June 2008: Perception Management

The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the lies
June 1, 2008

As someone who worked as a journalist for many years, and later as a communicator for unions and now the CCPA, I’m aware of the power of the media to influence and even shape public opinion. For a long time, most people implicitly believed what they read in the newspapers. “It must be true,” they’d say, “because I saw it in print.”

Nowadays, the commercial press doesn’t command that kneejerk trust in its accuracy. Neither do the TV and radio networks. There have been enough exposures of media mendacity and distortion to make readers and viewers skeptical.

This is why some slick, secretive public relations firms are now specializing in what’s called “perception management.” You may not have heard the term before; I didn’t myself until a few weeks ago. And where I encountered it was in the latest novel by David Baldacchi, appropriately titled The Whole Truth.

Although this is a work of fiction, the perception management (PM) techniques it exposes are hard realities. As Baldacci reports in an author’s note, the top PM firms are not spin doctors. They don’t spin myths or distort facts. “They create facts and then sell them to the world as the truth.” (Among the major clients of these perception management professionals, incidentally, are the U.S. Department of Defense and the Pentagon. Before they could attack Iraq, they needed to convince most Americans that Saddam Husein had weapons of mass destruction and that most of the 9/11 attackers were Iraqis. The PM specialists were so successful at turning these myths into “truths” that, although long since discredited, they continue to be believed by millions of Americans.)

“Many of the techniques outlined in [my book] are standard operating procedures for these folks,” says Baldacci... “And by using these methods, a major untruth can be established so quickly and overwhelmingly across the world that no digging by anyone after the fact can make a dent in the public consciousness that it actually isn’t true at all... And that is precisely what makes it so dangerous.”

Other big clients of the PM agencies include the big oil companies, the big pharmaceutical companies, and of course the big manufacturers of weapons such as Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and Northrop Grumman. It’s not enough for the arms makers and dealers to get billion-dollar contracts for jet planes, tanks, aircraft carriers, submarines, missiles, bombs, and other weapons if those weapons are not used. And since they tend to be used only in wars and other armed conflicts, the arms makers need wars to keep breaking out. Otherwise the weapons just get stockpiled and the contracts to replenish them dry up.

Would the big military manufacturers actually be so greedy and unscrupulous as to deliberately foment wars? Maybe, maybe not. But they would certainly be willing to sow the seeds of international hostility and tension that would prompt fearful nations to increase their arsenals. The most profitable period for the arms makers, after all, was the Cold War. The enmity between the Soviet and U.S.-led blocs was so intense that they both massively built up their stocks of military materiel—much to the delight and financial benefit of the “defence” industry.

The plot of Baldacci’s novel centres on a very effective PM campaign financed by a leading (in this case fictitious) weapons maker—the Ares Corporation—to instigate a new Cold War. The first step was to get Russia and China so mad at each other that they’d both want to beef up their military resources. That accomplished, the United States—although already having a bigger arsenal than the Russians, Chinese, and most other countries combined—would still want to increase its “defense spending” well above the current $700 billion a year level. Other Western nations would then also opt for military buildups. It would be a bonanza for the Ares Corp., whose CEO is portrayed as having absolutely no qualms about inciting another Cold War or even pushing the world to the brink of a catastrophic World War II.

The CEO goes to the head of an equally unprincipled PM firm. “Dick,” he says, “I need a war.”
“Well, you’ve come to the right place,” says Dick.
“You have to sell it. You have to make them believe.”
“I can make them believe anything,” says Dick.

And he’s not exaggerating. Given unlimited cash and the ability to manipulate public opinion, a PM agency can literally delude most people into accepting the most outrageous lie as the truth.

But what, you might ask, about the public’s distrust of the mainstream media these days? Ah, that’s where the new worldwide communications technologies make all the difference. As the heroine points out, a lie on the Internet that’s expertly crafted, with strong images, credible speakers, and seemingly plausible arguments, can quickly gain acceptance as indisputable fact. “A few good computer people,” she says, “can swamp the globe with propaganda” and then everyone else jumps on the bandwagon--including the newspaper and broadcasting network honchos, who increasingly are being forced to follow the lead set by ingenious bloggers. It seems that the people who quite rightly no longer trust the mainstream media to be truthful remain surprisingly credulous about what they see on the Internet.

When the people creating and spreading the lie can hire well-rehearsed actors to pose as “victims” or “witnesses” of atrocities that have never occurred and then get thousands of Internet users to spread the horrific images, public shock and rage can even more easily be aroused.

In the book, the PM experts first want to portray Russia as regressing to the worst of the Stalinist era. An actor made up to look like a dissident dying from beatings in a Russian detention camp gives his name as Konstantin. He tells viewers that his wife and three children have all been tortured to death and implores viewers of his Internet image: “Do not forget us and why we died. Do not let my family perish in vain.”

It’s a great performance, and immediately believed to be true by millions around the world. From blog to blog, e-mail to e-mail, chat room to chat room, the story is circulated. “Remember Konstantin” signs are waved in anti-Russia protests, and the same words are emblazoned on T-shirts sold and worn everywhere.

The PM experts then make it appear that all this anti-Russian sentiment is secretly being whipped up by the Chinese. The Russians are incensed, the Chinese mad at being unjustly accused, and the resulting rise in hostility between the two countries leads to huge military spending increases by both, followed by similar buildups by the U.S. and other NATO nations. The Ares Corporation, of course, as planned, reaps billions in new arms contracts.

This is a work of fiction, but it’s by no means an improbable scenario. The management perception pros, exploiting the new global communications outlets, can indeed stage elaborate fake atrocities and inflame worldwide fury over them. They can convince billions of people that myths so cunningly and convincingly created are irrefutable truths.

Baldacci’s book, of course, is itself a contrived story, a work of fiction, but the PM techniques it describes are all too alarmingly real. The important message it conveys is that the distrust we now rightly feel about what we read, see or hear in the mainstream media should be strongly extended to the digital media. Why? Simply because our perception of the truth can be even more easily manipulated by what we see on our computers, facebooks, and other hi-tech gadgets. If we don’t arm ourselves with the requisite digital skepticism, the powerful, well-heeled, unscrupulous, high-tech-savvy perception managers will take full advantage of our gullibility.

Ed Finn is the CCPA's Senior Editor.