An interview with Stuart Ewen author of "PR"

Has powerful public relations machines turned us into a nation of consumer slaves?
How has television given corporate America a showroom in every home?


Do most people realize the extremely powerful role public relations has played in our country?

I think that most people are aware that they are continual targets of hidden persuadersIt's hard to be awake and not know that. Yet they experience this awareness on a primarily psychological level, as a kind of gnawing paranoia.

This is evident in the popular folklore that surrounds so-called "subliminal advertising." Whether or not "sex" is actually hidden in the ice cubes in liquor ads, the fact that people believe it's there testifies to the sense we have that there are folks out there whose goal is to manipulate our perceptions, shape our behavior.

Alongside this anxious sensibility, however, few people are aware of the actual practices of public relations in our society, or of the history that led to the development of these practices.

What is public relations?

Public relations professionals are hired by a client to build a psychological environment that will engineer public perceptions in order to benefit that client. Most PR people work behind the scenes, some are applied social scientists (like the pollsters who perpetually monitor public feeling for the purpose of influencing it), others are experts at staging media and public events that are intended to adjust the mental scenery from which the public mind derives its sense of reality and its opinions.

In today's world, nearly every aspect of the political, economic and cultural world is massaged by these "compliance professionals."

How did Edward L. Bernays impact public relations in America? Do you think he was a dangerous man?

Bernays's impact on PR in America, and globally, was enormous. While public relations men were at work before Bernays, most were simply pressagents; journalists who pumped out press releases on behalf of their clients.

When Bernays entered the scene during the First World War, he did so as a farsighted architect of modern propaganda technique who helped to consolidate a fateful marriage between theories of mass psychology and schemes of corporate and political persuasion.

With Bernays, factual argument was replaced by the chronic appeals toirrational life that mark our culture. Dangerous? Yes and no. His influence on Nazi propaganda minister, Josef Goebbels, can not be ignored.

On the other hand, Bernays was a simply man of his time. Leaders were looking at ways to employ social psychology for manipulating the mass mind, and they were moving in that direction even before Bernays's appearance on the historical stage.

Was public relations basically a way for the elite to keep the massesin check—as they saw that in a democratic society the masses weregetting too much power?

In large part, yes. In a democratic society, the interests of powerand the interests of the public are often at odds. The rise of publicrelations 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 order to make them appear compatible with the common good.

Why is there so little opposition to public relations?

I think that there's a great deal of opposition to public relations. People rightfully feel used. The problem is that most of us don't have the tools to counteract public relations. Our educations don't provide us with an in-depth picture of the PR apparatus and how it works, nor does it teach us to use the tools that are necessary for engaging in public discussion and debate in today's world.

In a society where PR techniques are employed to petition our affections at every turn—often visually, and without a word—educational curriculum must encourage the development of techniques for critically analyzing images.

The development of curricula in media and visual literacy would not only sharpen young people's ability to make sense of the world around them, it would—over time—contribute to a more inclusive public sphere.

Literacy is never just about reading, it's is also about writing. Just as early campaigns for universal print literacy were concerned with democratizing the tools of public expression—the written and spoken word—upcoming struggles for a more meaningful democracy must strive to empower people with contemporary implements of public discourse: video, graphic arts, photography, computer assisted journalism and layout, interactive multi-media, performance.

More customary mainstays of public expression—expository writing and public speaking—must be resuscitated and nourished as well.

Is public relations in our country so calculated that we have no idea that it is even happening?

A lot of hype can be sniffed out in a minute. Good hype, however, is fairly invisible. It masquerades, simply, as current events.

How did muckrakers, or progressive journalists, help the common man in the United States gain power? How did this care the corporate and political elite?

The Progressives brilliantly used publicity techniques to shine a spotlight on many of the political corruptions and economic abuses that oppressed ordinary Americans at the turn of the century. As a result of their efforts, the demand for reform reverberated throughout the land, freaking out the powers that be.

It was the muckrakers use of publicity, in large measure, that convinced corporate leaders to start using PR techniques to try to cajole the public into siding with business.

How did the French psychologist, Gustave Le Bon, who wrote a book entitled, "The Crowd" A Study of the Popular Mind," dramatically impactthe development of PR?

LeBon, and others who followed his lead, were the fathers of a decidedly modern science: social psychology, which studies group attitudes and behaviors with an eye toward the unconscious motivations that prompt public feeling.

From the period of the First World War onward, this cabalistic social science became the underpinning for modern strategies of persuasion, and had a profound effect on the thinking of American public relations pioneers like Edward L. Bernays, Ivy Lee, and America's foremost student of "public opinion," Walter Lippmann.

Are we really a democratic society—with justice for all—when PR dictates our agenda?

You've answered your own question. Democracy and dictatorship cannot coexist.

How did PR turn America into a country of hungry consumers—a country where people associate their deepest democratic values with corporate America?

