Social Media - do it right or don`t do it at all?

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"Today, there`s nowhere to run and nowhere to hide. The moment you hide something, you will end up being exposed and picked apart."
Paul Rand, Ketchum PR

Ever heard of the term "astroturfing"? Well, here`s a textbook example: Edelman, one of the biggest PR firms worldwide and self-constituted "pioneer of the web 2.0" decided to work on their client Wal-Mart`s image by founding a "grassroots" organization called "Working Families for Wal-Mart". Then in 2006, they created a nice little blog called "Wal-Mart across America", that featured the story of Laura and Jim, an elderly couple that travelled from Las Vegas to Georgia in an RV, parking for free in Wal-Mart`s parking lots. They didn`t miss out on telling the whole world how happy the Wal-Mart employees seem to be. Everybody just loves to work there. And everybody just loves to shop there! Sounds a bit too good to be true? That`s because it wasn`t.
The travel costs were entirely paid by Working Families for Wal-Mart, which is staffed by Edelman employees. Jim and Laura were on the Edelman payroll as well. A few weeks into the excursion, Business Week outed the blog as being fake. Two other blogs, "Paidcritics" and "For Wal-Mart" were also found to be written by Working Families for Wal-Mart. A storm of protest followed and Edelman was being chastised for misleading the public. Even worse, Edelman refused to admit its guild, saying that the blogs were set up by the organization Working Families for Wal-Mart, not by Edelman itself. Richard Edelman later apologized on his blog, taking full responsibility for the scandal. In fact, Edelman may have ended up suffering more from the mess than Wal-Mart. Fundamental issues of ethics in Social Media have been raised.

But shouldn`t Edelman, out of all PR firms know better? In fact, Richard Edelman has been running around lecturing New Media ground rules for a while now. They helped to write the rulebook for companies tapping into the blogosphere, preaching transparency and "honesty of relationship, opinion and identity". And there they go violating their own rules. This also shows how hypocritical internal code of conducts can be. But the huge loss of credibility that resulted for Edelman, as well as their client Wal-Mart hopefully showed others how to do it right. The Arthur W. Page Society established a set of principles for public relations on the Web:
  • Disclose any affiliations in chatroom postings
  • Offer opportunities for dialogue and interaction with experts
  • Reveal the backround of experts, disclosing any potential conflicts of interest or anonymous economic support of content
  • Practice principled leadership in the digital world, adhering to the highest standard
When it comes to Social Media, it is particularly important to follow those rules. One key characteristic of web 2.0 is that everything is open, transparent and accessible, so it is simply impossible to get away with things like fake blogs. Manipulating social media in ways that alienate users will eventually backfire The future of PR lies in New Media, so professionals should be careful not to ruin its credibility.

Gogoi, Palavi (2006): Wal-Mart`s Jim and Laura: The Real Story. In: Business Week, 9/2006. Read online
Gogoi, Palavi (2006): Wal-Mart vs. the Blogosphere. In: Business Week 10/2006.
Nolan, Hamilton (2006): Edelman acknowledges mistakes in blog matter. PR Week, October 23, 2006, p.3.
Wilcox, Dennis & Glen, Cameron (2009): Public Relations. Strategies and Tactics. Boston: Pearson.

PR vs Propaganda: manipulation or dialogue?

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"The fact that an opinion has been widely held is no evidence that it is not utterly absurd."
Bertrand Russell, British mathematician, philosopher

The use of the term "propaganda" as a synonym for public relations has been widely avoided because of its negative perception. However, the propaganda work done during World War II gave a strong impetus to the growth of PR in the UK, as well as in many other countries. Many scholars, including the most influential modern PR academics (Bernays, Carey, Habermas, just to name a few) don`t make a distinction between propaganda and PR and conclude that they are both concepts of manipulative communication. Grunig and Hunt (1984), on the other hand, have offered a developmental model for transformation towards a better PR, evolving from manipulation to mutual understanding, a two-way symmetric way of communication.

So are we on our way to a new form of PR, clearly separated from what is known as propaganda? In political PR, especially during war times or election campaigns, when it`s particularly important for governments to gain the nation`s trust and support, ethics take a back seat and strategies of propaganda come to the fore.In Germany, propaganda is still a "forbidden" term, associated with totalitarian state communications, reminding of what has happended during the Third Reich, when Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, manipulated a whole nation with his actions, along with total control of the media. He was, by any means, a didactic play when it comes to propaganda. German journalist Smoltczyk (2005) compared Goebbel`s strategies to what is practiced in politics nowadays. Here are some of his examples.
  • Today`s poster and billboard advertising of a presidential candidate, only showing the candidate`s head, was born in 1932. Goebbels managed to brand Adolf Hitler as a "logo" for his party, the NSDAP, and personalized the campaign to the point where people were no longer voting for a party, but for Hitler himself.
  • Goebbels also "invented" the party conventions, with music, flags and several speakers who would work the crowd until the party`s leader gives his speach. This kind of staging can still be seen at the big national conventions of the Republican / Democratic Party in USA.
  • During the heated phase of the election campaign, Goebbels made Hitler fly around Germany with a plane. He was flying 30.000 miles, speaking to 15 Million people. Italian president Silvio Berlusconi went on a very similar trip during his campaign 2001, when he went on a cruise along the Italian coast, every landing being celebrated with fireworks, a band and a big crowd.
  • Goebbels sent out 50.000 gramophone records with speeches and anthems, something that can be seen as an early podcast.
  • During the war, when the German media was long forced into line, Goebbels sent journalists to the battle zone so they could report as "soldiers amongst soldiers", a principle that is still used by the US military, as we could see in the movie "war spin".
When it comes to political PR, we are nowhere near a two-way symmetric form of public relations. Governments still manipulate the media and the public, they release false information and are generally more about ordering and telling than listening and talking. The big difference to what has happended 70 years ago, is that we now live in a pluralistic and democratic society. We are enabled to question what our government or the mainstream media tell us. The internet gives us more opportunities than ever to do so - and it is our obligation to make use of them.


