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Johnson also used deceptive public relations tactics in publicizing a supposed attack on the U.S. naval fleet in the Gulf of Tonkin off the Vietnamese coast. Eventually, it would be acknowledged by former members of the Johnson administration that the incident was essentially fabricated as a means to justify the entrance of the U.S. military into the Vietnamese conflict in an operational (i.e. war-fighting) capacity instead of the advisory capacity in which U.S. forces had been involved to that point (McNamara, 1995; Roberts, 2000; Vance, 1983).
The public relations industry and mechanisms have also been used effectively by foreign governments in a manner designed to instigate public opposition to the policies of the American administration. One of the best examples is the "No Nukes" political movement during the 1980s in opposition to President Ronald Reagan's increased funding of U.S. defense capabilities against the threat believed to have been represented by the Soviet Union (McNamara, 1995; Roberts, 2000; Vance, 1983). Specifically, thousands of well-meaning American students (and others) campaigned and demonstrated very vocally in opposition to the administration's plans with regard to upgrading the nation's missile defense system and its survivability after a preemptive strike by the Soviet Union (McNamara, 1995; Roberts, 2000; Vance, 1983).
In truth the actual impetus and funding for the No Nukes "peace" campaign promoting a platform of opposition to nuclear weapons originated in the Soviet Union and it was implemented using private sector American public relations firms (McNamara, 1995; Roberts, 2000; Vance, 1983). The purpose of the campaign was precisely to undermine the efforts of the administration to minimize the ability of the Soviet Union to threaten the U.S. with its ICBMs. The No Nukes peace movement was, in reality, a cheaper alternative based in public relations for Moscow to maintaining parity with U.S. capabilities; it was not about "peace" but the economics of the arms race that eventually succeeded in precipitating the collapse of the Soviet Union ((McNamara, 1995; Roberts, 2000).
Culture and the Public Relations Industry
In the modern age of American social fabric, public relations have been used extensively by public-sector (i.e. government) and private-sector entities both for good and for less noble causes. On the positive side, public relations techniques such as message boards on public transportation vehicles, public service messages and awareness campaigns broadcast on radio and television have been extremely beneficial in raising social awareness of important concepts.
Racism, discrimination, drunk driving, illicit drug use, drinking while pregnant, and many other social problems have been successfully reduced partly through public relations mechanisms designed both to raise awareness and also to reshape cultural and social mores to comport with social ideals considered important enough to instill through such processes (Craig, 2007; Dutta, 2007; Fox & White, 1993). In that regard, public relations have become even more powerful since the wider availability of newer media such as the Internet and various social media through which many people now communicate and acquire information about the word and their society. At the other end of the spectrum, the same public relations techniques and capabilities have been exploited for the purpose of communicating antisocial messages of hate and intolerance. Examples include the documented extensive use of Internet websites for recruitment propaganda both by domestic hate groups and by international terrorist entities such as al-Qaeda and other violent radical extremists (Hogg & Reid, 2006).
The Media and the Environment
The media have had considerable impact on American social values and today, public relations media are sufficiently powerful to influence the way that millions of individuals view contemporary issues. One example is the way that media coverage of environmental issues and concerns has raised public awareness of issues related to global warming and the unacceptably high reliance of the U.S. On fossil fuels and foreign oil and petroleum products.
These issues have actually existed for decades and the scientific and geopolitical facts and circumstances have not change substantially in the last several years, at least not enough to explain the tremendous increase in public awareness. What has changed, rather, is the ease with which information is now communicated and the degree to which the news media and private individuals have embraced them (Johnson, 2009). Naturally, the greater the ability of the news media and private-sector public relations efforts to influence public opinion on the large scale the greater the ethical obligation to consider the potential social impact of the message and the greater the obligation to adhere to the truth in the process.
Case Study -- The Current Debate Concerning American Health Care Reform
One of the most interesting contemporary case studies in public relations is the current involvement of political lobbyists attempting to undermine American healthcare reform in Washington. Presently, there are approximately five lobbyists working on behalf of the health insurance industry for every elected official in Washington (Tumulty, 2009). Their express purpose is to influence decisions and pressure those politicians from states where large corporate conglomerates are located, as well as to influence others through the traditional means of political lobbying.
By the end of the year, they are projected to spend close to one billion dollars on political contributions, advertising, public relations, and marketing campaigns all intended to prevent much needed reforms to the American healthcare system that is currently on track to bankrupt the nation one family at a time (Tumulty, 2009).In general, the political lobbying aspect of public relations has long been one of its most controversial elements. Critics point out that while outright bribery of public officials is prohibited by law, it is largely a fiction that all that money can buy in Washington is "access" to political representatives and members of the executive leadership (Reid, 2009).
The more visible components of the public relations involvement in the healthcare debate includes the orchestration of high profile opposition demonstrations recently broadcast nationwide in connection with town hall meetings scheduled for the purpose of providing much needed basic information. The same entities that were involved in planting individuals to disrupt those meetings have been equally involved in disseminating deceitful propaganda suggesting that the types of healthcare reform envisioned by the current administration of President Barack Obama are the equivalent to "socialism" and "death panels" to prematurely terminate the lives of the elderly.
In principle, public relations in some form probably precedes recorded history. In its modern version, public relations using multimedia began in the first half of the 20th century, albeit for nefarious and tremendously immoral purposes of wartime propaganda and racial hatred. Today, public relations has evolved into a large professional industry capable of influencing public opinion on a tremendous range of contemporary issues. In more recent history, American presidential administrations have used public relations techniques for informing the population of important developments in times of international and geopolitical crisis, but also to deceive the population into supporting decisions that could otherwise not have been made as easily.
The public relations field recently expanded it capabilities and degree of social influence by adopting and incorporating the latest forms of technological advances and the latest trends in social networking and personal communications. With its increased capability to influence public opinion, the public relations industry has a correspondingly greater ethical obligation not to misuse that capacity for immoral purposes. The industry itself, as represented by technologies, processes, and methodologies for influencing public opinion is benign; it is merely a tool created for the effective dissemination of information. That tool can be used to benefit human society, social institutions, and individuals, or it can be used for the worst possible purposes imaginable. Ultimately, those choices are related more to human nature and values than to the public relations industry, but the potential for tremendous social influence in undeniable.
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