The art and science of communications: From strategic to personal

Tag Archives: democracy

Strategic communication in the foreign policy, development and security arena – what’s that all about?

It’s about contributing to policy and guidance, providing strategic counsel, nurturing linkages and relationships between policy mechanisms, coordinating between national, international and non-governmental entities.

It’s about communicating in a highly charged, ethically challenging, fast moving, traditional and digital, multi-spectral, politically sensitive, conflict-ridden and culturally diverse environment.

It’s about employing media relations, advocacy, lobbying, grassroots activism, de-radicalisation, crisis management, new technologies and old.

It’s about the utility of forums, blogs, twitter, facebook, TV, radio, print, street chatter, posters, networks, crowdsourcing, mobile technology and academic discourse.

It’s about taking part in conversation, dialogue, consultation, education, monitoring, analysis, research, polling, cooperation and collective action.

It’s about understanding narrative, strategy, tactics, messages, identity, objectives, framing, behaviour, attitude, opinion and delivery.

It’s about appreciating sociology, anthropology, history, culture, group dynamics, behavioural ecomonics, organisational theory and psychology.

It’s about engaging with people, publics, stakeholders, governments, activists, opinion leaders, think tanks, NGOs and the military.

It’s about developing media industry, legal infrastructure, free press, media literacy, social activism, technology for development, institutional communications and public affairs.

It’s about managing media liaison, press releases, events, synchronisation, internal communications, spokespeople and social media.

But, simply put, what it’s really all about is bringing all of the above together.

That’s what it’s all about.

The International Symposium on Cultural Diplomacy 2010:

“Culture, Globalization, and International Relations over the next Two Decades” – Berlin, May 23rd – 30th, 2010

Symposium Agenda

The International Symposium 2010 will be split into three complementary parts. The program will begin by looking in greater detail at “culture” and identity” and how these terms are used and understood today. During this part of the program participants will have the opportunity to experience Berlin’s famous “Carnival of Cultures”.

The second part of the program will build on these components by considering the role that culture plays in contemporary international relations and the process of globalization. During these three days the concepts of cultural diplomacy” and “soft power” will also be explored in more detail.

The final part of the program will apply these discussions to one of the key issues that will determine global politics over the coming years: Afghanistan and stability in Central Asia.

The Symposium will be split into the following three parts:

“Defining and Understanding Culture in an International Context” : 23rd – 25th May)

A Three Piece Puzzle – “The Relationship between Culture, International Relations and Globalization” : 26th – 27th May

“Understanding Afghanistan and Central Asia: Supporting Democracy and Stability – The Path Ahead” : 28th – 30th May

This final part is being held in cooperation with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the German Marshal Fund (GMFUS), UNESCO, the European Commission, the US State Department and in partnership with leading international organizations.

Further details about the event can be found at the icd website:


There is a conventional wisdom when in media interview that the interviewee always address the journalist – and rightly so.  At that moment, one is in a dialogical process with the journalist which is then transferred to the public.  Journalists as media trainers, as well as professional media trainers, teach this.

However, CB3 has always thought that occasionally a direct appeal to the audience, by addressing the camera, does have some utility.  Take for instance the recent prime ministerial debates in the UK.  It is widely considered that the leader of the Liberal Democrats, Nick Clegg, won the debate and much has be said and written on how he did it.  Now, none of the candidates are great orators, and Clegg may have had the advantage of being an unknown underdog, but some have reported that his use of the camera, specifically adrressing it directly, may have gone some way to him ‘connecting’ with the audience.

Nick Clegg - Used the camera to his advantage

Although this was in a debate, not a strict media interview, this is a lesson how addressing the camera directly may be beneficial.  In interview it is not a recommended tactic but if a heartfelt appeal is to be made to an audience it may be worthwhile considering this direct approach, only briefly, for certain phrases or messages.  Journalists may not like it but, from a public affairs or media relations perspective, there is a certain power of connection that can be derived by doing so.  It is unconventional and must not be overdone – the context must be right and it is risky – but as they say ‘ do what you’ve always done and you get what you always get’.  Think creatively in the conduct of an interview – live on the wild side!

And a little update after the second debate: Lo and behold, David Cameron is now doing it too – if a little more awkwardly!

Organised by the University Association for Contemporary European Studies (UACES), Monday 22 March 2010 sees the final event of Communicating European Citizenship project, with a conference hosted by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London, uniting academic experts in communication, citizenship and European integration from a range of disciplines (politics, law, sociology, communications). Programme highlights include:

1)  The FCO’s Role in Communicating the EU to Young People – Alison Rose, Head of the Europe Communications, Institutions, Treaty and Iberia Group

2)  Perceptions of the EU and the Challenge of Communicating with Young EU Citizens – Jenny Fairbrass, Co-convenor of project/UACES Treasurer and Stephen Fairbrass, Co-convenor of project/Senior Lecturer in Citizenship Education, with feedback from the Continuing Professional Development and Year 9/10 conferences held earlier in 2010.

3)   Round Table to Consider Perceptions of the EU and the Challenge of Communicating with Young EU Citizenschaired by Alex Warleigh-Lack, Brunel University

*         Albert Weale, University College London

*         Don Rowe, Citizenship Foundation

*         Jean Lambert MEP

*         Andy Thorpe, Bradford Academy

*         Anna Neale, Longdendale Community Language College

4)  Ten Research Panels, each comprising three papers, on the following themes:

*       National dimension and citizenship

*       Economic issues and citizenship

*       Participation and elections

*       Education and citizenship

*       The media and citizenship

*       Social and Environmental citizenship

*       Legal issues

*       Civil Society

*       Active citizenship and local/regional issues

*       Communication strategy and discourse

Please see details of the project (co-funded by the European Commission), the programme of research panels, and in order to register.