Grunig, James & Hunt, Todd (1984): Managing Public Relations. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.
Moloney, Kevin (2000): Rethinking Public Relations. The Spin and the Substance. London: Routledge.
Smoltczyk, Alexander (2005): Die Marke Hitler. In: Der Spiegel Nr.7/2005.

All is fair in love and war? Spin during the Gulf War.

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"The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance...It is the illusion of knowledge."
Stephen Hawking

When it comes to war, public relations can be particularly unethical. In order to gain the trust and support they need, governments are not afraid to lie and to manipulate the public. Very common strategies are to involve peoples` emotions, create a good vs. evil story and stress how the war is serving a greater good. Those kinds of stories have worked for centuries of warfare. It`s exactly what the US and the Kuwaiti government did to gain the nation`s (and the Congress`) support for the 2nd gulf war.

MacArthur (1992) observed: "In August 1990, the Bush administration`s task was to sell two images - an ugly one of Hussein and a handsome one of Kuwait - to the American people. (...) The unsavory facts about Kuwaiti society made the task of presenting a martyred nation to the American public a delicate one. The selling of Kuwait as a modern-day analogy to pre-World War II Czechoslovakia would take some doing."
In 1990, a 15-year old girl called "Nayirah" alleged she had witnessed the murder of babies in a Kuwaiti hospital, in verbal testimony to the US Congress. In the following weeks, the story ran in every American newspaper and TV station. George H.W. Bush himself mentioned it several times and so did Amnesty International. It ultimatly legitimized the 2nd Gulf War.

Today we know: Nayirah was the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador in the US and the story was funded by "Citizens for a free Kuwait", a front organization created by famous PR firm Hill&Knowlton and almost entirely funded by Kuwaiti money - a classic PR front group designed to hide the real role of the Kuwaiti government and its collusion with the Bush administration.
The final vote on the 2nd Gulf War was 52 to 47 votes in the Senat and 250 t0 183 votes in the Congress. That clearly shows how controversial the decision was. This war probably wouldn`t have happened, if it wasn`t for Nayirah`s lachrymose tale, it was the hook of a very refined and elaborate campaign.

Hill&Knowlton, who received over $10 Million from Citizens for a free Kuwait, was also responsible for press conferences showing torture by the Iraqis, the distribution of tens of thousands of "Free Kuwait" T-shirts and bumper stickers at college campuses across the US and observances like the "National Free Kuwait Day". They also produced dozens of video news releases, which were gladly broadcastet by national TV news stations, who hardly ever bothered to find out the the source of the footage. It shows how easy it is to control and manipulate the media, especially in times when speed is everything.
In the end, the media sold the public a clean war, with the military being their only source of information and reporting from the battle field closely observed. The coverage almost entirely ignored the war`s human cost, an estimated 100.000 civilian deaths.

One question remains: Was it worth it? For the Kuwaiti and the US government, in terms of securing their oil business it certainly was. For Hill&Knowlton`s public reputation and the entire profession of PR, it wasn`t.
When being asked wether the testimony of Nayirah was decisive in mobilizing support to enter the war, Frank Mankiewicz, vice-president of H&K, answered that he had been against the war from the beginning and that it was the president`s decision. But he also called Kuwait a success for his company. Trento (1992) argues that since the White House controlled all information they gave to the media and the public, it remains a question whether or not H&K`s effort on behalf of Kuwait was technically necessary or effective. But in the end, it did demonstrate that a PR firm behaved like a warmonger, distorting facts, presenting violators of human rights as democrats and fooling the media.

It reassured the public`s perception of PR being unethical and untrustworthy, a shady profession whose only goal is to manipulate. If big, well-known agencies like Hill&Knowlton continue to operate not only in an unethical, but actually illegal way and to keep their accounts and schemes secret, this will probably never change.


Stauber, John & Rampton, Sheldon (1995): Toxic Sludge is Good For You. Lies, Damn Lies and the Public Relations Industry. Monroe: Common Courage Press.
MacArthur, John R. (1992): Second Front: Censorship and Propaganda in the Gulf War. Berkeley: University of CA Press.
Trento, S.B. (1992): The power house: Robert Keith Gray and the selling of access and influence in Washington. New York: St. Martin`s Press.