Tale of the 20th century: public relations dominance

BOOKS: THE ARGUMENT

'Subterfuge and deception' are not the entire story, but they are the right cautions.

May 02, 1999|By Joseph R.L. Sterne | Joseph R.L. Sterne,Special to the Sun

Flacks, spinmeisters, press agents, publicity men, propagandists, social psychologists, political consultants, media mavens, opinion researchers, lobbyists, public relations counsels -- can anyone doubt that the 20th century is the PR century? No group has done more to influence how we live, shop, eat, dress, travel, indulge, invest, vote, think and envisage who we are, individually and collectively, than the tens of thousands of men and women who have chosen this line of work. Or its allied field of advertising.

Ray Eldon Hiebert, the biographer of PR pioneer Ivy Ledbetter Lee, contended in his 1966 work that public relations is "an indispensable part of nearly every organized activity in democratic life," that "democracy could not succeed in a mass society" without it.

Stuart Ewen is author of the best book on the subject: "PR! A Social History of Spin" (Basic Books, Paperback, 480 pages, $17). He states more skeptically that any discussion of public relations raises "unavoidable issues of honesty." Or, conversely, of "subterfuge and deception."

For good or ill, and there are many instances of both, a professional in the field is into manipulation of the mass mind or, at least, the mind of the targeted audience. The public relations function has become so deeply entrenched in our society that it is no longer seen as the special province of the big-money corporation or the government propagandist.

As this PR Century comes to an end, each member of Congress has a publicity operation much larger and smarter than President William McKinley had in 1900. The typical White House morning now begins with a huge communications cadre trying to figure how to assure a favorable top spot in the evenings TV news shows.

Public relations officials -- long a fixture in business, labor unions large and small, and government -- occupy key positions in foundations, non-profits and, of course, national interest groups that seek to persuade citizens to be for or against everything (or anything) from eating eggs to killing nuclear energy. Even the simplest neighborhood organization or advocacy group will designate someone to try to get its message across to the distracted general public.

News reporters now find it almost a matter of routine that they have to go through PR types if they want to see or question or just get a statement from officials in both the private and public sectors. Indeed, it can be said that the PR person has become to the journalist what the lobbyist has become to the legislator: a source for specialized information easily obtained and/or a facilitator for doing one's job. If the journalist or legislator is duped or misled, that is his or her failing.

The birth, development and pervasiveness of public relations has gone hand in hand with the meteoric growth of mass media. When the century began, big-circulation newspapers were coming into their own after prodding the United States into war with Spain.

Muckraking magazines found they could move the conscience of the nation. Radios appeared in the 1920s and quickly replaced pianos as the typical family's focus. After World War II, television exploded and became the most intrusive, most influential form of human communication ever seen. Now there is the Internet, with all its vast implications.

As social and economic history, the rise of public relations and advertising is crucial to the study of this century. Besides the Ewen book, three others that have recently been published offer substantial understanding of the phenomenon. They are: "Creating the Corporate Soul: The Rise of Public Relations and Corporate Imagery in American Big Business" by Roland Marchand (Berkeley University of California Press, 461 pages, $39.95), "Better Living: Advertising, Media and the New Vocabulary of Business Leadership, 1935-1955" by William L. Bird Jr. (Northwestern University Press, 288 pages, $30) and "The Father of Spin: Edward L. Bernays & The Birth of Public Relations" by Larry Tye (Crown Books, 306 pages, $27.50). They do not quite get their arms collectively around this very large elephant. But they illuminate parts of a fascinating tale and introduce the general reader to three men with great impact on the lives of millions of Americans.

The three are Ivy Lee, Edward L. Bernays and Bruce Barton. Taking up the PR trade after stints on New York newspapers, Lee was lucky enough and smart enough to take full advantage of an opportunity created by the muckrakers (of all people). They had succeeded in making big business moguls the most hated men in America and, in the process, alerted them to take counter measures.

Oil monopolist John D. Rockefeller Sr. had ignored the press through most of his active business career. But when the 1914 Ludlow Massacre occurred in the Colorado labor wars, public indignation reached such a fever pitch that the old man and his son, John D. Rockefeller Jr., turned to Ivy Lee to repair his image.

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