Archive for April, 2009

Piggin’ marvellous

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One of the many things the Internet was supposed to kill off was the printed word. Books, magazines and newspapers, all screwed apparently. Yet while the growth of online media has had an impact – especially on newspapers, which do look pretty screwed – the media still has a tendency to proliferate, to evolve and learn how to thrive in niches.

That is why there is such an amazing diversity in British publishing. David Attenborough may become breathless describing the biodiversity of the world, but even he might raise an eyebrow at the scale of life either thriving in the fertile canopy of British publishing or grubbing around for an existence in the dank leaf mould on its floor.

The top level figures are intersting for analysts but it’s only when you get into the detail that things get really interesting. So, while a well-known media database impressively lists some 25,000 editorial contacts and around 11,000 titles, a quick search through it identifies that 65 of these are devoted to livestock farming. Drill down further and you see there are three of these dedicated solely to breeding pigs. There is only one for ostrich farmers but that may be because you can only write so many headlines featuring the words ‘head in the sand’ before you lose the will to live.

Everywhere you look there are similar evolutionary branches. Six magazines devoted to potatoes – growing them, not cooking them. Forty-two aimed at dentists. Three devoted to pigeon racing.

And it’s no good sneering at these titles and industries because you work in a different field. We all look the same to outsiders. For all I know, in the parallel universe of swineherds there is an editorial in this month’s issue of Pig International questioning the need for quite so many office design and facilities management magazines. So don’t mock. Because if you get involved in any industry, if it earns you a living, it will quickly become interesting enough for you to read several magazines a month about it.

Probably.

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How the media can help to reduce the number of mass killings

Edward Bernays

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 Whether you can’t stand him or just think he’s a bit of a tosser, Derren Brown is clearly on to something. And if you’ve read his book Trick of the Mind you’ll know that what he’s on to is ways to tap in to our fascination with how our thoughts and actions can be manipulated using some well-defined and researched techniques and principles. You can believe in the magical and mystical if you like, but Derren Brown is a creature of the Enlightenment and has no truck with any of that. He’s got psychology and science on his side.

It’s not just Derren Brown who has used the findings of psychologists to find ways to control people. Many of our current beliefs and the very workings of our society are based on this sort of manipulation. So it’s telling that the growth of consumerism in the middle of the 20th Century – especially after the War when we first began to move from a needs based economy to one fuelled by desire – was driven by the ideas of the nephew of Sigmund Freud. 

Edward Bernays became the ‘father of PR’ by first popularising his uncle’s theories in the US then by taking Freud’s ideas and applying them to mould the subconscious desires of the American masses. He did this not just in the name of commerce but also in that of politics because he believed that society was becoming increasingly irrational, immoral and dangerous. How the father of psychoanalysis begat the father of PR is evident from Bernays’ own writings. In his 1928 book Propaganda he wrote: “if we understand the mechanism and motives of the group mind, is it not possible to control and regiment the masses according to our will without their knowing about it? The recent practice of propaganda has proved that it is possible, at least up to a certain point and within certain limits.”

The reference to propaganda is telling. It’s a dirty word nowadays, largely because of its association with the era of fascism and communism, but at the time Bernays wrote his book propaganda was still enjoying its heyday while sewing the seeds of our modern preoccupation with manipulation, media, the message and marketing. Bernays’ statement was very much of its time but still resonates today.

The outstanding documentary maker Adam Curtis made the manipulation of opinion based on this kind of thinking the theme of his amazing, eye-opening series The Century of the Self which was first aired in 2002. (The series is now available online at www.archive.org.) As well as describing the work of Bernays and his contemporaries, Curtis’ series brings the ideas described in this pre- and post-war era up to date and extends it to the actions of contemporary politicians, especially with regard to the government and its attempted, sometimes successful, sometimes cack-handed manipulation of opinion and thought.

What this demonstrates is that as soon as somebody describes a theory or discovers something about how people function, somebody else will take that knowledge and attempt to use it as a way of modifying somebody else’s thoughts and actions, not least while they’re at work.

A good example of this can be seen in the modish application of psychogeography. Psychogeography, as defined by one of its founders Guy Debord is “the study of the precise effects of geographical setting, consciously managed or not, acting directly on the mood and behaviour of the individual” and started life as an offshoot of Situationist thinking in Paris in the 1950s. Now while it may have originally been about the manipulation of the aesthetic and political, the idea has now been bastardised and reinvented by our post-modern sensibilities to mean whatever the hell anybody likes.

Talk of psychogeography, while at best nebulous, at worst meaningless, still has a particularly appeal given our ongoing fixation on the relationship between people and place. Which explains why the use of the physical environment to either manipulate people or enhance their well-being and moods depending on your point of view is a recurrent theme in both the domestic and commercial design press.

I can see two problems with the way this material is presented. The first is that there is often too much emphasis placed on cause and effect. We are sometimes told, for example, that a particular shade of blue will give an air of tranquillity to a room or make people more productive. Well it might, but only if the other 57 factors that make people feel calm and productive are also sorted. As well as their relationships with their work and their colleagues, these will also include some factors beyond the control of the employer; the person’s home life, what they had for breakfast, whether they like blue and that git who carved them up on the A57 on the way in. There is a clear limit to the impact that a factor such as the colour of your office can have in isolation.

The second is that much of the thinking about the way we design workplaces is still based on need rather than desire, the exact opposite of what we expect when designing our homes. Office design and management is still about rationality and practicality rather than the subconscious desire for stuff we just plain want.

