Toews, vikileaks and robocalls: The difference between pushing messages and public relations

Political Communication, PR Add comments

After 27 years in PR, I have to admit there is a certain rush that comes with successfully getting a message out. Pushing words, sounds and images to an audience and seeing your efforts generate impact among that audience seems like magic at times. As modern technology makes it easier and faster to push messages and achieve that rush, the risk of making significant mistakes that cause long-term damage grows. Recent events in Canadian politics have made this point all too clear.

Imagine yourself at the planning table when these great ideas, these amazing ways to push out a message were first suggested:

  • Here’s a great line to fire back if anyone asks you about the proposed legislation to give police forces new powers to snoop on Internet users: “You either stand with us or you stand with the child pornographers.” They won’t know how to fight back and we’ll make the evening news for sure!
  • I know, I’ll set up an anonymous Twitter feed and reveal the sordid details of the opposing Minister’s married life. We’ll make headlines and his credibility will be shot for good!
  • How about we write a robocall script that pretends to be Elections Canada and directs people to the wrong polling station. We can reach thousands of people right in their home in a couple of days!
  • I’ve got it, we’ll use a robocall script that slams the opponent’s stance on abortion and “forgets” to say from whom the call originated. How powerful is that?

I’m sure that each one of these ideas, at the time, seemed brilliant and exciting. In spite of the now-obvious legal risks and ethical shortcomings, these plans were no match for the promised rush of pushing a message and making a splash. In the grips of that rush, the people at the planning table plunged right in without thinking.

In the end, as so often happens, each of these individuals caused considerable damage to their organizations. The long-term relations of both parties to the voters, members and donors they court have been set back. Both parties emerge from these past months weaker, more distant and less trustworthy. Canadian democracy, of course, has suffered even more.

If there is a difference between pushing messages and public relations , it should that PR considers the long-term implications of each message and each action. PR practitioners should reflect calmly and strategically on what the down side might be of an action that appears so simple, so fast and so thrilling. PR people should listen to these ideas, think like a chess player, and ponder what might happen three or four moves later. They should  consider the impact of pushing these messages on long-term and vital relationships. They should also remind everyone at the table of the legal consequences and ethical dimensions of the ideas (which often precipitate the damage to relationships). If the PR people don’t, as these few recent examples remind us, chances are nobody will.

This, of course, begs a question I have asked many times on this blog and in various tweets I have sent: was there a PR person at the table?


One response to “Toews, vikileaks and robocalls: The difference between pushing messages and public relations”

  1. Kushal Sharma says:

    I think the key question for people is knowing where to draw the line. On one hand you could say, “don’t do this because it’s bad and unethical.” On the other hand, just like the use of force can be for a justified, retaliatory purpose as much as it can be for a nefarious one, can someone make a leap of faith saying “that party doesn’t know what’s good for Canada, because we do and they’re obviously not supporting our causes. So for the good of the country, we need to bring them down no matter what the cost; just like spies of our country cheat and lie in other countries for our long-term good.” What do you say to that argument? It’s obviously horrific to consider this line of thought abused in such a way, but hasn’t society played a major role in condoning this behaviour in more ways than one?

    More than the erosion of trust, the trouble with this “it’s OK to sacrifice one man for a town, a town for a province, and a province for a country” mentality is that it breeds bad practices into our very moral fibre. It makes it easy for people to justify stabbing someone in the back if only you have the “greater good” in your heart. And I think that’s what needs to be removed from our society. This is most certainly beyond the scope of a PR team for a political party; but it is something worth considering!

    What if we all decided to remove physical and mental coercion, and trickery from humanity altogether? What would a PR message for that look like?

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