Communicating European Citizenship - quite a task!

The possibility of reform of the UK’s unjust libel laws appears to be growing. Indeed, the Secretary of State for Justice,  Jack Straw is hoping to push through the findings of the working party on libel reform, before the next general election. 

Our current laws create a chilling effect on the writing, reporting and broadcasting of information, when powerful concerns can threaten debilitating libel action against any who threaten their interests.  It’s not that the libel laws are themselves completely at fault but that they encourage astronomical costs to be involved in libel action, in some cases nore than 100 times more costly than in Europe.  The horrific costs of a libel case mean that losing can result in a legal bill running to over £1m (even if the damages are just £10,000).  The result is that the UK has become the top global location for libel tourism or even, as some have termed it, libel terrorism.

Libel Laws - keeping these guys busy.

The cases highlighted by the Libel Reform Campaign should add greater pressure for reform. The cases of Simon Singh and Peter Wilmshurst highlight the real dangers and distortion that the suppression of free expression through the courts can present to the public.  Wilmshurst is being sued in the UK by a US company, NMT Medical Inc, for an article written by a Canadian medical journalist and published on a US website. The journalist was reporting a lecture given by Wilmshurst at a major medical conference in the US.  Simon Singh was sued by the British Chiropractic Association after he wrote an article in the Guardian criticising the association for supporting members who claim that chiropractic treatments – which involve manipulation of the spine – can treat children’s colic, sleeping and feeding problems, frequent ear infections, asthma and prolonged crying.  As Bad Science author Ben Goldacre puts it, any law that stifles critical appraisal is a danger to patients and the public.  Most recently, Danish radiologist Henrik Thomsen has spoken of his fears of discussing his work after a subsidiary of General Electric claimed he had damaged its reputation by raising concerns about a product.

The campaigning done by Index on Censorship, English PEN and Sense about Science under the banner of the Libel Reform Coalition has led over 20,000 people to sign a petition and MPs to receive 7,000 letters and emails in just a few months.   Supporters include Stephen Fry, Lord Rees of Ludlow, Ricky Gervais, Martin Amis, Jonathan Ross, James Randi, Professor Richard Dawkins, Penn & Teller and Professor Sir David King, former Chief Scientific Adviser to the UK Government.

These, and other, cases present a clear reminder that English libel laws need to change. The US has already realised that there is something fundamentally wrong with our legal system and is taking action. Indeed, American states are now individually passing laws to protect their citizens from libel actions in the UK and as a result English libel judgments will soon carry no weight in America.

David Cameron and Nick Clegg are already considering reform of our libel laws seriously and the clamour for reform is being made clear from several quarters, not least the Libel Reform Campaign.

No, not many other people know who she is either ... yet

As the Lisbon Treaty comes into force, a little reflection into the perception of the European Union as a global power as seen almost five years ago (2005).  A bit of nostalgia but may be an appropriate starting point to assessing where the EU is now, and where it might be going.


That the European Union (EU), being the world’s largest economic entity, has influence in today’s world is generally without doubt, but to be a true global actor requires influence across a wide spectrum.  In defining it as a global actor, one should consider seven, often interdependent, aspects to be fundamental in affording the EU any global influence.  These are: economics; international or regional cooperation; promotion of human rights, democracy and good governance[1]; prevention of violent conflict; fight against international crime and terrorism; and military capability.   Each should be examined so as to assess how far the EU can currently be considered a global actor. However, regardless of the EU’s potential capacity in these areas, economic, political and military weight count for little on the world stage without the political will to engage that weight and the capacity for, and autonomy of, decision-making[2].


With an annual GDP of almost 11 trillion euros, accounting for, on average, some 25% of world GDP, contained within a unique and successful customs union, in economic terms the EU can be seen as a superpower, with undoubted global influence.  Via the customs union it has largely pooled the economic trading capacity of its member states, such that it is the world’s leading exporter of goods, services and Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) and the main export market for some 130 countries around the globe[3].  Through the European Community pillar, it possesses its most powerful foreign policy instruments: the capacity to enter into trade, economic cooperation and development agreements with other economic entities, national or regional, especially through the European Community’s General System of Preferences (GSP); and direct financial assistance to third countries[4].  Its very success in regional economic integration is held up as an example across the world, allowing for some degree of influence globally.  Its sheer trading power, economic capacity and prominence make it easy to regard as a global actor in economic terms.

With its significant economic power, it has considerable influence with the global institutions (International Financial Institutions – IFIs) which influence global trade and finance regulations, such as the World Trade organization (WTO) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF).  This is regardless of the lack of an EU seat, but due to the fact that cohesion and concensus is relatively strong over trade issues[5].  Yet, there are brakes upon the already significant EU influence, but these are less a fault of the EU than the rigid and hierarchical structures of such bodies[6].  Further, the EU is often seen as falling foul of WTO rules, being a respondent in disputes almost as often as a complainant, but this does not diminish the EU’s global influence and possibly proves its existence[7].  Regardless, technically proficient in economic management and with competent control mechanisms, expressed exclusively through the Commission, the economic weight of the EU is by far its biggest ‘stick’ and ‘carrot’, available for exercise outside the strictly economic sphere.


