Trial by publicity

Fence Sitter
A. R. Samson

Posted on October 12, 2016

Character assassinations of public personalities employ investigations conducted by the legislature or some regulatory agency aided by witnesses condemning the targets. TV coverage of the proceedings (live with no commercial breaks) are aired and then summarized in the next news cycle. The battling narratives are played out until the public gets tired of the melodrama and switches back to their teleseryes with more interesting twists and turns, villains and victims, and commercial breaks.

Trial by publicity recognizes that a court case has stricter rules of evidence and tends to be stretched out with postponements. They also don’t offer too many sound bites and engage a smaller audience. More useful as a battering ram to break down the doors of a good reputation is a media blast.

Even among corporate types, media pressure employing expert mercenaries is always in the arsenal for corporate battles. Bureaucrats who frustrate you by sitting on your proposals for an unreasonable period of time without any feedback, or withholding from you something reasonable like an approval of a permit they have obliquely promised many conversations ago, need to be nudged by means of public pressure.

And one way to accomplish this not-so-gentle persuasion is to vent dissatisfaction in media to perhaps panic the recalcitrant bureaucrat into seeing reason and frantically setting an appointment, ready with a pen to green-light a pending request. Note that quieter incentives are also available.

The public pressure option holds that nothing nudges a bureaucrat into action or keeps him in check more effectively than being publicly exposed in media as incompetent, vengeful (can a love triangle be introduced here?), dismissive of the public good, or beholden to hidden interests.

However, this persuasion theory, if one goes by anecdotal evidence on the effects of headline-inducing fulminations (investors will flee this country and treat it as a leper colony), can elicit the opposite effect, that of bureaucrats digging in their heels and being unavailable for comment -- we are still studying the matter and we will not be stampeded into a hasty decision. Higher up the food chain, the dismissal can be ominous -- we don’t need their investments. Some may even unleash expletives and death threats.

Are media practitioners willing enablers of demolition jobs and trials by publicity, or are they just reporting the news of the day that can only be ignored at their own peril in terms of readership and ratings? Hence, we have a herd mentality when it comes to headline news.

Politicians can change public positions or what they said in speeches recorded by media. Their spokespersons can do it. Or, they will cite new information (investigation by my staff show that the currency movements have not been manipulated after all). Maybe, the sudden realization of the public good -- this project while supposedly despoiling the environment which has yet to be proven will raise the region’s GDP by 21%.

In these changes of heart, it is emphatically asserted that the reason for such is new information and not buckling to pressure, or heaven forbid, the use incentives in the Damascene conversion.

Insulting a public official in a media interview (as in a panel of talking heads on TV discussing the political climate and its effect on business) is guaranteed to attract the ire of its target. This can only result in a poisoned relationship and guaranteed to put the outspoken individual in some list that may not even be made public, and include celebrities.

Perhaps the rise of corporate frustration ending up in media can be traced to the decline of influence peddling, or old-fashioned lobbying. No longer are there reliable brokers (sometimes classmates or relatives) who are practiced in the arts of working silently in the background, serving as some kind of consultant in getting things done for a fee.

In the atmosphere of a puritan call for honesty and the burning of witches, frustration mounts when things do not get done and disappointments find expression in media.

With the decline of influence peddling, media seem to be the last resort for redress, giving rise to the influence of media practitioners of a different kind, referred to as “envelopmental.”

Thus have media by default become the proxy influence wielder. Their penchant for the shrill and sensational accusation makes them ideal for demolition work, but not policy setting. Still, the effectiveness of trial by publicity dwindles with the public attention it fails to sustain.

A. R. Samson is chair and CEO of Touch DDB.