Being truthful in a media and PR universe

Simon Barrow
By Simon Barrow
28 Apr 2010

“The media? That’s us, right?” This is what I frequently find myself saying when I end up in one of those conversations with someone who has decided (perhaps for understandable, specific reasons) that this, that or the other problem is really “the fault of the media”.

I do not say it in order to deny the fact that the media environment may often be depressingly amoral, utilitarian, monopoly-oriented, viscerally reactive and poorly fact-checked. It can be and is all of those - as well as many more positive things.

But nevertheless, if modern media is about ‘channels of communication’ in all their variety (not just the BBC, CNN and the big newspapers), then we all have those channels at our disposal to one degree or another. Likewise, we all have some connection to formal media systems, and we are all in the business of communicating around the clock in any case. The medium isn’t just the message, it’s the messengers.

That being the case, it is frequently more useful to ask “how can I take part in, redirect, shape and develop the bit of the media closest to me?” (whether that’s the blogsosphere, the neighbourhood newsletter or the correspondence column of your local paper) rather than getting disabled by the bits of a monster called “the media” which you feel you cannot change. Unless you’re a planner, a manager, an editor, a journalist, a PR or something similar, of course – in which case, you may have some additional levers (and responsibilities) to activate.

But even when focusing on ‘media policy’ and formal, professional media interventions, we should never forget that ordinary people are the base of both the message (whatever it is) and its means.

In addition to learning ideas, banking information and discovering different ‘angles’, human communication is, naturally, about advertising ideas, making things known, getting a point across – and responding to others who are doing the same.

The core ‘media question’ is therefore about how what we communicate shapes the world, what it rules in and what it rules out at any given point, and what kind of human community it contributes toward and presupposes. The activity itself, though far from value free, is capable of many construals.

Whose public? Whose relations?

It goes without saying that Public Relations work – to take just one example of ‘media and communications’ which I deal with on a regular basis – can serve truth, open up doors, make resources available and tell stories that would otherwise be lost in the Babel of contemporary urban existence.

But we would be foolish to forget that, at the same time, PR, as with all branches of the ‘industry’ (both new and old), operates in the context of the use and misuse of power. That makes it a political, moral and (for some of us) a profoundly theological issue.

For example, Public Relations as a formal industry was heavily shaped in the USA, and then elsewhere in the world, by Edward Bernays, Sigmund Freud’s nephew, in the earlier part of the twentieth century.

Bernays shared with Freud a pessimistic view of human beings as a seething mass of barely contained destructive urges. People’s desires therefore had to be shaped and moulded positively, he believed. If not, chaos and anarchy would follow. For Bernays, who was particularly active in the 1950s, the answer was straightforward. Business corporations knew best. Their interests were those of freedom versus enslavement, order versus disorder, civilization versus barbarity. ‘Free enterprise’ was salvation.

With this understanding (or, as we might say, this massive presumption!) Bernays engineered the expansion of tobacco products among women by imaging smoking in public as female emancipation. Cigarettes were ‘torches of freedom’. Similarly he worked to stop the Guatemalan government (which wanted to better workers’ conditions and direct investment towards social programmes) from restricting the economic operations of United Fruits. He did this by portraying capital restrictions as a denial of liberty and ‘the American way’.

In both cases Bernays employed what became known as Focus Groups to find out how the human sub-conscious might respond to certain stimuli and associations, and how persuasive messages could be tailored to these inclinations. He then used mass advertising to get the appropriate associations across.

His approach became part of a PR battle to create individuals who would serve corporate interests by becoming consumers and by identifying themselves with the consumer system. The story of how this happened is told by a powerful BBC television documentary series from a few years back entitled ‘The Century of the Self.’ [1]

This story should remind us that behind all our technologies of media and communications lies the psychological will and power to persuade. Truth is something contested and shaped in public discourse.

