Trudie Richards has conducted considerable research into what she calls the “fighting frame” in news reporting. In an email exchange, she said that adversarial language is “unnecessary, inaccurate, exaggerated and ultimately counter-productive” not just for communicators, but society at large.

“War words and phrases… have implications that perhaps individual journalists have not considered. For one thing, they heighten tension where often that's the last thing participants in the issue desire. For another, they can actually insert tension where none exists. And they also contribute to a sense of anxiety, instability, and exaggerated competitiveness among citizens, who are already trying to manage a fair degree of such emotions in their own daily lives.”

The media have a commitment, Richards said, to the use of neutral language and the presentation of information in a context that may help citizens make wise decisions. “The language of armed and violent conflict does little to achieve that objective; in my opinion, it often has the opposite effect.”

In an attempt to offer an alternative to the fighting frame, Richards has developed a story model that is less confrontational, use neutral language, tries to understand the source of the dispute and what’s required to resolve it, offers shades of gray instead of "black and white," and recognizes that most disputes involve more than ‘two sides’.

“There is considerable resistance to change. Established journalists maintain such descriptors are so common now as not to be inflammatory; the journalism students I spoke to said they couldn't handle the criticism, since it essentially flew in the face of what they'd learned over the last four years. (!)”

Undaunted, Richards intends to continue her discussion (no, it's not a PR battle!) with those who write the news.

“I am moderately optimistic that the media will ultimately make a greater effort to change their reliance on the fighting frame,” she said, “if for no other reason than it is clear citizens are significantly disillusioned with media practices as it is. If journalists want to improve their own image, they would be well advised to remind themselves of their role as seekers of truths and as neutral observers.”

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