Just found the first academic paper I wrote (see link above), back in 1995, after a visit from Max Clifford to the University I then worked in. The paper is a bit of a mess – no references attached, unclear layout, but it is interesting to note how I have consistently asked the same questions over 20+ years, namely:
- Do all PR people really tell the truth all the time?
- If not, is hypocrisy worse than lying?
- Do practitioners self-deceive to avoid cognitive dissonance?
- Is the main issue truth or credibility?
Clifford’s refusal of cant seemed attractive in the context of uncritical PR self-praise. But I was also clear that his monstrous ego clearly felt qualified to issue judgement on who should live or die by tabloid and that this was an abuse of power.
I felt too – and have spoken about this recently in revisiting Barnum – that there is a place for information as entertainment, and that Clifford’s nonsense was not treated as reportage by readers, though those were very different media landscapes. This BBC article rejects that position as underestimating the harm done to journalism by the continual use of false stories to sell papers. Clifford obit
The part I strongly retract now is that I then thought he knew when he was lying. The intervening years and court cases demonstrate that he did not.
Evidence of growing interest in showman PT Barnum, sometimes called (in US texts, anyway) the father of public relations. Others, of course, shudder at the association. Re awakened interest not surprising in the circus of communication we currently occupy.
Revisiting Barnum reminds us how old fake news is and, to quote Boorstin (1961), ‘Barnum understood, intuitively, how many things Americans find to be more enjoyable than reality’.
- Article from The Atlantic on Boorstin and Barnum from 2016, pre-US election:
“Barnum was one of the original creators and commercializers of the pseudo-event, the vaguely real-but-also-not-real thing that, the historian Daniel Boorstin argues, has been the fundamental fact of American culture since the days of Barnum himself”
Boorstin and Barnum
2. Trump embraces Barnum as role model
“Last year, the National Review called Trump “the P.T. Barnum of American politics.” Salon deemed him “the second coming of P.T. Barnum.” Just last week, Samuel L. Jackson told Rhapsody magazine Trump is “more P.T. Barnum than politician” — and also accused him of cheating at golf.”
Silverstein, New York Daily News, Jan 2016
Trump and Barnum
3. Barnum the Musical
Extracts from Marcus Brigstocke’s diary of rehearsals (more Marcus than PT)
“Barnum’s the name. PT Barnum. And tonight on this stage you’re going to see every sight, wonder and miracle that name stands for … ”
A recent interview following my keynote at University of Navarre, looking at issues of public relations, appearances and truth
Jo Fawkes interview
My keynote on ‘Public Relations in the Post Truth Era’ was well received at the Institute for Culture and Society’s workshop at the University of Navarra last weekend. A very interesting combination of philosophers and communication scholars came together to explore truth, lies and expectations.
I argued a) that nothing has changed and b) that everything has changed.
As evidence of (a) I cited the work of Christopher Lasch(1979) and Daniel Boorstin (1961) who were concerned about the power of image and narcissistic culture decades ago.
Lasch wrote about post-truth in 1979:
The role of the mass media in the manipulation of public opinion has received a great deal of anguished but misguided attention. Much of this commentary assumes that the problem is to prevent the circulation of obvious untruths, whereas it is evident …. that the rise of mass media makes the categories of truth and falsehood irrelevant to an evaluation of their influence. Truth has given way to credibility.
(Lasch, 1979: 74)
As evidence for b) I looked to more recent writing like Chris Hedges’ Empire of Illusion (2009) who brings observations from Boorstin and Lasch into the present century:
Pseudo events, dramatic productions orchestrated by publicists, political machines, television, Hollywood or advertisers… have the capacity to appear real, even though we know they are staged. They are capable because they can evoke a powerful emotional response of overwhelming reality and replacing it with a fictional narrative that often becomes accepted as truth. Hedges, 2009: 50
A public that can no longer distinguish between truth and fiction is left to interpret reality through illusion…. When opinions cannot be distinguished from facts, when there is no universal standard to determine truth in law, in science, in scholarship or in reporting the events of the day, when the most important skills is the ability to entertain, the world becomes a place where lies become true, where people can believe what they want to believe. Ibid:51