issue 314 - July 1999
Richard Swift talks with Stuart Ewen about the origins of the PR industry
and its implications for democratic debate.
Ewen's lifework analyzes how commercialism distorts communications
Q: Can you identify the beginnings of the modern Public Relations industry?
A: To some extent it came from the growth of democratic outrage against a society in which democracy didn’t function very well. In the 1870s Standard Oil seized what had been a very localized petroleum industry. This kind of monopoly was taking over in other industries including steel, meat packing, sugar – often extractive industries. The term ‘robber baron’ dates from this period. Implicit within it is the idea that democratic movements had struggled for centuries to wipe out a landed aristocracy and were now finding this new corporate wealth functioning with little sense of accountability to anybody. These corporate barons were seen as a throwback to pre-democratic tyrannies. It was a period in which the working class was very, very poor, without any kind of social safety net. Also the traditional middle class, once staunch defenders of private enterprise, began to feel that publicity was needed to expose the outrages of the business class. This was the birth of the ‘progressive’ movement.
By the end of the nineteenth century the idea of government intervening to regulate and set boundaries on private wealth was coming into fashion. It has been an issue in US society ever since. In the face of this challenge certain industries do battle with a kind of counter-publicity to convince people that unfettered private enterprise is in everyone’s best interests.
Q: If you trace the periods of innovation in corporate PR throughout this century, are they connected to periods of popular resistance?
A: There is no question. Corporate PR has been reactive to situations when public hostility forced them to filter their practices to present themselves as operating in the public good. This is usually a defensive response to democratic outrage over business practices. The 1930s and then the 1960s were periods in which the challenge to the business system became widespread. If you want to see the flowering of corporate public relations strategies look at the decade following those periods. After World War Two a kind of gung-ho corporate public-relations strategy tries to present the private business system as the quintessence of the American Way – a kind of commercialistic rendition of democracy. This became almost a national ideology used to roll back policies and ideas that came out of the 1930s New Deal – for example, the very idea that government might compete with business by providing public housing. In the 1960s people began to wonder if democracy was being violated by a destabilized business system. In the 1970s and 1980s, with the triumph of Reagan and Thatcherism, there comes to fruition a set of national public relations strategies catalyzed by the political issues of the Sixtes.
Q: Can you trace the intellectual roots of corporate public relations?
A: There are two trajectories of intellectual influence. The first wave of PR strategy, like ATT’s effort to convince the US public it should have a monopoly over all wired communication, is in the tradition of rational reportage. It was a question of laying out facts to persuade people the corporate position was in their best interest. It wasn’t particularly successful.
Meanwhile, another intellectual tradition began to raise its head in the late nineteenth century. It has as its founder a French sociologist named Gustav Le Bon who wrote in 1895 a book called The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind. Le Bon was an anguished French middle-class academic who saw the growth of democratic politics and the old systems of hierarchy and deference breaking down. Particularly after the Paris Commune of 1871 he felt that the mob at any moment could seize society and destroy all he held sacred. Le Bon starts to examine the social psychology of the crowd. For him the crowd is not driven by rational argument, but by its spinal cord. It responds solely to emotional appeals and is incapable of thought or reason. Somebody interested in leading the crowd needs to appeal not to logic but to unconscious motivation. For Le Bon, the most effective way to do this is through the use of images. In a period of great social turmoil Le Bon’s ideas began to have a tremendous impact. The Crowd was available in 19 languages a year after publication. In the US it influenced everyone from Teddy Roosevelt to the founders of the modern PR movement. By the First World War rational journalistic PR gave way to a propaganda designed to pluck people’s heartstrings.
Le Bon writes with the working-class mob in mind, but by the 1920s his ideas are applied to virtually everybody. Almost no-one is seen as capable of rational thought. The most efficient way to win hearts and minds is through emotional appeals. By the 1920s, Le Bonian social psychology is used to design organizations that constantly take the temperature of public feelings. Survey research, polling and focus groups are all built around the science of how to lead the public mind. Since the 1920s this stuff has become the fabric of everyday life. Today the main way we see the public expressing itself is as a kind of statistical applause track of polling results in the headlines. The work of this apparatus has become a substitute for any meaningful form of public expression.
