Come in Spinner: Silences and complexity

Two of the ways PR people seek to make issues disappear are: to create strange silences in which they are lost, or to bury them in so much complexity and confusion that people just stop listening.

Ostensibly silence is difficult to create. Silence is, after all, about absences and what is absent is often present in our minds if not impacting on our aural senses. Even planned silences, such as John Cage’s 4’33’’, are not really silent at all. Years ago at a Melbourne Festival function after a Margaret Leng Tan concert, at which she ‘played’ the work, I mentioned that the recordings of it were fascinating. The Age’s Michael Shmith laughed and seemed to suggest that the comment was ridiculous – you don’t listen to recordings of the 4’33’. In fact there have been (according to Kyle Gann’s recent No such thing as Silence) at least 24 recordings on vinyl, cassette and CD. 4’33’’ is also the most popular Cage download on iTunes. On each of them there are various background noises and Margaret Leng Tan often encourages people to switch their phones on, cough and do all the other things one normally doesn’t do in a concert.

PR people are often more successful than Cage in creating silences because  – whatever the background noise or echoes –it is easy to do so when people want to forget or not to know. The background noise and echoes have much less influence. The great 1918 influenza epidemic was forgotten because the pain, so soon after the pain of the War, was something people didn’t want to remember. For generations of Australians indigenous massacres were ‘forgotten’ and the stories of dispossession and oppression disappeared from history. Henry Reynolds called his book on the subject, Why weren’t we told? (Penguin, 2000), for an ironic reason – we had been told, but there were many other people trying to persuade us to forget. But now – when people have re-discovered the tragic history of settlers’ treatment of indigenous Australians – we have people such as Keith Windschuttle telling us it is OK to forget because those who have recovered the past are just wrong. Platoons of PR people in politics, corporations and think tanks then propagate the new line in the hope that the forgetting will start all over again.

Ruling conventional wisdoms create silences as well. The ongoing propaganda about markets and de-regulation created a new conventional wisdom which effectively excluded contrary views from much of the media and public discourse and is still doing so in discussions about the aftermath of the crisis and what should be done about it. When a few contrarian voices are raised to question bailing out bankers and bondholders, or re-introducing regulation, the response is always that such policies will have ‘unintended consequences.’ No-one mentioned unintended consequences when they argued for de-regulation, even though history has shown us that such unintended consequences would eventuate as they have done in other business cycles. When bankers today defend themselves by citing ‘unintended consequences’ they can be confident that business media journalists won’t ask that next question – what unintended consequences specifically and how do they compare with the impact of the unintended consequences of the decades of de-regulation?

However, when the conventional wisdom is against you or the echoes and background noise are too great to create a silence, then creating complexity is the next best strategy.

The best example of this in recent years is the creation of complexity around climate change – most of it created by the same people who promoted the Windschuttle line.

It’s an old PR tactic but is rarely used because it takes a massive effort and investment. Initially when confronted by an unpalatable truth people who don’t want that truth widely accepted just deny it. But denial is hard to maintain as a strategy – particularly when your viewpoint is false. So the alternative is to make the issue so complicated that people switch off. This is essentially what the forces running the climate change denial industry have done – moved from denial to complexity with some very successful results. Fundamentalist Christians have done the same with creationism moving from denial of evolution through to trying to create complexity about the meaning of the word ‘theory’ and the concept of design.

It was, therefore, delightful to see that a growing number of people are starting to organise an international campaign to take action on climate change communication. It’s driven out of George Mason University in Virginia and one of the key organisers is Professor Ed Maibach from the university’s Centre for Climate Change Communication. Ed is one of the world’s leading experts on social marketing – using marketing to change attitudes and behaviours in a wide range of areas. Most of his work is the antithesis of the crude, simplistic, and largely ineffective, scare social marketing campaigns favoured by Australian governments and the Australian health thought police lobby.

The campaign has started with a letter to Science (19 November 2010, Vol 330). The full text of the letter is available at The letter says we have “waffled and delayed for decades”. The time has come, it argues, for a sustained campaign “to address misperceptions, and to counter misinformation.” The organisers are calling for endorsements from scientists, communications professionals, business, academics and a whole range of other groups. You can see the endorsees so far (including myself), and the details of what’s planned on the website.

Many journalists and others despair of what PR does and how it works. But there are times when its skills and practices can be more than useful – particularly at this “potentially critical moment for human civilisation” when “further delay risks serious consequences for people and the ecosystem on which we rely.”

RITUAL DECLARATION OF INTERESTS: Ed Maibach is a former colleague. The times when the author has used silence creation or complexity to bury an issue are too many to enumerate but examples can be found in How PR Works.