The Blame Game

In class this week, I challenged my final year PR undergraduate students to a problem based learning exercise on alcohol abuse. Reading media cuttings about drunk college students, anti-social behaviour and domestic violence fuelled by alcohol, interspersed with adverts from supermarkets selling wine and beer at below cost price, the students were asked ‘who is to blame?’  Is it the act of drinking to excess? Or is it the actor, ie who is doing the drinking? Or is it the results, that is, the consequences of some of the drinkers’ actions that is the “real problem”?

In PR, it matters who is ‘to blame’…because based on your assessment of the problem, different solutions come to mind. If it is cheap alcohol, then raise the unit price to make access more difficult. If it is youth all of whom cannot be trusted to drink responsibly, then change the licensing laws and enforce the legal drinking age. If it is the results that come from the actions of a few miscreants, rather than the many, then enforce the law and ban those people from drinking (a bit like taking a drunk driver’s license away). We all know the consequences of too much drink, so surely it isn’t ignorance.

The exercise was enlightening, because it helped students appreciate that the PR professional’s job is all about defining the agenda, controlling the debate and managing the issue, so that their client (or their company, if in-house) can protect and promote their interests.  Language matters.

How the debate is defined in the media world influences the public policy agenda. So, every press release and media briefing needs to be seriously considered from that point of view. By your definition of the problem, you are proposing a solution. So, do it consciously, with forethought. Is that really what you think the solution of the problem is?

What was also interesting is helping students realise that the biggest cost to society  of alcohol abuse is not the drinking of young people, but rather the ballooning health costs of alcohol-related diseases, especially diabetes, which do not generally surface until people are in their fifties. So, maybe despite how the media loves to vilify “Freshers’ Week” drunkenness, the real problem is stopping the fifty year old women like me from reaching for that second (and third) glass of wine.

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About catherinesweet
Academic, professional, communicator, stakeholder in a dozen different disguises

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