How cognitive dissonance is impacting this growing universal habit of blaming the media for the worsening of the crisis.

Some 77% of american public opinion (if such an animal ever existed) is reported to consider media reports largely responsible for the worsening of the global economic crisis.
What is however even more relevant and scary, is that many governmental and corporate leaders vociferously adopt the same argument, to the point were repetition inevitably ends up digging into collective opinions.

For example in my country (Italy) Prime Minister Berlusconi has repeatedly abused the media (his media, of course, but there ain’t much left..) in these recent weeks to denounce national media for aggravating the situation by reporting news on the crisis, and has repeatedly encouraged consumers to spend and advertisers to invest (if he was listened to, and early reports.. however biased.. indicate that he was, this is good news for his personal media interests whose profits largely rely on consumer related advertising).

This argument, of course, is utter nonsense and greatly exaggerated, at least to the extent it has reached.

For those of us who are accustomed to habitually read newspapers, visit the Internet, watch TV or listen to the radio, we have been frequently and sometime even dramatically forewarned of what was coming…. in some cases years, and in many cases months before.
Simply, we didn’t want to believe it and did not stop to think of what we might do to avoid it, and this because we wanted to push the bonanza indefinitely.

Historians will likely argue that this is one of the real universal reasons why the situation eventually worsened when it was clear it was coming.
Of course, there have been different patterns in different parts of the world, but overall I believe this to be a fact.

One of the many (and amongst themselves often contradictory) reasons why our collective opinion of the media has so dramatically dropped in this last period, is also because we have been consistently irritated by, and refused to listen to, the repeated alarms voiced by the more serious media on the global financial situation and its inevitable impact on the overall economy.

This argument clearly does not apply to all the media nor to all the journalists, but it would be foolish not to admit that the leaderships of many governments, institutions, corporations, associations and other organizations in the West and in the East, in the North and in the South, inadvertently (some) and voluntarily (others) conspired to a ‘business as usual’ approach, crossing fingers and confiding in a lucky star and hoping that when the house tumbled it would the one down the block and not ours (..that ‘America cannot and will not do this to us’ syndrome, so common in Europe at least, which of course leads us today to put the blame simultaneously on the messenger and the massager..).

So where does this leaves us, public relators?

Well, let us look at media relations (some 50% of our activity across the world) and begin our argument with the early 2008 Cardiff University research of the learned (not trash) British media which informs us that 82% of the printed information relies on sources which directly or indirectly have to with public relations. You may access the report cardiff report.

So, we are known to be the principal source for journalists.
In turn, journalists are known to be the principal source for the formation of public opinion (whatever that may amount to today..).
And public opinion comes back and, by a 70% margin, tells us that the media has worsened the crisis?

An uncomfortable thought for those professionals who represent that 82% of source, to say the very least!

Do I need to articulate further and explain the infinite and opaque tricks we constantly use to mislead journalists (admittedly often with their support, but this does not diminish our responsibilities..)?
To badmouth our competitors or adversaries?
To protect the interests we represent disregarding or not even making the effort to listen to evidence, facts and numbers?
To overtly exaggerate performances and underestimate failures?
To undermine obstacles and hype opportunities?
And, most importantly, to disrepute those (admittedly not many) journalists who still seem to believe that they have the duty to report the world as they interpret it relying on multiple sources without necessarily being obliged to abide only to the diktats of the stronger interests?

Of course, many of you will want to take issue on my use of the term we.

Of course not all public relators indulge in these practices, but we must face the fact that barely a meagre 10% of our professional community are sufficiently aware of their societal impact to belong to a professional association and, even so, it would be a long shot to state that these organizations are up to anything significant to ensure its members are coherent with the much touted ethics codes they sign up to.

Other views and comments?

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8 Replies to “How cognitive dissonance is impacting this growing universal habit of blaming the media for the worsening of the crisis.

  1. Frank makes points I agree with. But blaming the media gets us nowhere. The British Bankers Association Communication Chief Lesley McLeod is quoted by this week’s UK PR Week lashing out at poor media coverage of banking and financial issues. But if we are to develop PR strategies to cope with recession and then recovery, we must do better than that. You can read my take here:
    http://paulseaman.eu/2009/01/bankers-shouldnt-blame-the-media-they-should-join-it/

  2. I won’t try to comment on the situation in Italy, but I understand that a bumper sticker from the dot-com bust era has reappeared in California: “Please, God, just one more bubble.”

    Yes, “we” all want our bonanzas to push on indefinitely. But as someone who consumes media — especially financial media — all day long, I have to agree with that great majority who think that the media are responsible (partly, not largely) for worsening the crisis. Just as they were partly responsible for continuing to inflate the bubble on the way up.

    Anything for a hook that will give them a fighting chance against the new media. For example, one of the major network cable channels here in the US is now asking if the honeymoon is over for the Obama administration. It’s been 3 days!

