The Ways of the Spin Doctors
Thanks to Marx
Ever since Karl Marx gave capitalism a bad name, the basic building block of capitalism, the centrally planned economy called the Firm, has had to project a more benign image. The excesses of capitalism must appear to be curbed and ordinary people treated as if they rationally respond to facts and figures. Never mind if the public has proven that it can be so irrational that conscious and intelligent manipulation of the masses organized habits and opinions matter more in democratic society. Spontaneous "Viva voce" snap protests or what the surveys say or appeals of "we the people" majority rules, etc. is the path to chaos. This is why it is important to build trust, because the public's first impulse is to follow a trusted leader than to be bothered to think and consider the facts. Received knowledge substitutes for original thought.
When asked about circumstance, Napoleon is alleged to have replied "Circumstance? I make circumstance!". In this century of spin, we the members of press, love it or loathe it, are part and parcel of the country's shared consciousness and conversation called Public Opinion. Part of our role is to find out the facts on a moment's notice and many a time we do so by going to the source itself. Thus publicity, marketing, brand imaging and public relations departments bamboozle us with verisimilitude to make it matter as much as veracity. Some of them even create the facts on the ground and for so long as it does exist, whether created as a pro-active countermeasure to a perceived threat, the fact that it exists, makes it a reportable and quotable.
Mutual "admiration" back scratching club
It may seem that Journalism and Public Relations are bound in an antagonistic relationship of mutual contempt and mutual dependency, but it need not necessarily be so. Text book wise, the PR man/woman is tasked by the Firm to supply the press and public accurate information concerning subjects of value and interest to them. Japanese culture, ever shrouded in layers of politeness, is reflected in their "press clubs" which exists for this purpose. Some press clubs have become ad-hoc safety and environmental advocacies, pursuing civic spirited goals in alliance with the PR of the car firms.
The PR who?
Tame this may seem, it is as broad as brushes can be. Characterize a PR man/woman as thus: Master manipulator? Paid devil's advocate? Benign bridge builder? Reputation Launderer? Honest broker? Back channel facilitator? The firm's defense lawyer in the court of Public Opinion? Influencer? Press release peddler? Excuse maker? Stunt man/woman? Spinmeister seems to be the most comprehensive catch all.
Where's the payola?
So, as opinion makers, are we influenced ? We are lent cars, usually in the best state of maintenance and cleanliness. And if not, it is because we are being asked to render our impartial opinion on how their product stands up to the test of neglect. If we find anything wrong, we report it to them and we give them a chance to rectify it but they leave it to us to declare such as normal wear and tear or really shoddy workmanship. They throw us parties and treat us as participants or guests in a two-way relationship. They fly, drive, feed and house us all over the country and all over the world so that we can experience their product and company culture first hand, yes, no holds barred. We are dispatched, reminded that we don't owe them anything and its all part of their job to share with us what they know and what they have. Some of them may not mean what they say, but most of them truly do. Indeed, the duty to write a story and shoot images for a presentation of this technical product called the car, is not our duty to the hosts, but our duty to the public.
Sex, lies and speculation
Dislikes? Just as much the public doesn't want being lied to, so do we. We've learned through the years that silence is as good as saying "no comment" and that is a right we respect. Silence though opens up to speculation and speculation, we all know, can evolve out of hand. Thankfully, the high ethical standards of quality journalism does not give excuses for hearsay.
The exception to the rule; emerging from the underground economy
Still, there are firms, usually with roots in shophouse, warehouse and pier-side merchandising who do not understand PR. To them PR is to be invisible, to have no relations with the Press at all and when threats appear, the cure all - grease money - always buys silence. Worse are the same merchandising backgrounds who confuse PR as part of advertising or boss image building; those who send insignificant press releases about the social climbing exploits of their owners, expecting publication and then a bump in sales. Their sales outfits do not see benefits in events or published road tests. In fact they even think every minute a press demonstrator spends with car enthusiast/journalists is a sales loss to an imaginary walk-in customer who usually never appears within the same time. They'd rather see idle inventory sitting in their parking lot rather than a car being visible on the street and being further visible in web, newsprint and glossy magazine pages. Some do try to imitate events, but they stuff us with thousands of other people in cramped noisy halls and portion control the food.
The bumper harvest
2010 has been a bumper year for the Philippine auto industry. And in such a bumper year, we have had some brewing conflicts as the different parties try to "level" the playing field in the way they see fit. What is instructive about 2010 is how some members of the industry continued their best practices in PR and reaped the benefits for doing so. Benefits that are reflected in their enhanced image and because of the public's implicit trust in the name, enhanced sales.
Best practice, number 01 - honesty with sobriety is the best policy
Early this year, this popular brand was a victim of the feeding frenzy of foreign yellow journalism, but they soldiered on with good product, sober but not argumentative explanation of the alleged defects and with convincing time-line presentations. They not only recovered their reputation but grew their year end sales as well.
Best practice, number 02 - friendliness goes a long way
Another popular brand, despite the dearth of exciting new product tapped on the variety and versatility that their loyal and considerable provincial reach has to inject even more life to the warm family relations it has with its customers. This nurtured a glowing feeling that we witnessed for ourselves in sorties all around the country. This company is living proof that proper marketing and PR can do wonders and even compensate for technically average products. Yes, it is still a sales leader.
Best practice, number 03 - credit where credit is due
Our last example is another top selling popular brand that has also had its ups and downs, but what is striking about them is that when they throw a press party, you really feel the warmth and thanksgiving that they accord the press for their sales success. Oh, the top honchos were there, but the limelight was on us and not on them.
And to think we were only doing our job, not for them, but for the public.