We had an interesting session today with Paul Patterson from UBC Public Affairs today to teach us how to control the media. That’s right: in the MBA we learn how to be spin doctors! Not only was Paul Patterson an interesting and engaging speaker, he also provided a lot of useful information on how the media distorts news stories, much to the shock and horror of my classmates. I mean, they knew this stuff happened, but I don’t think they realized just how frequently and methodically the media manipulates our perception of reality.
Paul took us step-by-step through a story he did for the CBC, many years ago, on the dumping of medical waste in a local dump in Nova Scotia. At each point, he showed us how he had manipulated the message through not only visual and auditory cues, but also through how he interviewed people and edited those interviews together. In the end, he revealed that what had actually taken place was quite removed from what was portrayed in his story.
Though the story had focused on a man who “had been accused” of dumping waste, only to be contracted by the government to perform the same task again, the truth was that the man had actually called Paul to report the dumping in the first place! In fact, he had been contracted by the government the first time, but the government had hung him out to dry when what he was doing for them was uncovered. When they contacted him the second time, he called Paul in to blow the whistle. Sneaky or what?
The point of the whole lecture was to demonstrate the techniques used by reporters to ambush interviewees. Reporters’ underlying motivation is conflict. Paul demonstrated that not only should you, as a business person under attack, attempt to diffuse the conflict, but also capitalize on the opportunity to promote your key messages to the public. Sneaky? Yes. Smart use of an opportunity? Yes.
Though I may not find the topic of manipulating the public through the media palatable, Paul’s presentation did provoke a lot though on the topic within the class. His insight into the use of media should only serve to remind us of something we probably think we already know, especially in the current climate of “embedded” reporting in the war against Iraq: you can’t trust the media. Especially when you’re a business and the media knocks on your door.