Even if you aren’t one to use words like “polemic,” you are likely to be familiar with the meaning behind the word itself, since it’s pervasive in society today. A “polemic” is rhetoric that is not intended to advance an idea or an argument on its own merits, but rather to “win” by aggressively undermining an opposing position. You don’t have to be right, in fact you can be dead wrong. The opposition doesn’t have to be wrong, in fact the opposition can be dead right. All that has to happen for a polemic to work is to effectively paint the opposition as “bad,” in such a way as you define it.
A polemic can be the embodiment of using a double-standard with mal-intent. For ages, politicians on every side of the aisle have mastered the art of using polemics. What may heighten this art form, however, is social media and its relationship with traditional media.
For better or worse, every time you log on to Twitter, chances are you’ll find more than a few examples of polemics. It’s a short leap for someone aggressively undermining the opponent’s position on an issue to attempt to undermine the opponent at a personal level, attacking character and assigning fictional motives and intents.
The Challenge for PR People
What makes this pattern a challenge for today’s public relations practitioner is when journalists actively engage in polemics, taking a position on an issue and pursuing a story polemically, trying to undermine the subject of the story, for no other reason than to marginalize that subject of the story.
This is often accomplished by publishing selected facts, working to connect events or facts that are unrelated. And then to imply nefarious intent when the worst thing that might have happened was an honest mistake or an innocent oversight, if that.
I’ve run into this a few times but one situation that stands out was a time when a client was covered by a reporter whose tweets indicated his disdain for my client’s industry that reached an almost religious fervor. Since my client was a group of environmental activist groups and energy companies, this reporter sharpened his polemic axe.
The first thing he did was pour through a series of blog posts and social media posts, and then selectively pull those he felt he could recast out of context. He never contacted the subject of his story for comment. His reporting was published as news analysis, not opinion, yet it made simple bias look like child’s play.
What were my client’s “crimes?” They were working to find common ground to create public dialogue that would lead to holding energy producers to a higher standard of environmental stewardship. This reporter clearly preferred an us-versus-them dynamic where energy companies could be painted as the enemy, and no such thing as dialogue or common ground would be possible.
I’ve seen this dynamic to varying degrees in other situations. As a result, I myself have made a habit of studying the social media posts reporters who cover my clients. This is one of the simplest windows to a reporter’s feelings about certain subjects, and it sometimes provides a good indication of just how professional that reporter might be when working on a story involving you. You can do this, too.
Is this just a one-off?
I wish these situations are rare, but it appears an increasing number of communications pros at organizations now have to face polemic media coverage. As some news media organizations identify the ideological leanings of their bases, they tend to play to the base to build and preserve their followings. So, rather than attempt to educate and inform, they play to confirmation bias.
They identify the emotional biases of their largest numbers of followers and seek to reinforce those biases, and not to correct any that might be inaccurate or unfair. In some cases, the confirmation bias itself has become a part of newsroom decision-making, so editors and producers themselves see such a narrow reality that they aren’t open to alternative points of view enough to give those views a fair hearing. To do so would be to disrupt a somewhat un-challengeable assumption.
It is within this context that we in the corporate communications operate and navigate with our organizations and clients.