As we gaze on the latest stunt or cracking campaign for a new talking fridge we miss out on the darker side of the industry. Too often PR does not question the larger informational frameworks in which we communicate. That’s where Vladislav Surkov comes in. Surkov remains semi-invisible and anonymous, lurking in the shadows. He gets on with it away from the public glare. According to Adam Curtis’s visceral new filmic essay HyperNormalisation Surkov is the author of a new kind of post-factual politics. Under Putin he has held portfolios as various as media, religion, modernisation, foreign relationship and the encouragement of modern arts. In doing so he has shaped modern Russia- and beyond.
There is a perception in the West that Putin’s agenda is to take Russia back to the Soviet era. True, words such as “stability” are infused with a nostalgia for more authoritarian eras. But the situation that Curtis captures is far more complex and not confined to one political system or country. Surkov is what Curtis calls a ‘political technologist’- he controls the message not through sticking to the facts but by creating them. Where under Stalin the opposition would have been oppressed in Putin’s Russia the opposition is manufactured, nurtured and rendered absurd. With one hand Surkov supports experimental modern art and, with the other, bankrolls orthodox fundamentalist who attack art festivals. To top it all he does not seek to conceal his manipulations. The effect is to disorientate the critics- no one knows what is true and what is not.
“Everything is PR” could be a definition for hypernormalisation. For the actual day to day of PR this can be a liberating realisation. So your client has a scandal section in their Wikipedia. Oh well, that’s just one faceless wiki’s word against ours, and we’ll shout louder. In hypernormalisation there is only one sure thing: whether today you are loved or loathed, all will be forgotten tomorrow unless you’re ready to do it over again. One of the most audacious practitioners of Surkov’s logic is, of course, Donald Trump. Beyond the smut and insults of Trump’s rhetoric there is a subtle outflanking of conventional wisdom -he speaks in both the language of the Occupy movement and of the far right xenophobes- that, Curtis says, “defeats journalism”. It is no coincidence that Surkov and Trump share similar genealogies. Where the former hails from the bohemian fringes of the Moscow circus world the latter became a household name playing a clownish billionaire on reality TV.
The trouble with ‘hypernormal’ PR is that while all means are equal the ends are not always predictable. In a world where truth is relative and experts are a nuisance it can be a challenge to jolt your audience out of their post-factual passivity to actually do something. Trump may boast about reaching out to the marginalised who have never voted before but it is one thing getting them to click and tweet and another to ensure they will actually turnout to vote. Hypernormal PR ultimately favours systems –as in Russia- where change is discouraged . As most studies of team dynamics show the key driver to motivate and change behaviour is trust. Yet in a world where we no longer trust anything all calls to action are weakened by the noise of the counter-narrative.