    As for repeated alarms in certain media, if we had all acted the first time we heard that the end was near, I submit we’d actually be POORER today. Some of those learned media remind me of the clock that has stopped running but still gets the time right twice a day. The truth is, it is short-term thinking (financially, professionally, in our lives or in the media) that really gets us into trouble. And it is long term thinking, strategy and action that creates success by almost any measure.

    So, Toni, having taken issue with your premise, I reach the end of your post and find myself very much agreeing with in your prescriptions for the profession. That to me is a robust conclusion for an argument! Well done, my friend.

  3. Toni, your argument is very interesting as well as the idea that a part of PR is to blame when analysing the “media worsening of the crisis” perception. But on the relationship between media and “public opinion” it seemed interesting to remind Walter Lippmann’s ideas regarding (1) the non existence of citizens with the competence to discuss (in an informed way) all social issues and (2) the incapability of the mass media to help citizens acquire these competencies. Lippmann criticized a society model which demanded that everyone had informed opinions about all issues. But Lippmann also argued that although journalists are better informed than the average common citizen, they cannot be held responsible for not bringing the needed awareness level to citizens because they too suffer from distorted perceptions and from the influence of stereotypes.

    However, if brought to our present times, Lippmann’s reasoning might change because citizens today have much more information sources and use many other ways to collect information besides traditional media. Moreover, the role played by journalists in 1922, when Lippmann wrote his “Public Opinon”, could be equated to a new set of social actors today (such as bloggers, local community leaders, special interest groups, etc). So what does this mean? Is it possible that the equation PR -> Journalists -> Public Opinion might be more accurate regarding the first link (our influence on the work of journalists) than the second (the link between the traditional mass media and public opinion)?

  4. A couple of other thoughts:

    A lot of PR practitioners have concerns about their own job security as well as the worries about the general financial situation. This puts added pressure on the role of PR as an advocate if you are working in a firm where things look pretty bleak – or even worse, have already called in the receivers. Do you keep arranging the deckchairs as the ship sinks or see the early signs of the iceberg and jump early? Will being on deck when a company sinks be a liability on your resume (CV) in future – or are you able to benefit from enhanced crisis management skills?

    Secondly, I’ve noticed that even good news is reported as bad news. Not sure if this is down to PR practitioners or the media. For example, the UK’s largest supermarket today announced sales increased by 2.5% but this was announced as doom and gloom.

    There seems to still be an expectation that anything that isn’t massive profits is bad news – although major job losses are being reported as almost “in passing”.

    Strange times for giving advice to clients when positive stories are seen negatively and really negative ones are almost ignored.

  5. Toni,

    I would agree with Kristen on the points she makes – and that there is a lot to react to in your post!

    Undoubtedly, professional associations of all kinds will increasingly feel the pinch. Unless they can demonstrate real value and outcomes for members, I fear the 10% you cite may be reduced further as subscriptions fall victim to a stretched bottom line. Here in NZ we have a good percentage of practitioners belonging to PRiNZ and I hope that will be sustained, but as I’ve said here before, with ‘free’ opportunities widely available the pressure is on for associations to continually demonstrate their validity. The fact someone chooses to use a social network for their professional exchanges rather than an association doesn’t mean they are ‘less professional’, simply they are making a choice based on budget and perceived value. Not necessarily a wise one, given the digibabble out there, but again, that is a matter of opinion. Personally, I think the erosion of memberships will continue until either licensing kicks in or the associations themselves proactively educate the wider public as to the value and safety of using member practitioners who are properly qualified and ethically equipped to represent them.

    Which brings me to your ‘of course, many of you will want to take issue on my use of the term ‘we’.’ Too right I do! Having been fortunate enough to work both as a journalist and a public relations practitioner in more than one country, during my decades in both roles I have met a tiny number of people (less than five) who would fit the descriptions you give. In my experience, the majority do their best to ethically represent their organisations, both inside and out. I would agree with you Toni that not all practitioners are aware of their societal impact because for too long the focus has been on the mainstream media role, rather than the relationship, which is where the business of trust, confidence, faith, accepted value and licence to operate comes in.

    In Kristen’s last post, she said:”There is a real need for more communicators who can translate technical and scientific issues into terms that can be understood by non-experts.”

    This is also applicable to journalists and it is one of the areas where the media has a significant social responsibility, but where it consistently fails to perform. Why? Because it is a commercial animal, focused on getting readers, listeners and viewers for today’s news and adverts, not tomorrow’s. Factor into this a new cohort of younger, time-poor journalists who, thanks to the education systems they have traversed, have very limited general knowledge, experience and understanding of what is going on around them much of the time. In this instance, practitioners have a role to play in providing both information and context for the journalist who can then (hopefully) put their intelligence and discernment to work on behalf of their reader/viewer/visitor – unless of course, their stories are killed because of the commercial/political interests of the publisher.

