Edward Bernays and Public Relations Perspective:
Since most of you have an Advertising or PR background, I hope you recognize the name of Edward Bernays … the author of the first perspective we looked at that came from his 1928 book titled, Propaganda.
Born 12 years after Korzybski in Austria, Bernays had a famous uncle – Dr. Sigmund Freud. His family immigrated to the U.S. and Bernays was one of the early pioneers in the field of public opinion shaping.
At the age of 26, he was an important member of President Woodrow Wilson’s Creel Committee that was responsible for turning American public opinion in support of the Allies in World War I, paving the way for the U.S. entry in 1917.
Two years later he was credited with opening the first public relations practice. In 1923, he taught the first university course in PR at New York University.
Perhaps his most famous PR initiative was on behalf of Lucky Strike cigarettes in 1929. To increase cigarette sales, the tobacco companies had to overcome the stigma that was attached to “respectable” women smokers. To publicly demonstrate that “respectable” women could smoke, Bernays hired dozens of attractive debutantes to march in the highly-social Easter Day Parade in New York, arm in arm with handsome young escorts, all smoking Lucky Strikes. The staged event was reported in newspapers across the country, and from the perspective of the cigarette manufacturers, it was a great success.
Bernays is generally credited as the father of public relations.
Here’s a short clip about Bernays from the 2002 documentary “Toxic Sludge is Good for You.”
So we have two different perspectives here … one that advocates the “unseen mechanism of society … an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country” … and the other that is concerned about the means by which individuals can properly evaluate and, if necessary, resist the efforts by the unelected but unseen true rulers of our government … and therefore, rulers of us.
Given the current crises we discussed before, which of these perspectives do you think is most relevant to you and me? Which do you believe is most well-known, the most taught, and employs the most practitioners?
Not surprisingly, it’s the Bernays perspective that’s become a major industry, and significant academic field of study.
How has it proven its value? What’s the secret to its success over the years?
Following are video clips from two documentaries that address this subject. The first is from the 1984 “The 30-second president” produced by Bill Moyers. The second is from the 2004 PBS Frontline report titled “The Persuaders.” I highly recommend both. You can watch the persuaders online at the pbs.org website.
As you watch and listen to these speakers, see if you can discern what the common denominator is, that each considers necessary for a successful advertising or PR campaign.
Here are some of the phrases used in the preceding clips. Do you see a pattern or can you determine what the common denominator is in defining what these advertisers and practitioners are after?
Good on you if made the connection to our poster child for the reptilian brain, which, as I’m sure you know by now, is … about the size of a walnut.
Let’s apply the GS model and compare “what’s going on” with a hypothetical company using these two perspectives … Korzybski and GS without PR, vs. Bernays and PR, with PR.
In the first case, our hypothetical company acts, does its business, and generally behaves as it normally does.
The public, to the extent they notice at all, observes the company’s actions and behaviors. The public considers and evaluates the company based on these observations; then forms judgments, opinions, feelings, attitudes, etc., about the company.
From the company’s perspective, they’re off doing their business. With respect to their public image,
they’re content to let the chips fall where they may.
Now let’s look at the same company, but assume that, for some reason, they’re concerned about how they are perceived by the public.
They go about their business, but they also begin to do things specifically designed to “project the desired image” they want the public to hold.
The public, which may not be very observant about what the company is doing in the first place, DOES take notice of the PR initiative and observes, not the company’s behavior, but its heavily-promoted projections of its desired image.
Therefore in this case, the public does NOT thoughtfully evaluate the company based on what the company does, or how it does its business. Instead, the public uncritically observes and accepts the image that the company projects … just like the experts we just heard would advocate. The company (and its PR consultants) know how to push the public’s “reptilian hot buttons” … in other words, rather than let the chips fall, they know how to neatly stack them, as high as they need to be.
Which brings us back to the beginning and our concern about our world crises. Which approach is going to best serve us in grappling with these problems?
Do we want to thoughtfully consider and evaluate the actual facts that are relevant to each of these issues, using the best our cortical brains have to offer?
Or, are we content to be manipulated by the unseen mechanisms of hundreds or thousands of public relations operatives, advocating solely for the short-sighted interests of their clients? In other words, are we content to turn our democratic voices over to our easily-programmed reptilian brains?
Which are, of course only … about the size of a walnut.
Now let’s look at a real example of how the Bernays perspective of corporate PR was actually put into practice and how it obliterated the line between responsible public relations and reprehensible propaganda – according to my standards. Your mileage, of course, … may vary.