‘Communication starts and prevents wars nowadays’
Communication is a weapon in our time when all wars are broadcast live, says Seguela, a renowned French political consultant. Each slogan is a bullet and the line between communication and misinformation is very fluid.
And as all eyes are on Syria now, we are yet to see whether communication will succeed in preventing an actual war there – or if the world will see the same failure as in Libya and Egypt.
'Wars drag on when communication is left behind’
RT: Lets look at war. When we look back at history we have many examples of the PR machine of war, PR agencies involved in packaging and selling, justifying war. War is war, isn't it? What's to justify? What's your view on the ethical breaches of such actions?
Jacques Seguela: This is not the same kind of spin doctor or communications adviser. These are military men who are trained in intelligence and use communication as a destructive weapon that destroys political opinions. This is to try to convince the world of their good conscience.
I prefer wars like this than actual deadly wars. Those information wars may kill a few ideas here and there, but it can't kill a person. As time goes by, communication will increasingly be an important part of war. It starts before an actual war and it can also prevent it – that's what we're seeing in Syria. I hope communication will succeed there when it failed in Libya and it failed in Egypt. In Tunisia, it happened spontaneously. But I hope we will not reach the same aberration that we experienced in Libya.
RT: So you’re saying that communication is a weapon?
JS: Communication is a weapon. Each slogan is a dumdum bullet that shoots like that! All the terms of advertising are war terms. We talk about target, we talk about strategy, we talk about impact. This is terrible! It is also a weapon in the war because all wars are now shown in live broadcast.
RT: Where's the line between effective communication and manipulation?
JS: The line is very narrow. It's very fluid, especially when it comes to war. When it comes to politics, the stakes are not as high, and above all, it's easier to exercise transparency in politics. But in a war no one can approach the war zone or the forefront of military operations. You never know if the dead they show you are in one camp or another camp. It's so easy in a war zone and it has already been done several times in the past, to transform the war's surroundings, to bring the bodies in the makeup. You can always simulate a massacre that has not occurred.
So one must be very careful. It is the job of war reporters to witness all that. They also put themselves at risk for it. Being a war reporter is one of the best jobs in the world. I did my military service in Algeria for a few months; that's what I've done best in my life because we were there to serve humanity to try to uncover the real truth and not the one that people want to show you. Misinformation is easier during war time.
RT:Without the PR war machines would there have been fewer wars?
JS: Wars drag on when communication is left behind. This is exactly the case of Syria today. Used well, communication is a weapon of war, and a weapon that kills the least number of people. Look at Libya. At one point, the world found that Gaddafi was doing too much. If you look at Syria and the incredible number of unfair deaths, you want it to stop. Peace always triumphs and communication is here to push peace forward and to say each time that there's peace is always better than war. War does not solve anything.
'Spin doctors are like a microphone’
RT: Behind every great political or business leader today lays a skilled communication practitioner, or a "spin doctor". You've been instrumental in a number of political campaigns. In France you advised Francois Mitterand, the last Socialist president before Francois Hollande was elected. Do you necessarily share the same worldview and values of those you advise, especially the politicians?
JS: You don't need to be on the same side, left or right, of the person you are consulting for. But he must have the admiration of his advertiser. In any case, they must share the same values. This does not mean the same ideology. I'm very lucky because I am neither right nor left. I believe in ideas, not ideologies. For me, the man who, in a campaign, has the greatest idea, and will put his country on the move is one that interests me and one I've wanted to work with. I do not care if he is right or left, provided that fundamentally he's a Democrat, he wants to lead his country into the future and, to be honest, three conditions generally hard to obtain.
RT: Why is it not possible to just give people all the facts and let them decide for themselves?
JS: Don't think that politicians let their communication advisers tell them what they have to do all day. Our business is like a microphone: we are the amplifiers, the conductor, and the directors of our candidate’s ideas. If a spin doctor wants to do the thinking instead of letting his client express his ideas, the spin doctor commits an unforgivable egotistic mistake. Our job is to say where, when, why, how. The environment in which the message will be delivered is as important as the message itself. Marshall McLuhan once said that "the medium is the message". That's why a speech on the steps of the Elysee Palace is not a speech in a factory.
'Hollande made same mistake as Sarkozy’
RT: Some spin doctors in the US have defined truth as two-faced and relative. In the words of the renowned spin doctor John Scanlon “the truth is often not necessarily solid. It can be a liquid, which seems to be true is not necessarily the case when we look at it and we dissect it and we take it apart, and we turn it around and we look at it from a different perspective.” Do you agree with this definition?
