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by John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton
"Telling the Truth." Hmmm. Sounds like a good idea to us.
The problem, of course, is that before anyone can tell the truth, they have to know where the truth lies. And these days, the truth seems to lie wherever (and whenever) the PR industry tells it to lie.
It is therefore more than a little ironic that the Public Relations Society of America chose to build its recent annual conference around the slogan, "Telling the Truth: Building Credibility in an Incredible World."
Having reported on the scams and scandals of the PR industry for several years now, we find it strange to see PR pros mouthing words like "truth" and "credibility"--strange, even surreal, like watching pantomime artists silently simulate a musical performance.
Joel Bleifuss attended the conference and wrote the reports that appear in this issue. As his stories make clear, the PR industry's approach to communications continues to consist of endless opinion polling to find out what the public already thinks, followed by strategic message-massaging to make its clients' vested interests sound like state-of-the-art popular prejudices.
In olden times, this approach to communications would have been called "pandering to the masses." But we can hardly expect better from an industry founded on the belief that people are fundamentally irrational, easily manipulated, and that "truth" can therefore be manipulated and "repositioned" for a price.
Richard Edelman, president of one of the world's largest PR firms, stated this philosophy succinctly in a recent Esquire magazine story: "There is no truth except the truth you create for yourself."
We saw this type of PR-created "truth" during last year's elections: the tightly-orchestrated, absolutely meaningless nomination conventions and the carefully stage-managed politicians whose every word seemed refined to eliminate even trace quantities of sincerity.
If the PRSA conference is any indication, we can expect more and ever-more-slick "truths" to descend upon our heads in the near future, as flacks mobilize to chip away at the credibility of consumer groups, environmentalists, health reformers and other critics of absolute corporate power.
These are unpleasant realities of life in the 1990s, but they are necessary truths that must be faced by anyone who values democracy and the general social welfare.