Closely aligned to economics, in regards to international, or more specific to the EU, regional cooperation, the EU is most exemplary, largely through its own identity and origins.  Relying on legal frameworks and diplomacy, it rather uniquely fosters regional cooperation within its own neighborhood and further afield, to a degree that few can match[8].  With cooperation agreements between the EU and Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN), the Andean Community, African, Caribbean and Pacific countries (ACP)[9], the Central American Community, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and Mercosur, there is now also a plethora of regular high level political meetings between representatives of the EU and other regional groups across the globe.  In this, the EU has considerable international profile and a modicum of global influence.

However, whilst the will is there, there is a growing ‘capabilities-expectations’ gap, in which EU institutions are finding it difficult to address all groupings, ‘to the detriment of Europe’s international profile’[10].  Further, this ‘new regionalization’, although largely driven by the EU[11], is only incumbent upon the trend of globalization which is by no means irreversible.


The promotion of human rights, democracy and good governance is seen as a significant

Talking of good governance ...

element of the EU’s international image, although rather more reactive than proactive[12].  However, detailed analysis reveals limits.  Having looked at these issues relatively late on, other European organizations stole a march on the EU and feature heavily in promoting common European standards.  The European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) is a creation of the Council of Europe, to which the individual EU member states have signed up.  The Organization for Cooperation and Security in Europe (OSCE) also plays a significant part the promotion of democracy. Although the ideals of the ECHR have been incorporated into EU charters and conventions, they tend to be non-binding and have little legal basis, providing limited legitimacy when it comes to addressing the issue on a global stage.  Similarly, with the EU being accused itself of a ‘democratic deficit’, legitimacy here is also sketchy and good governance is difficult to codify anyway.

Although other organizations crowd into this field, the EU does possess powers unavailable to them through its economic and political weight.  The use of conditionality, the provision of aid (via the EU’s European Initiative for Democracy and Human Rights (EIDHR)) and diplomatic instruments are the EU’s strong hand.  However, conditionality can be difficult due to existing member state, especially ex-colonial, bilateral ties, EIDHR’s budget is paltry and security concerns over hasty democratization bringing civil strife mean that EU policy in this area is fairly inconsistent and decision-making is hampered.

Yet, there is a collective will, based upon largely shared history, development of common values and a perception of insecurity in not doing so, within the EU member states to promote human rights, democracy and good governance.  If the practicalities prove difficult there is a global platform which proves more amenable to the EU itself: the United Nations.  Despite recent rifts over Iraq, there is increasing convergence of EU member state voting in the UN General Assembly, approaching some 85%, making it an effective machine within the UN[13].   Despite it being accused of being mostly reactive, the EU has been seen to be a powerful UN actor when cohesive and committed, such as over the Kyoto Protocol and the International Criminal Court (ICC)[14].


The EU itself can be seen from its inception as a mechanism designed to prevent conflict in Europe and the concept is now enshrined within the European Security and Defence Policy (ESDP).  Outside its own borders, the EU has become increasingly involved as a mediating element in conflicts within its neighborhood, such as the Former Republic of Yugoslavia and in FYROM, with varying success, and the Mediterranean. Increasingly, the EU features as a party, within a larger grouping, normally including the US, to conflict resolution and/or prevention, such as efforts in the Middle East[15].  However, US interests cause EU influence to wane over distance, inherently displaying the EU’s limited global scope.  Aside the Middle East and Central Asia, Africa does appear to be progressively showing on the EU’s radar, with growing commitment, although far short of direct intervention, being promised from the Council[16].  The EU’s provisions for conflict prevention have improved considerably, with the Goteberg European Council of June 2001 sparking a drive towards coherent policy in this area.

Yet, despite impressive improvements and significant will, the EU’s conflict prevention capacity is diplomatically weak.  Despite the political influence afforded by the EU’s economic standing, conditionality and sanctions often fail in poverty stricken and violence ridden areas and limits have been apparent with more developed states, such as between India and Pakistan in May 2002.  The Iraq crisis presented the epitome of a lack of vigourous and clear diplomatic signals from the EU; signals most necessary in conflict management.  Yet, some see the EU’s ‘soft’ power, without the threat of military force, as its unique strength in conflict prevention[17].


Although international terrorism is nothing new to the EU region, the full impact of international organized crime was only fully realized as the Cold War ended, allowing infiltration of crime syndicates from the former Soviet Bloc.  Thus, whilst national policies developed, the EU has had a late start in this field. Through the provisions of EUROPOL, the Schengen Agreement, European Judicial Cooperation Unit (EUROJUST) and other capabilities within the third pillar, Justice and Home affairs (JHA), the EU’s capacity in fighting international crime and terrorism, within its own borders, has been improved, especially since the events of 11 September, 2001[18].  In November 2002 EUROPOL’s competences were expanded: it is now authorized to participate with member states in joint investigation teams and request member states to initiate investigations. In February 2002, EUROJUST was established to coordinate cooperation between prosecution authorities in EU member states.  These are largely of an internal dimension but provide for some high levels of coordination, which have eased cooperation with other national governments and crime-fighting authorities.  In December 2001, the EU’s impact upon global crime and terrorism issues expanded through the signing of cooperation agreement with the US, demonstrating a new emphasis on its external crime-fighting remit, which extend to judicial cooperation, immigration and asylum[19].

