it’s time to take a look at geo-fear:this new plague-in-town impacting on public relations

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In Torino, early July, at the World Architects Conference -in the context of a workshop organised by Ferpi, Assorel (the Italian agency association) and the Global Alliance on how public relators and architects might better work together to reduce the more negative effects on society of the nimby (not in my back yard) and banana (build absolutely nothing anywhere near anyone) syndromes-

Romanian colleague Liviu Muresan, Ceo of Risc Foundation and security communication consultant to many major international organizations, stunned participants by delivering unprecedented data and projections on what metropolitan area public policy makers expect in terms of social unrest and violence in all those megacities mushrooming all over the world, but more prominently in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

In London (UK), mid June, at the World Public Relations Festival –and in the context of a session dedicated to Public DiplomacyNabil Ayad, Director of the London Diplomatic Academy at the University of Westminster, focussed his remarks on the concept of geo-fear describing it as the new buzzword which will guide global as well as local public diplomacy efforts in the years to come.

Again in Italy, last Sunday of July, Ilvo Diamanti, one of our most respected social scholars and researchers, published on daily La Repubblica a chilling summary of his research on ‘fear’, indicated as the most challenging new sentiment which has overtaken the Italian population in recent years.

I could go on and on to argue that the concept of fear is having substantial, horizontal and durable impact on our day to day activities, more than ever before, and that we, as public relators, must take a good second look at this phenomenon.

My first thought goes to the fact that public relations is supposedly to assist organizations in improving their relationships with influential publics….. and that this global pandemia of fear does not indicate that we have been doing a great job….. as it is clear that improved relationships imply more harmony, dialogue, conversations, understanding, negotiation and what have you…
Ah…. one might say…. so it is not so true that public relations impact the public interest as much as you constantly claim!
I wish this was so….
Unfortunately, I will instead argue the many of our activities, directly or indirectly, consciously or unconsciously, help to increase fear, distrust and deception in society.

Let me explain.
Political, economic and social uncertainty, fear and indecision induce (in organizations, as well as in publics) a spiral of depression, aspiration to order and, when this order doesn’t promptly come, anger and violence.

Naturally, any reasonable subject wishing to responsibly attempt to govern the issue, should be doing everything possible to avoid the anger and violence, by weakening the aspiration to order, and curing the depression.

Starting from this highly generic but necessary premise –and in parallel with the awareness that our work supposedly contributes to orienting opinions, behaviours and decisions of publics- the next step for a public relator would be to analyse the whole array of her/his present and planned activities from the perspective of the foreseeable consequences these have or will have on this new plague-in-town called the fear syndrome.

One specific example:

if any specific content I am to deliver in direction of my publics is bound to increase fear…I do not necessarily suggest self censure, but I do suggest a careful evaluation in order to avoid unnecessary and harmful overspill of alarm, which is often driven by a natural desire to hit the headlines in order to attract the attention also of publics who are not primary.

Clearly, if I have a choice between inducing fear or joy, and I select the former only because mainstream media prefers one to the other, then my responsibility definitely increases.

Once more, I am not suggesting we necessarily go against the current, counting on a sudden conversion from an ailing and ever more commercialized media system …but as we say this we must also acknowledge that public relations has been a substantial pusher of this media disease.

Here there is a good reason to make a special creative effort to create new spaces for different contents to attract the attention of our publics, beyond and besides mainstream media.

We must be able to prove to our clients/employers that in many cases, although admittedly not in all, this approach is more effective, ok maybe more time consuming, but overall generally less expensive and in any case better for our client/employer’s as well our profession’s licence to operate..

Your opinions? Other examples?

1 COMMENT

  1. I am reminded by this post of the films by Adam Curtis, who made a fabulous series The Century of the Self the first episode of which contains video of Edward Bernays. This was followed by The Power of Nightmares which claimed that a lot of modern fear of terrorism etc is deliberately fuelled by modern politicians, and their media relations advisors.

    From Bernays to the ‘Axis of Evil’, via almost any social marketing or public persuasion initiative. we’ve seen communications used to instil fear as a supposed motivator of either change, or more often, apathy and inaction on the part of the public.

    Indeed, the basic psychology of Seligman’s learned helplessness is evident and relevant. Rather than fuelling fear, perhaps PR practitioners can help the public more to see that they can be active in society and control what is happening.

    Unlike Seligman’s dogs who became depressed and inactive as a result of electric shocks, PR practitioners can draw on Grunig’s situational analysis and help publics recognise problems affecting them, form around issues where they have a personal involvement, and remove real or perceived constraints that often lead to this sense of helplessness.

    In many cases, fear is a poor motivator as the level of shock needs to be increased (again see psychology literature). We’ve seen this where public outrage becomes less and less as photographs become more shocking, terrible case study examples more common etc.

    The counter side of course, comes back to Bernays where after fear is created, and a common enemy often identified, publics are induced to give control to others whilst by being satisfied with material goods – happiness machines – to quote from the Curtis Century of the Self documentary.

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