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Thursday, 31 October 2013

Frame this: a piece I wrote for a wonk blog

Below is an amended version of a piece I wrote about Framing for Wonkcomms.

The conservative right studies cognitive science and work in advertising, they understand the role of emotion in generating values. The progressive left studies political science and is stuck in a phony enlightenment form of reasoning.
That’s the view of George Lakoff, Professor of Cognitive Linguistics at Berkeley and the go-to US expert on framing theory.
I went to a 90-minute think tank session about framing hosted by Counterpoint recently. And Lakoff made this assertion repeatedly. 
But I can see through this act. In truth Lakoff is ‘framing’. He knows progressives and conservatives don’t really fall into neat categories. He is using the metaphor of education to frame what differentiates right and left political discourse about values. 
Frame theory is everywhere right now. A recent report by the New Economics Foundation challenges us to devise ways of ‘re-framing’ the narrative of ‘Austerity’, a report by Compass analysed the values (aka ‘deep frames’) at the root of Ed Miliband’s Newham dockside speech in June. Counterpoint is in the middle of a programme of work exploring the influenceof framing.
Policy metaphors help frame political issues enabling even the most politically disengaged citizens to understand policy (See Hartman, Todd, ‘The Effects of Policy Metaphors onPolitical Attitudes ). Lakoff goes so far as to suggest that political framing be considered ‘applied cognitive science,’ so convinced is he of the technique’s empirical foundations (see Lakoff, G – Thinking Points, 2006)
‘War’, ‘struggle’, ‘motion’ and ‘direction’ are among the most common policy metaphors in use (for a list of political metaphors check Safire, W – Safire’s Political Dictionary)
George W Bush used the metaphor ‘Axis of Evil’ to describe states that were against the ‘war on terror’. Franklin D Roosevelt implemented a ‘New Deal’ to combat economic depression. Much political blood was spilt in 2007 and 2008 over whether to describe a $700 billion package to save Wall Street (TARP) as a ‘bail-out’ (BAD) or a ‘rescue’ (less contentious).
Recently European Central Bank policy on sovereign debt has been re-framed, the term ‘bail-in’ being deployed to normalise the removal of Cypriot people's cash deposits.
But what gives these metaphors the agency to actually change minds? Lakoff talks of the importance of ‘deep frames’ and the norms and values that underpin the way policies are framed in public discourse.
For example, the metaphor of ‘bail-out’, appeals to deeply ingrained value content (deep frames) implying the immorality, recklessness or irresponsibility of getting into debt.  A ‘bail-in’, by contrast, draws on the same value content, but re-frames it in favour of personal neoliberal values of responsibility.
This touches on something contentious in Lakoff’s approach. His golden rule of framing is ‘never work with a frame set by your opponent’. On this logic, should the ECB have looked for an alternative to the ‘bailing’ metaphor? Just because an opponent has embedded an effective frame in the public consciousness, does that make it immune from hijack?  Is it practical to ignore well-established frames like ‘austerity’?
An observation by philosopher Raymond Geuss questions the reliability of the assumption that values can be mobilized towards political action. He argues that people’s values are ‘usually half-baked, are almost certain to be both indeterminate and, to the extent to which they are determinate, grossly inconsistent in any but the most local contexts, and are constantly changing.’ (Geuss, Philosophy and Real Politics, 2008).
I can understand think tankers wanting to instrumentalise 'framing' as a way of influencing debates. But I worry that the theory misses something about the nature of capitalist society, and the limited liberal politics at  its root. The theory lacks a basic critique of capitalism itself and the role that ruling ideology and cultural norms play in the reproduction of media narratives.
An alternative approach is suggested by 'hegemonic' who commented on the piece I wrote on the Wonkcomms site.
Hegenomic said: 'Framing is a modestly interesting notion but it is actually far less profound than Gramsci’s concept of hegemony. Gramsci recognised that the struggle for hegemony was a battle for ‘intellectual and moral leadership’. It was thus simultaneously a contest of ideas, which mattered, and a contest of values. The latter connected to popular ‘common sense’, the product of centuries of sedimentation in the context of domination by particular social classes (think support for austerity), and should be fought (from the progressive side) by building on the ‘good sense’ deriving from the experience of subaltern social groups (think public hostility to bankers). Political parties played the role in this context of ‘collective intellectuals’, coalescing ‘historical blocs’ of social forces behind political projects (think a ‘national health service’) while disarticulating such alliances constructed by the opposing side (think, from Thatcher’s era, the ‘right to buy’); media could in this sense act like parties too (Gramsci was thinking of the organising role historically for the British ruling class of the Times). Such hegemonic projects went beyond advancing the ‘economic-corporate’ interests of particular classes (think the limits of Labourism as conceived via the Labour Representation Committee of 1900 or the toxic association in the public mind of Cameron’s Tories with the energy companies). The Lakoff ;frame’ is quite one-dimensional by comparison.