The diplomatic instruments of dialogue and conditionality, such as use of GSP, are also major features of the EU’s commitment in tackling these issues.  However, JHA is largely internal and effectively tackling international organized crime and terrorism requires the evolution of significant cross pillar coordination, which is proving slow.  As a global player in this field, the EU has still further steps to make.


Nice ... but not NATO

The legacy of the Cold war, in which Western European states, EU or not, relied upon NATO, remains problematical for the EU in terms of developing its own globally capable military capabilities.  The EU lacks deployable forces for expeditionary warfare, that is, forces for worldwide combat missions. The member states of the European Union have approximately 1.7 million men and women under arms but are capable of deploying only approximately 10 percent of these forces for missions abroad, largely through a lack of strategic resources, such as airlift capacity[20].  The’ headline goals’ of the Rapid Reaction Force (RRF) and development of the more realistic battlegroup concept show commitment to the idea of EU military capability but compared to a truly global military machine, the US, the effort is rather small scale and the will to follow this path is confused by the NATO aspect.  Hence the view that the EU is still a military midget with grand aspirations.

However, many of the armed forces of the EU member states, are relatively capable in terms of the missions required of a global actor, ideally suited to and with considerable experience in peacekeeping and policing missions.  As such, EU missions to the Democratic Republic of Congo (Artemis) and Macedonia (Concordia) have demonstrated this limited but competent global capability.   Whereas the RRF may find itself vying with the embryonic NATO Response Force (NRF), the Battlegroup concept, allowing the EU much more flexibility, realistic force generation options and simpler command and control issues, from political to tactical, may allow for a truly global military capacity, worthy of a global ‘soft’ power.  Ironically, some see this ‘militarization’ of the EU as a direct threat to its agency as a ‘soft’ power and to its identity, if fragile, as a ‘civilian power’ based upon liberal humanitarian principles[21].


Endorsing a policy of ‘effective multilateralism’, the EU’s ethos is well suited towards the ideals of global governance.  As previously mentioned, the EU does have influence within various global institutions such as the WTO.  Within the UN, where broad EU member state concensus exists, which, although overshadowed by high profile rifts, is common, considerable pressure can be brought to bare, especially when a powerful, if temporary, EU ‘caucus’ exists within the Security Council[22].  In the fast-growing relationship between the EU and the UN, to the extent that the multilateral UN is shifting towards a ‘soft’ power approach to global issues, the EU is seen as a major contributor to the agenda[23]. Now, as the combined contributions of the EU and its member states make the EU the largest contributor to UN programmes, the authority and recognition of the EU as a major global actor within the UN is widely recognized[24].


The EU is not a traditional global actor in realist terms, which the US epitomises, but in a relatively short time span it has developed significantly its international reach and as a ‘soft’ civilian power it has considerable global weight, across a wide spectrum[25].  Much of its weight rests upon its massive economic consequence in world terms, which is a mighty instrument capable of use outside the economic sphere.    Such use is dependent upon the cohesion of perspective of its member states but with such a concrete economic basis, it is developing politically as a global player, even though it is hampered a hazy sense of identity and interests and by the weakness of its foreign policy institutions and decision-making processes.  Despite this, although recent years have seen fragmentation, a general will to maintain cohesive foreign policy, supporting its global influence, is being maintained[26].  Many have played down the EU’s global influence, yet its development as a global player does continue, although often at a glacial rate.  Even so, the EU’s global influence across the spectrum is currently patchy, partly due to its own priorities, inherent capabilities, member state inconsistencies and external agency.  Further, its autonomy in exerting influence remains indeterminate.  In allowing the EU to exert some wide authority, some parts of the globe and some global issues are much more difficult than others.  These areas and issues are defined by the global actor: the United States.

[1] Within which are included environmental issues.


[2] Coolsaet and Biscop, (2004), p. 7.

[3] ‘Making globalisation work for everyone: The European Union and world trade’, European Commission Information Brochure, December 2002.

[4] Smith (2003), p. 53.

[5] This is relative, as there remain several disagreements, not least over agricultural products.

[6] ‘Critics claim structures are rigid, outdated and overly hierarchical and that working practices lack transparency and openness to input from non-governmental players.Pascal Lamy, after Seattle, described the WTO as “medieval” while Franz Fischler, after Cancun, stated that there needed to be an overhaul of WTO structures.’ Cameron (2003), p. 13.

[7] Alasdair R. Young in ‘The EU and World Trade: Doha and Beyond’, Cowles & Dinan (2004), pp. 213-5.

[8] Smith (2003), p. 95.

[9] Linked together via the 2000 Cotonou Agreement, replacing the Lome agreement of 1975. Nugent (2003), pp.433-4.

[10] Regelsberger, cited in Smith (2003), p. 91.

[11] Gilpin (2001), p. 341.

[12] Smith (2003), p. 121 & 144.

[13] Johansson-Nogues, ‘The Fifteen and the Accession States in the United Nations General Assembly,  CFSP Forum, Vol 2 Issue 1, January 2004, p. 10.

[14] Cameron (2003), p. 15.

[15] Anand Menon in ‘Foreign and Security Policies of the EU’, Cowles & Dinan(2004), pp. 231-2.

[16] Smith (2003), p.151.

