By David Bandurski — Public opinion channeling is hot, hot, hot. If you’re in charge of a party or government organ in China, or the head of a local police force, chances are you’re scrambling to get on board with Hu Jintao’s new program for news and propaganda work. You want your people to be a lot more savvy in getting your message out, and you want to avoid the dreaded “public opinion crisis.”
What you need, first and foremost, is training and team building. State media reported last week that a three-day training session on public opinion channeling for news and information was held in Gansu province, with 134 police officials in attendance.
A Legal Daily article re-posted at People’s Daily Online said the Gansu session was the first of its kind “for police leaders working on the front lines,” and that it would be “advantageous in utilizing the media to support and publicize advanced models of police work and team building.”
[ABOVE: Screenshot of coverage of local media cadres meeting in April 2009 to discuss more effective channeling of public opinion.]
To some extent, it makes sense that leaders and local authorities in China are more interested in what some dismiss as run-of-the-mill “spin control.” Isn’t it a sign of progress, for example, for government spokespeople to step out more frequently and explain a situation, and the government’s position? [See the back-and-forth in the comments HERE for a plucky discussion along these lines.]
We have to remember, though, that these “spin” tactics are being applied against a backdrop of strict propaganda controls, party-government monopolization of news voices, and rigorous internet censorship mechanisms. The government’s voice is amplified. Reporters, meanwhile, can only sit on their hands, or join in the amplification.
But the recent mention of “public opinion channeling” by the vice-director of China’s State-Owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission, who encouraged state-owned enterprises to set up press offices to combat “negative news,” has drawn some mild criticism in China’s media.
The basic argument in a few editorials, including one in Guangzhou Daily yesterday, has been to support the idea that media should play a crucial role in improving state-owned enterprises by conducting watchdog journalism, ferreting out problems that enterprises can then address.
The concern, in other words, should not be to massage their public image, but to address the real problems that are the real cause of their poor public images. If the government really wants to clean up state-owned enterprises, it should invite more “bad” public opinion, not less.
Below is a translation of yesterday’s article in Guangzhou Daily, which suggests the strong focus lately on “public opinion channeling” — trendy though it is — exposes an old way of thinking about information, namely that “the responsibility for a poor image lies with the media, and with the news report itself,” not in internal problems in enterprises and/or institutions.
There is More to Image Improvement than Public Opinion Channeling
September 6, 2009
The role of the media is to reveal the facts and to inform the public, but as to what impression these facts make on the public, and how they shape public feeling, this is a matter of the news event itself and of the judgment of the public.
The channeling of public opinion is a topic getting more and more attention. It is now, perhaps, an uptrend of sorts. Online e-government services and the set up of official press spokesperson systems — these are all about correctly and effectively channeling public opinion in order to create a favorable dynamic between the people and the public sector. In recent days, in order to instruct state-owned enterprises to improve their news release systems, the State Asset Regulatory Commission has said it will come out with a policy establishing press spokesperson systems for state-owned enterprises and other related information release mechanisms so that the voices of enterprises can be actively and effectively heard.
Nowadays it is popular practice to utilize the media and carry out public opinion channeling in order to raise your own good image. And clearly, this action by state-owned enterprises to set up press spokesperson systems is in response to recent “negative news” about a number of enterprises. In a push to improve the situation and create a favorable public opinion environment for the development of state-owned enterprises, the enterprises themselves are staking a lot on these press spokespeople.
But many people have raised doubts about whether it will make any difference at all to the public image of state-owned enterprises to have spokespeople out there channeling public opinion. The reasons is simple. Because the onus is on the enterprises themselves, not just on public opinion channeling, for the general improvement of their public image. If an enterprise hopes to win the approval of the public, the secret lies not in the manipulation of public opinion but in its own behavior.
The rolling out of the press spokesperson system is only one means for state-owned enterprises to face the public directly. Smashing through the dominance of [state] monopolies, sharing the super-profits equitably with the public, accepting public supervision and raising efficiency — these are the only ways central state-owned enterprises can win favorable images.
The role of the media is to reveal the facts and to inform the public, but as to what impression these facts make on the public, and how they shape public feeling, this is a matter of the news event itself and of the judgment of the public. We often say that the masses have sharp eyes, and this is precisely the point.
In reality, of course, there are always those who make a habit of clouding the eyes of the people, and suppression of the media and of individual journalists becomes their trusty ace card. In some places, after mining accidents happen, the first thought is not to reveal the full extent of the casualties to the public, but rather to do everything humanly possible to ensure the truth is hidden and that journalists are prevented from covering the story. As they see it, news reporting smudges a black mark on their safety record . . . Applying the same reason, when mass incidents occur in some areas, they are kept under wraps from the beginning and media prevented from reporting. But experience has shown that reporting by the media promotes the resolution of such incidents, and in fact helps benefit the image [of local leaders] in the eyes of the public . . .
The watchdog function of the press may affect the interests of a particular area, office or enterprise in the short term. But in the longer run, this influence of public opinion will be beneficial to overall interests. Regrettably, many people still persist in believing that the responsibility for a poor image lies with the media, and with the news report itself . . .
[Posted by David Bandurski, September 7, 2009, 2:09pm]