Friday, 18 October 2013

PR fails: British Gas

Yup, a massive 'PRfail' by British Gas on Twitter yesterday. 
At root is the bogus notion touted by MD, Ian Peters, that the company was seeking to engage openly and transparently with customers about its DECISION (note not a proposal or recommendation), to raise energy prices by an inflation busting 10.4%.
In 'PR-speak' Twitter is what's known as a medium for 'two-way communication'. It's a rubbish place for institutions like British Gas that appear only to be interested in talking-down to audiences.
Hubris is what possesses firms like British Gas to take to Twitter. Hubris, over-bearing pride, presumption, arrogance, lack of self-awareness, take your pick. A total, almost wilful, ignorance of public opinion.
In defending the decision to take to Twitter, Ian Peters, the Managing Director of British Gas said:
I would not describe this as a PR disaster. We have made a commitment to be open and transparent. These are tough decisions we have had to take in tough times and it would not be right of us to hide away and not explain ourselves.

Are people really expected to feel sorry for these mega companies (and government's) in their incredulous bleats about how 'very hard it is form them to take tough decisions' that, in reality, are tough for ordinary people only. Those poor British Gas executives, they will be scarred for life by this terrible, terrible austerity.
What is Mr Peters being open and transparent about anyway? Open and transparent about an unpopular decision that had already been made, it seems.
It's not as if British Gas's openness and transparency extends to listening. A genuine effort at two-way communication would be to ask Twitter for views about the intention to raise gas prices. I dunno, how about:
Hey Twitter, we are thinking about putting up gas prices, what do you think? We will take on board what you say before deciding what to do. Ta!
Not likely eh.

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Field recording: Westminster Cathedral, tuning the organ.

I was on the way to a meeting and had a bit of time to spare. I was actually looking for some audio footage to accompany a short documentary that I've got crazy ideas about doing.
Anyway, I just happened to walk into Westminster Cathedral and, by chance, they just happened to be tuning up the organ. If you listen carefully you can hear the technicians in the background shouting to each other.

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Carrie-infuenced Coffee Shop PR Stunt

Not sure how much coffee it will sell, but this is brilliant

Thursday, 3 October 2013

The Mail breaks its media protocol, with dire consequences

The Daily Mail’s hatchet job on Ralph Miliband has been the big political story this week and included a fascinating duel between Alastair Campbell and the newspaper's deputy editor Jon Steafel.

I thought I’d write a quick summary of the PR tactics in play in this interview as I always find it fascinating to see how newspaper journalists perform when dragged into a live studio to answer questions.

Now it’s unusual for a senior Fleet St editor to submit to a live TV interview about a contentious story. I understand that the Mail’s editor, Paul Dacre, has a policy of not defending his newspaper’s output in public media fora.
But curiously, this week, the Mail made an exception and despatched Steafel to fight the Mail’s corner against Campbell.

If you haven’t seen it already, the interview is here:

Now superficially Steafel comes across well, he’s calm and eloquent, he’s not a swivel-eyed loon nor an addled old hack. Indeed his appearance was later applauded by Campbell, although I’d take that with a pinch of salt if I was Steafel.