[17] Smith (2003), p.170

[18] Smith (2003), p.175

[19]John D. Occhipinti in’Police and Judicial Co-operation’, Cowles & Dinan (2004), pp. 192-3.

[20] de Wijk, ‘European Military Reform for a Global Partnership’, The Washington Quarterly,  Winter 2003-04, pp. 197–210.

[21] Peterson & Sjursen (1998), p. 179.

[22] Dedring, Reflections on the coordination of the EU member states in organs of the United Nations’, CFSP Forum, Vol 2 Issue 1, January 2004, p. 3.

[23] Graham, (2004), pp. 14-15.

[24] Laatikainen, ‘Assessing the EU as an Actor at the UN: Authority, Cohesion, Recognition and Autonomy’, CFSP Forum Vol 2 Issue 1, January 2004, p. 4.

[25] Peterson & Sjursen (1998), p. 184.

[26] Hill, ‘Renationalizing or Regrouping? EU Foreign Policy Since 11 September 2001’, Journal of Common Market Studies Volume 42, Number 1,  March 2004, pp. 160-62.


Cameron, Fraser. The European Union and Global Governance European Policy Paper No 7, November 2003.  Available at http://www.epc.orgp.

Coolsaet, Rik and Biscop, Sven.  A European Security Concept for the 21st Century, Egmont Paper 1 Royal Institute for International Relations (IRRI-KIIB) Brussels, April 2004.  Available at http://www.irri-kiib.bep.

Cowles, Maria Green and Dinan, Desmond,  Developments in the European Union 2  Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.

Dedring, Juergen.  ‘Reflections on the Coordination of the EU Member States in Organs of the United Nations’, CFSP Forum, Vol 2 Issue 1, January 2004.

de Wijk, Rob. ‘European Military Reform for a Global Partnership’ The Washington Quarterly  Winter 2003-04.

Gilpin, Robert.  Global Politcal Economy: Understanding the International Economic Order Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001.

Graham, Kennedy. Towards Effective Multilateralism – The EU and the UN: Partners in Crisis Management European Policy Paper No 13, November 2004.  Available at ^http://www.epc.orgp.

Hill, Christopher.  ‘Renationalizing or Regrouping? EU Foreign Policy Since 11 September 2001’, Journal of Common Market Studies Volume 42, Number 1. March 2004.

Johansson-Nogues, Elisabeth. ‘The Fifteen and the Accession States in the United Nations General Assembly,  CFSP Forum, Vol 2 Issue 1 January 2004.

Keens-Soper, Maurice.  Europe in the World: The Persistence of Power Politics  Basingstoke: Macmillan Press, 1999.

Laaitkainen, Katie Verlin. ‘Assessing the EU as an Actor at the UN: Authority, Cohesion, Recognition and Autonomy’, CFSP Forum, Vol 2 Issue 1, January 2004

Nugent, Neill.  The Government and Politics of the European Union (Fifth Edition) Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.

Peterson, Jogn and Sjursen, Helene.  A Common Foreign Policy for Europe: Competing Visions of the CFSP  London: Routledge, 1998.

Smith, Karen E. European Foreign Policy in a Changing World  Cambridge: Polity Press, 2003.

‘Making globalisation work for everyone: The European Union and world trade’ European Commission Information Brochure, December 2002.

In his introduction to a 2003 edition of George Orwell’s 1984, Thomas Pynchon wrote: ‘Every day, public opinion is the target of rewritten history, official amnesia and outright lying, all of which is benevolently termed “spin”, as if it were no more harmful than a ride on a merry go round’.  Pynchon himself is an extremely publicity-averse character, suggesting his attitude towards the media, public relations and corporate marketing is hardly going to be warm.  However, his comments regarding spin do not exist in a philosophical wilderness; many others, from academic to layman, support his sentiment.  As the title of Ewen’s seminal book “PR! A Social History of Spin” (1996) demonstrates, in the minds of many, the practice of public relations remains interwoven with the idea of spin.

Spin, in its communicative context, is a relatively new term for an ancient aspect of human interaction.  The notion of presenting oneself, an idea or a product, in the best possible light, through Machiavellian methods, is as old as history, demonstrated in all from the mundane, as in inter-personal courtship, through to that affecting society as a whole, as in political propaganda.  Its modern incantation represents ‘a lack of substance, interpretation parading as fact, image creation at the expense of tangible evidence’ (Pitcher, 2003, p. 5).

The Dodgy Dossier - spun and sexed up

The Dodgy Dossier - spun and sexed up

When attached to public relations, this notion is given special pejorative attention, with connotations of media manipulation, downright lies, ‘sexing up’, deception and economy of truth.  It also appears as a mainstay of propaganda, aimed at promoting a doctrine, a core subject of Orwell’s 1984.  Indeed 1984, inspired by the societal and political structure of the Soviet Union, presents a world dominated by propaganda, taken by Pynchon to be exercised in contemporary public relations.  There are many examples, such as Alistair Campbell’s ‘Dodgy Dossier’ of 2003 over Iraqi military capabilities and multiple alleged cases of corporate ‘Greenwash’ involving companies such as Shell and Monsanto, which may support Pynchon’s statement and organizations such as Spinwatch and the media themselves are highly aware of spin’s reality.

Public relations undoubtedly suffers being tarnished by the obvious reality of spin, but the real case for such spin deeply manipulating public opinion in modern liberal democracies is undermined by two factors; the nature of contemporary public relations and the complexity of the construction of public opinion.  In tackling the question precisely, the former will be examined in detail, with reference to the latter.  The methodology will be to examine theoretical aspects of public relations, examining the scope for spin, and then cover the realities of modern public relations in relation to spin within the contemporary communications context applicable to liberal democracies.

