PR!: A Social History of Spin

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Stuart Ewen, Pr!: A Social History of Spin, Perseus Books, October 1996.

This article was originally published as "Book Review: Stuart Ewen's PR! A Social History of Spin" by Sheldon Rampton in PR Watch, Volume 3, No. 4, 4th Quarter 1996. It is reproduced here with permission. As with all articles in SourceWatch feel free to edit.

Stuart Ewen, a New York professor of media studies, has earned a deserved reputation as one of the country's most astute leftist chroniclers of advertising and the mass media. His previous books, in particular Channels of Desire and Captains of Consciousness, are classics in the field. PR! A Social History of Spin is his most ambitious undertaking, which he admits from the outset has been an unusually difficult project, "especially characterized" by "the burdens of creation."

Beginning at around the turn of the century, PR! describes the rise of the mass media and its role in creating a "virtual public" which was "defined increasingly by its vulnerable condition of isolation and spectatorship. Readers of mass-circulation newspapers and magazines were witnesses to society, no longer within the public square, but from the sanctuary of their parlors." These "webs of communications" became "modern pipelines of persuasion," exploited first by Progressive reformers, then by corporate and government propagandists with the goal of managing an increasingly restive public.

Ewen is at his best in a fascinating chapter he devotes to George Creel, a reform-minded Progressive who later directed U.S. efforts to mobilize the public in support of World War I. Creel's Committee on Public Information served as a training-ground for many of the PR industry's early leaders, perfecting many of the techniques of mass manipulation that are commonplace today--mass distribution of news releases, sentimental appeals through advertising and motion pictures, targeted recruitment of local "opinion leaders," and even some of the tricks employed today as corporate America's astroturf version of "grassroots organizing."

Private and Public Truths

Ewen also offers intriguing insights into the relationship between PR concerns and corporate liberalism in an early chapter focusing on Theodore Vail, the CEO of AT&T in the early 1900s. Later chapters discuss the rise of corporate support for "welfare capitalism" designed to co-opt and combat rising public support for "collectivist" ideologies in the wake of the Great Depression. Academics will find a great deal of material worth pondering in Ewen's nuanced exegesis of the changing aesthetics of photography and cinema under the pressures of social activism and corporate imperatives.

Unfortunately, PR! offers an incomplete "social history of spin," in part because it ends around the year 1950. It would be more accurate to characterize it as an intellectual history of the public relations industry during that period, staged against the backdrop of a left-liberal social history of the United States.

An intellectual history, of course, chronicles the theories and ideologies through which a social group perceives its role in the world. Since the purpose of the PR industry is to construct ideologies, it should come as no surprise that the industry's own intellectual history offers an unusually rich catalogue of self-serving rationalizations. They come in different flavors, but can basically be boiled down into two mutually contradictory propositions, one designed for public consumption, and the other for presentation to the industry's private clients:

  • The public rationale: "We always tell our clients that honesty is the best policy," a theme most famously articulated by early PR practitioner Ivy Lee in a 1906 "statement of principles" which is frequently quoted in PR textbooks: "All our work is done in the open. We aim to supply news. . . . Our plan is, frankly and openly, on behalf of business concerns and public institutions, to supply the press and the public of the United States prompt and accurate information concerning subjects which it is of value and interest to the public to know about." These pious sentiments are, of course, calculated bullshit. In the service of his clients, which included the hated Rockefeller empire, Lee didn't hesitate to label Mother Jones "a prostitute and the keeper of a house of prostitution." And when company thugs killed striking workers, women and children at the infamous Ludlow Massacre, Lee "frankly and openly" circulated the false claim that they had died in a self-inflicted accident.
  • The private pitch: "Public opinion must be scientifically engineered from above in order to control the rabble." This assertion is rarely aired in public, but PR firms have found it marvelously useful as a tool for marketing their services to anxious corporate executives. Its chief theoretician was PR counselor Edward Bernays, regarded today as "the father of public relations," although Ivy Lee properly deserves the title. (Bernays outlived Lee and, in keeping with his aspiration to serve as a role model for the profession, stole the honor through decades of incessant self-promotion.)

Ewen gives short shrift to Lee, and devotes a good portion of PR! to tracing the theoretical lineage of Bernays' more Machiavellian position. The book literally begins and ends with Bernays, opening with Ewen's first-person and rather star-struck account of the day he actually met the man, and concluding with Bernays's death at the age of 103 "as this book neared completion." In between, Ewen traces an intellectual thread beginning with William James and the American tradition of philosophical pragmatism, winding through the Progressive era and its belief in engineered solutions to social problems, and incorporating French social philosopher Gustave Le Bon's fear that "the divine right of the masses is about to replace the divine right of kings."

Managing the Human Herd

These influences culminate with Bernays, who happened to be a double nephew of Sigmund Freud. (His mother was Freud's sister; his father was Freud's wife's brother.) Bernays combined Le Bon's fear of the masses with the theories of Freud and others regarding the subconscious, irrational motivations of human behavior. In books titled Crystallizing Public Opinion, Engineering Consent and Propaganda, he defined public relations as an "applied social science" which society's masters could use to manage the human herd. "If we understand the mechanism and motives of the group mind," he argued, it would be possible to "control and regiment the masses according to our will without their knowing it. . . . Theory and practice have combined with sufficient success to permit us to know that in certain cases we can effect some change in public opinion with a fair degree of accuracy by operating a certain mechanism, just as the motorist can regulate the speed of his car by manipulating the flow of gasoline."

