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George W. Bush consultant Karl Rove
George W. Bush consultant Karl Rove
Alain Garrigou

-Essay-

PARIS - Charity starts at home, as the saying goes. So the very least that can be expected of communication consultants is that they are successful at communicating.

And they have been successful – well beyond expectations. They have not only managed to take a front-and-center seat in electoral campaigns, they are now also sought after to promote both government policy and lobbying objectives.

It has become hard to even imagine any ambitious leader, or political party, not making use of their services. Sometimes several are hired – one can’t be too well advised. So the communication business has prospered big time thanks to major or particularly astute public figures and some prestige-building wins.

Along with the leaders they advised, over time the consultants themselves began to become better and better known by playing up their role in the winning or exercise of power by their man – one thinks of Tony Blair’s Alastair Campbell, George W. Bush’s Karl Rove, and François Mitterrand’s (and later Jacques Chirac’s) Jacques Pilhan.

Some communication consultants engaged actively in self-promotion. Jacques Séguéla, co-founder of the RSCG (Havas) communication agency, sometimes made it sound as if he were the one who won France’s presidential election in 1981. Others let others do the talking while never denying rumors about just how great the extent of their influence was. They peppered their conversation with the titles and names of important people, sometimes divulging insider tidbits or referring to the VIPs by their first names to suggest the closeness of the relationship.

Quite naturally, story-telling specialists lend themselves to story-telling, and we have Alastair Campbell (Mark Bazeley) at the side of Prime Minister Tony Blair (Michael Sheen) in Stephen Frears’s 2006 film The Queen, or a fictional, romantic U.S. president (Michael Douglas) constantly being updated on poll results by his closest consultant (Annette Bening) in Rob Reiner’s 1995 film The American President. That’s unless the communicator actually morphs into a democratic hero himself, as in the 2012 Chilean movie No, in which an ad man becomes a principal agent of General Pinochet’s downfall.

Undoubtedly not the least of the successes of communication consultants is having made it via morally ambiguous means. Just as all election campaigners can’t come out the winner, neither can communication consultants – unless they’re also advising the opponents.

Big groups like Euro RSCG can pretend that it’s not the same teams that are "conceiving" rival campaigns. Other consultants – like one who was proud of handling “three presidential elections for 17 candidates” – vaunt advising multiple candidates.Without conflict of interest, of course!

Brains in the shadows

There are still some lingering bad smells associated with the communication business that – like all new and not very legitimate endeavors, particularly in democracies where opinion is supposed to be sovereign and commitment motivated by conviction and altruism – at first prospered in the shadows.

And mystery may indeed be largely responsible for the reputation such consultants have today. After their semi-veiled éminence grise era, they have emerged into the open where they enjoy the ambiguous power-and-cynicism-fueled prestige of spin-doctors. One doesn’t really know if that’s a term of reprobation, admiration, or if it is simply coldly realistic.

The big collective win of communication consultants has been to make people believe. First and foremost – in them. That success is even bigger if you consider that it was won using a very basic vocabulary borrowed from advertising: knowing the market (in this case, citizens); segmenting those citizens politically via polls and focus groups; and applying recipes borrowed from social psychology to present the products – which is to say, candidates, images, platforms.

The activity generated its own success. The existence of permanent yardsticks for public opinion (polls, surveys) requires communication consultants to manage that opinion. Are the polls “bad”? The communicators are at hand to turn “bad” to “good.”

Consultants in political communication can no doubt be seen as part of the long tradition of princely counselors, and in line with the present professionalization of politics, division of political work, and replacement of militants by mercenaries.

Of course, communicators can’t force political leaders to employ them and cannot be accused of the evils from which they benefit. But they can’t be exonerated either.

And having made themselves indispensable, they ask for top dollar – thus increasing the costs of politics to the state and hence taxpayers.

It is also true that political marketing has gone some way to creating disillusionment with democracy. Does it really mean nothing that citizens are treated like consumers, that the procedures of marketing commercial products has been applied to them as "targets" of tactics and cynical calculation?

The objective of communication is winning. But at any price? It comes expensive if you consider the financial costs but even more the moral costs inflicted on democracy.

Effect and outcomes can no longer be ignored as they have been in the past – for example in conjunction with famous ad campaigns like the one concocted by Edward Bernays for American Tobacco. The goal was to break the taboo that forbade women from smoking in public.

Based on the work of a psychoanalyst who associated cigarettes with penises, Bernays decided to create a link between feminism and smoking. At New York’s renowned Easter Day Parade in 1929 he organized a group of women to light up for photographers. The next day the image of the suffragettes and their “torches of freedom” had been circulated all over the country.

Today we know that “smoking kills.”

Alain Garrigou is a Professor of Political Science at the University of Paris-X-Nanterre.

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