Master's Degree Programme in Media and Global Communication (MGC)
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Promotion of Finance
Prof. Clea Bourne (Goldsmiths, University of London, UK): Hidden Finance, Organised silence: Communicative strategies in financial market silos
Chair: Anu Kantola, comment: Markus Ojala
The second keynote speaker of the day was Prof. Bourne and the lecture was entitled “Hidden Finance, Organized silence: Communicative strategies in financial market silos.” Prof. Bourne is currently a lecturer at Goldsmiths, University of London where she specializes in PR, advertising, and marketing. Prof. Bourne’s lecture focused on how communicative and PR strategies for finance news create ‘hidden areas of finance,’ that lead to information on financial processes and events seeming out of reach for audiences.
Prof. Bourne started off her lecture on the note that “economists, bankers, and other financial experts have long been described as financial wizards, or high priests and their practices are referred to as black magic.” Prof. Bourne added that this notion is a part of the creation of the hidden areas of finance. Prof. Bourne argued in the beginning of the lecture that the media and PR agencies have an active role in protecting these hidden areas of finance, and that we should think more critically about why that is and how we can combat this lack of transparency. Before delving deeper into the main topic, Prof. Bourne expressed that she wanted to acknowledge the elephant in the room; and it was that PR has its own ‘image-problem.’
The fact that PR and advertising are seen as the ‘dark arts’ Prof. Bourne highlighted, results in the perception that PR should “remain invisible, and leave no footprint.” This is reflected in the many books that focus the fields of PR and advertising and praise their achievements and pinpoint the downfalls. Prof. Bourne underlined that these books can often be problematic, since they either praise PR as the ethical guardian, criticize it for being evil, or simply fail to represent the multilayered characteristics of PR work, as it exists today.
To build up to PR and power influence in the finance world, Prof. Bourne highlights that as a critical theorist, a “more productive to way to explore power is to identify strategies and practices,” concluding with the fact that recent events in finance make it a suitable field to do so. Referring to Gillian Tett’s book Prof. Bourne stated, “the ‘big’ social silence around finance surrounds debt capital markets – bonds, currency, derivative markets, hedge funds etc.” However, these areas of finance rarely get wide news coverage but are rather found in specialist magazines or on the last pages of the Financial Times or Bloomberg. Prof. Bourne drew attention to the fact that most PR practices take place in these aforementioned areas of finance, but “you and I won’t ever get to see it.”
The metaphor of the maze that Prof. Bourne mentioned in the lecture was illustrated by these facts. As ordinary readers without much access to transparent information on these areas of finance, we miss out on the Business-to-Business communication dynamics that take place and happen between financial experts. Prof. Bourne claims that since these areas exist inside the maze, as ordinary citizens we are more concerned with more approachable areas of finance such as “credit cards, the stock market, investment products such as tax-free accounts and life insurance, gold and other tangible assets such as property.”
One of Prof. Bourne’s major claims was that the majority of the PR and marketing activity and power play takes place in these hidden areas of finance that appear to be ‘in the maze,’ whereas the more approachable areas of finance are promoted to us constantly through various media. Since ‘the maze’ includes areas of finance such as “treasury bills, collaterised debt obligations, corporate bonds, government bonds, contingent convertibles” to name a few, Prof. Bourne added that her main goal is to expose how PR engages in boundary work to protect all the hidden areas of finance that exist in the maze.
Prof. Bourne clarified to the audience that the PR firms carry out this boundary work by:
- Working on behalf of client-organizations because thinking about, organising and controlling space is a preoccupation of power (Clair, 1998, Wedel 2013).