But you do have to question what the Mail was hoping to achieve with this piece of media engagement, why did they choose to break with their policy of refusing to appear on media programs to defend their output? Was it ever a formal policy, or just a rule of thumb. You also have to wonder what, if any, preparation was done. You see it's difficult to discern what proactive message the Mail was hoping to send by taking part in this interrogation.

To my mind in this interview Staefel commits the error of continuing to think like a journalist. He does this without appearing to realise that:
  • He/his publication has lost control of the story; and / or
  • He/his publication has become the story.
The latter point is crucial and should have had implications for how the Mail dealt with the story.

Note to Steafel: if you’ve allowed yourself to be dragged from your newsroom for interrogation in a BBC studio then YOU have become the story.

Staefel allows the Newsnight interviewer to set the tone and politely responds to her framing of the issues. None of which puts the Mail in a particularly good light, it all amounts to a poor, defensive re-statement of the crap the Mail has already published. There’s nothing new here, Staefel stakes no new ground for the Mail and offers merely a defensive justification of the original offending piece, his responses amount to this:
  • We examined Ralph Miliband’s views;
  • His views are wrong, they are anti-British;
  • Ralph Miliband was a Marxist, Marxists are responsible for thousands of deaths, this means he was dangerous / evil (in itself a vulgar and despicable argument);
  • Ralph MIliband hated Britain;
  • This is all fair comment;
But this isn’t credible.

If the Mail stood by its story, then why did it feel the need to break with its no-comment policy and agree to be interrogated on live TV? And once he did agree to appear on Newsnight why didn’t Staefel ‘spin’ such an unusual step?

Lines to take such as:
‘Look we recognize this story has caused a big stir… we don’t usually comment on these things… but here we are being accountable…. How many other newspaper editors would do this?...’

In addition, could the Mail have taken steps to acknowledge some of the problems with the story? Take the tasteless ‘grave Socialist’ picture for example. The newspaper had already removed this image from its website, in apparent recognition that it had committed an error of taste. Staefel could've deployed this as one of his key messages:

‘Look we are reasonable people… we do listen and when we get it wrong we put it right.’

Of course this is not the impression that comes out of the interview, instead one gets the impression of a newspaper forced to remove material against its will. These are just a few random thoughts, none of them trumping arguments.

The point is this: In any circumstances (whether inauspicious or not) if you opt to rip up your media engagement policy and go ahead with an interview, then you better have done some planning. You need to be clear why you’re breaking cover, you need to know your messages and show iron discipline in sticking to them.

The whole thing is pretty easy for Alistair Campbell. His strategy is to decapitate the Mail’s messaging (such as it is) by destroying the foundations of the Mail’s credibility at source. He barely engages with the content of the Mail’s story. Instead he attacks the Mail as an institution, smears its reputation, he cynically speculates about the cowardliness of the Mail’s editor (himself conspicuously absent from the Newsnight studio). In adopting this strategy he successfully puts into focus the Mail’s credibility. Furthermore, he gets traction for the idea that the Mail is a poisonous, corrupting and dangerous influence. He comprehensively undermines the Mail’s ability to get its message across.

Now this tactic is not new, and nor is it limited to spin doctoring.

Campbell was famously accused of adopting a similar strategy during the Iraq War by deflecting questions about the government’s conduct via a manufactured attack on the BBC. Although, perhaps not as clear cut as this week’s attack on the Mail, it’s worth re-watching Campbell’s now infamous intervention on Channel 4 News back in 2003.

But anyway, enough of this PR nonsense.

Could the Mail have handled itself better? Of course. Was it ever likely to? Probably not. I personally take great joy in covering up the Mail with copies of the Mirror (or if lucky, the Morning Star) whenever I see it in a shop. I also regularly admonish strangers for buying it.

Despite some good moments (it's
 role in the Stephen Lawrence case??) it's difficult to see any good in the Mail's relentlessly poisonous output.