Spinning the Truth: The Role of Public Relations as seen in “Wag the Dog”

Wag The Dog (1997) • Barry Levinson [Director]

Starring Robert De Niro, Larry Beinhart, and Hilary Henkin

Written by: Raquell Muniz, Katie McGarrity, and Macklin Brigham

Date: November 08, 2016

Spinning the Truth: The Role of Public Relations as seen in Wag the Dog

Wag the Dog, a film produced in 1997 and directed by Barry Levinson, directly depicts the power that public relations can have on its audience. To simply state background information regarding the film, Wag the Dog follows the story of how a group of people come together to change the audience’s focus of attention. “Change the story, change the lead” (8:21) That is, they are trying to shift the American’s views from the sexual misconduct the President was accused of being in and moving them toward focusing on something else, something bigger. In this case, a war with Albania. According to Baran, “There is no universally accepted definition of public relation because it can be and is many things – publicity, research, public affairs, media relations, promotion, merchandising and more” (pg. 266). With that being said, public relations grows on trust that it builds upon and with its viewers/clients. Its power to transform an idea, no matter if it’s the truth – “what does it matter if it’s true” – (4:30), and mass market it to the people is quite the phenomena. This leads into discussing how De Niro’s character was a spin doctor, or as he is directed in the movie “Mr. Fix it”.  

Spin, in relationship with public relations, is outright lying to hide what really happened (Baran 277). Having seen and discussed the film, we become aware of how exactly De Niro’s character fits into this definition of being a ‘spin doctor’. He manipulates information and lies to capture people’s attention. In his case, he was trying to shift people’s attention away from the scandal that was happening with the president. With the help of a talented hollywood producer and his dynamic team, he was able to do just that.

A Pseudo-event, as Baran defines it, is “an event staged specifically to attract public attention” (Baran 267). In Wag The Dog, the “spin doctor,” Conrad, staged several events to draw attention away from the sex scandal surrounding the President. The first event was the Press Conference, which served to establish the false rumor that America was going to war with Albania (14:00). This war with Albania was the main pseudo-event of the movie around which all of the other events were framed. The PR team also created a P.O.W., “Old Schu,” who stood as a kind of symbol of the atrocities that the Albanians were supposedly afflicting on their people and on ours. A pseudo-event was created when “Old Schu” was to be brought home as a hero, but this was soon foiled when the team found out that the man who was the face of Old Schu was a convict (1:11:00). When the convict was shot and killed by a farmer whose daughter Old Schu was assaulting, the PR team created another pseudo-event- the funeral of a war hero; as Conrad says, “What is better than the triumphal homecoming of a war hero?”(1:25:00). These pseudo-events successfully distracted the public and the media from the scandal that the President created.

In addition, the PR team was heavily involved in lobbying the President; Baran defines lobbying as “directly interacting to influence elected officials or government regulators and agents” (274). For example, at 14:35, Conrad and Stanley call the agent who is speaking for the President (who is still in China) to tell him exactly what to say during the press conference. This shows that Conrad and Stanley truly have the President’s ear directly.

Edward Bernays is considered by most to be the father of public relations.

Edward Bernays is considered by most to be the father of public relations.

While Conrad and Stanley’s accomplishments were truly impressive, it is easy for the audience to devalue their feats since the film is a work of fiction.  Yes, the events in this Wag the Dog never actually happened in real life, but one should not underestimate what very real spin-doctors like Conrad can do and have done in the United States.  Take public relations pioneer Edward Bernays into account, for example.  Bernays is lauded by historians for being one of the first men in the business to emphasize the value of assessing the public’s feelings toward an organization and, as a result, he had a major role in the formation of two-way communication in PR — talking and listening to the American public (Baran 2014, p. 269).  He is famed for being the “father of public relations” (Baran 2014, p. 282)

As a result of the "Torches of Freedom" campaign, women no longer felt pressured to hide their smoking habits.

As a result of the “Torches of Freedom” campaign, women no longer felt pressured to hide their smoking habits.

In the 1920s, most of the female population did not smoke cigarettes — and those who did certainly did not dare smoke in public.  Cigarette companies saw women as means to increase profit exponentially, they just had to find a way to break down the taboo.  That was where Bernays came in; he hired women to march in the 1928 Easter parade smoking cigarettes, or as he had the women call them, “Torches of Freedom.”   Thus sparked a feminist movement — now smoking was a way to exercise your freedom! — and by 1965, every 1 in 3 women were buying cigarettes, a huge increase from the mere 5% who did in the early twenties.  And to think this movement of “freedom” had been started by greedy cigarette companies…

If this real-world example is not enough to convince critics, think back to one used by Conrad in the film.  While on the plane to Chicago, he explains to Winnie, “Don’t worry, it’s nothing new. During Reagan’s administration, 240 marines were killed in Beirut. 24 hours later, we invade Grenada. That was their modus operandi: change the story, change the lead. It’s not a new concept” (8:00).  While the events that occur in Wag the Dog are dramatized, it is important to keep in mind that our government has and will continue to spin the truth to manipulate our views.  It is only through becoming media literate that we can challenge their actions — but will our voices ever truly be heard?

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