The battle for attention
How do the media and public relations strategists affect the course and the public’s perception of violent conflicts? LMU communications expert Romy Fröhlich, coordinator of an EU-funded project on the topic, discusses its early findings.
How would you characterize the role of the media in the context of international conflicts?
Romy Fröhlich: First of all, our mass media make us aware of the fact that wars are going on in the world. We are lucky enough to live in a region that is comparatively free of armed conflict, and is geographically remote from those regions in which violent conflicts are currently raging. If it weren’t for the media, we wouldn’t know anything about them. Indeed, this is the heart of the problem: When the media are reporting they can only report such events in part. They have to be selective and it is possible that they add their own emphasis.
To what extent do interested parties attempt to influence media coverage of violent conflicts?
The use of propaganda and public relations is as old as war itself, but recent technological developments in the means of communication have radically changed how it is packaged and disseminated. Furthermore, a much wider range of protagonists than before now use the techniques of persuasive communication like public relations to get their particular viewpoints across to the general public. In addition to the parties directly engaged in the conflict, other social and political players, such as aid organizations and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that are active in the area of conflict resolution or human rights, become involved, as do politically motivated think tanks that are committed to a specific agenda. All of these agencies are wellversed in the methodology of public relations, and they are increasingly turning to professional PR consultants, whose primary targets are usually journalists. One of the questions we are exploring in the INFOCORE project relates to the extent to which public relations professionals are now using new channels of communication to address the intended audience directly rather than via traditional mass media.
How do PR strategists go about targeting their audiences?
The options extend from the traditional press conference to plain propaganda, including what is called ‘guerilla PR’, that is, staged events that depend on the presence of the media, and which would be inconceivable without it. These strategies can also be combined in various ways. For example, on the eve of the entry of American troops into Kuwait in 1991 in response to Saddam Hussein’s invasion force of the country, Hill+ Knowlton, a large American PR firm, put on a dramatic, attention-grabbing show in Washington DC, for which they had received millions of dollars. At a hearing held by the Congressional Human Rights Caucus, they presented what purported to be the heart-rending eye-witness account of a young Kuwaiti girl who had allegedly observed the killing of premature babies in incubators by members of the Iraqi army in a hospital in Kuwait City. In this case, a staged dramatization was combined with propaganda, because the story turned out to be untrue.
The current crisis in the Ukraine has also generated its share of propaganda. For example, videos and photos that are either complete hoaxes or actually refer to earlier periods or other crises have been strategically placed on social media sites. This demonstrates too how PR specialists are increasingly bypassing traditional media and using the opportunities offered by more modern channels of communication to get their message across directly.
Politicians, of course, also make use of PR. The recent meeting between Putin and Obama at the UN Syria summit is a case in point. Twenty years ago, such a high-level meeting might well have been held, quite deliberately, behind closed doors, and been followed by a simple press announcement by an official spokesperson. Nowadays this sort of thing is planned down to the last detail in advance, with each protagonist playing a precisely defined role in a carefully prepared setting – partly because, in the age of social media, discretion has gone out the window, and it is virtually impossible to ensure that such discussions remain confidential.
What have you learned from INFOCORE so far?
The goal of the sub-project for which I am directly responsible is to learn more about the factors that determine precisely what the public and the media are told about a given conflict, and about the impact of specific PR agendas on the coverage of conflict situations. Do particular features of a specific conflict – an unusual degree of brutality or the region of the world in which it takes place – make it more likely that it will be featured in the media? Or does this depend more on which international political institutions or NGOs become engaged in efforts to bring the conflict to an end? Does the point at which the international community intervenes in a conflict – whether early or late, openly or clandestinely – play a role in the production of 'stories' about these wars?
In the first phase of the project, we have analyzed UK PR material relating to the conflicts in Burundi (2010-2014), the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) (2012-2014) and the Western Balkans (2006-2014). The material comes from important and relevant British PR institutions, including the press offices of political think tanks, military sources and ministries. Our study here at LMU has so far revealed that the British PR discourse on the conflict in the DRC includes very many references to local DRC politicians. In the case of Burundi, on the other hand, international politicians and military experts are cited more often in the PR discourse than local players. We would like to know the reasons for this difference in emphasis. Can we identify explanations that are grounded in specific events or – perhaps more likely – in the particular geopolitical contexts of these conflicts?
In the course of the project, we will also compare the respective PR discourse in Germany and the PR messages distributed by EU institutions in Brussels, and we will extend the study to include PR discourses on INFOCORE’s other two conflict cases in Syria (2011-2014) and Palestine (2006-2014). A further sub-project involving other international scientists will investigate the media coverage and the social media content dealing with INFOCORE’s six crisis events. Thus, another question will be whether or not we will find similarities between crisis related PR messages on the one hand and media coverage and social media discourse on INFOCORE’s six conflict cases on the other hand.
