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Excerpts from PR! A Social History of Spin

Stuart Ewen

A leader or an interest that can make itself master of current symbols is the master of the current situation. (Walter Lippmann, Public Opinion, 1922)
The engineering of consent is the very essence of the democratic process, the freedom to persuade and suggest. (Edward L. Bernays, "The Engineering of Consent," 1947)

Edward Bernays: Born 1891 in Vienna, nephew of Sigmund Freud, Bernays is credited as the "farsighted architect" of modern propaganda techniques. From the early 1920's onward, he helped consolidate a marriage between theories of mass psychology and schemes of corporate and political persuasion. During the First World War, Bernays worked for the U.S. Committee on Public Information (CPI)--the vast American propaganda apparatus mobilized in 1917 to promote the war as one that would "Make the World Safe for Democracy." The CPI would become the mold in which marketing strategies for subsequent wars would be shaped.

Trust Us: We're Experts

In the twenties, Bernays authored the link between corporate sales campaigns and popular causes, when--while working for the American Tobacco Company--he persuaded women's rights marchers in New York City to hold up Lucky Strike cigarettes as symbolic "Torches of Freedom." In October 1929, Bernays originated the now familiar "global media event," when he dreamed up "Light's Golden Jubilee," a worldwide celebratory spectacle commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the electric lightbulb, sponsored behind the scenes by the General Electric Corporation.

Bernays work inspired Joseph Goebbels; more than any other individual, his career maps out the course of North American public relations from the early 1920's to well after WW II. He is the author of Crystallizing Public Opinion (1923), Propaganda (1928), "The Engineering of Consent" (1947), and his autobiographical Biography of an Idea: Memoirs of Public Relations Counsel Edward L. Bernays (1965).(4)

In his interviews with Bernays, Ewen discovered his "unabashedly hierarchical view of society. Repeatedly, he maintained that although most people respond to their world instinctively, without thought, there exist an 'intelligent few' who have been charged with the responsibility of contemplating and influencing the tide of history." (9)

As a member of that intellectual elite who guides the destiny of society, the PR "professional," Bernays explained, aims his craft at a general public that is essentially, and unreflectively, reactive. Working behind the scenes, out of public view, the public relations expert is an applied social scientist, educated to employ an understanding of sociology, psychology, social psychology, and economics to influence and direct public attitudes. Throughout their conversation, Bernays conveyed his hallucination of democracy: a highly educated class of opinion-molding tacticians is continuously at work, analyzing the social terrain and adjusting the mental scenery from which the public mind, with its limited intellect, derives its opinions....While some have argued that public relations represents a "two-way street" through which institutions and the public can carry on a democratic dialogue, the public's role within the alleged dialogue is, most often, one of having its blood pressure monitored, its temperature taken. (10)

In an incidental reference to "social conscience," Bernays had illuminated a historic shift in the social history of property, shedding inadvertent light on the conditions that gave birth to the practice of public relations. As the twentieth century progressed, people were no longer willing to accommodate themselves to outmoded standards of deference that history, for millennia, had demanded of them. (12)

The explosive ideals of democracy challenged ancient customs that had long upheld social inequality. A public claiming the birthright of democratic citizenship and social justice increasingly called upon institutions and people in power to justify themselves and their privileges. In the crucible of these changes, aristocracy began to give way to technocracy as a strategy of rule. Bernays came to maturity in a society where exigencies of power were-by necessity-increasingly exercised from behind the pretext of the "common good." (13)

News is any overt act which juts out of the routine of circumstance....A good public relations man advises his client..to carry out some overt act...interrupting the continuity of life in some way to bring about a response (Bernays 18).

Protocols of Persuasion

Bernays insisted that public relations is the science of creating circumstances, mounting events that are calculated to stand out as newsworthy, yet, at the same time, which do not appear to be staged. The field of public relations continues to hold to this dictum, routinely mapping out pre-arranged occurrences that are projected to look and sound like impromptu truths. (28)

The calculated simulated of enthusiasm...is also common within contemporary culture. In a variety of configurations, the applause sign has become a social principle. Statistical poll results are continuously broadcast, emphasizing the popularity (or lack thereof) of politicians, policies, products, and of course wars. Grassroots expression is now being manufactured by firms specializing in the generation of extemporaneous public opposition or support. In the PR industry, such orchestrated grassroots mobilizations are referred to as Astro Turf Organizing (29).

The use of unspoken visual techniques to create a mood is pervasive in our society: dramatic backdrops, logo designs, recycled paper and "green" graphics. Implicit in all this is a public relations truism: It's not what you say, but how you say it that matters (30-31).

In a democratic society, the interests of power and the interests of the public are often at odds. The rise of public relations is testimony to the ways that institutions of vested power, over the course of the twentieth century, have been compelled to justify and package their interests in terms of the common good. (34)

In the 1920's, in his pioneering handbooks Crystallizing Public Opinion (1923) and Propaganda (1928), Bernays described modern society as one in which "the masses" had become increasingly bold, increasingly threatening to the customary interests of order. There is, he wrote, an "increased readiness of the public, due to the spread of literacy and democratic forms of government, to feel that it is entitled to its voice in the conduct" of all aspects of society. This sense of entitlement was the inherent outcome of an historical process that had placed new and treacherous demands on the higher strata of society (34).

Philip Lesley publishes a bimonthly newsletter Managing the Human Climate in which he discusses issues encompassing public relations and public affairs. In the March/April 1994 issue, he suggests that fending off public opposition--like a disease--requires something like a public relations vaccine:

For nearly a century, the attempt to contain the forces of "chaos" has possessed the evolution of PR thinking and, more than anything else, it is the glue that holds the history of corporate public relations together. (36)

Excerpted from PR! A Social History of Spin, by Stuart Ewen. (NY: Basic Books, 1996). Fair Dealing Applies.