The battle for public opinion really comes down to communications

Looking behind can sometimes offer the best view of what lies ahead.

An audience at Kent State University recently prompted me to reflect on public relations practices of the past and consider communications of the future.

Kent’s School of Journalism and Mass Communications hosted a Media at the Movies night earlier this month. First the audience, consisting largely of public relations and journalism students, was to watch the documentary “Merchants of Doubt.” Then the students were to grill a four-member panel of professionals about the ethical lapses portrayed in the movie. I agreed to sit on the panel. 

If you aren’t familiar with the movie, it is based on the book by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway that links the tobacco industry’s efforts in the mid-to-late 20th century to mislead the public about the hazards of cigarettes to the public debate about climate change.  Here is a New York Times review of the movie.

Terms such as “spin,” “obfuscate,” “dishonesty” and worse are used to describe the public relations strategies portrayed in the movie.

Before the movie began, one Kent State professor approached me and offered a warning. “I wouldn’t want to be you,” she said. “I don’t know how you’re going to defend the PR industry after this movie.”

The fact is, I didn’t even try to defend the actions portrayed in “Merchants.”

On its surface, I said, the movie is about efforts to mislead the public. But at its core, “Merchants” portrays the growing power of communications.

Consider, I suggested, the communications channels and platforms portrayed in “Merchants.”

Cable television, newspaper and radio interviews. Television talk shows. Reality TV. Bylined articles. Think tank reports and white papers. Non-government organization reports. Trade shows. Email campaigns. Websites.  Advertising.  “Merchants” illustrates how all these communications channels and others are used to guide and influence public opinion these days.

In many ways, the documentary itself is a series of media interviews strung together!

In one telling scene, the NASA scientist credited with discovering global warming attempts to give a video interview about his research. James E. Hansen is clearly uncomfortable in front of the camera. The interviewer asks him a question and Hansen fumbles his answer. The interviewer tries again, but the result is no better. Finally, Hansen gives up and says he is far more comfortable conducting research than giving interviews. He all but says, my research should speak for itself. Why do I have to communicate?

If ever there was an argument for media training, Hansen provides it! Just think, I suggested to the audience of future communicators, what if Hansen and his allies had been better prepared to communicate their findings to the world back in the 1970s? Wouldn’t their message have been far more effective, and influenced public reaction for the better? 

One of the last scenes in “Merchant” involves former U.S. Rep. Bob Inglis of South Carolina working to shift the opinions of climate change skeptics.  He engages in a frustrating and seemingly endless string of radio interviews. Media relations 101!

After nearly an hour of questions, the evening on campus concluded with a student’s request for advice: How can we best prepare to enter the public relations profession?

Again, “Merchants” provided a good answer.  Look back at the media and advertising tools the tobacco industry used to influence public opinion about smoking, I recommended. Now, look at how the current battle to influence public opinion is being waged. The effective communications of today – and most likely those of the future -- hinge not on one or two tactics, but integrating any number of approaches to reach target audiences.

Learn about as many of them as you can.

You can find a Storify review of Media at the Movies Night at Kent State here.

If you have any questions or comments about this post, please feel free to send an email or give me a call. I can be reached at or 216.241.2145.

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