Political PR: Wag The Dog

“My fellow Americans, our long national nightmare is over.”

This quote from the late U.S. President Gerald Ford references the difficult months preceding his inauguration during which the late U.S. President Nixon resigned while in the process of being impeached. Although the U.S. political environment is vastly different in 2016 than it was in 1974, this quote captures what the American citizenry will surely feel on Election Day, 2016. Still, no quote can fully capture the extent to which the U.S. Presidential Election has dominated media coverage during the past 18 months.

According to The New York Times, the Trump campaign alone got $2 billion worth of free media. The article rightfully draws the distinction between earned and free media, contrasting the amount of money spent on ads versus the amount of media coverage the candidate received for free. Nevertheless, other reports have inaccurately equated media coverage with public relations expertise.

Public relations, as defined by the Public Relations Society of America, is “a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics.” Media mentions are a long way from building mutually beneficial relationships between candidates and their would-be voters. Unfortunately, fictional depictions of public relations could have you believing otherwise.

In the biting 1997 satire Wag the Dog, two White House public information officers (political public relations professionals) must manage fallout from a sexual assault allegation against the sitting President. Rather than face the scandal head-on, these public information officers hire a Hollywood producer for a wholly unorthodox crisis management campaign. Together, the team manufactures a fictional crisis to redirect media attention away from the allegation and toward the President’s leadership capabilities. The elaborate scheme includes key messages for internal and external publics. Remarkably, they salvage the President’s reputation by controlling the entirety of the media narrative.

Although Wag the Dog presents a wildly exaggerated take on the world of political public relations, it also reinforces the widely held belief that public relations professionals are more concerned with shaping public perception of a crisis than they are with managing the crisis itself. These public relations characters embody the spin doctor persona by employing deflection and deception. Worse, their ability to successfully sway reporter interest essentially legitimizes their approach.

In the real world, political public relations professionals cannot control the media narrative, nor can they compel behavior change. In the real world of political public relations, these press officers, press secretaries, and public information officers work to build relationships with multiple constituents long past Election Day.

Unlike their counterparts in Wag the Dog, political public relations professionals seek to motivate, not manipulate, the public.

—Cheryl Ann Lambert, Ph.D

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