On propaganda, persuasion, and public relations

March 11, 2014
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RT: The Russian network has taken a page from the book of televised American News.

Often, the hardest lesson to learn for PR practitioners and patients alike is the need to balance an argument in order to insidiously strengthen your own case. I was reminded of that fact recently while watching RT, the English-language Russian state television network seen on American TV. It’s lively, tightly formatted news programming has learned much from American TV networks CNN and FOX News. Attractive news reporters anchor their stories with cutaways and conversations with remote, in-the-field reporters, all speaking in Ohio Valley, newsroom accents.

Their stories, while recently focused on Ukraine, are sprinkled with a steady diet of American inconsistencies meant to embarrass — a report about the lingering war in Afghanistan or reportage of gay rights intolerance here in the states. What’s remarkable, though, is how RT has learned to seemingly balance their coverage to disguise their bias, and in doing so leapfrogs much of American cable news.

This week, RT has been keen to acknowledge and respond to Western media criticism, as when American TV claimed that RT was showing maps of Crimea as part of Mother Russia. RT noted that the graphic appeared as part of a larger story during which the current map was shown and boundaries only erased to illustrate how the region would appear if a succession referendum succeeds. RT also showed Western media clips reporting that Russian tanks were rolling into Crimea. RT claimed that while Russian soldiers patrolled the streets, they did so on foot, a nuanced but interesting admission for a Putin-controlled mouthpiece.

Don’t misunderstand. RT stuck firmly to its narrative, making the repeated case that more than 60 percent of Crimeans are of Russian lineage and deserve the right to vote on their own destiny — a scary proposition for other former Eastern block countries that house sizable Russian populations. They never admitted that their meddling comes with risk and has caused death and suffering.

But what was also absent from RT’s coverage is the stock in trade of Fox and MSNBC, that drum beat of political commentators sent in to overtly deliver the party line to the exclusion of all else, a tactic that merely confirms bias not persuades others.

Instead, RT’s approach proved more insidious, hiding bias by first addressing the other side’s voice and then applying their own rationale. Their manipulation bothered me not the least. All media is biased by politics, economics, culture, or worldview. I only object when media claims to be fair and balanced or open to all things considered, as long as those things agree with me! RT does nothing to identify its bias — but neither does NPR.

For PR practitioners, RT provides a roadmap on how to improve persuasiveness by including and  acknowledging divergent views. Even the on-air resignation of RT anchor Liz Wahl somehow suggests objectivity. When was the last time an American reporter so adamantly disagreed with their employer? Nah. Not in America where everyone is on board with the agenda, even if it diminishes their own ability to persuade and propagandize.

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