JS: I think the image of a politician, as the brand image, the image of a president or a star is only part of the truth. There is always a dark side. The more you make light, fewer shadows remain, and the more it works for the future of the star or the president. Nothing is worse than presenting someone as a statesman and then disappointing people after the person is elected.
A presidency is a meeting between a man and his destiny, with a people and the destiny of this people. If there is a real common expectation and a candidate embodies these expectations, then his election is inevitable. But what is necessary is the promises made during the campaign have credibility. This is why we must always be wary of "encrypted" promises.
When Nicolas Sarkozy said he would increase purchasing power, he made a real communication mistake. I, for Francois Mitterrand, I first came up with the motto: "I will be a peaceful force." With this slogan, people will hold only Francois Mitterrand responsible. Him, whatever the situation is, even dramatic, he must remain confident with his strength and serenity. He remained this way throughout his career. He never betrayed his promise of being a "peaceful force".
So when François Hollande promises growth, he somewhat made the same mistake Nicolas Sarkozy did. Hollande does not control growth. Only the global and European economy can affect growth. It's a promise that risks disappointing the French people. He will have a state of grace for six months, but by 2013, if there's no revival of economic growth, which no one really sees coming, he will lose his credibility. That's why I've always preferred the psychological slogans over political slogans. “The president of purchasing power” or “the president of growth” are promises that are dependent on external factors rather than oneself.
‘Television makes election’
RT: As you say there are several truths. Do you find that there is a war between these different truths and the people promoting them?
JS: It's television that makes an election. For years, it was the poster campaign, what was written and the picture used, which made the election. Back then, it was enough to make a good election poster. Then in the ’90s, all homes had televisions. Television took over. There were not as many political shows by then. There were two main debates: one during the campaign. We did not have one every night as we saw during the last presidential campaign. There were two sides that kept fighting each other, spit on each other. This tussle is an amazing show! Like a television series that the French loved! That's why they voted en masse. Much fewer people vote in parliamentary elections because the show is over.
So television has become the kingmaker. That’s until the internet takes over at the next election, or the one after. When I say the internet, it means nothing. I should say the screen. The screen will move from television to the internet and the internet to the mobile phone, which will become tomorrow's primary medium, together with “pads” as means of communication. With technology modernizing, communication is modernizing as well. But there is no modernization of concepts. The slogans remain unchanged. They are the same. The great American slogans: "New Deal", "New Frontiers", "New America", "America First". Two words, always the same.
So the display of truth is dependent on the nature of the media. But the internet is the largest object of mental destruction that we know. [The] Internet is a place of permanent lies. As you can say anything, at any time, in total anonymity and in total impunity and complete immunity on the internet, and where no one can know who the author of a message is, the internet is a weapon of destruction as we have never known.
RT: You were asked in an interview whether you believe leaders should apologize in public when they've made a mistake and you said “No. The only way to recover when you've made a mistake is victimization. You should always present yourself as a victim because victims are always forgiven.” But what about accountability? Especially at a time of crisis, when wars are waged, aren't people looking for politicians who take responsibility for their actions?
JS: Yes. There are two levels of misconduct. There is personal misconduct: an error of language, a word that should not have been said. In such cases, we must apologize within the day, immediately and with the same intensity that the offending word was used. When Valery Giscard d'Estaing was accused of receiving diamonds from an African leader, he should've immediately told people through television that those were not real diamonds and that this story is ridiculous. But instead of explaining on television and saying what really happened, that there were worthless gifts for all the guests at a dinner. Because of his arrogance, he refused to apologize. That had been a fatal blow. In the case of serious misconduct, a position which involves the state, the image of France and the solemnity of the president, one should not respond because a leader is not supposed to make mistakes.
The symbolism of the head of state is fundamental to authority. Blair made a mistake by supporting the Americans in this stupid war in Iraq. He knows it. But he never admitted it except in his book after he left office. Without explicitly admitting it, he did say it between the lines. We understand then that it didn't take him long to realize the mistake he was making by supporting the Iraq war, but he had to stand by his words. That's why I didn't like the suggestion of withdrawing of French troops from Afghanistan a year earlier, because it goes against a public promise we made to the world and to America. I think it's not fair play to pull out before the others to earn a few months in a political campaign. Francois Hollande did not do the right thing.