Very difficult question to respond to briefly. I could write a book about that. In fact, I did. I'd suggest that those among your readerswho are interested in pursuing this important question make the time to read it.

How is demographics a powerful tool of "divide and Rule?" Could PR account for the continued racial problems in our country and the slow demise of civil rights? Why would corporate America want to create a poorer class of people? Why would public relations want to exacerbate hostilities between groups and heighten prejudices in certain sectors of the population?

Demographics is the applied use of social psychology, to break the society down into those categories which will best allow publicists,marketers and others to predict how each in a category will think or behave.

The use of demographics, for example, allows a PR expert to tailor a message to a particular ethnic group, or to those with a particular sexual orientation. The problem here is that rather than encouraging people to identify with one another, regardless of their demographic category, the technique reinforces and dramatizes the notion of difference.

In politics—as seen in the infamous Willie Horton ads—appealing to one group of Americans is often achieved at the expense of another.

In terms of your second question, racial problems in America go back much further than public relations does. One could say that it wasimported to these shores, along with human chattels, on slave ships.

There is no question, however, that the demographic splintering of social, economic and political dialog in this country today has helpedto short-circuit a civil rights movement that was built on the premisethat all people, regardless of category, could participate in the American Dream.

As to why corporate leaders would want to create a poorer class of people, it's not so much that poverty is their goal. Rather it is an effect of the merciless desire to amass the lion's share of society's wealth and resources for themselves.

By upholding corporate values as American values, the continuation of widespread social misery will be ensured.

In terms of your last question, regarding the the uses of PR to promote hostilities between groups of Americans, this is a way of ensuring that social anger will not be directed upward. If a population of ordinary American fights over crumbs, their less likely to notice those who are gorging on cake.

How has the National Association of Manufacturers greatly impacted our country?

The National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) has been around for about a hundred years, and for much of that time it has been the most powerful organization representing the interests of giant business enterprise in America. Though few Americans are aware of it, and itoperates mostly behind-the-scenes, the NAM continues to profoundly affect public agendas in the United States

One of the most colorful pieces of NAM history, one that I discuss at length in my book, was during the Great Depression of the 1930s, when many business leaders felt that FDR and his New Deal programs were turning American minds away from a pro-business point of view. In response, NAM (in league with the U. S. Chamber of Commerce) launched a massive and multi-leveled PR effort entitled "The American Way" campaign. The point of the campaign was to create a mental association between the idea of "The American Way," and the idea of a totally unregulated business system.

Though billboards and other media broadcast this message throughout the nation it had little effect in a society where there was massive unemployment, even among the formerly middle class.

After World War II, however, in a period of economic boom, The American Way campaign gained legs.

With the help of McCarthyism, New Deal ideas, such as guaranteed national health insurance, fell victim to the propaganda. Ronald Reagan,incidentally, was a participant in NAM publicity efforts. The rest is history.

How did television give corporate America a showroom in every home?

We take TV for granted, but in the forties—when it was being developed as a consumer product—publicists and marketers saw TV as a kind of metaphysical utility, like electricity or gas. To them, TV was a amazing image-faucet, one that could pump lifelike renditions ofreality into people's homes as never before. From the late forties onward, the field of PR became joined-at-the-hip to this development.

How can we not be so ruled and influenced by public relations? How can we protect ourselves from it?

Two things need to take place.

First, present inequities regarding who has a say? who will be heard? need to be corrected. The avenues of public communication need to berescued from the corporate monopoly that currently controls them. If only wealthy commercial interests have access to the airwaves, cable systems, and other precious public properties, than only wealthy commercial interests will be heard from.

Actually, the capacity to make such a change happen is within sight. Ironically, the enormous authority of a business-centered worldview is derived from the fact that large corporations have been permitted to occupy and impose upon public properties—such as the broadcast spectrum—without paying any significant rent to the public that "owns" them.

For a minimal license fee, corporations harvest an unimaginable windfall of public influence.

If this practice was to change—if a fund to support public communication, for example, regularly received a fair rent from those who were permitted to exploit public properties commercially—funding for noncommercial venues of expression, and for noncommercial arenas of public education would be plentiful.

If 15 to 25 percent of all advertising expenditures in the United States were applied this way, the current crisis in funding for public arts and public education would evaporate.

New visions would flourish. Locally based communications centers—equipped with up-to-date technologies and opening new avenues for distribution—would magnify the variety of voices heard. Schools could more adequately prepare our children for the responsibilities of democratic citizenship.

This last point, regarding schools, leads to the second thing that needs to take place, something that I mentioned earlier on and won't go into again here. Specifically, our educational system needs to take the idea of democratic communication seriously, and develop curricula that aim at empowering students to think critically and express themselves eloquently.

They must know how to use those media which, at present and in the future, are and will be the meaningful arenas of public expression. Media and visual literacy are democratic survival skills for citizens of the new millennium.