- One way to control space and organise silos is by organising invisibility and silence. Silence is a vehicle for the exercise of power in all its modalities (Achino Loeb 2005)
The next section of the lecture focused on Prof. Bourne’s compartmentalization of five discursive strategies of silence used in PR activity to organise and protect the financial maze. Prof. Bourne mentioned that the works of scholars such as Robin Patric Clair, Maria Achino Loeb, and Lindsey McGoey inspired these five strategies. The strategies to organize silence and invisibility according to Prof. Bourne were as follows:
- Exclusionary discourses: use of financial jargon and the usual leanings towards complex explanations of financial processes to the public. Borrowing from the research of Brett Christophers, Prof. Bourne added, “money and finance are made to seem so much more complex than they are.” This creates a boundary of power between those who know and understand these complex processes and jargon, and those who don’t. Prof. Bourne stressed the existence of the ‘intended audience’ for these discourses, and added, “by fearing the unknown, we not only fail to make sense of finance’s infrastructure, but fail to call the financial world into account.”
- Selective visibility: Not being of attention is perceived as a plus for some organizations. Prof. Bourne gave examples of “wealth managers, private banks, and private equity firms, for whom the operative word is ‘private.’” Prof. Bourne linked the ‘use of exclusivity as a marketing technique’ to this by stating that these organizations benefit from seeming unattainable, or playing hard to get with clients from certain backgrounds.
- Constructed facades: This strategy is essentially the power that comes with “constructing facades to help the organisation or its product range look different than it really is” explained Prof. Bourne. The use of numbers and factsheets that promote the financial aspects of an organization can be used in this regard. Prof. Bourne gave an example of Tesco to demonstrate this case and how a whistleblower had revealed that the numbers were being meddled with in order to seem a certain way.
- Strategic ambiguity: Combined with the concept of strategic ignorance, Prof. Bourne stressed that this strategies are “used to enable those in privileged positions appear to speak as a single voice (Eisenberg 1984).” The strategic ambiguity refers to a company’s ability to transition into a field that they may not be experts in, but by talking ‘vaguely’ about it to the public; they gather the attention they need. As for strategic ignorance, Prof. Bourne added “this involves mobilising the unknowns in a situation in order to command resources, deny liability in the aftermath of disaster and to assert expert control in the face of both foreseeable unpredictable outcomes.” Prof. Bourne provided the audience with examples from the aftermath of the Global Financial Crisis and the reliance on experts to explain the damage and insistent rhetoric of collective ignorance that followed.
- Enforced silences: Prof. Bourne stated that this last strategy falls into the category of coercive instead of discursive. An important point that followed was the fact that “some campaigns suggest that consumers need to become financially literate, which essentially suggest that if only we learned more about finance we would avoid being missold to.” Other examples given by Prof. Bourne included pensions campaigns and debt collectors.
As the closing points of the keynote lecture Prof. Bourne focused on the fact that PR has been labeled as the ‘dark arts’ for many years. However, it is even more important to be aware of the “strategies and practices of power so that they can be recognized in order to be resisted.” To conclude, Prof. Bourne commented that as it happens in the finance world, we should strive to understand the many ways in which promotional work “helps to obscure and protect many other privileged areas.”
Comments by Markus Ojala
The comments following the keynote speech were by Markus Ojala who is currently finishing his dissertation on the Davos meetings and how they are covered in the financial media. Following up on some of the examples given by Prof. Bourne, Ojala drew comparisons to a couple of Finnish cases by focusing on what he referred to as the “visible world of finance that is in the public domain.” In particular, Ojala contested that the promotional factors involved in these affairs have a lot of power in their eventual outcome.
The main two examples that Ojala focused on were the cutting of student grants in Finland and the debate surrounding university tuition fees. Ojala commented that the government cuts on student grants has allowed financial commentators to promote students to take financial responsibility of their education by taking more student loans. The promotional influences that Ojala referred to have been playing a major role in the debate surrounding the cuts and also those relating to the introduction of tuition fees.
Ojala urged that PR research into these issues would allow us to understand the depth of promotional tactics within these political and social debates. Ojala added that the main promotional line was to encourage “students needs to become risk takers and invest in their own future” which downplays education and promotes financial capability. An intriguing observation raised by Ojala was that the main supporters of such promotion weren’t bankers but rather economists or financial experts.