Westminster and the government’s fear PR feeding frenzy

By Andrew Eborn and Richard J. Hillgrove VI | Columnists

March 29, 2017 | 8 min read

It comes as no surprise to see Theresa May’s government using fear PR to tip the tables on the Snoopers’ Charter and bring us a giant’s stride closer to wiping out civil liberties in the UK.


‘What Side Are You On, WhatsApp?’ - behind the government's fear PR feeding frenzy

We didn’t have to wait long before the PR campaign truly kicked in with home secretary, Amber Rudd, appearing on The Andrew Marr Show to lambast WhatsApp for its encrypted service after the recent Westminster attack.

The revelation that Westminster attacker Khalid Masood sent a message on WhatsApp before he attacked is being used to erode privacy. The pressure is on to force WhatsApp to grant security forces access to its encrypted messages - something the app has repeatedly refused to do.

Shades of Apple versus the FBI in 2015 when the tech giant declined to help investigators unlock an iPhone belonging to the man responsible for the San Bernardino shooting, despite a judge’s order. The FBI eventually found an unnamed third party to do the job.

Meanwhile, back in the UK tech companies like Facebook and Google also came under fire from the home secretary. She said they had to recognise they are now publishers who must take responsibility for the content they distribute. That’s Amber Rudd whose Facebook profile modestly only refers to her as MP for Hastings and Rye. Should updating profiles be part of that responsibility, too?

National security is one thing, blanket surveillance another. Government appears hell-bent on forming a police state, but Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary, who police the police, repeatedly report integrity issues within the force. That’s officers doing the wrong thing to you and us. Terror legislation permits their activities to fall outside of the view of judges and courts.

In 2015, the National Crime Agency: Suspicious Activity Reports (SARs) Annual Report revealed nearly 50,000 suspicious activity reports are sent by accountants each year to the National Crime Agency, often against small businesses. Again, investigations are carried out under terror legislation.

A recent report shows that failures in disclosure resulted in the collapse of several high profile criminal prosecutions by the HMRC Criminal Division who have access to our most sensitive data. The issue of trust is critical, and not confined to the taxman.

The 2013 report on HMRC’s disclosure compliance with criminal investigations says that the reputational risk, financial costs and potential damage to public confidence associated with such failures to comply with legislation are not restricted to HMRC, but affect all law enforcement agencies.

Life and tech have moved on since Richard Gere played the bad cop in ‘Internal Affairs’ but the premise is the same: beware the wolf in sheep’s clothing.

While the Sun screams ‘What Side Are You On, WhatsApp?’ media outlets fan the flames of distrust and paranoia with disproportionate, even frenzied, reporting. As columnist Simon Jenkins observed, people do crazy things in cars every day in London, so why all the fuss?

He wrote in The Guardian: “The actions of the authorities and the media in response to Wednesday have ramped up the hysteria of terror. This was ostensibly a random act by a lone player without access even to a gun. To over-publicise and exaggerate such crimes is to be an accomplice after the act.”

It's like the X Factor with weapons as the media feeds a perpetual state of war. As messages of defiance popped up all around London and online, London’s Mayor Sadiq Khan was even sucked into the hype with his ‘We are not afraid’ message. Oh, really? Then why is the government acting like we should be?

The question of sides is far from cut and dried as the need to protect the individual becomes an issue. In all the brouhaha, the lunatics are taking over the asylum.

May has put former privacy campaigner David Davis in a straightjacket as her Brexit minister and at the Sun editor Tony Gallagher - who used to be a key proponent of civil liberties when he edited the Telegraph - is now marching to Murdoch’s tune.

Where is Baroness Chakrabarti when you need her? She was once described as ‘the most dangerous woman in Britain’. Troops on the civil liberties and human rights' side are looking a tad depleted these days.

Fear PR is the deadliest weapon in a marketer’s arsenal. No surprise to witness fear-meister Donald Trump immediately getting in on the action. He was the first to say, 'I told you so' and check on May's wellbeing. He understands the strength of a ‘spook the electorate’ strategy.

It’s a primal force. Way back at the birth of the craft, PR pioneer Edward Bernays saw the need to appeal to the subconscious rather than rational mind after studying the effects of propaganda during war.

He saw how fear was a far more powerful motivational trigger than love and joy. He went on to demonstrate it with a campaign for disposable Dixie Cups that scared people into thinking only throwaway cups were sanitary. He even gave the campaign legs by founding the Committee for the Study and Promotion of the Sanitary Dispensing of Food and Drink.

Around the same time in 1920s America, ads for Listerine turned bad breath into a serious condition that rendered you an unlovable social pariah. Their campaign of fear was so effective that sales rose from $115,000 to more than $8m in just seven years. Marketers never looked back.

After 9/11 the fear factor moved up a gear in the US. It took a surprising turn with the Hummer, a gas guzzler known to be prone to rollover, with poor visibility and needing a scarily long braking distance. Traumatised Americans craved safety after the World Trade Centre attacks and - despite its shortcomings - drove hulking Hummer sales to nearly double between 2002 and 2003.

The General Motors Hummer ad campaign was more like something out of a Die Hard film “… if you want to fight, I can fight. But you will die”, a bit like HMRC’s ‘We will find you’ threat to tax avoiders here. Shades of Liam Neeson in ‘Taken’.

Fear of infection has boosted campaigns across the globe, whether for hand sanitisers to fend off flu or condoms to combat AIDS. Much of the NHS’s health education marketing even now is designed to make you fear this disease or that condition as government departments jump on the bandwagon.

As consumers, we find focusing on the big picture too hard. We become anaesthetised by generalities. We need something or someone we can relate to if we’re going to be moved by a story. Fear needs a face. Personalise to empathise.

So, combine fear PR with a ‘lone attacker with a knife’ story and everyone is touched by it. Then you’re bang on target.

Andrew Eborn can be reached at, @octopustv and @andreweborn and Richard Hillgrove via, @6Hillgrove


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