What about the conflicts in the western Balkans, in Kosovo and Macedonia?
Well, references to the situation in Macedonia are essentially absent from the British PR discourse, despite the fact that violent clashes continue to occur there. Besides, the UK provided the largest contribution to the troop contingents sent to Macedonia as part of the NATO mission 'Essential Harvest' in 2001. I am curious to know what our partners will find in their analysis of British media coverage of the Macedonian conflict region. It is also striking that British PR material dealing with the Kosovo conflict makes very little reference to local civil society, and concentrates on political, military and international players. This is rather surprising – especially in light of the fact that, once the region had become peaceful, the EU invested a great deal of money in programs specifically designed to stimulate the growth of a strong civil society in Kosovo. In the British PR material, there is virtually no mention of this. Either civil society players are ignored because not being part of the elite they are regarded as unknown, insignificant and powerless, or the British PR discourse is excluding elements of civil society deliberately, to avoid hindering their development and fragile consolidation by drawing attention to them. That is also a conceivable strategy.
Or perhaps there are strategic political reasons for focusing on the views of political, military and international figures. After all, at the height of the Kosovo crisis, the UK was an active member of the Balkan Contact Group. This rather elitist approach might, even today, be the major factor determining the type of strategic communication favored by PR institutions in Britain. In the coming months we will interview journalists and politicians, as well as representatives of international organizations, NGOs and think tanks, in an attempt to gain a better understanding of the basic strategies that underlie the production, drafting, presentation and selection of such PR messages.
So there are winners and losers among PR strategies too. But then wars are often viewed very much in black-and-white terms.
That also depends on how thoroughly the media audience investigates the topic. Mainstream coverage aims to give readers and viewers a brief description of the conflict – and here the bad-boy story, garnished with dramatic effects, plays a significant role: The media want to identify the good guys and the bad guys (as indeed they should) as early as possible. In cases of violent conflict, it is natural that people want to know which party is guilty, who is the aggressor, who is refusing to take part in peace talks, and so on. Neither the reporters who write the stories nor their audience can entirely disregard this tendency, but working out the right answer to those questions, on the basis of painstaking research and well-founded information, is very difficult.
What’s more, the public now has much easier access to alternative sources of information, quite outside the mainstream media, and this makes everything even more difficult. I reject the notion that the more information sources an individual can access, the more comprehensive and accurate his or her picture of events will be. Without the political expertise of gatekeeping journalists who have learned how to evaluate information, we would be unable to understand its import or would misinterpret it. That experienced reporters write for high quality media undoubtedly has its advantages, and by supplementing their assessments with eye-witness reports from the WWW, one can broaden one’s understanding. But the idea that one day we will be able to do without journalists because live cams will be placed around battlefields is totally fallacious.
Are there other forces, apart from the urge to dramatize, that influence what gets covered?
How journalists select the information is determined by a variety of factors. Reporters and editors learn about those news factors during their training and as part of their professional socialization. The importance of several of these factors has been empirically verified. Events that are out of the ordinary or bizarre, startling, astonishing or destructive have the best chance of being reported. But other factors such as the geographical, political, economic or cultural proximity of the event or situation to the concerns of the local media audience also influence editorial decisions. PR strategists are aware of such factors and use this knowledge to make sure that their version of a story attracts media attention. This poses a challenge for journalists, for the proportion of crude and easily identifiable propaganda is diminishing. The global PR industry has become much more sophisticated and professional, partly because its practitioners are far better trained than they used to be. It is a very ominous development, when poorly trained over-worked and under-payed journalists are increasingly being faced with smarter and slicker PR specialists. Moreover, journalists no longer have the financial resources to compete with well-equipped and resourceful PR institutions. Today, in certain parts of the media industry, PR uses a sledgehammer to crack a nut. The ongoing crisis in the media is also having a deleterious effect on the training of journalists. The two major public TV channels in Germany, ARD and ZDF, have for instance drastically downsized their network of foreign correspondents around the world. As far as I am concerned, this is a dangerous trend that has already gone much too far.
Professor Romy Fröhlich works in the Institute for Communications Science and Media Research at LMU. Her major research interests lie in the areas of media coverage of crisis situations and wars (including gender-sensitive/-related aspects), and the impact of modern public relations on journalism and the media.
The EU project INFOCORE – (In)Forming Conflict Prevention, Response and Resolution: The Role of Media in Violent Conflict, which is coordinated by Professor Romy Fröhlich, began in January 2014. In the course of the project, which runs until December 2016, 11 researchers, based in seven European countries and in Israel will examine the role of the media in violent conflicts. The initial results of the project will be presented at a workshop in Brussels on 8th and 9th October 2015 that will be attended by politicians, journalists and social scientists.