Defence against Bell Pottinger's dark arts

BACK in 1929, Edward Bernays (nephew of Sigmund Freud) had a fabulous idea: pay women to smoke cigarettes while marching in the famous Easter Day Parade in New York.

“Call them ‘Torches of Freedom’,” he said to his clients, the cigarette manufacturers, who were desperate to break into the female market and make fabulous profits. Link the act of smoking to women’s rights, frame the hitherto unacceptable act of smoking as a declaration of freedom.

Yep. You’ve come a long way, baby… 30 years later the incidence of lung cancer in women began to spiral upwards till it toppled breast cancer from the top spot in 1987. Thanks, Edward Bernays, father of public relations. Nice one.

Public relations has been a growth industry ever since. Some of my best friends are in Pee Ar – naturally; half the PR labour force anywhere in the world is made up of ex-journalists. People who’ve been sensible enough to realise that, far from moving upwards with inflation, the rate per word is actually going down, and have taken their skills with wordsmithery and laid them on the altar of Mammon.

A lot of Pee Ar is fairly innocuous, even useful: press releases about new products or social responsibility initiatives or showcase projects.

But then there are the big companies, the sprawling octopi with tentacles wriggling across the globe, suckers strangling free speech across the known world, some of whose work is the dark shadow world of PR.

There’s a PR company covered extensively in one of my favourite books, Toxic Sludge is Good for You (John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton, 2002), which earns about $450m a year and is, according to PRWeek, “respected for its crisis management”.

Clients have included the government of Indonesia (around the time of the massacres in East Timor), the Argentine junta and Nigeria during the Biafran war. They’ve influenced public policy and perception on industries such as biotech and tobacco, in complex campaigns where the spinning of information was so subtly done that it slid beneath the radar of even journalists trained in cynical questioning.

But I doubt you’ve ever heard their name – the best PR, as the old saying goes, is invisible.

Fortunately for our democracy – and thanks to the work of some excellent journalists – Bell Pottinger has not been able to duck the limelight. South Africans were made aware that some events in our country were being orchestrated by distant minds, and we went on the attack, forcing Bell Pottinger to lock its Twitter feed.

It’s not the first time Bell Pottinger has been outed for skewing events in a distant land for its paymasters: “…the US government paid a British public relations company linked to right-wing politics and repressive regimes more than $500m from American taxpayers to spearhead a top-secret propaganda campaign in Iraq.

“Bell Pottinger, a London-based PR firm, created fake videos that appeared to be the work of al-Qaida, the Islamist extremist group formerly headed by Osama bin Laden. It also created news stories that looked as though they were produced by Arab media outlets, and distributed them through Middle Eastern news networks.”

Bear that in mind as you read the hurt, humbled and oh-so-innocent apology Bell Pottinger CEO James Henderson oozed at South Africa on July 6:

“At various points throughout the tenure of the Oakbay account, senior management have been misled about what has been done. For it to be done in South Africa, a country which has become an international beacon of hope for its progress towards racial reconciliation, is a matter of profound regret and in no way reflects the values of Bell Pottinger.

“Though the inquiry is ongoing, we have dismissed the lead partner involved and suspended another partner and two employees so that we can determine their precise role in what took place.  As soon as we were made aware that we had been misled and that work was being done which goes against the very core of our ethical policies, we acted immediately."

Misled? Yeah, right. How much were you paid again? Pull the other one, wouldya?

Is there a Defence Against the Dark Arts course to help you counter the impact of concerted propaganda campaigns like these?

• Find media sources that you can respect and trust. I don’t mean media which parrots your own favoured positions on issues of the day – media which challenges you, shows you a different viewpoint, and makes you think.

• On any story that stirs the waters, check and make sure it’s being reported in several solid media outlets before re-posting or believing it.

• Support good media. Subscribe – money for investigative journalism is tight. Or support outfits like the impressive amaBhungane.

• Keep your eyes open for bots (automated posters or Tweeters) and other propaganda tactics. A dead giveaway on WMCLeaks, for example, is commenters with names like Dintle Schoeman and Anesu Nel. (Yeah, right.) If you’re looking for signs of the fake, you can often find them. Reverse search images to check their validity.

• Remember that toxic PR no longer comes at you solely via news stories – it’s on social media. Read and follow Facebook’s tips for spotting false news.

• Use your common sense. Be sceptical, ask questions: who paid for this? Who does this assist?

• Don’t trust stories that appeal to the emotions, that push red buttons. And don’t trust demagogues who rant and yell and try to make you angry!

* Mandi Smallhorne is a versatile journalist and editor. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter.

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