As different communities, lobbies and institutions enter the marketplace of ideas and images, the issue for Christians is this: which ways of seeing and telling, which narratives, lead us to the place where a message of justice, possibility and communion (mutuality and indwelling) begins to make sense? Because in many situations today it simply does not. It often feels as if we are communicating into an abyss; that what we might want to say – about peace and reconciliation, for example – makes no sense at all to a world that regards war and conflict as ‘normative’.

Therefore we are constantly challenged to consider what might be characteristic (character-full) about forms of communication shaped by the Christian Gospel. Notice that I put it that way, rather than talking about ‘Christian communication’, which is in danger of sounding like an inwardly-focused factional activity concerned with the interests of only one group of people.

By contrast, I understand the Christian message shaped around the subversive memory of Jesus to be about hope and healing for all, and furthermore to involve extending the gifts that reside in one community to others for the sake of mutual transformation in the presence of God – the transcendent ‘other’ who lets us be (rather than forcing us into one mould), but who also invites us to discover the love that (if God is a reality) lies at the heart of all things.

Communication in alternative perspective

What does this mean in practical terms? I have no monopoly of wisdom in this area, but I would suggest that truth and communication for followers of Jesus Christ, who invites us to a different path from the ‘mainstream’, might have at least four characteristics.

1. It is personal. At its heart lies a concern for persons – their joys and sorrows, needs and contents. This means that it is in line with the Word made flesh, the Word in history, the living Word behind the text and all our words. It is therefore personally vulnerable. God’s means are not those of ‘knock-down truth’. Our over-preoccupations with ‘being right’ and ‘being in control’ are not reflected in God’s communication in Christ. They are contradicted by it.

But in saying this it is important to register that the personal is not purely individual. It is about the before, between and beyond of human beings, not their reduction to atomised components or isolated units. To be ‘personal’ is to be ready to face down the corporate challenge of ‘institutional truth’ (John Kenneth Galbraith), the kind of truth that bypasses people to serve the dominant interests of a system or ideology. Institutional truth is a partiality that determines which bits of reality are more convenient than others, and to whom. It is precisely the logic that says ‘don’t let nuances spoil a good story’, for example, or which does not care about the personal consequences of telling that story.

This illustrates the uncomfortable way in which truth-telling can become extremely difficult when we get close to centres of power. So we rely upon other communicators and upon mutual responsibilities to call us to account. Of course it does not follow at all that being at the edges provides those who are safely distant from power with a monopoly of truth. But the moral question about how communication is effecting those with fewest chances and resources is a massively important corrective from the perspective of the Gospel.

2. It is unarmed. For those who live under the shadow of the Cross, and in the hope of Christ’s risen life, the way we treat enemies and those who are ‘other’ is crucial. Communication designed to obliterate and denigrate cannot bring wholeness. But the fact that we do not take recourse to arms, actual or metaphorical, does not mean that we are without power. On the contrary, we need to be reminded that “there is tremendous power in the words and images we create” (Dan Charles, US National Public Radio).

By ‘unarmed’ I also mean to say that communication shaped by the Gospel starts with the concerns of the defenceless, those whom the great Indian theologian M. M. Thomas described as ‘the last, the least and the lost’ in the world. The people especially loved by Jesus (but despised by 'the religious') come into focus when our communication evokes a challenge to traditional power relations and to the violence that is often involved in maintaining them.

3. It is unfinished. Maybe that sounds strange. Isn’t one of the first rules of good communication that we should finish sentences and round off images? Yes, but even then they are only ever part of the story, part of an incomplete narrative. Communication that recognises its own incompleteness is able to evoke more truth, make space for a response, open up more possibilities.

By making space for ‘the other’ it becomes possible to recognise that (as in the current Israel-Palestine tragedy) there are two wounded parties, not just one. By contrast, "half truth cuts dialogue", as Darryl Byler, formerly of Mennonite Central Committee’s Washington Office, has observed.

Unfinished communication acknowledges that God’s ways with us are not ended and totalised. There is a sense of deferral involved in faith that expects more, that is willing to receive the future as divine gift rather than packaged possession.