The work of Edward Bernays, evocative of a degree of social control via communications, gives credence to many claims that public relations has always welcomed the art of spin in its practice (Ewen, 1996).  However, the late twentieth century has seen the embrace of the Grunigian paradigm, enveloped within systems theory, which now seems to pervade modern public relations teaching and theory, representing the mix of methods found in modern public relations. Of the one-way communicative models, Press Agentry or Publicity are susceptible to untruths in order to gain profile, whereas Public Information is largely factual within a liberal democracy, if possibly selectively so.  It is of note that, as Kitchen and Papasolomou (1999, p.343) claim, in the US public relations is largely seen as publicity, possibly revealing an increased susceptibility to spin. Two-way asymmetrical methods specialise in examining ways in which publics may be persuaded to conform to an idea or product.  It is here that spin may be identified as a means, after risk analysis.  Two-way symmetrical methods aim to bring the opinions or attitudes of publics and an organization closer together.  Of these approaches, the first three present scope for spin, whereas highly normative two-way symmetrical methods present themselves as less so.  However, this last method has come in for criticism as being utopian, with claims that  public relations are “necessarily partisan and intrinsically undemocratic”. (L’Etang 1996, cited in Grunig, 2001, p. 16).  The implication here is that such partisanship may usher in the idea of spin to achieve that party’s objectives, regardless of method employed  However, it can be argued that the principle of two-way symmetrical approaches methodologically reduces the ability or reasons to spin.

Plato had a few things to say about rhetoric

Plato had a few things to say about rhetoric

Other inter-related theories appear to present less scope for spin, alluding to principles of two-way symmetrical communication.  Rhetoric, seen by Gregory (2002) as the dominant practice of public relations, in which truth is said to remain after debate (Moloney, 2004, p. 39), appears to possess less propensity to spin, with the credibility of a source being at its heart.  Indeed, Heath (2001, p.32) claims that advocacy is key to rhetoric and that a legitimate battle of persuasive argument, allowing active multi-party participation and scrutiny of communicative messages, creates an environment not conducive to spin.  However, the art of such persuasive communication is, in its modern sense, often accused of presenting style over substance, although not necessarily spin.

Relationship management takes a view of complex but mutually supportive relationship networks, in which organizations and publics tend towards ‘co-orientation’ (Cutlip et al, 1999).  This theory relies upon two-way communications but is instinctively appreciative of mutual obligations and debts and relies on a significant degree of openness.  This approach does not encourage spin, as deep and complex relationships cannot survive under its shadow.

As in most studies of social science, critical perspectives are rightly given space to challenge the dominant paradigms.  Postmodernists regard two-way symmetric communications as unrealistic and utopian in an ever complex and fast-moving environment in which meta-narratives have little chance to gain a deep hold on society.  The Frankfurt School, especially Jurgen Habermas, have expounded on various critical theories.  Habermas’s ‘public sphere’ concept is worthy of mention, claiming the chattering tea-houses of middle-class, bourgeois western societies create their own communicative arena, the ‘public sphere’, which in the twentieth century came under threat from political and economic forces, imposing order on the mob via propaganda and spin (Habermas, 1992).  However, Habermas’s theory has been reviewed in light of the rise of information and communication technology (ICT) which has the potential to re-energise, to a degree, the ‘public sphere’ within chatrooms and blogs, an aspect to which we will return later.

The main theories have been skated over for evidence of the possibility or propensity for spin.  Although the full expanse of the Grunigian paradigm may be somewhat unrealistic, Grunig’s assessment of public relations generally practicing varying degrees of both one-way and two-way communication is widely accepted. By and large, to use the systems theory paradigm as a template, the one-way transmission systems are possibly laid open to abuse by spin.  By comparison, forms of two-way symmetrical communication, with their emphasis on dialogue, relationship-building and debate appear much more resistant to spin.  Thus, the claim that public relations is no more that potentially spin-ridden one-way communication, evident in Orwell’s 1984, is theoretically flawed, with modern public relations in liberal democracies operating within theories encouraging spin-resistant approaches, with a scope theoretically exceeding that indicated by the term spin.

That is the theory.  But reality and practices need scrutiny.

There has been a recognizable shift by practitioners to re-align themselves away from the methods of one-way and asymmetric methods, especially that of press agentry, to provide distance from the smear of spin (Wood, 2006, p. 540).  In essence this has produced a migration into the territory of dialogue, relationship-building and debate.  However, that reality does not mean spin has been totally expunged in practice.  For example, whilst rhetoric in ideal circumstances may be seen as spin-free, the harsh, cold reality of communicative inequality or power, in which other parties are not resourced or availed of information, make the debate in which truth should prevail rather one-sided (Moloney, 2006, p. 39).  As such, rhetoric can in practice be susceptible to spin.  Similarly, the soft-sounding term ‘relationship management’ does not necessarily guarantee truthful exchange, free of spin.  The partisanship issue is founded in reality, in which business and politics are generally zero-sum games and whereby benefits are not equitably shared.

