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When PR means Public Relations, not a mythical rebirth part one

Blog entry posted by In Vitro Infidelium, Sep 14, 2011.

Madmen for M.E

Ive written critically and at length, both on another blog and on the PR forums about what I see as the failings of M.E/CFS advocacy and about the attitudes that underwrite those failings. Not surprisingly other posters have complained that I dont offer what seem to them to be effective alternatives, my response to those complaints is, that if theres no agreement about what the problem is, or even that a problem exists, then proposing something different is pointless. This is the start of an attempt to set some context, identify the big issues and suggest some approaches that might achieve a consensus amongst a coalition of the willing on a way forward for the effective presentation of M.E/CFS issues to audiences that actually matter.

Some basic concepts:

The Audience the body of people ( anything from 1 person to 1 billion) that has to be addressed to achieve the marketer, seller, lobbyist, politicians objective

The message both the overarching principle(s) and any targeted fact, position, belief, concept etc that a marketer, seller, lobbyist, politician etc wants to convey to an audience. Can be anything from this sugary cereal will make your children strong to stop this war or more money is needed on road maintenance in Poughkeepsie.

The messenger the message creator.

Message support combination of practical elements provided by the messenger to certain audiences (photographs, interviewees etc), and ideological appeal written into the message itself.

Message management/control setting the terms in which the message is presented, and preventing it from being hijacked or represented by competing interests.

Those whom the Gods would destroy:

Public Relations, which may include, but is not directly equal to, marketing, advertising, promotion and selling, can be defined in one simple term the manipulation of perception, something which, as with prestidigitation is at its most effective when achieved invisibly. Politics can be considered as a specialised form of PR, where manipulation of perception is replaced by a more pragmatic process: the motivation of bias. The key quality of all PR is the establishment of trust, the audience must believe in the validity of the message (and in consequence the messenger) that is being conveyed. This audience belief is far easier to achieve when (at least within a given perspective) the message is true manipulation of perception need not of itself be deception, although though the two can in given circumstances be equivalent. Whilst having a truthful message is pragmatically desirable, PR is not about truth in any absolute sense, PR operates in wholly relativist terms. Polarising activities and arguments are usually avoided in PR unless a very specific objective is sought, even then great caution has to be exercised because control of the message is easily lost. Fundamentalists of almost any kind are usually hopeless at PR because the rigidity of their own position inhibits any sense of flexibility in others, it is engagement with the flexibility of the audience which PR is most concerned with. Excepting of course where the engagement of the fundamentalist on a fundamentalist issue is concerned, but we are then in Joseph Goebbels and territory.

Audience Selection:

Effective PR depends upon an understanding of who is to be addressed who is that that the marketer, seller, lobbyist, politician etc, needs to influence to achieve the change (increased customer loyalty, increased sales, redirected government spending, increased approval rating etc) that supports the marketer, seller, lobbyist or politicians ambitions. For example when a PR operation produces a media release, it might be assumed that the release is written in terms that will engage the final audience comprised of the newspaper reader, radio listener or TV viewer. For a media release to be effective it is not the final audience for which it is written, and although any media release will contain key images, text tags and hooks that will hopefully be re-broadcast by the media to its audiences, the release itself must be written for the journalists who the PR professional is seeking to motivate to facilitate the broadcast. It is not necessary for a journalist to have any belief in the validity of the PR message but the journalist must believe both in the authority of the messenger, and that the message has value in attracting reader/listener/viewer attention.

There are circumstances where dependence on a re-broadcast is not involved; politicians, administrators, professional bodies and other institutions can all usually be addressed directly. These are however very challenging audiences, they have numerous competing demands placed upon them, they are usually very PR aware, often being practitioners themselves, all of which requires that PR messages addressed to these audiences require high levels of message support.

Additionally there is mass advertising where the audience is also addressed directly, although cost and necessary sophistication of a mass advertised message provide major limitations on who can utilise it as a communication medium.

Message Support:

It is a truism that PR is not about truth and in consequence the PR message can not be treated as though it will stand up as if it were tablets of stone. The very process of engaging in PR of itself opens the message to scepticism in all but the most well predisposed audiences. Effective PR involves identifying the audience that is required to be addressed, crafting a message that engages that audience and supporting that message with demonstrable advantage to that audience. In the case of a media release where the audience is comprised of journalists, supporting advantage comes in a number of forms: ease of translation to article or programme segment format, accessibility of textual imagery, availability and quality of graphic imagery, availability of quotable sources etc. In short, the supporting advantage for journalists is how easy the media release publisher makes the journalists job. Similar message support applies to audiences comprised of administrators and public servants who may have the task of translating the message for consumption by others such as experts or politicians. When addressing exerts or politicians directly the supporting advantage must be evident within the message itself - it must demonstrate why adopting this message as their own, will confer advantage to the individual audience member.

Advantage and Trust:

Successful PR depends upon the audience having trust in the presenter of the message the success of a re-broadcast message is dependant on trust in the broadcaster by the reader , listener or viewer. For the messenger there is little control over the broadcasters relationship with the reader , listener or viewer, and management of the message is difficult to maintain. Trust is vital in direct communication between messenger and audience an audience soon learns to distrust any source that shows inconsistency, confusion or dissemblement The issue of trust is doubly the case where advantage is concerned for example journalists who expect to have a media release accompanied by access to authoritative interviewees, but who are instead provided with only media unfriendly contacts will quickly put a block on future contact with the messenger. An administrator, professional or politician supplied with ineffective, inaccurate or prejudiced material will cease to be available to listen and any public official or politician will become permanently unavailable where the messenger is associated with illegality or scandal. Authority and consistency are vital attributes of an effective PR process.