    As you said, the changes we are seeing were signalled some considerable time ago, becoming blatantly obvious from mid 2007. Sadly the lack of understanding from all but the ‘expert’ journalists meant that celebrity gossip, fast-fix news and circulation-pusher headlines inevitably took precedence when it came to choosing lead stories that would prove a sufficient alert for those whose only encounter with the financial system is their bank statement and the cash machine. Editorially, it was still viewed as a ‘news possibility’ in 2007, rather than the ‘news event’ it became when the financial sky fell in last year. Run a content analysis over the reporting of the time and you’ll see what I mean. Under-reporting stories is nothing new and I suspect is something that will never change in mainstream media (although it might online).

    What happens next in the mainstream news cycle is that it seeks to make up for ‘lost time’, so we move to a phase of saturated ‘over-reporting’ – at which point the angst and frustration of the establishment (or organisaton) is triggered, often (but not always) because the reports seemingly undermine the efforts being made to correct a situation they have long been aware of; the ‘event’ is old news for the organisation and the corrective action is the focus they want to see, but the media is stuck in ‘event’ phase – which is another point at which the practitioner should be at work.

    On general inaction, (unless I have misunderstood your post) I wouldn’t agree that the general feeling was ‘that we didn’t want to believe what was happening or because we wanted to push the bonanza indefinitely”. In matters of finance, the vast majority of people are not expert (another issue long overdue for correction) and as such, a sense of powerlessness develops – a bit like the rabbit caught in the headlights. People are, for the most part, just getting on with their lives and jobs with the expectation that those in whom they place their trust will not let them down. This might seem naive, but in a large, established economic system that has told people to do just that for decades, why would we do otherwise?

    After all, what do you do if you are a farmer who has life savings in a financial institution that goes belly-up? You have done the best you can for your family by putting it in a trusted safe place – not ‘gambling on stocks’ or other complex, new-fangled financial instruments, yet your best efforts still leave you bust. Likewise the worker about to retire, only to find the long-saved for pension is now gone and nothing by the prospect of unaffordable food prices lies ahead. No amount of media coverage on how bad it all is will solve your problem. What you need to know is what can be done next, what is being done – if anything – how to have your voice heard and your situation corrected.

    Most of all you need to know where next to place your trust and which organisation might merit both that trust and a licence to operate by virtue of their ethical, timely and appropriate actions. Which is, unless I am mistaken, where we come in again. Not just as a conduit for mainstream media, which will over- and under- report regardless, but as agents for change. When the car breaks down, you fix the engine, you don’t change the driver or paint it a new colour. Neither of these things will get it moving again. Only a major overhaul or a new engine will do that. So this time around, shift the focus away from the media. We must be agents for significant and fundamental change, not tatting around on the periphery making minor adjustments or squirting new paint.

  6. These are all arguments I agree with save the second in which you ask:
    do you believe that most journalists are incapable of distinguishing bad PR practices and discounting the content created in that way?
    I do not Kristen.
    But I do believe that many professionals on both sides of the fence conspire, often unaware and with the blessings or benign neglect of their employers, to a highly partial (at the very least) misrepresentation of the available (if only they made the effort) representation of the available evidence on issues which impact on the publics day-to-day perception of events.
    I do not in any way pretend to indicate to journalists if, why and how they should reconsider this process, but I do think it is relevant to attract the attention of my professional peers to con-vince them to think twice before they do the ‘business as usual’ in today’s context.

  7. Toni, there’s a lot to react to in this post.

    First, there are a lot of reasons that people do or don’t join associations. Many employers do not pay the dues or only pay for one person in the shop to join each association. In my view, this is short-sited. Association membership is such an inexpensive way to support your employees’ professional growth! And sadly, many professionals either cannot spare the extra cash (even modest dues may be hard for people raising families) or do not understand the value of this investment.

    Second, I do not believe that the practices you list represent a majority of PR professionals, but I do believe that such practices are disproportionately visible (and harmful). However, even if 82% of media content comes from PR work, do you believe that most journalists are incapable of distinguishing bad PR practices and discounting the content created in that way?

    Third, I do believe that media plays a role in the continuation and worsening of the crisis, but not that it is the media’s fault. Our economic system is based on faith and confidence. The money in your pocket has value because you believe it does; the gold standard hasn’t existed for a long time. The same goes for stocks: a large portion of any company’s overall value relates to intangibles. It is therefore only natural that ongoing coverage of negative things is going to continue eroding people’s confidence in the system. But that doesn’t mean that the media should stop reporting on what is actually happening. It means that our leaders need to start providing other messages, facts and actions that restore confidence. I believe that Barack Obama and Nicolas Sarkozy understand this and are attempting to take appropriate steps. There may be others also moving in the right direction, but these are the two governments I follow most closely. Blaming the media for the crisis is really a case of shooting the messanger.

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