Friedman - business is business is business

Friedman - business is business is business

As Milton Friedman allegedly claimed, ‘the business of business is business’ and although this may be somewhat brittle a statement, the sentiment is indicative of the advantage or profit that organizations will always seek, some falling for spin under the approach that the ends justify the means.  This equally applies in the area of government lobbying, in which leverage may sometimes be applied via unethical practices, including patronage, favours and spin.

The predominant systems theory itself, as already indicated, proves to be a case of communicative idealism when presented with reality.  As Moloney (2006, p.168) states:

“PR teachers and students glide over the statement that three parts of the Grunigian typology are pathologies of the fourth and not much practised part (two-way symmetrical).  By dint of exposure and repetition, the ‘ought’ of the fourth has become the ‘is’ of the other three.”

However, it is the literature of academics, lectures of teachers and studies of public relations students which present the critical aspect of public relations and its relationship with spin – ethics.  As normative as theories of public relations may be, it is the study and encouragement of ethics within the study and practice of public relations which indicate its growing aversion to the practice of spin.  The teaching of ethical decision-making processes, such as the Potter Box model and the Navron model, are demonstrative of public relations taking its responsibilities as an ethical practice seriously.  Self-regulatory codes of practice, such as that upheld by the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) and the Global Protocol on Ethics in Public Relations upheld by the Global Alliance for Public Relations and Communication Management, encourage ethical practice.  Indeed, the academic development in this area has resulted in ethical theories of public relations.  Responsible advocacy charges practitioners with loyalty to those they represent but also to stakeholders at large and enlightened self-interest follows that an ethical approach will result in success.  The rhetorical or adversarial approach may embrace ethics through the idea that practitioners act as barristers in an arena of conflicting messages and, unsurprisingly, proponents of two-way symmetrical communications view this as a valid ethical approach.

Another case of relationship-building, or more accurately a widening of the pool of publics to include those not of immediate value to organizations, has been the increasing emphasis on Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) as a public relations function.  A degree of ethical practice may underpin CSR and in practical terms CSR appears to be a good example of a shift away from asymmetry to less-spin prone dialogue, relationship-building and debate.  However, the real effects remain difficult to measure and the motivations for CSR itself present several paradoxes when seen under an ethical spotlight.  This has meant that although the practices of CSR may seem less susceptible to spin, the entire concept is sometimes seen as a larger conspiratorial spin agenda (Frankental, 2001, pp. 18-23).

Corporate Social Responsibility

Corporate Social Responsibility

The import of these theories in practice is their mere consideration and instruction.  Under codes of conduct and ethical considerations, public relations practice generally, and especially in the field of dialogue, relationship-building and debate, is embracing the notion of spin being utterly unacceptable.  But are public relations practitioners practicing what they preach?

Literature is replete with examples of spin, from the ‘Spinocchio’ of New Labour (Franklin, 2004, p.55) to the plethora of corporate cases identified by Stauber and Rampton (2004).  Lower profile, non-newsworthy cases of public relations practitioners conducting genuine dialogue, relationship-building and debate are less immediately apparent.  This fact itself contributes to the sentiment evident in Pychon’s statement.  However, there is evidence to counter Pychon, presented in the way in which many organizations operate in a largely open and honest manner with regard to their publics.  Good examples are that of Toyota, apparent through its 2010 Global Vision and its guiding principles (Toyota, 2007) and, surprisingly, Shell.  In the latter’s case, despite accusations of ‘greenwash’, it revolutionised its communication practices to forge dialogue and engagement after the Brent Spa case of 1995, which resulted in Shell being voted ‘Britain’s Most Admired Company in 2001 by Management Today (Barry, 2005, p. 14).  Further, in the area of crisis communications, where organizations are at most under pressure to pump out spin, there is significant evidence that openness, dialogue and clarity are often the preferred option.  One seminal case, used as an example of how to conduct crisis communications, is that of the Tylenol crisis of 1982. More recently, the response of Mattel to a product recall crisis, regardless of criticism of the practicalities of its crisis communications, exemplified an openness which some have seen as most welcome (Kosky, 2007, p.15).

Thus, although stark evidence of public relations practices avoiding spin is hard to come by – after all, there is not a ‘good PR practice watch’ website – they can be found and anecdotal evidence is available, even amongst a spin-aware audience.

Orwell based his predictions on a period of suppression for the social ‘public sphere’, rife with the ideas of Bernays and typified by social systems such as Nazism and Communism.  Pynchon’s statement takes little account of contemporary tectonic shifts of the communicative context within which spin, and by inference, public relations functions.  To understand the contemporary relationship between spin and public relations, and the manner in which public opinion is formed, this context must also be considered.

Pychon’s statement claims a power of spin, a notion that proactive, targeted communications or public relations can fully form a generally accepted narrative or world-view, which may be over-rated in today’s communicative environment.  Just as the modern social ‘public sphere’ of the information age is providing publics with a plethora of communicative links, dialogue, relationship-building and debate is becoming common between publics about organizations, as opposed to with organizations.  History is no longer necessarily written by the victors, lies are quickly exposed or met with widely–communicated counter-claims, and amnesia is refused as information sourcing becomes widespread.  Hence, on the one hand, the environment in which public relations practitioners could, if desired, conduct spin operations to form public opinion appears to be much less amenable to spin itself.   On the other hand, a typical postmodernist reproach could be that communicative anarchy, awash with spin from all, is a more realistic environment.  That philosophical debate is beyond the scope of this paper and for the purposes of our examination, we shall assume that ICT can lead to a greater openness and democratization of society if it provides unlimited access to information and equal participation  in cultural discourse.