This is scary stuff, and required reading if you want to understand what motivates U.S. businesses to spend over $10 billion a year on PR. But it should be read for what it is--marketing hype, using reverent technocratic imagery to package Bernays' services to his corporate clients as the latest shiny new must-have gizmo.

Lee's "statement of principles" was designed to create the public myth that PR is natural, honorable and honest--part of the "two-way street" process of democratic communications between businesses and their "publics." Bernays' created an equal and opposite corporate myth--that public opinion could be manufactured for a price, bought and sold like any other commodity. Ewen easily debunks Lee's mythology, and he properly deplores the elitism in Bernays. He fails, however, to deal with or even mention the fact that Bernays was a controversial and frequently disliked figure within the PR industry--a man who was not invited to parties, who was deliberately excluded from professional associations, and who had a problem keeping clients.

Bernays was disliked by his peers in part because they considered him a pushy braggart and in part because his books contributed to PR's bad reputation. In addition, his theories of mass psychology sometimes inspired bizarre schemes that led clients to write him off as a harebrained eccentric. The maker of Lucky brand cigarettes, for example, fired him after he spent $30,000 organizing a "green fashions ball" in the hope that it would stimulate women across the country to color-coordinate with Lucky's green packaging.

None of this negates the fact that Bernays was a significant contributor to the evolution of PR, but a more complete appraisal would have shown the limitations to his notion that corporations can "scientifically" manipulate the public. In fact, PR is as notable for its failures as for its successes. Its ability to dominate the public agenda stems more from its boundless corporate resources than the mechanistic certainty of its methods.

For a book that bills itself a "social history of spin," PR! offers surprisingly few details about the other personalities and inner workings of the PR industry. Aside from Bernays, leading figures like Hill & Knowlton or Carl Byoir & Associates make only fleeting appearances. The people who do receive sustained treatment are bridge figures--people from outside the PR industry whose efforts to mold public opinion inspired or goaded corporate America to gin up its own propaganda mills. These include Edward Bellamy, Walter Lippmann, John Dewey, Jacob Riis and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Unfortunately, discussions of these personalities frequently turn into long digressions that are only indirectly related to the public relations industry. For the most part, I found these history lessons derivative but on target--with one disappointing exception. Somewhere around page 215, PR! detours into a long discourse on the New Deal that reads more like hagiography than historiography, painting Roosevelt in particular as the patron saint of the downtrodden, whose "oratory assailed the money changers in the temple" and whose "Promethean capacity to mix Jeffersonian ideals of democracy with modern media know-how" created "a moment when American political life was, for a time, energized by the ideal of an informed and conscious citizenry."

The 50 pages or so that Ewen devotes to this idealized portrait of FDR could have been better spent delving into some of the fascinating details of the PR industry's own history, through a closer examination of figures other than Bernays. It is surprising, for example, that PR! makes no mention of Ivy Lee's simultaneous PR work for Standard Oil and for the notorious German chemical cartel, I.G. Farben, during the period of Nazi ascendency--an omission which is particularly puzzling in light of the book's claim that it is "based on unexplored and often confidential sources from . . . Standard Oil and other major institutions."

Ewen notes in passing that Standard and Farben had "a series of patent and process-exchange agreements" that "persisted even after the United States had entered the war." This brief comment doesn't tell the best part of the story. In fact, Lee's work included meeting with Hitler himself, and advice to arrange prominent media placement for German General Joaquim von Ribbentrop. Lee also recommended interpreting the Nazi rearmament program as a plea for "equality of rights" among nations and an effort at "preventing for all time the return of the Communist peril." Disclosure of his work prompted a 1934 story in the New York Mirror headlined "Rockefeller Aide Nazi Mastermind," and Lee's obituary in the Jewish Daily Forward described him as "an agent of the Nazi government"--a judgment later echoed by the Nuremberg Tribunal.

Ivy Lee's German involvement is of particular importance for a history of PR, because it foreshadows the subsequent growth of a literal dictators' lobby in Washington, which hustles on behalf of gross human rights violators such as Indonesia, Colombia, Guatemala, Kuwait and Nigeria. Moreover, the scandal surrounding Lee's activities led Congress to pass the Foreign Agents Registration Act, which in theory is supposed to provide a mechanism for identifying propagandists engaged in work for foreign countries on U.S. soil. In practice, FARA is widely flouted, but it offers an interesting example of a strategy that uses democratic institutions to limit PR's ability to manipulate the public.

Finally, the book ignores another fascinating aspect of the "social history" of PR--its origins in the rough-and-tumble, Barnum-and-Bailey world of circus hawkers and publicists--"the only group of men proud of being called liars," according to one contemporary journalist. The PR industry has struggled mightily to overcome its unsavory reputation stemming from this legacy, but even today the industry is rife with practitioners who brag among themselves about exploits that would make most people blush with shame.

A social history that explored this face of PR might have included, for example, the story of Elizabeth Tyler and Edward Young Clark ("Atlanta's P.T. Barnum"), whose Southern Publicity Association launched the "disgraceful albeit successful public relations campaign that gave birth to the modern Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s," according to Scott Cutlip, who devotes a chapter to the topic in The Unseen Power, his 1994 history of the PR industry.

Stories like this would have made an interesting counterpoint to Ewen's focus on the PR preoccupations of corporate America, and would also have helped liven up the book, which will undoubtedly interest academics but will have a hard time appealing to a wider audience.