4. Last but not least, it is relational. Good communication is constitutive of memory, which is what holds together a community, a Body – as in the Body of Christ. This is particularly important because we live in a forgetful age, one that sometimes values the fleeting attraction of the image over the more difficult relationship or truth that might sustain us when the immediacy of the image has waned. So we need to be reminded. In my Anglican tradition communication is (or should be) Eucharistic. We speak and act out of a living, refreshed and constantly reshaped memory of Jesus as we share bread and wine together. We are a broken body seeking healing, longing to be re-membered (re-joined to one another and to God). Similarly, ‘evangelism’ (euangelion, the announcing of good news) worthy of the name is a word in search of relationships with people. It is speech that seeks to repair and reconnect, rather than to provoke, overpower, threaten or justify.

Communicating beyond victory and victimhood

I will make the last words not mine, but those of Archbishop Rowan Williams, writing on the quality of divine communication in a world of tragic conflict. Not long after 9/11, Dr Williams produced a profound but simple meditation called Writing in the Dust, having been close to the events himself. He was at the Episcopal Church of Trinity Wall Street, just down the road from the World Trade Center, when those planes struck.

Surveying all the conflict and suffering involved, Williams talks of the way in which the events of 9/11 – like many others in history – have been too eagerly used used by various parties to support opposing narratives constructed around ‘our’ victory over ‘them’, regardless of the suffering occasioned to those who are not ‘us’. This is politics and communication lived towards death, not life.

Williams declares: “Once the concreteness of another’s suffering has registered, you cannot simply use them to think with. You have to be patient with the meanings that the other is struggling to find or form for themselves. Acknowledging the experience you share is the only thing that opens up the possibility of finding a meaning that can be shared, a language to speak together.

“I'm not sure, but perhaps this is something of what some of our familiar Christian texts and stories point us towards. In the ninth chapter of the Gospel of John, Jesus encounters a man blind from birth, and his disciples encourage him to speculate on why he should suffer in this way. Who is being punished, the man or his parents? They are inviting Jesus to impose a meaning on someone’s suffering within a calculus that assumes a neat relation between suffering and guilt. …

“What should strike us is Jesus’ initial refusal to make the blind man’s condition a proof of anything – divine justice or injustice, human sin or innocence. We who call ourselves Christian have every reason to say no to any system at all that uses suffering to prove things: to prove the sufferer’s guilt as a sinner being punished, or – perhaps more frequently in our world – to prove the sufferer’s innocence as a martyr whose heroism must never be forgotten or betrayed. If this man’s condition is to have a symbolic value – and in some sense it clearly does in the text – it is as the place where a communication from God occurs – the opening up of something that is not part of the competing systems operated by human beings.” [2]

Good communication, of the kind that Christians and those of other faith or good faith should be endorsing, is precisely like that – the opening of a window onto the possibility of relationships which are not founded on competition and exclusion, but cooperation and embrace. Because that is what the true God, as distinct from the cultic idols we create in religious and non-religious guises, is like, suggests the Jesus story. The question remains, therefore: not just “how shall we live?” and “how shall we communicate and mediate as we live?” but “what story shall we live by?” [3]

References

[1] ‘The Century of the Self’ series was first broadcast in Britain in April/May 2002. See: http://www.bbc.co.uk/bbcfour/documentaries/features/century_of_the_self....
[2] Rowan Williams, Writing in the Dust: Reflections on 11 September and its aftermath (Hodder & Stoughton, 2002), excerpted from pp. 73-76.
[3] This article is substantially expanded and revised from a talk given to the Council on Church and Media, an inter-Mennonite association, in Washington DC, USA. The original, also published in the CCM journal Focus can be found here: http://www.simonbarrow.net/article42

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© Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia. He has been involved in different aspects of the media, including PR for not-for-profit organisations, since 1982, as a writer, educator and journalist.

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