However, whilst access and equality may dampen official spin, the human being is ingenious, and although this environment has changed in one way, in another it has enabled another entry point for the historically spin-susceptible one-way communicators.  With the fragmentation of media outlets in the face of pressure from ICT, the journalistic vanguards against spin are much depleted and non-existent amongst the new entrants (Street, 2001, p. 149).  While the environment is fragmented yet almost real-time, the thirst for information, copy and access has brought about the PR-isation of the media, be it official or amateur (Moloney, 2004, p. 152).  This developing relationship between the media, traditional or new, and public relations appears to be shifting power to the latter and nurturing a relationship in which spin may be encouraged.

Yet, even in the face of possible PR-isation, corporate scandals such as WorldCom and Enron, which were perceived to be awash with spin, and the ‘Dodgy Dossier’ have resulted in publics becoming much more spin-aware as well as media-savvy.  In response, apart from ethical considerations, public relations practitioners are increasingly seeing the practical futility of spin, or at least the disastrous consequences of failed spin, and embracing clarity and explanation in its place (Collis, 2004, p.64).

This lot are getting spin aware

This lot are getting spin aware

Increased interdependence, pluralism and individualism, along with globalization have also changed the social environment, far removing it from the propaganda-rich world postulated by Orwell.  The modern social environment is such that persuasion, spin and propaganda, or even more benign public relations practice, has limited capabilities.  Such an example is cited by Moloney (2004, p. 67) in which published opinion, generated by agents of communication, in Denmark’s Euro referendum of 2000, was very different from actual public opinion, the opinion of a spin-aware, interdependent, pluralistic and individualist public.  This instance, and similar repeated frequently and widely, flies in the face of Pynchon’s gloomy assessment.  In the eyes of an ever more spin-savvy public, as Pitcher notes, the profile of spin itself, and the development of spin-culture, has damaged the reputation of those who wield it (Pitcher, 2003, p. 248).

In summary, spin is an inherent aspect of the human condition, from facing a job interview to conducting a government public information programme.  Spin will remain in the public relations arsenal.  However, the communications environment in which spin may exist is much changed from the time of Orwell’s writing, making successful spin, on balance, more difficult, and official spin in general more recognisable.  Further evidence in practical conduct of public relations shows that it is not the limit of public relations.  The Grunigian paradigm, although utopian, is a far cry from the practices of Bernays, and is actively encouraged within the public relations industry.  Out of this typology, the practices of dialogue, relationship-building and debate are seen as increasingly predominant forces within public relations.  Alongside this, ethics are becoming a mainstay of education and practice of public relations.  The ideas behind these practices and ethics, spurning spin, are pervading contemporary definitions of public relations.  The most popular definitions, nominally those of the World Assembly of PR Associations, the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) and CIPR all include at their cores, sentiments of interaction, mutual understanding, public interest and relationship-building.

As can be seen above, in practice, theory and definition, the scope of contemporary public relations far exceeds, even shuns, the dark art of spin.  But spin remains and due to the very nature and frailties of human nature and its practice of communications, will not go away.


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You know what it’s like – some bad stuff happens somewhere, the ‘international community/coalition of the willing’ occasionally decide, for whatever reason, to do a little bit of liberal intervention, ‘nation building’ gets on the agenda, and the establishment of a free media is pushed hard. However, it is often forgotten, or at best an afterthought, to involve communications as a direct contributor to the creation or development of democratic government institutions and systems in host nations.  Although the establishment of a free media is well served by many respected NGOs, such as IWPR and Reporters Sans Frontieres, developing or new government institutions and political bodies are often ill-prepared to engage with this free media and the public at large.

Will their successors be able to handle a free media?

Will their successors be able to handle a free media?

Basically, the demand side of civil and democratic society, i.e. a free media, gets much more attention than the supply side, ie the governments and political parties.  The fantastic work of NGO does often indeed produce a free media but the government (and private) institutions who are required to engage with this media have no idea how to engage with them.  For example, I’m thinking of the notion of a BBC-style Question Time being conducted in DRC or Sudan – it just ain’t going to happen that often (although something similar has been conducted in Sierra Leone).

Let’s face it, many regimes have often had their very own special way of dealing with the media – coercion, blackmail, disapperances, even the banning of any free media whatsover.  So when these regimes change, by force or otherwise, the newly developing government (and private) institutions, often have little cultural legacy, regarding communicating to a free media and the public at large, to draw upon.

‘Nation building’ aims at host nation governments taking on their democratic responsibilities – rule of law, fiscal and monetary regulation, ethical governance, human rights, security etc.  Part of these responsibilities is engagement with its citizens (pretty much a cornerstone of democracy), often via a free media.  Indeed, in relatively stable liberal democracies, considerable investment is made in PR and media training and research, to enable institutions to fulfil this responsibility.  Yet, while NGOs, IGOs and the international community may fall over each other to provide assistance in developing governance, legal institutions, security, economics and media freedom, newly developing institutions are often left to fend for themselves in a rapidly evolving information environment.

It is vital that in international democracy assistance that the needs of both the supply and demand sides of democratic life are invested in.  A free media needs a political system able to engage constructively with it.  When thinking of civil society and the media, those involved in foreign policy intervention, development initiatives and post-conflict reconstruction, need to consider the communication needs, expertise, resources and training, of the very institutions they purport to be helping develop.