Wednesday, November 30, 2005

All is Not Flackery

In making the long-ago transition from writing for papers and magazines to writing for a corporation, I made a shocking discovery: That I was no longer expected to present an objective set of facts reflecting the multiple sides of the "truth." I was now an advocate for my company's interests.

Actually, I made more discoveries. That publication deadlines were negotiable and that it was acceptable to start a piece with a cliche like "shocking discovery." There was no crusty copy editor scrubbing my stories. It was the HR director or the marketing V.P., and to them, cliches were good.

Responsible communication advocates (the oft-maligned PR professionals) do present both sides of an issue and try to dredge up inconvenient facts. But this analysis stays inside. It's used to shape the company's message — to counter or lean away from the other side of the story.

That's the nature of the bargain when you're inside. You present reality, give your best advice, and then put your finest effort into doing what you are told — or find another job.

Although communication professionals know the media are just doing their jobs most of the time, their masters in corporations and government may not believe in a non-partisan press. Since an institution's own advocacy is so pronounced, perhaps it can't believe the press isn't behaving likewise. Why else air all that bad news?

Now we read of U.S. forces placing stories favorable American actions in Iraqi newspapers. You might excuse this as a legit wartime propaganda tactic, except U.S. policy is supposed to be supporting the formation of democratic institutions in Iraq. One of the pillars of democracy is a free and independent press.

Is this a case of hypocrisy? Not with this administration. They're just behaving overseas the way they did at home — hiring actors to portray journalists and underwriting columnists to float favorable opinions of administration policies — more than once (ad alert on this link). This may be one more example of trying to improve government by importing common business practices.

Although I wish otherwise, I accept that my government isn't always going to be straight with me. That's the nature of politics. But officials shouldn't get a second crack at pulling the wool over my eyes by manipulating the free press.

Selling democracy is not the same as selling a product.

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