 

Why politics and religion don’t mix

This video is taken from a hearing of the US Subcommittee on Energy and the Environment. The man speaking is John Shimkus, a Republican member of the US House of Representatives representing Illinois.

No further comment.

Adding insult to injury

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As I’ve already mentioned, Panorama this week looked at the subject of health and safety which  is no laughing matter is it? Well actually, yes, sometimes it is.

One of my pet ideas is a sort of Darwin Awards for health and safety. (For those who don’t know, The Darwin Awards is an annual celebration of ‘those people who improve the species by accidentally removing themselves from it’, such as the Croatian man who in 2002 was killed while trying to open a hand grenade with a chainsaw to retrieve the explosive inside to make fireworks. Or there’s the one on the Darwin Awards website entitled ‘Scrotum Self Repair’ but you’d better look that one up yourself if you really want to.)

This is all a bit unpleasant, tasteless and childish but laughing at other people’s misery is what we do. It was Steve Allen who observed that comedy equals tragedy multiplied by distance and it was Mel Brooks’ assertion that ‘tragedy is when I cut my finger, comedy is when you walk into an open sewer and die’.

You only have to look at our own favourite comedies to see the wisdom of this. Fawlty Towers? A man teeters on the edge of a nervous breakdown; in one episode he tries to hide a corpse from the other guests in his hotel. The Office? I’m Alan Partridge? Dr Strangelove? The entire output of Laurel and Hardy? Modern Times? All full of violence, misery and thwarted dreams. The Apartment? An apparent romantic comedy centring on a series of affairs and lies and a botched suicide attempt?

Yet whenever I’ve pitched this idea at the editor of a health and safety magazine, the reaction tends to be the same. They laugh, recount their own favourite funny tales of death and serious injury (such as the one about the woman who during a health and safety exhibition was following a group of about 28 health and safety inspectors when she fell down a drain; the demolition workers who blew out the floor they were standing on Wile E. Coyote style; or the man who had his arm ripped off by a machine then reached in to retrieve it with his other arm…

Then they say they can’t do it. Which is a shame really because health and safety managers do worry an awful lot about the image they have in the media. I recall an issue of one of the sector’s best magazines – Safety and Health Practitioner – which raised the issue as its cover story. ‘How the profession can fight the media’s tendency to present health and safety as a killjoy profession’ ran the cover line, heralding a counter-productively po-faced attack on the media along with the apparent minority of health and safety officers who make decisions that discredit the rest of them.

One of the problems here is that health and safety managers seem to have no problem finding bitter humour in poking fun at other people for not listening to them. Elsewhere in the same issue of SHP, there was the now standard picture of some bloke doing some work on a roof without a tether of some sort. Building magazine runs a similar picture each week; typically of some imbecile standing on a sloped roof in shorts working with a chainsaw on some overhanging tree branches. What could possibly go wrong?

Now, having a dig at such people is perfectly reasonable. Or would be except for the fact that the profession and the law believe that an employer has a duty to not only ensure the reasonable health and safety of people but also anticipate accidents brought about by the actions of bloody idiots. How exactly firms are expected to guess at what their staff and customers, some of them thick or mentally ill, may do in all circumstances seems to be rather less clear.

This principle has been reinforced by recent rulings from the House of Lords without much negative comment from the health and safety profession. In fact, such ideas seem to be broadly welcomed in the profession. One of the best examples I can think of to demonstrate this is the now infamous example of an Edinburgh hotel that was fined £400,000 a couple of years ago after a guest climbed out a third floor window for reasons known only to her and fell to her death. This was a complex case and there were some health and safety failings but the apparently key factor – why exactly this woman did what she did – didn’t affect the fine.

The ruling was broadly welcomed in the H&S sector. And that is precisely where things have gone wrong. Forget the out of context quotes and distortions of the media, the profession’s biggest enemy is itself because it works on the dogmatic principle that people need protecting from themselves, when what is apparent is that sometimes people need to take the consequences of their own actions. And that includes other people adding insult to injury.

Fax for the memory

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Unless you work in PR – and let’s face it, you’re better than that – you probably don’t know that the last remaining use of the fax machine seems to be for magazines to send something called ‘colour separation’ request forms in knee-jerk response to receiving product press releases. The form is filled out (or not), faxed back and some poor sod at the magazine then has the job of editing the several hundred words of puff into 50 words or whatever to fit in next to a picture.

Even this residual function of the fax is probably doomed. Which makes me feel old because I believe I have witnessed the complete life cycle of the fax machine. I remember, when on placement in the mid 1980s as a student at a firm in Loughborough, a secretary (remember them?) encountered a fax for the first time, stood beside the machine feeding the same sheet of paper through it over and over again unaware that the machine didn’t actually send the paper itself. Oh, my stars, how we laughed. Well, thank goodness we’re all so much smarter nowadays and nobody will ever again be befuddled by a simple piece of new technology.

How the media works pt 83

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My business subscribes to a service that allows journalists to float ideas and requests for information onto the PR-osphere, the place where we exist. Below is a typical example of what we get to see. What is interesting (and very common) is that the article starts with a premise for which the journalist then seeks evidence. This is clearly the wrong way round.

PS If they can write this feature without mention of Amy Winehouse, I’ll be impressed. 

MEDIA OUTLET: Glamour (editorial request)

MEDIA TYPE: Consumer Press

DEADLINE: 21-April-2009 18:00

QUERY: I am looking for facts and stats to support a claim that, in many cases, rehab is unsuccessful.


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