Q: Do you see a connection between the US PR industry and the classical Nazi uses of propaganda?
A: Certainly, in terms of propaganda strategies, the Nazis learned a lot from what was going on in the United States. Walter Lippmann, despite a reputation as a great democratic thinker, advised Woodrow Wilson that if he wanted the US to join the First World War he would have to create a vast propaganda apparatus. Wilson had run for office on a platform of opposition to the War, but three months later had changed his mind. He needed to overcome significant resistance from large sectors of the US population. In the week following the declaration of war Wilson created The Committee on Public Information (CPI) headed up by a journalist named George Criel. The CPI mobilized virtually every form of public influence – teachers, journalists, commercial artists, advertising and theatrical people. Children were encouraged by essay contests supporting the War. In movie theaters people stood up before the show started to give pro-War speeches. It’s a system of total propaganda aimed to monopolize each moment of public attention. It approximates to what happened (at least on the level of form) in the Nazi period. Hitler himself, inMein Kampf, makes reference to the US propaganda apparatus as a decisive factor in the War. He was inspired by it.
It was in the post-War period that the PR industry, the advertising industry, the press agent industry, what the psychologist Robert Shalldini calls ‘the compliance industries’, really took off. These things grew exponentially in the 1920s in the US and provide the world with a model – and the world of course includes Germany. Goebbels himself was a reader of the work of Edward Bernays. Bernays was Freud’s nephew on both sides of his family. Here is a guy for whom the idea of the unconscious was his mother’s milk. What makes Bernays important is that he is the first PR guy to apply social psychology strategically and use theories of the unconscious in propaganda technique. Bernays is no mere theorist. He put his ideas to work for a number of corporations as well as for government.
Q: You claim in your book that the plethora of demographic research and polling has a fragmenting effect on society.
A: You have pollsters and demographers going around asking people questions, usually more about what they feel than what they think. From that fairly fragmentary data they put together an agglomeration called ‘public opinion’. But there is no real public opinion; it is just something assembled from fragmentary bits. It may be helpful for a leader wanting to sell a particular policy or the next war. But this kind of ‘public’ is a manufactured product of a social-psychology industry with little life of its own. My own belief is that in a meaningful democracy the public must experience itself as such. It must be actively engaged in the life of society, in discussion with one another. Answering poll questions in the privacy of your living room is no substitute for discussion in an active public sphere. Without such a sphere the idea of democracy becomes a bit of a joke.
Q: How do you respond to the charge that, after all, ‘everything is propaganda’ – including your own books. Why pick on the PR industry for its contribution to the ‘marketplace of ideas’?
A: The term ‘propaganda’ at this point is very loaded and doesn’t say much about anything. But if you change it to publicity, I wouldn’t disagree. Putting ideas out there for discussion has had an important role in the history of the last few centuries. The US Declaration of Independence is an example – but it assumed an intelligent public and was laid out almost like a legal brief. I don’t have any problem with the use of publicity. My main concern is that publicity should be used in a way that assumes that people are capable of thought and appeals to them at that level. Also the public sphere must not be owned and dominated by small concentrations of private wealth. That is the real danger in our time. What happens if these are the only voices in town? What happens once the entire communications system is owned by five or six large international corporations exercising control over who gets seen and what gets heard? My problem is not that we live in a society infused with publicity, but that the publicity is a one-trick pony. It represents only one voice. And the serious discussion of issues gives way to this Pavlovian attempt to make people salivate. It’s publicity which is completely degraded, devoid of content. And the primary idea PR tries to sell is that the market is the only mode of human organization that has any value whatsoever. All other values are driven to the margins.
Stuart Ewen is an historian and cogent critic of the impact of advertising and media culture. His most recent book is PR: A Social History of Spin, Basic Books, New York, 1996.