Life ain't fair

All of the above provide rigid limitations on what can be effectively achieved by whom, there is no democracy involved, nor entitlement other than can be (in some circumstances) bought. The audience must be understood and addressed in its terms not the terms the messenger would prefer, the messenger must be credible, the message has to be meaningful to the audience, the message must be well supported and it must convey advantage and elicit trust from the audience. All of which makes the current position of 'PR for M.E/CFS' a mamoth task that can only be begun by hoisting the image of M.E/CFS 'representation' out of a largely self inflicted chasm of dubious credibility.
  1. KFG
    What is needed above all is some hardcore rigorous science to blast away all the crap surrounding this illness at present. I had hoped at one point Jonathan Kerr's work was going to achieve it. Unfortunately, in my opinion, some of the highest quality science seen in "CFS" research to date has come through studies questioning XMRV and related issues. If that level of expertise was trained on a "fishing" expedition to seek out possible pathological mechanisms in a well-defined cohort then we might all be a bit further down the road to a) the diagnostic test, and b) rational treatment, if not cure.

    I'm not suggesting PR isn't important, especially when you witness the truly bizarre yet effective behaviour of Simon Wessely, but one published paper nailing an illness mechanism even for a CFS subgroup will have a far greater effect than years of organised PR. Lombardi et al, before it began to be seriously challenged, was suitable evidence of this truth. Get the science right.

    I'm willing to bet there will be game-changing developments in the next 12 months or so. And they have nothing to do with XMRV.
  2. alex3619
    Hi IVI, there is one issue that I think the vast majority of ME and CFS patients could get behind - funding that is proportional to the social and economic impact that is for investigating the biology of the conditions. This would be for strictly defined groups, not generic chronic fatigue or the broad Oxford definition of CFS. Bye, Alex
  3. alex3619
    Hi IVI, in broad terms I have no problems with your blog on this issue, at least in part one.

    In specifics I think certain issues are being overlooked.

    The biggest one is this: you are right that there is no consensus on what the issues are or should be so we cannot influence opinion as a monolithic block.

    So what?

    There are many different opinions here, representing many different interests. Sure this gives us less power, particularly when we fight with each other. However it also means that as individuals we can act to support those issues that are most important to us. These priorities will differ with different people, particularly people from different countries. There will not and can never be a universal monolithic response here except on the very broadest issues - it will rarely happen, and so it is usually irrelevant. When some issue arises that we all agree on this might change, but that is the situation for now and it is this situation we have to deal with.

    There is no "CFS community" as an entity. There are many fractious communities. This is a reality that will not change in the short term, though I would be happy to see greater consolidation of competing interests in the global ME and CFS communities. Recent efforts to unite diverse advocacy groups are a step along this path, and Phoenix Rising is part of the Coalition 4 ME/CFS.

    You said that : "When addressing exerts or politicians directly the supporting advantage must be evident within the message itself - it must demonstrate why adopting this message as their own, will confer advantage to the individual audience member." This is based on a very simplistic view that nothing ever happens unless there is personal gain. Now I agree that personal gain is a major issue, but it is not the only issue, but lets look at personal gain. We can also make it their own by being unreasonable and vocal probably even more than by being reasonable and co-operative. We are a threat in one simple sense: we are pointing out on a regular basis dangerous distortions in the politics, science and general rhetoric, and have the opinion that people in authority who have responsibility for these issues should be held accountable in law and at elections. In time this threat will grow as the evidence base grows. More and more legal challenges can expect to be launched in time.

    Actions taken in the UK against many (most?) with CFS and ME are already in severe violation of regulatory if not legal requirements. For example, there is agreement with the WHO that people with the neurological disorder ME have a right to be diagnosed and treated accordingly. This has even been agreed to within the UK bureacracy, while at the same time is violated by other sections of the UK bureacracy.

    On the flip side we also need to acknowledge when people in authority have done the right thing by us - its much less common but not unknown. When such a person is a politician, we should consider getting behind their election efforts, or at least vote for them if they are in our area. The patient support for many who are at least trying to help has been visible.

    You also state that: "Authority and consistency are vital attributes of an effective PR process." This is pragmatically good advice in the context of a single entity like a corporation, government department, or individual. It is irrelevant in the context of a diverse community. Herein lies a huge problem. We as ME and CFS advocates are socially stigmatized, and recent spin has attempted to discredit us even further. It is important we try to make our message factual or reasonable (preferably both) but we are not in position of authority. If we believe your message, it is tantamount to saying we should give up and take the abuse society gives us ... that we have no right to an opinion ... and that we will never have power, we might as well accept we will be disabled for life and then die sick. All of these implications are are themselves constructs of propaganda, common themes in society. The HIV activists had no credibility and no authority, yet they were highly successful. Just because we have no authority is no reason not to act. Indeed, I think if we asserted ourselves more as advocates, became more pro-active within our severe physical limitations, and became less reasonable in terms of our expectations (though not our arguments) things would be much better.

    Now I agree we could do better, that is not in doubt. If we were more organized, had better funding, and a central message things would be better. All this is in the context of people who are often too sick to go out the front door, too broke to buy a restaurant meal, and too brain damaged to remember what they were doing a little while ago.

    I am not political by nature. I admit that. I do not consider this a barrier, only a complication. None of us should be afraid to speak out, or afraid to be wrong. In such fear is silence and submission ... social slavery. We do have a responsibility to be fair and operate within the law. We also have a responsibilty, not just to ourselves but to society, to speak out and demonstrate that there are major issues that are not being addressed, issues which are costing society a very great deal.

    Only with specific messages in specific campaigns should consideration be given to reaching a specific audience. Our audience is really everyone, but I agree that specific elements of society will respond better to some approaches and not others.